So I guess we should give up

Another appeal to stop trying to publish your pointless dissertation, at Chronicle of Higher Ed (currently behind a paywall). I suppose if enough university press editors keep saying this, we’ll have to listen.

My old school upbringing (PhD 2002 thank you very much) still urges me to fight it though, particularly as it’s leading to calls that we lower the expectations for a History PhD to only 1-2 “journal articles” over four years. I wrote a decent journal article (IMHO) based off of my master’s thesis, maybe four years spent before the final draft was accepted. Yet I know there’s no way the skills and knowledge required to write a journal article (or two) come anywhere close to what you learn by crafting a dissertation (even a crappy one, I hope), or reshaping a dissertation into a publishable book. A dissertation necessarily takes time, immersing yourself in another culture so you don’t just write a shallow, simplistic account of the past. How many different types of evidence will you have time to analyze? How many different ways will you test your idea? How broad will your conclusion be? Repeat after me: writing 5 journal articles totaling 250 pages is NOT the same as writing a 250-page book.

What kind of subject can you research and write from scratch in that time frame? Not to mention, we probably aren’t really talking about a newly-minted PhD having published a journal article, which would require a year or more of review and revisions after the first draft. So I guess we just mean that they write an article-length work or two that their advisors consider publishable. Of course manuscript reviewers often seem to have their own opinions on that score, but let’s not get bogged down in details.

What about the knock-on effects of such a change? If an advisor can produce 2 PhD students in 8 years instead of one graduate in the same time frame, how does that help the over-saturation of the PhD market? And unless every program shifts to a 4-year/1-2 article program, who’s going to go first and put their grads at risk on the job market? To be frank, I’d really think twice before hiring a job candidate who hadn’t even attempted to write a 200+ page dissertation.

We complain now about too many useless publications – imagine if we had twice as many PhDs all trying to publish their multiple articles. Wouldn’t academic journals be flooded with new manuscript submissions? I personally put several journal article projects on the backburner because I was revising the dissertation. I also know my book, closely hewn from the dissertation granite, is worth far more to my subfield than what I would have produced in article form. YMMV though.

How does this all relate to tenure? Will a few articles now be enough for tenure, if you’re lucky enough to even get a tenure-track position? The AHA better rethink things. Assuming books are still required for tenure, when will a tenure-tracker (teaching and serving) have the time to learn how to research, craft and revise a long work, much much more detailed than they’ve ever written before? Particularly if publishers insist that your dissertation/article is already “published”, so you need to start a new project altogether? That’s an awful lot of project planning for a grad student. Under whose guidance will they perform this herculean task of writing their first ever book? Those who’ve gone from a master’s thesis to PhD dissertation appreciate how much harder the latter is. I wonder how most historians will ever publish a book at all if they haven’t had personalized attention at the graduate level to write a long research project. It can be done of course (ask me how!), but it seems to further divide History between the elites whose programs will probably continue to require a dissertation (and whose Research I schools’ tenure requirements will continue to expect a book), and everybody else who does nothing but teach and publish the occasional article.

I understand the concern about time-to-degree for Ph.D. graduates without jobs – I took 9.3 years after all. But it seems there are other ways to resolve the problem of the over-abundnace of unemployed PhDs. Reduce the size of the grad student pool? Create a separate degree for alt-ac or public history, keeping the full-length PhD program for a select few? Have historical associations vet e-publications? Instead some seem to be suggesting we reshape the entire discipline and its professional formation in a way that conveniently saves graduate programs from dealing with the elephant in the room.

As usual, this is my thinking (rather than researching) place, and I don’t teach graduate students, so I’m probably way off base. And if the discipline wants to define itself according to what the publishing market will allow, I guess we don’t have much of a choice. Seems like a pathetically impoverished discipline, is all.

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One response to “So I guess we should give up”

  1. Erik Lund says :

    The only response that I can muster to this –especially the paywall thing– is massive cynicism.

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