“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. 2: What Kind of Expertise Do You Want?

That's the question, the only question that should really bother you, as you plan your Ph.D. dissertation. When you think of yourself in ten years time, what kind of expertise, and in what field, do you hope for?

If you have trouble with this, think of it another way. Imagine the New Yorker wants to do a piece on something. Imagine the editor thinks of calling you to ask your opinion, or to write something. What do you want them to call about? Why are they calling you and not some other scholar?

Remember, a Ph.D. turns you from a student into an expert. You will be one of a few world experts in topic X, if all goes well. To get there, you use your dissertation as a transitional object. Not as a quasi-book. That ruins it. Sure you might publish your diss. as a book later. Graham Harman and I both did that. But it's not necessary. And thinking of it as a book while you're writing it will seriously blow your chances of having it transition you from student-hood to expert-hood.

A transitional object is usually scarred and a bit broken looking. It's had plenty of wear and tear. By the time I was finished with him, my teddy bear was covered in vomit, with stuffing coming out, he was bleached from being in the laundry and hung out to dry. That's what a good dissertation looks like. Now imagine trying to sell a vomit stained teddy bear. Now do you get the difference between a dissertation and a book?

But that teddy bear is terribly useful if you want to transition from being a baby to being a kid. And the dissertation is terribly useful if you want to have expertise for life and individuate from being a graduate student.

1 comment:

Andrew Welch said...

I finished an MA Design Critical Practice at Goldsmiths last year, and what I was left with after the course, in my final project, and various folders of notes, ideas, maps, sketches, is very similar to how you describe the worn out teddy bear; a great deal of expertise but definitely not a product. There is a big leap to creating a product. I have written a book about a long bicycle tour - google 'Weave of the Ride', and the amount of editing and rethinking that went into it to turn it from a journal of a journey into a saleable product was. Trying to turn a teddy bear into a product is a very long and difficult process, because it takes something that is in a world of the imagination into the world of the capitalist market.