If the title of this post sounds a bit confrontational, that’s because it’s meant to be. The first question every graduate student should ask herself before beginning the dissertation is, “Why am I doing this?” If she hasn’t considered the answer, it’s time to.
As a dissertation editor, it helps me help you with your writing if I know why you’re writing in the first place. And if your answer to this question is, “I’m writing because I need to write a dissertation to graduate,” that’s fine. But when you’re at your most tired, aggravated, stressed out, and frustrated, this isn’t the reason that’s going to keep you motivated (unless you just really love donning academic robes in sweltering summer heat). You’re going to need more to fuel your fire.
There are a number of secondary reasons that people write dissertations. So if you haven’t thought about why you’re writing yours, consider whether any of these reasons strike a chord with you.
1) “I’m writing a dissertation because I want to get a job in academia.”
This is one of the most common reasons for writing a dissertation. The logical conclusion of many PhD programs, especially those in the humanities, is a tenure-track job. Perils of the job market aside, this is a pretty good reason to write a dissertation. You want your dissertation to show off your skills as a researcher and writer and also to make you legible on the market. Tailoring your dissertation for the market can be a gamble, but it’s better than not thinking about the market at all when you decide what to write about. When the going gets tough, remember that you’re doing everything you can to secure a career you love.
2) “I’m writing a dissertation to show employers that I have the necessary skills for the job.”
Many people enter PhD programs with the goal of eventually working in the private sector. Private sector employers look for somewhat different qualities in a dissertation than do university departments. For example, you might be doing research on a particular chemical reaction that has applications in the pharmaceutical industry. Or maybe you’re doing ethnographic research that you hope will land you a job at a non-profit. If you’re writing for a specific type of job, talk to people who have similar careers. Make sure that what you’re doing is effective and efficient, and take steps to learn everything you can about what your dream job requires. This will give you the drive and focus you need to keep working.
3) “I’m writing a dissertation in order to begin a larger project.”
Some people see their dissertations as a launch pad for a larger goal. Perhaps you hope to expand your dissertation into a publishable book, or submit your findings to a governmental agency. In that case, your motivation is to lay the groundwork for what you hope to do later in life. You can think of the dissertation as a way to practice skills you will need beyond graduate school.
4) “I’m writing a dissertation to finish what I’ve started.”
Sometimes you don’t know what your professional future holds when you begin writing the dissertation. Sometimes it’s less about a specific end goal and more about the feeling of accomplishment you’ll get from finishing such an arduous task. The advantage of writing for this reason is that the dissertation becomes its own reward: finishing it is all you need to feel fulfilled. Unfortunately, most of us also need to find gainful employment. But divorcing the dissertation from a specific career goal can keep you from getting distracted by inevitable worries and anxieties about the future.
5) “I’m writing a dissertation because I think my topic is interesting and important.”
This is arguably the best reason for writing a dissertation. You have an idea, or a burning question, and you just have to explore it. The most successful dissertations are typically those in which the author is highly invested. For that reason, it’s crucial that you choose a topic that will keep you engaged for a year or more. A high degree of engagement will lead to better results, which is likely to lead to more opportunities post-dissertation. If you find yourself discouraged, remember what you set out to do in the first place.
Having a clear sense of why you’re writing will help you push through the difficult times. It will also help others to help you, whether you hire a dissertation editor to help you with organization and flow or ask your committee for feedback on a chapter. Making it clear to others and to yourself what you hope to get out of the dissertation also forces you to confront your future and your ultimate life goals. It can be a scary process, but ultimately it will make you a stronger thinker and writer.