Your dissertation is your union card. It is your entry into the academy. But writing a dissertation can seem overwhelming. It’s scary to imagine writing a work 200 or more pages and submitting it to distinguished scholars whose opinion of your intelligence and talent will depend on what you have completed. But remember: The single biggest obstacle to completion is psychological. To be sure, a dissertation involves far more research than you have ever done before. But by the time you begin your dissertation, you’ve already written countless essays, lab reports, and conference presentations. A dissertation is, in the end, simply a compilation of seminar papers—revised to provide conceptual unity. Completing a dissertation, then, is mainly a matter of perseverance. It means, first of all, that you must choose a topic that you are passionate about. As Toni Morrison once said: “If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” Also choose a do-able topic. A good dissertation topic is clearly delimited. A topic that is overly broad, excessively ambitious, or vague is a recipe for failure. As the cliché goes: the only good dissertation is a finished dissertation. Half a century ago, doctoral students were said to write theses, rather than dissertations. That is, they wrote manuscripts that addressed a clearly posed question and provided a compelling argument. Follow that earlier example. Organize your dissertation, and its chapters, around questions: substantive, conceptual, and methodological. Then look at what other scholars have said about these questions and consider the ways that you agree or disagree with them. Take heart. One mentor said: “With almost every person whose dissertation I directed, the first draft chapters were disastrous.” Get your work on paper; then you and your mentor can work together to get it into polished form.
Columbia University... [continues]
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