Dissertation angst

Doug Mangum recently posted about the angst of coming up with a dissertation idea. I’m kind of in the same boat. I have had a basic topic for about a year, but my enthusiasm for it has been inconsistent. My basic quandary is that I think I could write this dissertation, but I don’t know that it is really earth shattering stuff. In a perfect world I would like to write something that would give me a niche and propel my research for the next decade or so. I guess my problem is that my interests are pretty standard so most anything I like has been picked over for the last 75 years or so.

BTW, right now I’m reading more general linguistic stuff as background so that is why I haven’t really been posting any summaries. Hopefully I can get back to posting in the next couple of weeks.

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8 Comments on “Dissertation angst”

  1. Carl Says:

    Why not post a bibliography of what you’ve been reading in general linguistics?

  2. Peter Bekins Says:

    I’m hoping to post some synthesis and bibliography as I begin to write my exploratory paper. Hopefully some feedback can help me gauge the importance of my topic as well.

  3. Carl Says:

    BTW, here are a few comments from a book I’m reading on dissertation work:

    “Although an ‘exciting’ topic…can serve as a first-stage motivator, all dissertation topics become predictably frayed, frustrating, often boring, infuriating for the writer at points down the course..one picks a dissertation topic – a relatively secondary concern – after serious commitment to the primary goal of writing a doctoral dissertation.” (Sternberg 32)

    “Only one general right reason exists [for undertaking the dissertation]: The candidate is deeply interested in his specific discipline and has every intention of pursuing a career within the field immediately upon (or at least soon after) completion of the thesis. This reason must not be confused with that of finding a ‘sexy’ or ‘in’ dissertation topic, which is a fleeting and often effervescent motivator.” (Sternberg 34)

    “Contrary to a good deal of faculty and student mythology, the dissertation topic per se is at best a secondary factor both in determining whether a candidate finishes and the troubles he experiences at different stages of research and writing.” (Sternberg 47)

    From: David Sternberg, _How to Complete as Survive a Doctoral Dissertation_ (New York: St. Martin’s, 1981).

  4. Peter Bekins Says:

    “Although an ‘exciting’ topic…can serve as a first-stage motivator, all dissertation topics become predictably frayed, frustrating, often boring, infuriating for the writer at points down the course…

    That sounds about right. Maybe we should all start up some sort of Dissertation Therapy group to get us through. It should probably consist of drinking lots of יין ושכר

  5. Carl Says:

    Funny enough, another book I’m working through gives advice on forming writing groups (Paul J. Silvia, How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. [Washington D. C.: APA, 2007]. Only coffee is mentioned, but your idea has merit…

  6. Charles Says:


    If you haven’t already checked it out, MIT’s website has a large amount of material online for linguistics. I have found that this is also helpful for collecting bibliography.

    I’d certainly be interested in seeing what you are reading (even without synthesis!).


  7. Andrew Says:

    The president of the seminary I attended used to make the following comment: “There are two kinds of dissertations; perfect ones, and finished ones!”

    One of my OT professors said something a bit less witty but very thoughtful: “The dissertation isn’t the culmination of your academic work, Lord willing, it’s just the beginning!”

    You’ll find something. Do quality work, but focus on getting it done, then get out there and spend the time doing something earth shattering!

  8. anummabrooke Says:

    The subject matter of my dissertation was about the last thing that would set me back on it while it was in progress. Other factors (usually financial at root) were much more likely to give rise to delays.

    That said, the subject matter can have a relationship to some questions touching on time to completion: Do I have ready and immediate access to the necessary sources? Do I have faculty who are willing to take an interest? Is the topic manageable in scope?

    The siren song of a “sexy” topic is real, and we all feel it. Still, my 2¢ is that a “girl/boy next door” kind of topic may be a better fit for the LTR (long-term relationship) that is the life of an ABD.

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