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I find this interesting because I hear a lot of people talk like this. To me the dissertation was the biggest non-event in my life. I just wrote a few papers. I don't know whether it was my attitude, naivety, or what, but I have written a lot of papers in my life and the dissertation wasn't much different. I think many students play mind games and come to think the dissertation is much bigger than it is or your committee cares more than they do.

Trevor Hedberg

Amanda, while it may be true that the dissertation stage went smoother for you than most, I still wonder if you aren't exaggerating a bit. My dissertation was more than 75,000 words. (I do know people who wrote dissertations close to 40,000 words that still passed, but my advisor specifically said that anything less than 200 pages, which would be between 60,000 and 65,000 words was "too thin" in his eyes.) While I have heard of some people approaching dissertation chapters like standalone papers, to equate writing the dissertation to writing "a few papers" just doesn't seem accurate, even if things do go relatively well. A few article length papers would only equate to about 1/3 the length of my dissertation, and the dissertation has to have some general cohesiveness among its chapters (whereas standalone articles don't have to be connected to one another). I recall that your dissertation was shorter -- about 57,000 words -- but that still seems way too long to equate it to writing a few papers.

Maybe I'm missing something here: you may have produced something closer to a stitched collection of quality papers (something "lategrad" mentioned in comments on Part 2) than the manuscript I wrote. Program requirements obviously vary. It may also be the case that you are one of the rare cases of someone who found the dissertation to be easier than other parts of graduate school. I have met others for whom this is true: they usually had their difficult times at other stages of graduate school.

In any case, I do think it is advantageous for one to be able to approach the dissertation as if it's just another project to complete -- perhaps as a super long paper -- but that's easier said than done, since it is very different from the other things you do in graduate school and since its timing presents other unique problems.


So yes, my dissertation was 5 chapters, each about 20 pages, and they were stand alone articles with a common theme. I wrote the majority of it my final year. Two chapters have been published, one in a top 20 journal. The others are currently under review.

So I have found that people often go in one of two groups when it comes to writing papers. One group is the perfectionist who is never finished because they want the paper to be perfect. The other is people (like me) who probably submit papers before they are ready. I think my dissertation might have something to do with this approach that comes naturally to me. I am not claiming it is a good approach - it has pluses and minuses and I often suffer from the lack of patience I have with papers. It means so far I have lots of good work but probably not any great work.

So I know Marcus disagrees about this, but I think it is very advantageous to do a stand alone paper dissertation. The main reason is individual papers simply are what junior scholars need to produce. It is hard to get a book noticed before you are established. I know the argument that you are not getting the same educational experience but idk, I guess I just don't see it that way.Besides, if you get a tenure-track job, you will have a lot of time to develop longer book writing skills.


Also, I will add that I specially selected an easy going committee which probably had something to do with my dissertation experience.

Trevor Hedberg

Thanks for clarifying, Amanda. I am not sure whether that approach to dissertations would be a viable option in my graduate program. I'm guessing it would depend on the advisor. In any event, it's not a choice I ever faced, so the choice between writing a bookish manuscript or a series of papers isn't one that I have given much thought to. I suspect that most of the content in this series of posts will be more relevant to those writing manuscript-style dissertations than those who write a series of papers instead.

Marcus Arvan

Amanda: I can't help but wonder whether your experience is partly an artifact of the way that dissertation requirements have changed.

As you note, your dissertation was five papers, each about 20 pages (so, 100 pages total). By my estimation, that's about 30,000 words.

My dissertation was nearly 80,000 words (or 270 pages), and when I was in graduate school dissertations expected to be at least that long, and were often on the order of 300-400 pages - a very big, intimidating mountain to climb.

Now, of course, things change - and, as you note, the "star paper" approach may be better for early-career scholars, at least in the short run (as it helps them write publishable papers). However, I still don't think it's good in the long run, because I don't think it requires grad students to develop the same breadth of philosophical thought. This isn't to diminish the accomplishment of writing dissertations comprised by five papers - it is just to note that it is a very different kind of task.


Hi Marcus,

Sure it's a different task. But you are underestimating my words a bit. Each of my chapters was between 10,000 to 15,000 words, so for a total of roughly 60,000. Maybe we are counting pages differently. Also, I will say that of the paper type of dissertation, mine was significantly longer than most. I have several friends who did this, not from my PhD program, and they did THREE papers about 10,000 words, so there's was close to 30,000 words. Mine was closer to 60,000. And yes, when today's dissertations are commonly less than half the length it is only natural to assume it will be less ardors. And I am sure it is.

As far as hurting in the long term.I guess it depends what you mean by that. Maybe it is true in some objective sense of what it means to be a good philosopher. But I do not think it is true in the sense of how success is often measured in the field. The thing is, so much depends on how you place early in your career. So say you write 3 excellent papers and manage to get a semi-research job with like a 3-2 load. Someone like that will have far more time to write and develop as a scholar, and have more people to work with, than someone doing more teaching at a school with less resources. I think therefore it is harder and less likely for the second person to achieve research prestige. Now it is a perfectly fair point that what it means to be an overall good philosopher is not limited to research, much less perceived research prestige. Still, there is a sense of research success which I believe the paper dissertation makes more likely.

Pendaran Roberts

I'm siding with Amanda on this one. My dissertation was 100,000 words. It's basically a book. I wrote it in 3 years. I wouldn't say it was easy, but it wasn't a big deal. I didn't have much trouble getting it done on time. I had a good advisor, which helped. I admit if you have a bad advisor who isn't there to help that it would be harder. My advisor got ill after 2 years though after which I was more or less on my own. So yea I guess I don't really get all the worry about writing a dissertation. Publishing in top 20 philosophy journals is much harder. haha! Writing a dissertation is just about taking it one day at a time and not procrastinating, oh and having at least a moderate amount of ability.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Amanda: Interesting. I was working from the assumption that 10 double-spaced pages is ~3,000 words.

In any case, you are probably right about the star-paper approach's relation to professional success. I just worry about the systemic effects on philosophy, making everything we do--including how we structure dissertations--beholden to achieving professional success.

Sure, professional success is important to individuals--especially in a terrible job-market. I get that! But, as a discipline, I also think we should care about *philosophy*. While I think there is philosophical value in publishing articles, I think that if we look at history the works that have had the biggest lasting impact are monographs/books - typically, very long and systematic works that accomplish a different type of task than a paper or series of papers.

Because I think this kind of work is philosophically important, I think it is important for philosophers to learn how to do it. And that's what I think the traditional dissertation was envisioned as doing.

But perhaps my worries are misplaced.


Hi Marcus,

Yes I think there is a conflict of interest between what might be good for the profession overall and what is good for an individual. This is a VERY tough conflict though, because as an individual you probably are going to want to do what will help you stay in the profession at all, given how tough it is. And similarly it seems advisers should be concerned with their students doing something that will help them stay in the profession.

And my university library needed single-spaced pages, so that is where that came from.

Pendaran yes publishing in top journals seems much harder than writing a dissertation. But a lot will depend on what your program and adviser demands.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Amanda: cool - I think we agree then!



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