Saturday, January 10, 2009

When dissertation directors have too much power

Sorry for the long silence. Crazy holiday travel schedule + frantically getting ready for the semester + stupidly becoming addicted to TimeWasteBook = a blogger's absence.

Anyway, I'm back in Rust Belt, enjoying the peace and quiet caused by a snowy weekend before the semester begins. So while Bullock makes us a new TV/Entertainment stand in his workshop, I'm catching up with all things electronic. Heck, even Pippi's quiet and mellow. She's dozing on the window seat that Bullock made for, occasionally looking up to watch the snow fall. Soon we'll be out there shoveling again, but for now I have time to write a SUBSTANTIVE post. Really!

So while I was at MLA, having a good time on my part since I was neither being interviewed nor giving a paper, I was also feeling great sympathy for all those people on the market -- including the 14 we were interviewing -- and picking up on the crazy-stress vibe in the main conference hotels. (Btw, do you ever get the feeling that *everyone* is staring at you when you walk into those lobbies? Maybe they are, since everyone is looking for the people they're meeting, but it makes me feel really weird.) I was also hearing everyone's stories -- successes, disappointments, frustrations, and triumphs -- as well as the stories they'd heard. And one of those is what inspired the title of this post.

A friend and I were talking about whether our respective hiring committees were afraid of ABDs not finishing in time, and if we tended to prefer people with the PhD in hand or a set defense date, or whatever. And that brought up a story of a friend of this friend, whose dissertation director wouldn't let the person file his dissertation, year after year, for about three years running. And so the person kept going out on the market as an ABD and not getting many bites and not getting a job. When the director finally let the person file, he got an embarrassment of riches in the interview department, more than one campus visit, and a job. (There were, of course, a couple of articles published in there, too.)

According to my friend -- or according to her friend, the one who was prevented from filing -- the reason the director wouldn't let his student file wasn't because the diss wasn't finished or wasn't good enough to be a diss. Rather, it was because it wasn't good enough to be a book. He thought he was doing his student a favor, getting him to shape it into a book while still a student, rather than once the tenure clock started running. I have to say that when I was a grad student, I kind of thought that way, too, and so did some of my friends, especially those of us who had one or more years of dissertation fellowship. But now I think that's messed up.

Here's why. A graduate student on fellowship or working an assistantship makes peanuts. An assistant professor, even at the most poorly paying school, makes a lot more. But it's not just about a couple of years of higher salary. A graduate student making peanuts isn't paying off her credit card bills; she's accruing interest on them. A graduate student isn't contributing to her retirement account, and so is not only losing that year's contributions, but also the earnings it accrues (okay, okay, let's leave aside the tens of thousands of dollars my TIAA-CREF account lost this particular year). Add just those two things together and the financial difference is exponentially greater than just the amount of salary difference. Then there's the fact that if you're a professor getting any kind of raise or merit pay or cost of living adjustment -- or even summer school pay -- it's likely based on your base pay. A graduate student is losing out on years of having that base pay and having it increase each year. The graduate student is likely also not saving for a down-payment on a house, saving for her kid's college fund, or, for that matter, saving at all. Such investments and savings also (ideally) accrue value over time (again, let's leave aside the current financial and real estate markets for the moment).

But it's not just about money. There's social and professional status and general self respect involved, too. I can't begin to explain what a difference it made to my sense of authority in the classroom just to be a lecturer with a Ph.D. versus a grad student in my own grad program. Faculty treated me differently -- I got invited to the secret faculty party! -- and so did the students. Teaching upper division courses rather than lower div ones also went a long way to making me feel like I had some real expertise and authority in my subject. And even before I got the tenure track job, my family felt like they could stop worrying about me for once -- I was finally no longer a student. It even influenced my personal life; you get a better reaction from strangers when you say "I teach at such and such a place" than you do when you say "I'm a Ph.D. student at such and such a place."

And there's still more that's problematic about the dissertation director who expects a finished book rather than a dissertation, and its a problem that affects more than his individual student. First of all, a circumstance like this is an abuse of power. While it's different in degree from the spouse who won't let his partner have her own life, it's not that different in kind. And the student in such cases likely acts like the abused spoused: she internalizes the "it's for your own good" justification; she can't bring herself to leave and start all over again (whether that means something as drastic as leaving academia or just switching advisors); and she probably tells herself that she's partly/mostly to blame - if only she'd just write a better book. I've seen people who had such directors still have doubts about themselves and their work years later and it affects their productivity.

But more troubling -- or perhaps just troubling on a greater scale -- is the impact such expectations have on the discipline and academia in general. If dissertaton directors keep expecting more of the dissertation, hiring committees can expect more of applicants -- perhaps a book contract from an ABD. And if hiring committees are expecting more, T&P committees will expect yet more -- it's two books for tenure at some places now. It's utter madness. I know some of the directors doing this are probably justifying by thinking that they're only preparing their charges for these increasing expectations. But isn't it a mutually supporting system? If those of us on hiring committees see these superhuman grad students with book deals, aren't we going to expect more of our applicants, consciously or unconsciously? So it doesn't stop only with those of us on that end of things -- the dissertation directors have to stop having such high expectations, too. I don't think a dissertation that's just a dissertation and one article is too much to ask of a student, or too little to make them look ready for the profession (and, in fact, I think the craft of the journal article is one that needs to be taught more explicitly in graduate school -- but that's a post for another day). But keeping your student from graduating because his dissertation isn't yet a book is damaging to both the student and the profession.

Let me close with two quick case studies. One is me. The other is someone who graduated from college at the same time I did -- indeed, from the very same college. I took three years off from school before going back for the Ph.D., and she went straight to grad school, so you'd think that this other person and I would be about 3 years apart in our "academic age," wouldn't you? But no, I just got tenure last year and she's a full professor now. I think she may even have an endowed chair. Of course, there are a lot of differences between the two of us that accounts for part of this (for one, she's a workaholic, which she herself admits). But a big chunk of that difference is that she actually finished the Ph.D. in 5 years -- even doing field work for part of it -- because she had a director who thought of a dissertation as a dissertation. My once-peer wrote a 150 page dissertation (in a "wordy" field - not a math or hard science). I wrote a 450 page behemoth for a director who didn't exactly expect a finished book -- and certainly didn't keep me from graduating (I did a lot of that myself) -- but did have pretty high expectations, and often referred to the thing as a book. Though to be fair, he often said things like "this is something you'll want to think about more when you turn this into a book." So I didn't have the kind of director I'm troubled by in this post. But I also didn't have the kind that my one time peer did. And I think that's made a lot of difference in our career and life trajectories.

The profession as a whole -- and especially those fields where we write books -- needs actively to rethink what we expect of Ph.D. students, because the state of the market right now and in the future is likely to drive us all into more insane expectations if we don't start setting some reasonable limits now.


medievalkarl said...

Thanks for this: great post, and I agree w/ it wholeheartedly.

Bardiac said...


Anonymous said...

wow. the story of my life. except I'm still not done yet.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right for the most part, but...

What about the years of adjuncting for the looks-a-lot-like-all-the-other-candidates new PhD?

In some cases, grad/doctoral stipends actually pay more than adjunct teaching. Plus, after you finish that PhD, you've got to start paying on your loans. Then, how do you publish while you're commuting all over creation just to pick up classes at 5 schools?

(Still, it should be the candidate's decision.)

Oh, and if the MLA is anything like the CAA (College Art Association), everyone IS staring at you - they need time to count the ways in which they're superior to you. Unless of course, they do know you. Then it's mostly about where you're drinking later.

Anonymous said...

To me, it sounds as if your advisor was in the right place. I personally am glad that I did not write a 150-page dissertation -- I don't think that would have prepared me adequately for the kind of books I like to write. (And of course, this varies by field and by individual> 150 pages may have been appropriate for your college friend as, say, an anthropologist, if not for me as an historian.) I also think that one should take heed of the tenure clock issue: the candidate does need to have enough of a start on some major research and writing, such that s/he can publish a monograph in six years; it's not doing the student any favors to send him or her out to a job, with all it's additional demands, with a diss. that's miles away from being a book ms. (Though, come to think of it, I ended up using very little of my diss., but it was my choice -- and in any event, writing a 450-page diss. allowed me, in the long run, to figure out what I really wanted to say.)

On the other hand, demanding that the dissertation be a publishable book -- e.g., a final draft rather than a first foray -- seems unduly controlling. The critiques you level, particularly as regards the systemic inflation of expectations throughout the academic career ladder, make perfect sense.

Dr. Virago said...

Meteechart -- Point very well taken. I clearly wasn't taking adjuncting -- especially of the freeway flyer variety -- into account. But I wonder if the adjunctification of the professoriate isn't part of the cycle that's keeping us all in graduate school longer, which makes us as exploitable (if a little more expensive) as an adjunct. You're right, though, that on the financial end of things, remaining a grad student might make more sense in the short run. Still, I'm glad I finished and got the adjunct lecturer job as I think it played a big part in getting the TT job.

Squadrato -- How about a happy medium of a 250 page diss? Or a book-in-progress that will ultimately have more chapters. Not every place one might land as an Asst. Prof. will require a book, nor will every discipline or field, and so maybe more emphasis on a document that is potentially on its way to a book, rather than being a book, is better for all -- with more explicit instruction in how to then turn it into a book (which no one gets now, to my knowledge).

Susan said...

Dr V, I'm totally with you on this, but I agree with Squadrato on the dissertation. My dissertation was about 350 pages, and it constituted a draft of a book. When I finished the draft, I could look at it and think about what the book would need. I did that as an assistant prof. And I think, really, that any project needs that. (What's really hard about the second book is that you don't have the dissertation to start from!)

But part of what you need to think about the book is distance from the dissertation, which is why in some ways I regret that insttead of landing a 4-4 teaching gig right out of grad school, so I wouldn't be able to think about my dissertation, I landed a nice post-doc. But I actually needed the time away, so didn't use it as well as I would have a year or two later.

Flavia said...

Another problem with the dissertation director who exerts too much influence and insists that the dissertation truly be a book (a problem that I think is implicit in both your post and in some of the comments here, but that may be worth mentioning separately), is the difficulty of knowing whether the diss director had too much role in shaping that book. Even if he or she didn't, the book (or "book") that one writes as even a very advanced grad student is still unlikely to be as substantial and complete a piece of scholarship as what can be produced over a longer period of time and from a more mature professional position.

I mean, I kinda hate the fact that I'm adding three entirely new chapters to the MS that began life as my disseration, and that that amounts to a complete reorientation of the project. I don't have any idea whether I can make it into a decent book. But good or bad, it'll be better than what I could have written if I'd stayed in grad school another three years--and more importantly, it'll be mine own.

Anonymous said...

This whole post has given me a lot to think about, so I hope you won't take it the wrong way if I completely focus on the aside:

I think the craft of the journal article is one that needs to be taught more explicitly in graduate school

Considering I still have no idea how to write one, and am trying to figure out how to cobble together some sort of understanding from the journal articles I read? YES PLEASE.

TheCrankyProfessor said...

Very interesting comments as well as a great original post!

I've heard that some departments are now setting page limits for the dissertation. That would help.

My advisor used to say things like "this had better not be your magnum opus if you expect to go on!" That was good advice, in its way.

meli said...

In the UK we're not allowed to go over (or much under) 300 pages. And if we take more than four years they kick us out.

Anonymous said...

One can't help but wonder what's in it for such directors. After too many years trying to figure out by trial and error how to write a diss, " the best interests of students" doesn't seem to work for me. I have a classmate whose advisor told her at their first meeting to draft chapters of no more than 35-pages. I nearly wept at the years I'd spent trying to work and rework behemoth chapters of twice that length. Had I only known that a diss chapter might be thought of as a fuller version of a seminar paper, snuggled between a few others, my life would have been quite different...and perhaps my advisor and I could then have emerged as fellow medievalist without us both groaning in memory of these painful years.

So I return to...what on earth motivates people to set such a torture device up? And don't say, they love their students too much to watch them struggle to turn the diss into a book! Trust me, nobody is loving me.

Anonymous said...

Great post! What constitutes an acceptable dissertation seems to vary wildly from school to school (perhaps even from director to director.) When ABD, I very humbly asked the department chair if there could be some kind of clarifying memo or handout created so that the students understood what was being asked of them since we were all spinning in panic after comparing dissertation meeting stories and realizing that everyone was being told something different... (yeah, we didn't get a memo).

Anonymous said...

If those of us on hiring committees see these superhuman grad students with book deals, aren't we going to expect more of our applicants, consciously or unconsciously? So it doesn't stop only with those of us on that end of things -- the dissertation directors have to stop having such high expectations, too.

I have to play Devil's Advocate here, late to the party as well, I apologise on both counts but: this is like market competition. Unless everyone raises their prices, or in this case, lowers their expectations, the one who did so first has a disproportionate advantage. There are such superhuman candidates out there; they will come first to the jobs. People who want jobs need to compete with them, in the UK possibly more than in the USA but I don't know. So while I agree that there is a mutually reinforcing process at work, I don't see as yet how you get out of it unilaterally. All that will mean is that the people whose advisors or supervisors don't push them so hard will be less hireable, surely.