Hacking the ABD Life: Part 1 — “Good” Means “Good Enough”

ABD—”All But Dissertation.” This label has a distinctly demoralizing drum to it, especially as a designation for someone—the Ph.D. candidate—who has accomplished so much, usually comparatively early in life.

Of course, writing a doctoral dissertation is a huge undertaking in its own right. And it can make or break a Ph.D. candidate’s academic career. There are two main challenges. The first is as much psychological as it is anything else. You have to have “internal fortitude,” the ability to take small steps toward the completion of a big project, to manage hurdles and set-backs, and to survive the comparative loneliness of the process.

Second, you have to impress your dissertation committee with the quality of the finished product and with your prospects as a scholar. So the work has to be good. This, obviously, relates closely to the first main challenge.

Let me repeat the best advice I received while writing my Ph.D. dissertation: “Think of your dissertation as the last paper you write during your formal education, and keep in mind that it really doesn’t have to be longer than a hundred pages.” It didn’t hurt that this counsel came from a member of my dissertation committee.

The suggestion about length is probably situation-specific. It would be wise to consult with your committee about appropriate length. And “consultation” is the key word here. You should be able to share your own ideas about appropriate length, given your topic and the way you plan to organize your material. It is generally believed that the best dissertation topic is a narrowly focused topic. It would stand to reason that in many cases narrower focus translates into fewer total pages. There’s a saying, “Don’t beat a dead horse.” There’s another saying, “If the horse is dead, dismount.” The goal shouldn’t be to come up with a topic that will require X number of pages, but to come up with a topic that makes a worthy contribution to the field and establishes the author as a capable scholar, regardless of word count.

The more general principle in my advisor’s comment is that the dissertation isn’t a book. It’s not even a published paper. I caution against approaching your dissertation as if you were writing a book manuscript that will be ready to submit to one of the top academic presses. Your dissertation committee is large enough with the three to five people that play that official role. No point trying to write for the vague target audience for a book on the same topic. Save that for later.

Let me put it this way. You’ve got three people on your committee. Maybe one of them knows quite a lot about your topic. The other two are conversant. Are there others in the discipline who have go-to expertise on your topic? Probably so. Will they be in the room during your dissertation defense? Probably not. So you can forget about them.

Your work has to be good. I said that before. But how good does it have to be? Answer: good enough (lower-case “g”). So estimate how good that is and make that your goal. And I do mean estimate. Don’t calculate. Members of your committee have responsibilities. They should be able to advise you about what their expectations are. No one else’s opinion really counts, especially if they don’t see the work before the defense. (That includes the expert on another continent, and it includes your doting grandmother and admiring spouse—if you happen to be married.)

If you’re ABD, let me know your thoughts. If you’re on a dissertation committee for someone who is ABD, your comments would be especially valuable.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

3 Responses to Hacking the ABD Life: Part 1 — “Good” Means “Good Enough”

  1. Nate says:

    Thanks, Doug, for this helpful reply!

    Like

  2. douggeivett says:

    Nate,

    I’ve always suspected that academic books have more readers than journal articles. I should think it a bad bet to publish a book that would have fewer readers than the average journal article in, say, philosophy. Does anybody have statistics for the number of readers of the average journal article in philosophy within the first year of its publication?

    I agree with the advice, on the following condition: that you think of your dissertation as something to be published in one form or another. But that still adds a layer of challenge to completing the dissertation, and it has to be weighed against simply finishing, with quality work that satisfies a research committee.

    Of course, Dr. Neophyte may naturally write at a level and with a degree of creativity suited to published journal articles. If that’s the case, there’s no point in producing anything less for dissertation work.

    There are far too many books being published these days. Only a few have much impact. But I think that a book by a “young punk,” which may have been scrutinized more carefully by a publisher, has as good a chance of being read as the average book produced by the top one hundred “seasoned philosophers.”

    What is it they say? “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”? If Dr. Neophyte gets a book contract from a reputable publisher before publishing journal articles, I’d say go ahead with the book contract. Books have a permanence that articles don’t have. Books are also bound to receive more critical attention (in reviews, for example) than journal articles. This could lead to opportunities to write articles that address criticisms.

    The younger scholar may worry that his creativity will dry up once the dissertation is done. That’s a natural concern. But I don’t buy it.

    I think you’re right about the kind of dissertation that has a realistic chance of being published as a monograph. If chapters of the dissertation work well on their own, then, by all means, send them out for review with journals. But I reiterate: the value of being published should be weighed in relation to knocking out the dissertation in timely fashion. Your dissertation advisers may be advising you to write at journal quality. That’s not unusual. But what counts as journal quality? One article may be turned down by any number of journals, only to be picked up with real enthusiasm by another of equal or greater stature.

    This brings us to your closing question: How do you decide where to send an article intended for publication in a journal?

    At the very least, go for the real journals—that is, the ones that abide by a blind review policy. Second, pick journals with a track record of publishing the kind of thing you’re submitting. “Kind of thing” includes both topic (or content) and style. Third, write for the journal that most closely approximates, in style and objectives, the sort of thing you’re writing.

    This last point is significant. Let’s take my field, philosophy, as an example. The Review of Metaphysics and the Journal for Philosophy and Phenomenological Research are both high-end journals. You’d be blessed to be published in either one.

    At its website, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research announces that “no specific methodology or philosophical orientation is required for submissions.” This is no doubt true. The site for The Review of Metaphysics describes its journal in much the same way: “Not associated with any school or group, not the organ of any association or institution, it is interested in persistent, resolute inquiries into root questions, regardless of the writers affiliation.” But scrutinize sample copies of both journals side-by-side and you’ll almost certainly notice differences. Essays in The Review of Metaphysics tend, in my judgment, to be more florid and essays in PPR more closely argued and dense.

    A paper submission has a greater chance of being approved for publication if its style, as well as its choice of topic and method of development, conform to the admittedly vague standards reflected in what tends to be published by a particular journal.

    Here are two additional criteria. How long does it take editors at journals to get final decisions to would-be contributors about papers that have been submitted? And how long before a paper that has been accepted sees the light of day in an actual issue of the journal? These things vary from journal to journal. A managing editor should be able to answer questions of this sort, and may even be willing to.

    Like

  3. Nate says:

    Lots of helpful advice here–thanks! An additional piece of advice I have received is to think of one’s dissertation chapters in terms of prospective journal articles (as opposed to thinking of one’s whole dissertation as a prospective book).

    This seems like good advice. It can be difficult for a young scholar to secure a contract with a good book publishing company (there are, of course, exceptions). And even if one has the good fortune of securing such a contract, there remains the real question whether this is the best way to disseminate one’s work. The book publishing industry is booming, with the result that there’s already a great deal of material to keep up with. This means that books written by young punks must compete with those written by seasoned professionals. Given the plausible assumption that the majority of readers will opt for books written by veterans, it can be quite difficult for, say, Dr. Neophyte’s book to make a large impact. By way of contrast, a small handful of articles published in good journals can help even a newbie enjoy a relatively sizable readership. (Here I assume that more people are willing to read Dr. Neophyte’s articles than are willing to read his books.)

    By my lights, all of this points toward a default policy of trying to write journal articles as one writes dissertation chapters. I’m sure that there are exceptions to the rule–e.g., when the dissertation is very cohesive and exhibits a high degree of originality. But suppose that the default policy is correct. In that case the question arises, How should one determine where to send one’s work?

    Like

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