Dr. Bruce J. Hunt, History Department

Bruce Hunt

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.