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September 12, 2012 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Planning a Dissertation: Articles or Book?

Here’s a question from a friend:

Just had an interesting conversation w/ my advisors where they gave me the option of writing 2 articles instead of a long dissertation. I would love to know your thoughts on this esp. since at some pt., like you, I’d like to write a book. Had a conversation w/ an editor at UofM Press and he said the book chapters look totally different than the dissertation chapters–everything gets rewritten/reorganized anyway. Thoughts?

I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few years. I really tried to write my dissertation as a book manuscript, in part because my committee suggested that I approach it that way. I think it largely worked out, but the version I submitted as a dissertation and the one that’s finally being published as The Slumbering Masses are wildly different things. So I’m not sure that it needs to be as book-like as it was; and, in reality, it wasn’t very book like at all (since it had to be rewritten). I ended up having to do a lot of work to get it into an actual book manuscript, as I’ve talked about elsewhere; if I had just planned everything as articles and then revised them all into a book, it would have been as much or less work. It definitely wouldn’t have been more work…

I’ve mentioned before that one of the first things you should do with your dissertation is prepare a couple chapters for publication as articles. Approaching your dissertation as a set of articles really makes a lot of sense — it saves you from having to convert something from a chapter to an article, only to have to convert it to a chapter again later for the book. Instead, you just have the one article to chapter conversion (with eventual revisions). So writing a dissertation as articles can really save you a lot of time, and it can get you on the professionalization fast track. (I should also mention here that one of my chapters was written as an article that later appeared in Body & Society — it was the first thing I wrote and it took as long to appear in print as it did for me to finish the rest of the dissertation.)

Part of your thinking about this should really be shaped by the academic publishing market. Right now, due to state budget shortfalls, many university presses have cut back in their publishing plans, so they aren’t accepting as many books for publication. Meanwhile, there are more and more journals all the time, and they’re looking for content. So aiming for publishing a few articles while or shortly after dissertating makes tons of sense. And planning the whole dissertation as articles to be sent out for review is also really sensible. That being said, not all committees are up for it, and so it’s up to them as to what they’ll accept as a dissertation. A book will only be made better by publishing some articles and getting the feedback of people beyond your committee and immediate peers anyway…

The biggest thing to consider about what your dissertation should look like is this: what will you need to get tenure at the kind of institution you want to be at? The grim reality of being on the tenure track — or adjuncting while you wait for the tenure track — is that there isn’t a lot of time to conduct new research and to fabricate whole new pieces of writing. If you’re having a hard time writing even a couple articles as a graduate student, when your schedule is relatively free (although it might not feel that way), pursuing a tenure track job where the demands will be much greater is something you really need to consider. In addition to getting stuff published, there’s teaching, meetings, advising, and developing a new research project, which may include significant amounts of grant writing.

A dissertation should really provide you with a rough draft of everything you need for the next six or more years; it will be your archive for the foreseeable future. If 2 articles is enough to get tenure in your discipline and at the kind of institution you want to be at (and these are primarily liberal arts or second and third tier research universities), then that’s a sufficient dissertation; if you see yourself at a tier one research university, plan on many more articles plus, possibly, a book manuscript. If you write a short dissertation — only a couple articles — being on the tenure track might prove to be very stressful.

There’s a lot to think about in planning a dissertation, and building a significant archive of written material is the most important thing of all. So maybe not 2 articles, but maybe 6-8…

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