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Justin Snedegar

Let me second the recommendation to read and read widely. At USC (and many other places, I'm sure) graduate students are required to pass a 3rd year area exam. You pick some relatively broad area of philosophy and read a bunch of stuff in that area, meeting with a faculty member to talk about everything, and then take an exam on it. The goals are (i) to make sure you know your field, and (ii) to walk you into a dissertation topic, to keep you from getting hung up in just the way Marcus mentions.

As an example: I chose the practical reasoning list; this includes an ethics base list, with important historical works (Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and more) and contemporary works (Scanlon, Smith, Korsgaard, and many more), and a special practical reasoning list. People doing either the normative ethics or metaethics list (both of which further divide, and have their own base lists) also read the ethics base list.

I personally did things a bit backwards - finding a topic, then deciding on a list. But it's worked in the expected way for most people. And it was still very useful for me because (i) I didn't have a super strong background in ethics prior to working through the reading list, and (ii) even though I had the main thesis of the dissertation prior to doing the reading list, I was able to find new objections, predecessors, and applications, not to mention both questions I had to take a stand on and questions I needed to announce that I was remaining neutral on, by working through it.

Marcus Arvan

Justin: glad to see that you second the suggestion! I would add, though, that in my experience people tend to restrict their reading and thinking *too* much to the areas they covered in their comp exams. This is what got me stuck. I read very widely about normativity, but I wasted a great deal of time trying to come up with a Big Idea about normativity that never came. It was only when I went far afield of my reading list, reading in all different areas of ethics and political philosophy, that I reeled in my Idea -- and I've seen it happen to others too. Comp exams are "supposed" to walk you into a dissertation, but I've seen them walk many grad students down blind alleys with no exit in sight!

Kyle Whyte

Regarding the first part of Marcus' great post: I completely agree that there's "something" about the dissertation that you can't get via writing discrete papers (or even the "4 year plan" that some administrations are beginning to favor). My committee was clear with me that dissertation writing is about "the process." It is about going through that process, and what the experiences teach you. Having to make a unified argument over however many hundred pages you do it in gives you an experience based perspective you couldn't have gotten in the previous challenges of your graduate education. It's interesting to see how the experience of the process shapes different careers. There's some folks who follow through with their dissertation and publish it into book; some publish a few articles out of chapters and move on; others don't ever look back at their dissertation and publish all sorts of new work. In this post, I've not put my thumb on anything, really, because I don't at all have it figured out - but I do feel that there is some sense in which the dissertation process, as nutty as it can be, has a profound effect, individually, on one's outlook for the future, and greatly shapes one's profession. Now, what I'm wondering, is if someone could argue against me here, and suggest that the same sort of thing I'm trying to get my head around is also possible in the discrete papers approach or the 4 year plan? I'm open to hear.


With all due respect, Dr. Arvan, since you are offering others advice on how to write a "successful" dissertation, I wonder if you consider your own dissertation "successful"? According to your other posts, you have written some 60 drafts of a paper defending the "big idea" of your diss., and it's been rejected by every journal you've sent it to (quite a large number of journals, I gather, though you haven't given a number in the posts I've read). Given this, I wonder why you think anyone should be interested in your dissertation-writing advice. I know I'm probably disrupting the "safe and supportive" atmosphere of your "cocoon" by asking these questions, but... come on, you're purporting to offer advice to more junior people on how to write a successful diss., so I don't think these questions, though they may be uncomfortable, are inappropriate. Have some self-awareness, man!

Almost everyone I know who's gotten a job was publishing diss. chapters (most of them not "star papers") while in grad school, and the rest had something accepted for publication before they went on the market. I think these people are the ones to turn to for advice.

Marcus Arvan

Ontologheist: your question, while not asked in a very friendly way, warrants an answer. Here's the short answer. The topic I chose was very, very hard. I believe it is potentially groundbreaking, and I've had many people -- including several very well-known people who've read it recently, as well as several reviewers at top journals (who, yes, nevertheless rejected it) -- tell me as much. I also had two Very Well-Known People who read it in the past few weeks assure me that the paper is important work, that it *will* get published, and that it took Awesome Philosophers X, Y, and Z several years to publish their diss work.

The problem, as I understand it, isn't that I didn't find a Great Idea. The problem is that it has taken me a great deal of time to get it right. And there's nothing wrong with that. The fact that some people publish diss chapters after a year or two, and I have not, does not make my project a failure. First, I am not merely looking to publish a paper. I am, with all due respect and humility, out to publish a "game changer." I may not succeed, but I believe I will, and I have at least some evidence in my favor. Second, different people move at different paces. It's always taken me longer than others to do things well.

At the end of the day, though, you're right. Anyone reading this blog should take my advice with a grain of salt. I offered my advice with the aim of being helpful to those who are struggling to get their darn diss off the ground -- that is, to grad students (and there are many) who feel they are in danger of failing altogether. My aim was not to say, "Look at my example--here's how to be a star.". It was: "I've seen people -- myself and others -- go from struggling to get anywhere on a diss to getting a diss *done* by doing X, Y, and Z.". My post, in other words, was intended to help The Struggling. The grad students out there who are Natural Born Stars don't need my help.

Marcus Arvan

Ontologheist: A quick follow-up on the last part of your post. For my part, I know very few people who published diss chapters while in grad school -- and I know a lot of quite people. Second, if you'll look at the statistics on the job market I posted earlier on this blog, a very large proportion of people who got R1 tenure-track jobs out of grad school had *no* publications whatsoever. Finally, I guess I would also like to note that although I haven't published my diss work yet, I do have several publications. While I am by no means a star, and there may be much better people to ask for advice, I believe that my advice may have some value for people. And, again, at the end of the day, everyone must choose whose advice they wish to accept. I only offer mine out of a spirit of good will.

Trevor Hedberg

I've not heard about graduate programs substituting a bundle of "star" papers for a dissertation. How common is this practice, and what programs have implemented it?

Kyle Whyte

In light of the comments of "Ontologheist." I don't think the goal of Marcus' post was to tell anyone exactly what to do. It was to share his advice based on an honest portrayal of his own experiences. Everyone is welcome to do so. And people should feel empowered to talk about their journeys. I disagree both with the purported facts on Ontologheist's comments and also with the idea that there is some single philosopher type that is the only one to turn to for advice on professional matters. What this forum shows, and what I found in my experience, is that there is so much variety out there in terms of how people's careers progress, the relation between their research talent and job status, and the sorts of things that they have learned while in different programs and having different job market experiences. Hearing someone else's experience and advice helps us reflect on our own experiences and maybe sort them out a bit better.

Brad Cokelet

I think Marcus's advice is especially worth hearing in this hyper-competitive environment.

In response to Ontologheist, I suggest having an angel over one shoulder, giving advice like Marcus' and telling you to only send out your best stuff, and having a devil over the other shoulder, telling you to primarily worry about getting any job at all and to "sell out" your deep interests and publish if need be. Well, that's my 2 cents.

Any way, I wanted to respond to Trevor: I think that the paper model is popular at Princeton and suggest that people just ask their advisers whether they can do this. I bet many more would say yes than people suspect.

Kate Manne

Great post (and great discussions around here generally!). Funnily enough, my own dissertation was a defense of reasons internalism, and I'm still happy I chose the topic I did. But I didn't even attempt to refute all the arguments for reasons externalism out there, and I guess I'd resist the suggestion that that's what you need to do if you tackle a hoary or somewhat over-exposed topic. I'd propose a friendly amendment to your advice which people in the know helpfully told me at the time: positive rather than negative arguments should comprise the bulk of your dissertation material, whatever you end up writing on. It is OK not to be comprehensive, in the interests of being fresh. But I'm all for the 'big idea' advice - I think that's probably key.


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renee Betrand

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Mister Rodgers

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I find your suggestions very helpful! Could you maybe say something about how your advice applies to those who want to work on a more historical topic? I myself for instance would like to work on German idealism and am currently struggling for a Big Idea that might help me comparing different metaphysical intuitions in later idealism. So, I guess the "find a Big Idea approach" works here as well (e.g. for narrowing down the required reading), but I would love to hear your thoughts on how specifically it could in terms of historical studies.


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