It's a Dissertation, Not a Book

Brian Taylor

July 24, 2011

My last column centered on the new difficulties that graduate students face in turning their dissertations into books. Some readers responded that plenty of dissertations shouldn't be revised into books in the first place. Indeed.

Here's a lesson for graduate students that I had to learn the hard way: A dissertation is a book-length project, but it's not a book that is just awaiting cover art.

It's true that your dissertation showcases your original contribution to a particular field. That's an important (and honorable) accomplishment. But not all original contributions take the form of books, even if some pieces of your contribution will one day become a book.

Not all dissertations are publishable. Mine certainly wasn't. I thought I had written a book-worthy manuscript when I turned it in and got my Ph.D., but I was soon disabused of that illusion by rejection notices from grant makers and tepid responses from academic publishers. My re-education took a couple of years that I could ill spare. I'd like to say that the ordeal gave me wisdom, but what I remember best is the stress. Then I spent a few more anxious years writing a book based on a few ideas that were contained in my dissertation.

Those events took place more than 15 years ago, but my experience remains sadly typical of the guidance (or lack thereof) that many graduate students receive when they enter the scholarly-industrial complex.

Instead of advice, young scholars receive an imperative: Write a book or else. The escalating demands of the academic job market and the tenure track force many new Ph.D.'s to seek book publication of their dissertations regardless of whether that is the best showcase for their scholarship. University-press editors have been complaining for years about the flood of career-motivated book manuscripts that wash over their transoms. Lindsay Waters, executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, has pointed out that when a department requires books of its junior faculty members, it effectively "outsources" its tenure decisions to university presses. Waters, a publisher of books, has ironically found himself a flag-waver in a movement to re-privilege articles.

Viewed from a wide angle, such complaints from publishers may appear a bit disingenuous. University presses are attached, after all, to the same universities that demand book contracts of their job and tenure candidates, and one of the original reasons that academic presses came into being was to publish dissertations.

But the cold, hard fact is that academic publishers find it harder and harder to sell scholarly monographs these days, so they're simply not publishing many of them anymore. Editors are trying to publicize that shift, but knowledge travels slowly when it has to crawl over high hopes and expectations. Broadsides like the report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion (on which I served) advocate ending the tyranny of the book in tenure decisions, but the battle for awareness is still being fought.

It's time to put the dissertation into practical perspective. Here are some observations for graduate students to consider as they cross the dissertatory expanse:

Do not imagine that publishers will read your dissertation. The fact is, they almost never will—at least not before you have revised it significantly. If you think your dissertation might make a book, you should consult William Germano's excellent Getting It Published when the time comes for you to start making revisions.

The primary purpose of your dissertation is to get you a Ph.D. In other words, the most important goal of a dissertation is for it to be approved. It's not a test of your dignity, fortitude, man- or womanhood, or even of your intelligence. It's a requirement for an advanced academic credential.

Ordinarily fewer than five people will read your thesis. That's not counting those with whom you share DNA or a bed. Think about that when you catch yourself toiling toward some mythical standard of perfection.

Your dissertation is part of your education. It's not just a goal of your education. You thesis is almost certainly the first project of its magnitude that you've attempted, and such things take practice. It takes a while to assimilate a large amount of material and the different perspectives it affords. Lots of foods take time to prepare regardless of the brilliance and/or tirelessness of the cook. So does a dissertation, no matter how energetic the writer.

Expect your thesis to evolve as you write it. A dissertation allows you to pursue tangents—and you should. Writing a dissertation not only involves you in learning your topic, but also in learning its implications. The process affords the opportunity to explore. In consultation with your adviser (who should know the contours of the field), do follow your curiosity when the opportunity presents itself. The excursions you take may or may not enlarge your topic, but they will certainly enrich it. More important, they will become part of your writer's foundation—the blueprint of your scholarly house—in years to come. The chapters you write at the end will reflect more learning than the ones you wrote early on, and they'll also display a more acute sense of where the project may be going.

For academic job searching, parts of your dissertation will need special polish. Your dissertation work forms an important part of your qualifications for both academic and nonacademic work, but nonacademic employers usually care more about the credential than the actual thesis.

But for academic employers, you'll use one section of your disseration as a writing sample for job applications. Depending on your discipline, you may need to set aside another section for use as an on-campus job talk. You should tinker with these public portions of your dissertation until they possess depth and insight, read smoothly and persuasively, and gleam as brightly as possible.

And of course you should publish. An increasing number of departments understand that many dissertations should be published not as books but as a series of articles. The increased mobility of articles also increases their potential influence in the conversations you want to enter. Anyone with access to a college or university library can now read them online, and some online journals have gained significant stature.

Yes, it's become more complicated to figure out which part(s) of your thesis should see print if you harbor hopes of revising it into a book. But articles offer new possibilities for career advancement.

Above all, graduate advisers need to be honest with students about whether their dissertations have the makings of a book. My advisers wrote the usual platitudes about how my dissertation would become "an important book," and I believed them. That mistaken belief cost me years of work.

I now encourage graduate students to seek book publication only when their dissertations actually have the makings of a book. Students deserve the truth, and scholarly-press editors deserve thoughtful submissions. Academic publishing could certainly use a clearer set of guidelines, but the best reforms start with open and honest conversations between dissertation writers and dissertation advisers, and then branch outward from there.

You may think you're writing a book. Perhaps you are. But if you want to be sure, start asking around.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, welcomes comments and suggestions from readers at