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07/23/2020

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Tom

Must have been nice to have other PhD's in your cohort. I am the only one in mine.

Mike Titelbaum

Here are my two standards pieces of device for dissertation development:

(1) Work bottom-up, not top-down. Many people try to find a dissertation topic by thinking about what area they want to work in, then finding a particular problem or figure in that area, then trying to come up with something to say about it. That can take *forever*, and go nowhere. Instead, find something that bothers you, or a specific problem (however small) in which you're really interested and which you might have a thought about how to address. Work on that, and see how large it becomes, or what else it might connect to. It might evolve into a dissertation-sized project! If not, find another something and try again.

(2) My advisor once said to me, "No one will ever read your dissertation". He didn't mean it literally, but I got the point. The thing doesn't have to be perfect. It doesn't have to be a summation of who you are and what you might ever become as a philosopher. It has to be written, then your committee has to approve it. Before it ever goes out to a wider audience (if it ever does), it will require much more work anyway. This is just to repeat things Liz and Marcus have said, but they're worth repeating!

grad student

As someone in the early stages of their dissertation, Mike Titelbaum's advice above makes a lot of sense to me. I was stuck for a long time trying to come up with a topic, until I decided instead to delve into a small problem that bothered me.

However, when I brought up this small problem to my advisor to see if she thinks it's worth pursuing, she was kind of ... annoyed that I didn't come to her with a theory about said problem. It didn't stop me from working on it, but it makes me wonder if some advisors just don't react well to the bottom-up approach?

Daniel Weltman

My advice is to think strategically. The dissertation must fulfill two goals:

1) Be finished.

2) Satisfy your committee.

Beyond that there are a number of features it would be nice for the dissertation to have:

1) Be on a topic you want to become an expert in.

2) Be on a topic that sounds interesting to search committees.

3) Be a research project/argument/whatever that you are interested in developing further, like in a book or articles.

4) Be a basis for excerpting some articles, or for turning into a published book.

5) Be intrinsically interesting/fun to work on.

6) Be on a topic that is interesting to people in your sub-field, such that when they hear about the topic they might like to talk with you about it and hear what your views are.

7) Constitute an important contribution to the literature (in principle - in practice, not really, because nobody will read it).

There are many ways to end up with dissertations that fulfill both required goals and some (or all) of the desirable goals. Try to find a way of working that lets you do that. For the required goals, my advice is to be in touch with your committee and your advisor especially about what they want so that you can make sure your dissertation will fit those two. For the desirable goals, there seem like so many ways of achieving them that I'm not sure I have any particular advice. But, having the goals in mind allows one to shape one's dissertation proposal, topic, and writing, so it's good to have the goals in mind.

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