Dr. Bruce J. Hunt, History Department
I'm a historian and my advice will mostly apply to people in the humanities and some of the social sciences. History is a "book field" in which the quality of a student's dissertation carries great weight; it is also a field in which even the best students often take a long time to finish. Balancing the desire to "get it right" with the necessity to "get it done" is one of the main challenges in writing a dissertation in such a field.
- Choose your topic and your supervisor
together. It won't do much good
to pick a topic, however fascinating,
that no one in your department can help
direct; conversely, you shouldn't
pick a topic that doesn't really
appeal to you just because it fits with
a professor's other work. The topic
of your dissertation and your choice of
supervisor will identify you in your field
for at least the first few years after
you finish, and very likely for much of
your career; choose them carefully.
- Pick a supervisor you are comfortable
working with. You will obviously need
someone who knows your subject, and it
helps to have a supervisor who is well
connected in the field, but a good working
relationship is even more important. You
have no doubt noticed by now that not
all great scholars are great teachers
or great supervisors. Ask around among
your fellow students, size up the faculty
in your department, and then settle on
who you think can best serve your needs.
Note that this doesn't always mean
finding someone who is a "nice guy."
Depending on your own work habits and
personality, you may be better off picking
someone who is a bit of a taskmaster.
If no one professor seems to fit the bill,
consider having co-supervisors.
- Faculty sometimes move. Have
a "Plan B" so that if your supervisor
leaves the university you will be able
to switch to someone else with a minimum
of trouble and delay. This is another
good reason to consider having co-supervisors.
- Besides scouting out a prospective
supervisor (or two), make contact with
other faculty early on and begin to assemble
a prospective doctoral committee well
before you apply for candidacy. Keep
in close touch with your supervisor and
give the rest of your committee regular
updates on your progress. This is by far
the best way to avoid unpleasant surprises
at your defense.
- Practice talking about your work
to non-specialists. In the History
Department, we run a "dissertation
colloquium" in which students about
to enter candidacy discuss their projects
with other students at a similar stage
and then publicly present their dissertation
proposals. This helps give students a
fresh perspective on their work and practice
in talking to others about what they are
doing. When you go on the job market,
you will need to be able talk about your
work in a way that is both impressive
to specialists and engaging to non-specialists
-- and remember that most of the people
who may be involved in hiring you will
know little about your specific area.
You should be able to talk about your
work at a variety of lengths and levels
-- a sentence, a paragraph, and a
page that will make clear why what you
do is interesting and important.
- Strive to produce a solid contribution to scholarship, but remember that your dissertation is the first installment in your scholarly career, not the final word. Get the dissertation done, and then plan on exploring the topic further in "the book" or in later publications.