Should you write your dissertation as a book?

Impostor syndrome comes in many forms in academia, and this is how it comes for me: I shouldn’t be a doctor, because I never wrote a dissertation. I just wrote a book. It’s not that I regret the choice. But since that book came out, I’ve had the chance to think about what can be gained, and what lost, by writing your dissertation as a book. This is not a pro-con list. It is a pro-pro list. The hitch is, you can only pick one.

Pros of Writing a Book

Writing my dissertation as a book helped me to inhabit the identity of a historian from an early stage. As a student I read lots of history books. I know what a history book looks like. Now I’m writing a history book. That makes sense to me. Why would I write something that I wouldn’t want to actually read? I wanted my book to have characters, and stories; drama, and dramatic irony; a narrative arc, and a denouement as much as a conclusion. You can judge for yourselves if I actually achieved all that, but I don’t think you’ll find those on most examiners’ (or committees’) lists of priorities.

In Britain (where I work) it’s more traditional to publish a book quite soon after finishing your dissertation. Writing the dissertation as a book certainly helps with that. Although it took about eighteen months of rewriting to get my book into its final form, I needed to change very little about its content or structure. I rewrote the introduction and conclusion. I tried to improve my prose. But I did not embark on the decade-long project of additional research and radical rebuilding that was once standard practice in the USA. My book is a small one, on a big topic, and I’m happy with that.

Most importantly, a book has to imagine that its audience is more than two or three people. Writing your dissertation as a book means thinking, from the very start, about why your project has value to the world at large. How does it engage with the problems that we need to solve? How will it change the way its readers think about the world? Having those kinds of questions in my mind helped me to talk about my work with other people, while I wrote it. It helped me to frame my work, at conferences and seminars, in ways that (I hope!) interested the audience. It may not have completely worked on dates, but it came in quite handy on the job market.

Pros of Writing a Dissertation

Now here’s what I imagine I missed out on. First of all, I felt no compunction to spend years unearthing hitherto unlooked-at documents in archives. That is not the work of all historians. But in the projects I’ve been working on since finishing my dissertation, I have found it has its satisfactions. If you build a mighty trove of evidence during your dissertation years, it could get you a long way. There are decades of material to draw on, and you’ll know it like no other scholar. Just as long as you don’t get bored of it all.

Dissertations also ask you to get really down and dirty with historiography. Footnotes are not enough. You have to actually engage, at length, with other people’s arguments. It can get jargony. Schools of thought must be placed in context, interventions signposted, and methodology explained in detail. This must be extremely useful when you get to having conversations with the people who know your field best: not only your advisors, but your future colleagues, referees, and editors. Some books do all this too, but mostly it is stuff you’ll cut out later. That does not mean it wasn’t worth doing.

Writing a book is about persuasion, and there are a lot of tools, in writing, with which you try to win over the more or less attentive reader. Things work differently if you are writing for three experts who will put your argument and use of evidence under the microscope. Rhetoric is secondary, and the other skills we tend to file under “scholarship” come to the fore. Books can sometimes make the work of history look easy; dissertations let you show off all the work you’ve done.

You may choose to write your dissertation as a book, or you may not. The ways are different, and they work for different people. Your decision will shape—not, perhaps, irrevocably, but noticeably, at a crucial moment—the kind of historian you will become. I’m glad to live in a world of both.

3 comments on “Should you write your dissertation as a book?

  1. Kent says:

    I wrote my dissertation as both a dissertation and as a book. The entire time I spent writing my dissertation I understood that there were elements my dissertation committee expected me to include that a publisher would just tell me to cut. I produced two drafts along the way, one for my dissertation committee with all of the historiography, etc., and a second for potential publishers once it was all over. Sometimes you can effectively take the historiography that you include in a dissertation and turn it into an effective “bibliographical essay” that you add to the end of a book manuscript. In today’s competitive job market the sooner you can have a book manuscript in the “pipeline” the better.

    • Tom Cutterham says:

      Thanks, this is an interesting approach! I think I see the difference between a book and a dissertation as more than just a case of book = dissertation minus historiography and extra evidence. It seems to me that the two things are fundamentally different kinds of work. That can be why it takes some people so long to produce one from the other. So I imagine writing both at the same time was a very difficult process, though surely a very useful one in the end!

  2. James Kabala says:

    My dissertation changed a lot as it became a book, but I think it was always a book and merely became (I hope) a better book. I think of it as a (heavily) revised edition rather than a separate thing. I don’t see the dichotomy to be as stark as Dr. Cuttenham does. I would certainly never think (even in jest) “My Ph.D. is invalid because my dissertation was too much like a book!”

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