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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Dissertation FAQ

The Composition and Cultural Rhetoric Doctoral Program (CCR)

Current Students: Dissertation FAQ

Collin Gifford Brooke
Director of Graduate Studies, CCR

Here are answers to some of the questions that I receive regularly about the dissertation itself. Please bear in mind that these are not CCR policies; instead, they represent an attempt to provide a little additional guidance for dissertators. All of these questions should be raised with your director as well. If there is a question you would like to see added to this page, please put it in an email to me, cbrooke at syr dot edu. Thanks.

How long should a dissertation be?
This varies substantially from discipline to discipline, and will depend partly on the type of dissertation you write (for example, qualitative research may necessitate including data in appendices). Typically, dissertations in CCR have been 5-6 chapters and around 225-250 pages, including works cited.

Are there particular style requirements?
Before you begin your dissertation, you should consult the Thesis Format Guidelines, available from the Graduate School. This document will provide you with information about the proper margins, font size, citation style, pagination, etc. Although word processing has made dissertation formatting much less traumatic than it once was, it is still worthwhile to follow these guidelines from the start rather than having to "correct" your document later.

Are all dissertations "books"?
It is possible to approach your dissertation as a series of related essays, or as a stage in a larger project, but this is something that needs to be discussed carefully with your Director and the rest of your committee. Not every dissertation is a scholarly monograph destined for publication.

What makes a successful dissertation?
There are as many answers for this question as there are people to answer it. And yet, there are some basic features that may point you in the right direction:

  • Thesis: Your dissertation should have a central claim (or a set of closely related claims), one that you can explain quickly and to a non-specialist (or even non-academic) audience. This claim may change as you draft the dissertation, but holding yourself to the "30-second answer" to the question of what you are writing about may help you focus.
  • Material: Your dissertation should have a readily identifiable object of inquiry. This "object" may be a textual artifact, a particular process or activity, a specific theory, or a site for investigation (and of course, there may be more than one), but the further away from specific, concrete materials you get in your scholarship, the more risk you run of becoming overly abstract and unfocused.
  • Method: It is not at all unusual to be asked in job interviews what methodologies you are working with in your dissertation, but this is another question that can help you focus your work, especially at the earlier stages. Another way of thinking about this question is to ask yourself what writers and thinkers are influencing your project. Whose ideas are you drawing on to shape your own? There is no one method that can ensure a successful dissertation, but a lack of reflection about methodology is almost certainly an obstacle.
  • Significance: Scholarly projects are not inherently significant or insignificant; significance is something that you develop as you write. In other words, it is worth asking yourself "So what?" on a semi-regular basis with respect to your work. Why is it important? How does it change the way we see things? What does it tell us that we don't already know?
  • Context: Your dissertation will emerge from and respond to various ongoing scholarly conversations, and as such, is responsible for addressing that intellectual context, sometimes explicitly in the form of a literature review. At the very least, you must be aware of the implications your project has for the field, even for those portions of the field that aren't immediately addressed by it.

How does writing a dissertation differ from writing a seminar paper or an article? 
First, it is important to understand that the dissertation is indeed different from most other genres you have written previously. A dissertation (or a chapter) is not simply drafted and turned in at a deadline, like a seminar paper. It is a collaborative process, and while it may not feel like it at the time, the dissertation process is a luxury. You have several readers dedicated to helping you develop, revise, and polish a book-length manuscript, and it represents an opportunity that is unique to your academic career.

As you approach this process, therefore, you should make every effort to draft chapters as early as possible, with the understanding that they will go through several stages of response and revision. One result of this is that you will be working on more than one chapter at a time--it is typical to be working on one chapter while one or more other chapters are receiving feedback from your committee. You should expect the time required for revisions to be much longer than it would be for other kinds of writing, and you should plan your own timetable accordingly.

Another important feature of this process is the ability to balance your attention between immediate tasks (such as a 2-3 page section of a chapter) with the overall project. Your project will shift and change as you make your way through it--this is almost to be expected--and keeping a healthy ratio between short term and long term thinking will help you manage your time and accomplish your goals. Dwelling too much on the long view will intimidate and perhaps paralyze you as a writer--no one can write a book all at once. Focusing too intently on individual sections, without putting them in the context of the overall project, may make it difficult to maintain your overall argument and the coherence of your project.

How much of my dissertation should I have finished when I begin submitting job applications?
I strongly recommend that you draft at least three chapters before going on the market. The job search is a very involved process that can run from October through March (and sometimes beyond), and it is almost impossible to get substantial work done on your dissertation while you are searching for a job. Students who have completed less than three chapters almost inevitably either rush their projects during the following summer, or fail to finish before they leave SU. Neither option is a recipe for success.

And on a more practical note, it is difficult to talk coherently about a large-scale project that does not yet exist. As someone who has read literally hundreds of job applications from candidates both finished and unfinished, it makes a large difference in the quality of your application if you are able to speak concretely and specifically about your research. Also, it is becoming increasingly common for schools to request multiple dissertation chapters as a part of your dossier, as a way for them to verify that you are sufficiently far along to warrant consideration. Working on your dissertation is the single most important form of preparation you can engage in when you are preparing to search for a position.