by Brian on August 14, 2003

Here’s an odd little fact about philosophy and linguistics, my two areas of ‘expertise’.

In linguistics, or at least in semantics which is what I mostly read, it is quite common to see PhD dissertations cited in research articles. This is true even when the dissertations have been turned into books. (Which they often are, and which are often widely cited.) To take one prominent example, I think the canonical work on negative polarity items is still William Ladusaw’s 1980 PhD dissertation, which is cited in just about every paper on negative polarity.

In philosophy this kind of thing is very rare, at least in the areas in which I work. I can’t remember the last time I saw a dissertation cited that wasn’t written by one of the authors of the citing paper. (Perhaps there were some were the dissertation was by a student of the citer, but I can’t even remember one of those.) And this isn’t because dissertations are published so the books that come out of them are cited. In the areas I work in, many if not most people do not publish their dissertation as a book, and those that do are often much less widely cited than the journal articles by the same authors. (There’s one prominent recent exception.)

(UPDATE: Gil Harman pointed out several counterexamples to my claim that philosophy dissertations don’t get cited. Historically, there have been lots of dissertations turned into important books – Lewis’s Convention, Nagel’s The Possibility of Altruism, and Katz’s The Problem of Induction and Its Solution are particular prominent examples. I had forgotten a couple of those, but these weren’t the cases I was really worried about, because I suspected that things had changed significantly in the last three decades. But he also quickly noted examples of citations of recent dissertations by Maria Merritt, Peter Turney, John Doris and Sarah McGrath, which really do constitute counterexamples to the thesis I was advancing here. One may well conclude this undermines my argument for some of the conclusions below.)

I think there’s an obvious conclusion to be drawn from this for philosophy graduate students. Don’t worry about your dissertation too much. If you go on the job market with (1) one very good paper in a good journal, (2) another very good paper for a job talk and (3) some roughly worked out papers that you can polish into publications after you get a job so you quickly look like you have a research output, I suspect you’ll be doing fine. (At least in philosophy. As has been previously noted here, the philosophy job market is a lot better than the job market in other humanities. I have no idea what one should attack the job market with in other fields, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the quality of one’s work mattered much more than its quantity. And this is all modulo your not having evil or incompetent advisors who won’t or can’t write good reference letters.)

Getting (1), (2) and (3) done well will do much more for your job prospects and your career than worrying about the precise formulation of condition D” on page 197 of your (little-read) dissertation. And in any case, if you want to write a big book on the topic of your dissertation, you’ll write a better big book with a few years experience behind you than you will fresh out of graduate classes.

And there’s another conclusion to be drawn from this. You should be able to complete (1), (2) and (3) well within the 5 years of a normal PhD program, provided you have the proper support. (At least you should be able to complete 2 of them. But really doing all 3 in 5 years is not exactly an oppressive standard, provided you are encouraged to write early and often and given decent feedback on what you are writing.) Which means you shouldn’t take any longer than that to complete a PhD. Which means you should choose graduate schools who make a point of getting their students educated and placed on the job market with all due haste.

In philosophy at least one can make a very accurate prediction of how long someone will take to complete their PhD knowing virtually nothing about them except where they go to grad school. I used to think it was a nice bonus feature of certain good philosophy departments (Princeton and MIT being prominent examples) that their students frequently completed on time. On further reflection I think I was underestimating how valuable this is.

I have no idea whether other disciplines are more like philosophy or more like linguistics in terms of how frequently PhD dissertations get cited. It would be interesting to know whether there are any patterns to the practices in different disciplines.



Stentor 08.14.03 at 11:13 pm

The idea of someone not publishing their dissertation strikes me as strange (and hence the idea of frequent citations of dissertations not by the author does as well). In geography (well, in Clark’s program, at least), your dissertation basically is your first few publications. My professors consistently tell us that we should write our dissertations so that they can be broken up into publishable articles with as little effort as possible. Turning it into a book isn’t encouraged (though I believe it is in anthropology). Perhaps this has something to do with the need to go out and amass a body of empirical data to work on before a typical social science publication?


Micha Ghertner 08.15.03 at 3:19 am

Why is it so important to complete a philosophy PHD in five years or less?


Micha Ghertner 08.15.03 at 3:22 am

Oops, lack of lowercase “h” typo.


Walter 08.15.03 at 3:41 am

Well, as Brian mentions, “you should choose graduate schools who make a point of getting their students educated and placed on the job market with all due haste. Getting a tenure-track position in philosophy is extraordinarily difficult these days, from what I hear.

Of course, I also heard it was important to spend time getting your dissertation topic “just right”, so it would perk the right eyebrows at the universities you were thinking of teaching at, which runs somewhat counter to the idea that your dissertation isn’t that important. But if you’ve really got some “very good” papers, then those could certainly perk the right eyebrows too.

Hoping this is possible for an undergrad as well.


Brian Weatherson 08.15.03 at 4:10 am

First, I should note that I’ve already been told by some email correspondants that my claims about how often dissertations are cited were, er, somewhat exaggerated. So take this all with a grain of salt.

I think it’s really important to complete a PhD in minimal time because after you do you’ve got a chance to start earning cash money, to start working towards tenure and a full professorship, etc. Being in grad school is hazardous to your wealth, being an academic usually isn’t.

If there were some evidence that an extra 2 or 3 years in grad school improved your career prospects, it may be worthwhile. But I see very little evidence of this being true.

It isn’t as hard to get a tenure-track position in grad school as is often reported. Earlier this year I looked over the placement records for several departments, and concluded that while it’s not trivial to get tenure-track positions at top PhD granting departments, it’s not as hard to get work as in other disciplines.

Given the factual error I made at the top, take all this with a grain of salt, but my impression is that the quality of the best chapter or two of a dissertation does a lot more to perk eyebrows than the quality of the dissertation as a whole. Having said that, most of my reasons for thinking it is so are somewhat anecdotal, so don’t go changing career plans on my say so!


Walter 08.15.03 at 5:00 am

Sorry for the off-topic, but…Brian, did you know a Steven A. while you were at Monash? He would have been working on critical/cultural theory.


Brian Weatherson 08.15.03 at 1:22 pm

I don’t remember a Steven A, but I could be forgetting someone because one of the odd features of Monash at the time was that about half the graduate students were called Steven or Stephen. I really should remember people anyway, but that’s my excuse if it’s a bad forgetting.


mike 08.16.03 at 2:39 am

I’d like to make a quick point on the issue of how long graduate students should take to complete their degree. I must admit, however, that as I am just beginning grad school, this line of thought is really going on not much more than a vague impression. Anyway, let us say that the average PhD student is finished with all of her course work, her AOS and AOC exams, and her prospectus after 3.5 years. Now, it certainly seems reasonable to me that 1.5 years is enough time to write a decent dissertation, but it also seems reasonable that a student would want have almost finished her dissertation before engaging upon a job search. I’d guess that the search process is quite time consuming for many students, and might be overly burdensome to deal with while trying to get substantial portions of the dissertation written. Furthermore, it is probably far more difficult to defend your ideas in job interviews, before most of it is written. Thus it seems that taking a sixth year, for many students, might be very beneficial.

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