Finishing a Humanities Dissertation in Six Years – My Advice

Mark Braude, a Stanford Post-doc, has written a perfectly reasonable essay of how to finish a Humanities dissertation in 6 years. Good job Mark. I’m genuinely glad you’re writing in public and congratulations on finishing so quickly.

Higher Ed pubs, in general, publish many of these essays in which the author takes his or her individual academic experiences and generalizes them as “here’s how I did it” advice. They “bootstrap,” telling a story about how with just hard work and good spirit the author faced down the odds and made his or her own American dream possible. hey aren’t my favorite genre. Too often, they ignore privilege and other unseen factors (like luck, especially luck) that made the positive outcomes possible. For example, this “Confessions of a Prolific Academic” is the worst kind of bootstrappy writing.

Braude’s essay is fine. I think, though, that there are some structural issues worth exploring. His advice includes: Hit the ground running, Make coursework part of your dissertation process, Get to archives fast, go to conferences, use your advisor, ignore your advisor, make teaching productive, be ready to change or adapt topics, get a reading group, and so forth. All good advice.

I agree that it’s totally possible to write a dissertation, from BA to Completion, in 6 years. I took 9 and a half years, though, and would now like to generalize from my experience to offer some other bits of advice to people who want to make PhDs more speedy.

1. Study the 20th or 21st century. Preferably America.
2. Figure out what languages you might need and learn them in college, or preferably highschool.
3. Do not, under any circumstances, decide you might need to learn Greek for your dissertation (or Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, Farsi, Urdu, etc…)
4. The thing where you marry a belly dancer/massage therapist and then she leaves you one Friday in October followed by a year of writers’ block is definitely a bad idea. This one might be more personal than the others. At any rate, don’t have any disasters in your personal life, that’s the real advice. [UPDATE: It’s been pointed out this could read as sexist. This is a true story. That my first wife left me had nothing to do with her professions, but rather our flawed communication, as happens sometimes].
5. Don’t let your adviser take another job somewhere else, or, if they do, cling to them
6. Be open to change maybe, but not too much change. Don’t swap fields just because you become interested in something new, as you age from, say, 23 to 26.

There are two main problems with this need for academic (relative) speed. First, such arguments tend to be deeply presentist and single-language-group-ist. It’s not that people don’t learn other languages for faster dissertations – Braude has French, for example – but that such faster projects preclude projects that require multiple languages. My sources are in medieval Italian, French, Latin, and a little bit of Greek. I did not learn these overnight.

There is no time like grad school to learn a lot of languages – most people are not going to add Arabic or Turkish (just to think about the Mediterranean world which I study) on the tenure track, let alone trying to cobble together a job in temporary positions. And then, of course, there’s paleography. Braude’s sources were, I expect, either typed or, at worst, written in modern hands in modern French. That doesn’t mean his project is any less worthy than mine, just that learning the technical skills required to complete it took less time.

This is a solvable problem. When the MLA came out with their new “five years” guideline, they acknowledged that people with language needs should be allowed to take longer. But my second point is more abstract. As we streamline graduate studies, we make it less possible for people to wander, intellectually.

A few months ago, I wrote a piece on “saving the dissertation.” I told my story:

It’s true that we could, and probably should, restructure graduate school to respond to changing conditions in higher education. But the Ph.D. process still needs to show that a transition has taken place—from student to scholar. For many people, the dissertation actually works pretty well in effecting that transformation.

My path through graduate school was long and twisty. I changed fields. I wandered. I collected incompletes as if I were trying to assemble a matched set. I endured a brutal cycle of historiography classes and encountered professors who doubted I would make it. On one occasion, a professor returned a paper to me ungraded, because he thought that seeing the mark that I deserved would depress me.

What saved me was, in fact, the dissertation. I found an old set of books in a sub-basement of the library. Their topic—narratives of relic theft out of Constantinople in the 13th century—was at least as esoteric as the footnotes of Duns Scotus. I was hooked. I wrote an essay, a piece of my master’s thesis, and then a dissertation proposal. I got a grant and found my identity as a scholar while walking between the Marciana library and the church of San Marco in Venice, thinking about the interactions of ideas, space, and objects, and trying to articulate those thoughts in a little apartment on the Street of Paradise near the church of Santa Maria Formosa.

My transformative experience, however idiosyncratic, did not happen by accident or luck. It emerged by design out of the nature of a humanities dissertation program. Moreover, such experiences can only be expected to take place within graduate school. In order to succeed, I needed the time to wander and to fail. In my first jobs, I surely did not have that kind of time and don’t think I will again for at least another decade.

 I finished by saying:

I’m skeptical, given the other recommendations in the report, that a reimagined dissertation within an accelerated framework is going to permit people to stumble toward becoming scholars. Instead, the new regimes will support students who arrive with a clear plan and a narrowly focused topic in a field with which they are already familiar. I worry that we will lose the wanderers who might find something new and surprising.

I want graduate school to reward and encourage the driven people, like Braude, who have a plan and the means to execute it, even if his plan did develop over his six years.

But I also want room for the wanderers. Go talk to your colleagues and you’ll find many scholars who you respect, whoever you are, who did not have a clear plan and a narrow vision when they entered graduate school. Instead, they constructed it slowly, with many mistakes, over the years.

Too much emphasis on speed would remove those scholars – would have removed me – from the profession. So let’s be clear about the consequences of that emphasis as we move forward, re-designing graduate studies in an ever more fraught academic environment.

One Reply to “Finishing a Humanities Dissertation in Six Years – My Advice”

  1. gabriel gryffyn says:

    You may have missed:

    –Don't get hit by a car and end up drugged up on opiates for an entire semester (covered under personal stuff, though)
    –Don't, after overcoming all of the above, have picked a school and a discipline and a committee that thinks that once you are finally ready (with pages in hand and having passed your exams and are finally so very prepared) they should dump you and throw you to the wolves for being "the most amazing grad student we've had in 10 years" because they think the stress is too much for you. Yeah. Thanks UMN.

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