Some Advice on Writing Your Dissertation

Dan Drezner has written a compelling article on the reasons why and why not to pursue a graduate degree in IR. This article is a must read for anyone considering a PhD in the social sciences. Perhaps it’s sufficient for me to say that I didn’t know much about the completion rates of PhD students in the social sciences (about 41 percent finish within 7 years) when I decided to enter my program.

There are many “facts of (IR) life” that need to be explained to beginning graduate students–those regarding professional development, comprehensive exams, publishing, etc. But I don’t think I’m alone when I write that the biggest hurdle to finishing the degree is the dissertation.

What (meaningful) advice can I give graduate students about the dissertation stage? By no means am I an expert on the dissertation process, but listed here are a few things I wish I could have told myself early on.

1) Take all advice with a grain of salt

Many enterprising graduate students have already sought out advice from their professors and upperclassmen. The advice of your fellow students and teachers will be especially important in understanding the politics of your department, the money and opportunities available to you, and the personalities of your professors.

But, buyer beware. You are sure to get more than your fair share of contradictory or bizarre advice.

On pursuing publication: “If you try to publish too much, you won’t be able to finish your dissertation or coursework. You will delay your graduation and get bogged down.” But then again: “You have to publish to be competitive for grants and to get a job when you graduate. Thus, you have to pursue publication aggressively.”

On teaching: “It’s important to build up your teaching resume while a graduate student.” Others will tell you: “Teaching courses will devour your time and leave you with little time to do research.”

You are bound to get this kind of contradictory advice across a range of subjects from how to formulate your research question, how to approach your literature review, how to gather data, and so on. You know your situation better than anyone. Filter all advice with your own interests and career objectives in mind.

2) Consider not doing the dissertation

Let’s consider for a moment that the statistics are right: only 41 percent of IR PhDs finish in 7 years. Of that 41 percent, only a few dissertations go on to make a lasting impact on the field.

Perhaps, then, you need to seriously consider the alternatives. An important alternative to consider is simply quitting after you have received your master’s degree.

Here is a good exercise. Write down a list of 20 things that you could do with the next three to seven years of your life. Include such options as working abroad, starting your own business, doing a series of internships, learning a much-sought-after skill, or even writing a book outside of the framework of a graduate program. Then compare the options on this list to writing a dissertation.

How does your dissertation research stack up against your list? At the very least, doing this little thought exercise will give you extra motivation to make your dissertation as valuable as possible.

3) What got you here won’t get you there

I took this topic heading from the title of a famous business book (by Marshall Goldsmith). The title of the book sums up one of the major frustrations students experience when they transition from taking classes to managing a research project.

The most striking difference is that at this point there is a lot more uncertainty.

The best analogy for the change is probably the difference between being an employee and starting your own business. Whereas in the first role a premium is put on following rules, getting work done on time, and avoiding rocking the boat, in the second, you have to find your own opportunities, create unique value for others, and motivate others to work for you.

If your dissertation experience is anything like mine, you’ll always be motivating, convincing, and selling. You’ll have to motivate your committee to work for you, convince skeptics that your research is worth their time, and sell fellowships on the value of your project.

4) Understand a few key points from business and project management

Understanding a few key points from business and project management won’t hurt you. Many of these skills are about habit rather than intelligence. It’s simple things like remembering to write thank you notes to research participants, thanking your professors for writing recommendation letters even when you didn’t get the research grant you were after, and getting enough sleep and taking care of your body while you’re doing research.

A quick course in project management can help you understand some of the difficulties of managing a project. It will also help you understand where you are in the project and where the majority of your costs will occur. It will help you understand that it’s important to mitigate risks early and to consult extensively with your committee early in the research process. It will also help you figure out how to set benchmarks and measure progress.

McGraw Hill has a 36 hour course in Project Management. In reality, you won’t need to do the full 36 hours. The most important thing you will take from any project management course is that: one, completing new projects is hard; engaging all stakeholders is important; different stages of the project demand different types of mental energy; and that usually initial estimates for a project are too optimistic.

5) Pilot studies, pilot studies, and more pilot studies

Test your assumptions before devoting too much of your time up front. Pilot studies are a great way to do this. The more uncertainty you can eliminate up front, the better you and your committee will feel about your project.

The farther you get into your dissertation, the harder it will be to mitigate risks and change course. The farther you go, the more you and your committee will have to struggle with the psychological pressures of sunk costs.

I suggest using independent study courses before your comps examination to do these pilot studies. Convincing your professors to let you do an independent course for pilot research will also get you practice convincing your professors/ prospective committee members of the value of your project.

6) Think modular: the research proposal

In my opinion, the dissertation proposal stage is the best stage to mitigate risks. A good committee might make you linger a little bit longer in this stage in order to make sure you create a realistic proposal that will significantly add to the field. This is a great stage for you to also add a modular design to your research that allows you to track progress.

A modular approach, if done correctly, also helps mitigate against the risk that a single mishap will cause your research design to collapse.

Perhaps a modular approach might make your dissertation more clunky, and it reduces the chances that it will be a perfect symphony, the kind of work that comes out beautifully through an act of serendipity; but if done correctly, it will help you make steady progress and to save your project if one component completely breaks down.

7) Think modular: Can you prove your progress on a resume?

I think it’s also important to “think modular” to help your career.

What happens if you have to quit your graduate program midway into your dissertation? (Life happens and your decision to quit or postpone your degree may occur for reasons completely out of your hands).  What happens if your grant money doesn’t materialize and you need to look for a job?

It’s important both for your financial security and for your own sanity to find career milestones while you are finishing your dissertation.

Did you already receive a master’s degree on your way to getting to the dissertation stage? If not, complete the few extra courses you need to get it. What goals have you accomplished thus far? Did you successfully do your field research? Did you publish anything? Did you mentor any underclassmen? Can you learn a new skill, get a new credential, or improve your professional contacts? How would you demonstrate this accomplishment on a resume or in a job interview?

8) Consider using home field advantage

One thing I noticed only after I started doing my research was that most successful dissertations used some kind of home field advantage. One of my colleagues who was writing a dissertation in the field of Urban Geography chose to go home and apply what she had learned on changes in her hometown’s urban geography. Another colleague who had originally been keen to study Middle East politics eventually settled on applying novel theoretical approaches to her native country of Japan. After a while, I noticed that this pattern repeated itself across a number of dissertations.

Many dissertation projects involve introducing something new to the field. Home, whatever that means to you, can be your comparative advantage in a field where others have entrenched themselves as experts.

Only after I started doing my dissertation research did it occur to me that I could do a research project on Nagasaki, Japan’s anti-nuclear movement. I had lived in Nagasaki for three years and knew the city up and down. I also happened to be in an academic department with a strong geography and constructivist focus. One of the required courses in my degree had been “Space, Place, and Identity,” which had given me some background in Human and Political Geography. The topic should have screamed to me as something professors in my department would have been immediately enthusiastic about. None of this occurred to me until after I had already passed my dissertation proposal phase and was deep into my research project.

In some cases, your home field advantage might not be a place, but perhaps a skill or knowledge outside of the field of IR. If you don’t use home field advantage, then make sure you understand why you’re taking a harder road.

9) It’s the journey, not the destination

Failure is always a very real possibility in life. You are always in some ways staring into the abyss. I hope you find this a cause of excitement and not just a source of anxiety. I hope you continue to foster the same feeling of wonder that got you interested in your field in the first place.

As Dan Drezner wrote in his famous/ infamous blog post, the PhD degree only makes sense if you’re passionate about your field. If you’re really honest with yourself, love is the only good reason to do anything in life. Remember this and try not to let your fellow graduate students convince you that you are suffering for your field.

Two other sites I found helpful:  Stella Klein, “How to Plan Your Dissertation” (The Guardian); Alternative PhD, “Thinking of Quitting?”.

This was a guest post by Daniel Clausen, who is a graduate of Florida International University’s PhD program in International Relations. He graduated from the University of Miami with a Bachelor’s Degree in English and American Studies. His research has been published in Strategic Insights, Asian Politics and Policy, Culture and Conflict Review, and the Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies. You can follow Daniel’s work at

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