“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Sunday, January 23, 2011

How to Plan a Ph.D. 1: What Is a Ph.D.?

What the heck are you doing, when you think of starting a Ph.D.? You're thinking of building expertise in a certain area. A Ph.D. means that you have a professionally recognized level of expertise. It does NOT mean you have a book. It does NOT mean you have a job (as we all know...). It means that you, Joe Schmidt, are the expert in topic X.

Your dissertation is the treasure trove of this expertise. Let me repeat that in a different way: your dissertation is NOT a book. Do you understand the difference?

Get clear on this now, while you're planning. A dissertation is not a book. Sure, some dissertations turn into books, some quite easily—Graham Harman's for instance, and mine. But even in this case, a book is not a dissertation. Why?

A book is a product that is sold to make money. A dissertation is a transitional object that turns you from being a student into being an EXPERT. Did I say “turns you into a professor”? No. Did I say “turns you into an author”? Why no. A dissertation is a transitional object.

Think about this. Not every professor will tell you this—in particular the ones without too many books. And professionalization has confused us all, treating grad students like professors without security. But once you've written about three or four books the difference between a dissertation and a book should be obvious.

An awful lot devolves from this simple fact, so in the next couple of posts we'll think this through some more.

But let me say this for now. Confusingly, having publications and conference papers under your belt will help you get a job these days. But they massively inhibit the process of writing a dissertation. Why? And even more so, thinking of the dissertation as a book from the get go is a disaster. Don't do it. Again, why?


Zanadar said...

Thanks for this Tim.

Zanadar said...

Thanks very much for these Tim. I look forward to reading them during breaks from studying and watching Kraftwerk documentaries .

Libby Robin said...

Perhaps the professors need to think again? In Australia we DO write books for some PhDs anyway. There are not many Higher Ed jobs anyway and that was before the big new budget cuts... but there are not many resources for writers either. Surely we can re-imagine the PhD opportunity to write a book or make a film. A modest scholarship can go a long way in making a writer. Libby

Nikki said...

Thank you Mr. Morton. I am a product Design Student from the Netherlands and I believe that your views shed light on a phenomena that extends past professorial problems and onto students of many other disciplines. I believe that people should write more (in particular well composed and written pieces of writing), not just professors in universities. Please keep up the good work!