Partly in response to Steve Saideman’s post today with advice on dissertation topics, and partly also in response to a pretty enthusiastic discussion of advice to graduate students on Twitter yesterday, I thought I’d write a few things about getting started on the path of researching a dissertation in a field as unwieldy (and a job market as uncertain) as IR.
Here is where my perspective comes from. I finished my dissertation in 2016 and got a job. I am preparing to have a publishable version of the book emerging from the dissertation ready to market to publishers in the next few months. I teach in a department that has a bachelor’s degree in political science, so I do not have graduate students of my own. So—my perspective comes as someone for whom the job market and dissertation process is fresh and who is still working with the research question I started with in 2013 (oh dear—time flies!).
Choosing a topic/approach: As the post by Steve pointed out, choosing a topic is likely the most substantive decision you will make in the time that you are a grad student—it will affect your career for years after you graduate. My advice is to work on a topic that you genuinely care about, and are will to spend that time mastering intellectually. Avoid fads.
There are good reasons for this: (a) it is hard to predict what intellectual trends will be in 3, 4, 5 years after you begin a project, and even harder to predict what these trends will look like in a decade; (b) be attuned to the methodological/theoretical norms of your area of study, but—at the same time—know that different research topics require different approaches, and often times being able to tell a compelling story in a rigorous way is how you will get people’s attention, get a job, and get published. Methodological fads are just as uncertain. (c) look at how others in your field are writing and researching their pieces, think about what’s effective in their approaches and how you can emulate that. You’ll notice that people who have long, successful, careers are good communicators and story-tellers: something that cuts across topics/approaches.
You WILL find an audience for your work. It may not be the audience you expected (it may not even be an audience from within IR), but good work finds readers.
Working with an adviser/committee: As I tweeted in what is now my most re-tweeted tweet (next most frequently retweeted is a picture of a chocolate chip cheesecake I made last week), choosing an adviser and a dissertation committee is also key to your success. A good adviser is someone who is willing to dedicate the time, energy, and effort to mentor you, who is genuinely interested in your project, and who will help you through the inevitably tough parts of your project. I was lucky in my adviser for this reason, even though for much of the dissertation project I made things more difficult than necessary by writing the bulk of it a few thousand miles away from my home institution in DC (thanks, Michael Barnett, for being a real trooper!).
The rest of the committee is important, too. You should have the following people on your committee (many times more than one category falls on the shoulders of one member): the Timekeeper (keeps you on track to steady completion); the Interlocutor (someone willing to chat with you for hours and hours about your work—pushing you in new directions); and the Friendly Adversary (someone who is from, perhaps, a different tradition, but is still excited by your project).
Write it as a book!: One piece of advice I don’t think I fully appreciated when I was in the dissertation process was the advice to write the manuscript as if it were a rough draft of a book manuscript. In my case, this lead to a lot of headache. In the dissertation defense, one of my committee members commented: “This is a passable dissertation, but I think you wrote the wrong dissertation!” meaning that what I produced was not what I wanted the book to be.
This is a hard step—mostly because when you write a dissertation, you are trying to please three (in my case five!) readers, who may have vastly different perspectives/approaches to the field. Books are different. Keeping the balance between writing the book you want to write, and passing your defense, is a difficult one—but is vital. I have found that the past two years of my life have involved fundamental “from scratch” redrafting of substantial pieces of the work to turn it into a book manuscript. A lot of time (and anguish) could have been saved if I had had different aims clearly in mind.
*For those who are doing “three paper” dissertations, this applies as well—write them like submission-worthy articles.
Keeping sight of the big picture: Above all, don’t lose sight of the reason that you decided to study IR. Think about the questions that have motivated you from the beginning, and the sorts of work that you have imagined yourself doing. For me personally, there is no job out there that could compensate me enough for doing work that I do not find intellectual stimulating, important, or interesting. Giving up that part of this crazy career is not at all what I signed up for.
I hope these notes are helpful for someone out there, in IR or beyond. Writing a dissertation in IR was an experience I don’t want to do over again, but I will say—I came out of it on the other side, and so will you. And, always feel free to contact me on twitter (@dstonetatum) if you want to chat more about IR dissertation-ing.