Dissertation Tips

Karl W. ButzerKarl W. Butzer, Dickson Centennial Professor of Liberal Arts

I don't have any special points to make on the basic procedures of dissertation writing, but I do have some notions about writing a good dissertation. Two of my Ph.D.'s have received UT best dissertation awards in section A, and I have served on that university committee twice.

My ideas can be summarized as follows:

1. The choice of dissertation supervisor. Ideally someone who nurtures the student's ideas, rather than his/her own; someone who is willing to take the time to work with the student; someone who is interested in ideas more than playing the role of a taskmaster. Don't pick someone solely because he/she has a national reputation, or even worse, because he/she is 'easy'. A good dissertation commonly takes years, and afterwards the supervisor must write countless letters; so be sure that the 'chemistry' is right, and also that the supervisor can be relied on to help in placement.

2. The choice of a committee. At least one of the intradepartmental members should have an interest in the dissertation topic or in your education, and be sure to develop a productive relationship with that committee member. That does not mean sporadic, impromptu demands on that professor's time: a relationship is a two-way street that involves consulting and discussion, after taking some coursework to allow you to understand his/her viewpoints and methods. It also implies presenting a reasonably finalized draft at least two months prior to any scheduled defense. Suggestions offered for revision should be taken seriously, even when you disagree on something. Disagreement can and should lead to productive results, not hostility. If at all possible, the outside reader should be chosen according to similar criteria, and treated in a similar manner; and there are obvious advantages to selecting someone on-campus rather than out-of-town. Remember that most committee members will need to write letters for you for years after the degree is awarded.

3. A real introduction. A dissertation should not be written only to address the interests of a narrowly-defined, subdisciplinary constituency. The first half or so of the first chapter should be intelligible to faculty in at least several departments. That can be done by explaining the issues to be addressed and why they are interesting or important, using a minimum of jargon (or plays on words). That is beneficial to the dissertation, it generates interest for other committee members, it helps greatly in subsequent placement, and more often than not it is critical for publication as a book. That should all be obvious, but most students wear blinders in their subdisciplinary introspection. Half of the dissertations recommended by departments for a University Dissertation Award don't make the first cut because the writer has failed to articulate his/her intellectual quest.

4. A real conclusion. A dissertation in the social sciences or humanities should consist of more than a set of chapters, terminated by a summary labeled as 'Conclusions'. That happens all too easily, because people do run out of steam. All too many dissertations fall flat at the end. After a three-week break, you should rewrite your concluding chapter from scratch, making sure that it integrates all of the threads developed in the various chapters, and focuses them on the 'thesis' being presented and defended. The concluding chapter should represent the cumulative body of insights that you have touched on or dealt with in depth. This is the best opportunity to articulate, develop, and expand on ideas, to discuss what it may mean, and what one might attempt to follow up, in order to achieve greater understanding in the future. Keep in mind that this is the best occasion to identify who you are and what you have to offer.

5. Reformulating your introduction. Finally, after completing that really good concluding discussion, go back and rewrite the introduction, because by now you can do it much better and focus it more strongly.