“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

Monday, January 24, 2011

How to Plan a Ph.D. 3: What a Dissertation Isn't

A dissertation isn't a book, nor is it an essay, a paper, or a long MA thesis. Why?

Sure, dissertations are longer than papers. But that's not the real reason why they're different. Read on.

A book is a self-contained product that people are willing to pay money for. Each chapter is a journey from A to B (or at least to not-A). A dissertation is a transitional object that turns you from student to expert (see my previous posts). A dissertation chapter is a dumpster full of information and ideas. It's a totally different beast.

An essay is a short piece of writing that says ONE thing, very convincingly. It is published in a journal, which has (for structural reasons I shall argue later) to be slightly behind the curve. A dissertation chapter is a long piece that is necessarily ahead of the curve. (Why do it otherwise?)

A paper is a collection of ideas that encourage discussion, a snapshot of your latest research. Audience participation is built in. A dissertation chapter is an introverted, introspective, messy beast that goes on talking way after everyone has left the room. Papers are hysterics. Dissertations have Asperger's.

An MA thesis is a survey from a height. (A BA thesis is even higher up—very little digging is required.) A dissertation has its nose to the ground and is the most menial task you've ever done in your life. You descend from the Parnassus of the honors thesis to the bathroom janitor role of Ph.D writer. Are you ready to find pleasure in that? Check yourself. You will be cleaning the toilet floor with a toothbrush for the next three years and almost no one will care. Are you able to rewire your pleasure circuits accordingly?


Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for such very clear pics of the various academic tasks. Explains a lot, in a little space.

Timothy Morton said...

Thanks, more to follow!

robert said...

I'm struggling to decide on whetehr or not to take the leap here in the UK as enrolment deadlines loom for the last year of affordable HE fees. And this is all really hugely useful. Thanks.

Daisyrun said...

Thank you for your sharing