Getting a Head Start on Your Dissertation

Teaching

Your first year or two of graduate school will probably have you teaching. You’ll love it!

  • People you don’t know thinking you’re smart.
  • Establishing authority.
  • Setting the Rules.

Welcome to the other side of the podium, baby!

For a semester or two you may be a teaching assistant and not have much control over course content.

But after that, most research universities (where you’re getting your Ph.D.) will have you teaching stand alone-classes.

A lot of them.

If that is the case, design your courses (if it is possible to do so) around featuring some area of interest that could be possible dissertation topics.

This will sound weird, but you can bounce ideas off of nineteen year olds, who will be only too willing to tell you what they really think. If your ideas are full of it, you’ll know quickly.

Trust me!  Non specialists often can tell you when the emperor has no clothes.

Coursework

While most seminars do have agendas, generally you can sneak your ideas into your papers while nobody’s looking.

Do it!

On the coursework front, try to make every seminar paper you write directly related to your dissertation topic.   What’s really cool about graduate school in the last twenty years is a little concept called interdisciplinary.

All this word means is that you take classes in field outside of your own.

  • It’s exciting.
  • It’s fun.
  • It gets you out of your own intellectual neighborhood.

If you’re a historian, take a class in history of science.

Or hell, take one in psychology or physics. (You’ve read C.P. Snow. The two cultures aren’t as far apart as you think they are.)

Then, with the instructor’s permission, write about a portion of what you think your dissertation will be about from the perspective of that discipline.

Your mind will be blown, and you’ll come back to your own field with a new head on your shoulders.

Conferences

Get the hell out of Dodge.

There will come a point when you will want to get away from campus and from your annoying (I mean wonderful, of course) classmates and instructors.

What do you do?

Go to a conference and present!

One of the very cool things about the academic world is that there is a group somewhere doing exactly what you to do.

Find them, Join them. Go to Them.

They’ll love you.

Imagine fifty or sixty or five hundred people who all share your intellectual interest.

If they have a society, pay the membership dues, hop an airplane, share a hotel room with someone (preferably someone you like a whole lot) and present on that topic that you taught so well or that you did a crackerjack job on in seminar.

Your conference work will give you several benefits:

  • First…you’ll get feedback from big names in the field.
  • Second… (if you’re friendly), you’ll party in the hotel lounge with big names in the field.  This is key because some of these people may well agree to sit on your committee. And if course, if they really like you….well, let’s just say, lots of fun things happen at those conferences…. “Oh, Dr, Jones, your articles are so attractive.”
  • Third… you’ll get glowing letters from the big names in your field. This may be key to getting a job.
  • Fourth…you might meet a good dissertation editor who can help you in the future!