U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Thinking About the Dissertation AS a Book

On Thinking About the Dissertation AS a Book

by Rachel Shelden*

As a whole I think historians are impressively aware of and interested in problems and changes in our profession. We are constantly self-evaluating, as books by Peter Novick and more recently James Banner have illustrated. We endlessly consider our role in public life; William Cronon’s 2013 AHA presidential address serves as a great example of this. Recent conversations across the internet about Alt-Ac jobs similarly get to the heart of how we as historians represent ourselves and our profession.

Thus it was no surprise to me that the recent controversy over the AHA’s statement on dissertation embargoes has produced an important set of conversations about the role of book publishing and the future of scholarly contributions, the protection of young scholars and the concerns of those young scholars, the difference between Research 1 jobs and those at liberal arts colleges, and a number of others. The level of interest and passion on behalf of many of the parties involved in these posts (and I recommend reading the comments), on Twitter, and elsewhere proves just how important these issues are to scholars at all stages of their careers.

From my perspective, one of the best conversations to come out of the embargo controversy is what a dissertation should look like in the first place. Over the past couple of weeks, I have seen blog posts (such as comments from LD Burnett and discussion by Neville Morley) and twitter explode with discussion, particularly among younger scholars and graduate students, about how dissertations differ from books. Last week I could not help but respond to a thoughtful tweet on this subject from Dan Cohen, the Executive Director of the Digital Public Library (an awesome project) and professor at George Mason University. Dan has argued against the new AHA policy and tweeted that this is partially because a dissertation is different from a book. “Revise your dissertation *considerably*” he wrote. “Like any worthy book, it should be well-written and cast to the widest possible audience.” I appreciate Dan’s overall point about what a good scholarly book should look like. My question to him was why shouldn’t a dissertation also be well-written and cast to the widest possible audience?

When I entered graduate school at the University of Virginia in the fall of 2005, my adviser, other professors, and even other graduate students repeatedly told me that I should think about my dissertation as a book. I followed this advice and I value it so much that I routinely offer it to other graduate students. This is not to suggest that dissertation-as-book is the model; there are lots of ways to go about tackling the dissertation and different programs (and even advisers) have different standards. But, as I will further explain in a moment, conceiving of my dissertation as a book was instrumental in my development as a scholar.

Let me first give a quick overview of my path from dissertation to book to provide some context. I defended my dissertation in April 2011, at the end of my 6th year in graduate school. By the time of my defense I had talked with University of North Carolina Press about my project and I was invited to send the manuscript upon completion, which I did. The reviews came back quickly and I was able to finish my revisions the following summer (2012); these included some basic editing, a reworked introduction, and the addition of a short prologue and epilogue. My book (excuse the self-promotion) is set to come out in December, less than three years after I graduated.

There is no doubt that I was able to publish my project so quickly because I had already written my dissertation as a book. In large part because I had always thought about it in book-like terms, however, it did not take me longer to write in dissertation form. This did not mean going easier on the research (I went to over 15 archives) or on the historiography (it was just carefully embedded in the footnotes). What it did mean was clear writing, a compelling narrative, a strong introductory argument free from academic jargon, a critical contribution to my field with appreciation of and deference to the scholars who came before me, attention to chapter and manuscript length, substantial research with ample documentation, and wide-ranging appeal (in other words marketability). To me, each of these items was critical to both a good dissertation and a good book (a quick survey of “how to turn your dissertation into a book” advice suggests I am not alone).

Thinking of my dissertation as a book throughout the writing process also began to strengthen the sense I had of my role in the historical profession more generally. Rather than focusing on my status as a lowly graduate student, I began to really think of myself as a historian. This has helped me, I believe, in my post-graduate life: I do not teach at an R1 school and there was not intense pressure for me to publish right away, particularly with my 4/4 teaching load. Still, I wanted to publish my book quickly so that others could see what I considered to be the capstone of my time in graduate school. I emphasize this because I think it improved my work and my education in three critical ways:

First, it motivated me to finish quickly so that I could share my knowledge with others (both through my book project and also in my teaching). This may be the most important aspect of the process. The current time to completion of a Ph.D. in the humanities seems to be holding steady at about nine years. To think that graduate students must spend nine years to produce a dissertation that is not publishable and then spend another six years or more trying to turn that product into something worth publishing seems downright cruel. As a colleague of mine, Megan Kate Nelson, recently told me in an email, it may also be detrimental to historical scholarship as a whole. Megan wrote, “If committee members (presumably, people who have published at least one book) are passing PhD candidates based on un-publishable work, what does that mean for our profession?” I wholeheartedly agree; we are a community of scholars who should be encouraging each other to produce good history.

Second, I was able to talk more confidently to professors in my field. When I described my project in book-like terms to senior scholars, I always received positive feedback and a willingness to discuss the broader implications of my work. From this perspective I was not a graduate student looking for help, but a colleague intent on making a strong contribution to nineteenth-century American history. It also made the transition from graduate school to professor easier both in the way I thought about history and the way I taught history.

Finally, because I was conceiving of and writing my dissertation for the broadest possible audience, I was able to discuss my project lucidly with curious relatives, friends outside academia, and colleagues in other disciplines. Writing accessible history is something that so many graduate students are already doing by sharing their work on academia.edu, Twitter, blogs, and other great forums. If young scholars are already formulating their work in accessible terms on the web, why should they be forced to re-package it in an un-publishable dissertation?


*Rachel Shelden is an assistant professor of American History at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, GA. Her work focuses on the intersection of politics, law, and culture in the nineteenth century. Her book, Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War will be out with UNC Press in December.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Rachel wrote: “As a colleague of mine, Megan Kate Nelson, recently told me in an email, it may also be detrimental to historical scholarship as a whole. Megan wrote, ‘If committee members (presumably, people who have published at least one book) are passing PhD candidates based on un-publishable work, what does that mean for our profession?’ I wholeheartedly agree; we are a community of scholars who should be encouraging each other to produce good history.”

    This was a great post, Rachel. As a graduate student, I too have often read (more than heard) the advice to write the dissertation as if it were a book, which is advice I plan on using. However, I would push back against one characterization in your piece.

    Here, as in the NYT article and other forums in which this debate has occurred, there has been an implicit assumption by some that a dissertation not being commercially “unpublishable” is somehow a shortcoming of some sort, either on the part of the student or the profession. Just because a recently completed dissertation is not wholly ready to be published by a commercial press does not mean that it is somehow incomplete or not “good history.” It is reflective of the fact that a dissertation is its own form of writing, with a different purpose and audience and different priorities than commercially published works. That is why we call it a “dissertation” and not a “book” or “manuscript.” The dissertation is, first and foremost, a degree requirement and its ability to be immediately published commercially is not a criteria upon which it is judged for the purposes of fulfilling the degree requirement. All that said, I agree with you that graduate students and the profession itself would be much better served by thinking of the dissertation as a book from the start.

  2. Thanks for this good post, Rachel. I agree with it, which may not have come out in my brief tweets. I also received the sage advice during my graduate work to write a widely readable book rather than an insider, jargon-y dissertation. But I think it’s fair to say that work like yours is a minority of dissertations out there, and as a professor I have had to note to students—who after all are writing their first long-form work—that there’s often still a lot of labor and changes to be done, even in the best of cases. Aspiration can diverge from reality with a 300-page thesis.

    Regarding open access, a larger question arises: If all graduate students start taking to heart the noble mission of “writing for the broadest possible audience,” why would they then lock their work up for years? Must careerism—ensuring that your dissertation becomes a book with a high price, few purchases, and electronic gates—be in conflict with our mandate to disseminate research and knowledge? Can we (and the AHA) think of a model that satisfies both? That is the question I have been asking, and other professional societies (such as the MLA) have been doing much more on that front.

  3. Dan wrote: “Must careerism—ensuring that your dissertation becomes a book with a high price, few purchases, and electronic gates—be in conflict with our mandate to disseminate research and knowledge? Can we (and the AHA) think of a model that satisfies both? That is the question I have been asking, and other professional societies (such as the MLA) have been doing much more on that front.”

    The problems we are witnessing here have to do with the fact that we are part of a profession that structurally has not changed much since it emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century and yet now finds itself in the midst of the greatest revolution in knowledge dissemination since the invention of the printing press. Taking advantage of technical advances is crucial to the survival of the profession, i.e., in that sense, this is a challenge of such magnitude that the profession has never encountered. But at the same time, I can’t help but question the assumption that knowledge dissemination should trump all other concerns. To me that seems similar to the less utilitarian conceptions of the value of liberal education from a time when those who were the primary knowledge producers were upper class men who had no need to derive an income from their work as historians or professors of history. Being an academic historian is, after all, a profession, not a public service. One of the benefits of professionalization was both an increase in quantity and quality in the production of history, but one of the results is that those who engage in the professional production of history need to be able to make a living from it. I think what I am reacting to is your use of the term “careerism” (which, perhaps, I am attributing a negative connotation to it that you did not intend). I don’t think we need to treat professional concerns and knowledge dissemination as some kind of zero-sum dichotomy and, like you, I agree that the way to stop doing that is to come up with “a model that satsifies both.” Instead of waiting for the AHA to come up with that model, perhaps academic historians could take it upon themselves to begin a conversation aimed at actually coming up with that new model.

  4. I think an awful lot of graduate students have received the advice to think of their dissertation as a book, and I suspect a large number of them follow it. The barrier for these people to getting published later is not that they intentionally set out to write a dissertation as opposed to a book, but simply that dissertations are, generally speaking, not good enough to publish. Students graduate thinking they’ve achieved the pinnacle of academic achievement, but are frequently disabused of that notion over the next few years. After trying to write a proposal, they realize that it’s not clear who their audience is, or why the project should matter to anyone who is not a specialist in their narrow field. (Even for those “writing a book,” a dissertation does not require a person to face those issues.) After going through peer review, they become aware of problems with the writing or argument that had not been apparent before. Perhaps most importantly, no one finishes a dissertation and then sits around for a year waiting to graduate. These projects are always rushed in one form or another. Not being able to publish the book immediately imposes a waiting period in which the writer him/herself gains the time to look at the dissertation again in a new light. Most often, this reflection yields the conclusion that the writer wants to revise the project significantly.

    Anecdotally, among my friends who have published a book, a substantial number are now embarrassed by the dissertation on which it was based. (I am no exception.) I am very impressed with Dr. Shelden’s ability to publish her dissertation with a well-regarded press with what sounds like little more than a fresh coat of paint. But my guess is that what allowed her to do that was her particular ability, not just her determination to think of her dissertation as a book. Many people have made exactly the same decision in graduate school, without finding such a clear path to publication. In short, I occasionally see graduate students thinking that if they only think of their dissertation like a book, then the road to publication will be a smooth one. I think this view attributes far too much power to that decision. Most of what one learns about publishing a book comes from the act of actually publishing a book.

    • I’m with you, Mike, in being much, MUCH less happy with my dissertation than I will be with the book. I’m not exactly embarrassed by my diss. But I’m glad it’s not being published as-was as a book. – TL

  5. Thanks to all for your thoughtful comments. Dan, I particularly appreciate your point that all of this does not mean that we should necessarily have an embargo – as I hope I conveyed in my own tweets about this subject, I have mixed feelings. The issue of dissertation-as-book strikes me as just one more issue to consider. Open access is a wonderful thing but I do think we need to worry about how young scholars are affected by it. I believe that’s what Bill Cronon was trying to do in his piece, even though it may have relied too much on the R1 model.

    I think one of the questions that comes out of this *should* be what we expect out of a dissertation. Is a dissertation a building block? A right of passage? And perhaps even more generally, what exactly is the point of graduating PhDs? I would like to see a greater focus on what our purpose is and how we can convey that purpose to the greater public (a public that can seem skeptical of what we do and what kind of work we put into it).

  6. My sentiments lie in the direction of those expressed by Michael Hattem and Mike O’Connor.

    My agreement centers on audience—the real one, not the hoped for audience. And that real audience is, in most cases, sadly only our dissertation committee. It’s not that others won’t read your diss or that others do not want to read it. It’s that in most cases your committee is variable, and they are concerned primarily with your ideas and content, not writing style. The style must of course be passable, but that committee doesn’t really care about your potential book audience.

    Furthermore, even if you had the very good fortune to have selected a committee that cares about the final publishable form of your product, the power to publish lies with your publisher, acquisitions editor, and readers. For Rachel these variables turned out be less variable than they are for others. That’s *totally* awesome. I applaud her good fortune. But I’ve seen too many fellow grad students get saddled with less than ideal committees that are, in fact, set up only to judge your work on its contribution to the field, not its saleability.

    In sum, this is why a diss is a diss and a book is a book. I’m sorry if these seems overly pessimistic. And I haven’t yet worked out how I feel about these facts in relation to the embargo/no embargo issue. – TL

    • Tim – Thanks for your thoughts on this. Part of my hope here was to get us to think about what dissertation advisers should be doing on their end. This may be overly optimistic but particularly given the job market and the ways that humanities professors tend to be treated by administrators, I think it’s something we need to consider as a long term problem in graduating PhDs.

  7. A few thoughts:

    1. My advisors’ advice was that the diss was a “first draft of the book.” This seems to me to pull together two sides of the issue I see in this post and its comments. This view was that you should frame the diss as contributing to the field of knowledge (not as a step to degree), and you should be writing it as compellingly as you can (they never got this specific but I don’t think there’s ever a reason to intentionally restrict audience to only a handful of people, such as by not defining key terms). But, at the same time, they acknowledged that a project of this scale, taken on for the first time, can satisfy Ph.D. requirements (i.e., quality and depth of research; engagement with and mastery of historiography; significant contribution to knowledge; at least competent handling of book-length scale) before it is ready for publication (which I understand as adding: better than competent handling of scale; engagement with historiography without bothering about showing mastery; hopefully better writing after that many more rounds of editing; and most importantly, a thoroughly re-visioned and honed argument that results from peer review, professional editing, and just more time and experience). Many monographs written as second or third books have taken 10 years from conception to publication (those that haven’t sometimes show signs of hastiness), so I don’t see 3 prospectus + write-up years in grad school plus 4-6 years after graduation (much of which are occupied with teaching) as a crazy amount of time to develop a richly argued monograph.

    2. I suspect part of Rachel’s experience that might make it not quite the norm — besides skill and perhaps some luck — is that her field is American History. As American historians, a wider audience is simply easier to access and to address than it is for someone writing on, say, gender in early 19th-century Russia. Let alone any non-Anglo-European field. In other words, I imagine that even my diss (which I do now find embarrassing) would have found a small but respectable and interested audience in Russia without revision, but to publish it here I significantly revised for a student / non-Russianist audience (goals that were irrelevant to my dissertation committee in deciding whether my work merited a Ph.D.). I might have done that work before graduating, but it would only have delayed my graduation – it would not change time to publication (since it was material added to the diss, not re-written exactly).

    3. Is it so terrible if our monographs are read by only a handful of people? I recognize that it *can* be terrible from a publisher’s POV if sums have been invested in editing and printing. It may make us all sad when we spend a decade of our lives on something many of our friends don’t really want to read. But the first purpose of a scholarly monograph is to further knowledge. Knowledge builds on the scaffolding of previous work, and sometimes to push forward we must cling to rather dizzying series of previously developed terms and premises. Naturally, this would be hard to follow except by spending years immersing oneself in the literature, as scholars do. But should we all write only synthetic narratives that summarize the latest research in ways anyone could follow? I would posit that we *couldn’t* because there’d be no “latest research” to synthesize. We need to talk amongst ourselves to a degree in order to generate the new insights that eventually are joined together into larger narratives. I’m overstating the difference: naturally a diss/monograph aims to take original research and link it up with the larger narrative, and in theory that could always be done in an accessible way (I know I tried mightily to do that). But in *practice* I’m not sure that’s always possible or desirable, especially in very theory-driven fields. And it’s likely to be less so also in less-studied fields (we have less of a master narrative to attach ourselves to, and to assume our readers may be familiar with), and in less familiar fields for English-language readers (where every name and term we may use is totally new to almost every reader – this is a considerable writing challenge. You can meet it, but that may be at the cost of fully engaging with specialist conversations, at least in a book of limited length). Think also of organization: amongst ourselves, we usually prefer chapter organization, for example, to be argument-driven. Yet a general reader may prefer chronological or thematic organization. Often both can be done at once, but sometimes one makes the other harder to follow, and vice-versa. If you compare dissertations to their books, you’ll often see an argument-driven organization (really needed for committees, who want to take that argument apart with a fine-toothed comb) superseded by a more general-reader-friendly organization that makes the argument less prominent, sometimes shuttled almost entirely to the introduction/conclusion!

    4. Let’s imagine a fully digitized world in which many of the practical obstacles we’re discussing are overcome. Maybe the insider explorations of state-of-the-archives research ought to take place in dissertations and OA journals, while printed monographs / e-books (for general sale, one hopes at reasonable prices) would be for synthetic narratives aimed at general audiences, not the awkward hybrid monograph of today. A junior scholar might achieve tenure based on articles (developing upon the diss or branching from it or jumping to new research), and promotion to full after a general-audience monograph. This is a model I find appealing for its seeming clarity, but I’d have to point out that my own diss was a microhistory that could not really be developed in separate articles without incoherence. So, awkward hybrid monograph it became.

  8. Also, a possibly interesting analogy occurs to me:

    Look at scientific research publications vs. popular science. I can’t really comprehend more than the abstract of a scientific paper, as a rule, but there’s a great deal of beautifully written and accessible science writing that synthesizes up-to-date research for the public (there’s also a lot of crap, but that’s beside the point right now).

    Sure, historians are lucky in that our terms are generally easier to swallow compared to hard science research. But maybe that’s part of the problem – we and the general public assume we’re easier to understand than we really are?

    Often popular science writers are not active research scientists, but I don’t think that distinction would be necessary in history. What do people think of simply writing some work for insiders, other work for the world, rather than trying to accomplish both goals in each work? Is that clearer than my ramble above?

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