Lies Your Dissertation Committee Told You

The “market” appears to be looking a little better this year than it did last October, at least in some of the disciplines/fields that I know best, including Anthropology, Africana Studies, and Communication, the domains in which several of my graduate students are (or will be) job hunting.

I recently had a newly minted Ph.D. come into my office with a list of more than 35 advertised positions (postdocs and tenure-track offerings) that he will be applying for over the next three months.

Putting aside the question of how any of this recommendation-writing (for 30-plus applications) is even possible without the help of Interfolio (and ignoring the debate about whether or not students are disadvantaged when their rec-writers opt for what sometimes feels like the academic equivalent of a glorified form letter), I was more struck by the kinds of wildly discrepant advice this young scholar had already received from members of his dissertation committee. Since I wasn’t, in this particular case, one of those committee members, I could purse my lips and shake my head in outsiderly displeasure.

First of all, the student was getting conflicting recommendations about approaching publishers for his book manuscript (i.e., his recently defended dissertation). One committee member told him to hold off on the book for a few more months–that he should focus, instead, on getting a couple of articles submitted to peer-reviewed journals. Especially since he was “on the market,” the argument went, peer-reviewed journals might be the best option, because those articles might take less time to complete (and submit) than a revamped version of the entire dissertation.

Another committee member told him that journal articles are fine, but his focus (especially while he’s on the aforementioned job market) should be on his book manuscript. If he was lucky enough to get a publisher to give him an advance contract, the second committee member said, it would look great on his CV, something that would stand out to every single search committee. (In the spirit of full disclosure, let me just admit that this is similar to advice that I’ve given, when solicited, to some of my very own graduate students.)

Even among the committee members (and other faculty mentors) who ostensibly agreed with one another on the question of whether or not the student should focus on journal articles or a book manuscript, the fine-print of their advocacy often differed. Some scholars were telling him to aim for the stars, the top journals in the field are the places to start. Others were advising him that less prestigious journals would provide more bang for his writerly buck–that they might be easier to get into and take less time to get back to him with their decision.

Those mentors who asked him to focus on the book manuscript (not journal articles) disagreed about what such focus entailed. One committee member thought that he needed to take his time editing the manuscript on his own before submitting it to any publisher for consideration. As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression.

The other argument seems equally plausible. (At least, I hope so, since it is the one I tend to proffer.) You’ll have to do major editing and rewriting after you receive reader-reports anyway, so why “procrastinate” about submitting it. When you get the feedback (and I guess that you have to be confident enough to imagine that the publisher will still want to move forward after the anonymous reviewers have provided that feedback), you can take the time to address those concerns, and your own, as substantially as you’d like.

There isn’t an indisputably right answer to these disagreements, at least not when abstracted from the particulars of any individual case, but I do know that dissertation committee members can sometimes make their recommendations sound like nothing less than holy doctrine, sacred laws of educational piety broken at the advisee’s occupational peril. Indeed, the first lie some advisers tell you isn’t content-specific at all. It is more about the matter-of-fact tone we use to shade our tellings, everything offered up to the young dissertator–or recent dissertator–with a fait accompli certainty.

Or maybe that’s just how some of us wanted to hear it when we were the ones asking our dissertation committee members the same questions. At the end of the day, the irreconcilability of their various recommendations might be the most valuable thing of all, an irreconcilability that demands we take responsibility for our own (informed) decisions.

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