The dissertation. The big D. The Diss. A holy mother monster of writing. Yup, all things I’ve thought about my project but never said aloud because a. corny and b. it’s not that bad. For most of us, our dissertation is not the best work we’ll ever do. If you’ve spent enough time around old head faculty, you’ve probably heard some variation of the phrase:
the best dissertation is a done dissertation.
I have no idea if that’s true, but I’m inclined to believe because I already despite pretty much every public thing I’ve done as recently as a year ago so I can only imagine how bad our dissertation seems to us once we’re done.
The interesting thing about dissertations not being our peak, though, it’s that it’s still a large part of the dissertation process. One of my mentors and I talked about the dissertation as part of the process and the fact that we submit them “in partial fulfillment” because while the dissertation is the last step, each and every piece you’ve done along the way matters. And while that’s true, a dissertation project is still a big undertaking. For those of us in research, it’s the chance to leave the wings of our faculty and do a big project that we know and love from start to finish. And this is exactly why good work is celebrated.
In many fields of study, “Dissertation of The Year” (DOTY) honors are awarded by national, regional, and local associations. Some colleges and universities even have honors specific to their institutions, colleges, and areas of study. And while committees are aware that the dissertation may not be your best work, they celebrate the amazing job doctoral students do with getting over that last piece of the hump. For those of you who are done or close to done, I wanted to share three things I learned serving on a dissertation of the year committee.
Keep in mind every award is looking for something different and of course, there will always be caveats as few things in the world exist in totality. However, I know some of you may have talked yourself out of submitting, failed to submit out of imposter syndrome, submitted and found yourself unselected, etc. It is my hope in this post to shed some light on what I learned in case you’re struggling to answer some of those questions or work through some of this in your head.
For those of you who are on your way and working towards the dissertation, hear me when I say this sistas: SUBMIT YOUR STUFF. Sometimes committees are forced to choose from the grouping they received and your project could have been the unanimous vote had you not talked yourself out of it.
Three things I learned serving on a DOTY Committee
1. People are bad at selling themselves and their work
As I read through the dissertation narratives, I was confused about how people understood and valued their work. Some of the proposals I read led me to feel like: There’s no way you spent a year+ writing this only to fail at connecting yourself to the work, the work to the organization you’re submitting to, and the results to your field and the future. The proposal that went on to win did a good job showing who they were, why their work was important, and why it matters to the organization they submitted to. This is not the time to be humble or tell us everything about the scholars before you. This is your moment to talk about where your project departs and why. Look carefully at what is being asked of you and do it. But do it while giving the committee insight into how your project fits within a larger research agenda.
2. It’s important to clarify what you need in a letter from your advisor
Several of the advisor letters regurgitated the results and findings of the dissertation and some of the letters seemed rush. Give your dissertation chair time to write a good letter and take a moment to sit down with them and discuss how they can help round out or enhance what you’re submitting. The winning dissertation on the committee I served on had a chair who did a good job contextualizing their work within the field and within the future of their area of study. Hearing the findings is good but connecting them beyond your project and completing your graduate school requirements is better. Talk to your chair and perhaps send them talking points with your request for nomination/ submission.
3. Specificity is Queen
Many of the submissions for the committee I served on were interesting, exciting, and the titles alone made me go “I can’t wait to read this.” As I read them, though I didn’t feel like folks read the criteria for selection nor did they go into enough details on the parts of the projects we wanted to know about. Clearly explicating what you did, why you did it, and how (METHODS) are important. More important than this are specifics of where the work can go from here. What are the implications? How might people use your project? How does your specific project fit within the association you’re applying to? If it’s national, what do your findings mean in a national context, regional–in a regional context, etc.
Not every dissertation will win dissertation of the year awards. Some will win and turn out to not have been that great. If there’s anything I learned during this process is that the art of writing proposals and submissions is just that, an art. Spending time with your project and really looking at the committee’s criteria will go along way to getting you the outcome you desire.
Dear Black Women: Submit your stuff. We are harder on ourselves than any group I know and it’s time to let go of that. If we have to be and often are twice as good, at least get some recognition for it.