Four years ago this May I completed my PhD. It was momentous, certainly, but it was neither the best nor the most memorable day of my life. I was proud of my accomplishments, I was nervous and excited about the future, but mostly I was simply exhausted. Four years have passed, and I have not yet turned my dissertation into a book. I have published, yes, and I have been (very) busy with teaching, research, and service. However, this unpublished dissertation is both a source of shame and a site of extremely conflicted and confusing feelings for me. Given my propensity to mark time and my attempts to recognize my own emotional/professional patterns, I figure there is no time like the present to bring this conversation out of my head and onto the Net.
This weekend I had the opportunity to catch up with a dear friend who is an academic in my field. We had many things to talk about, but as it so often does the conversation inevitably turned to the profession. We are both in the early stages of our careers, my friend and I, and while my friend is on the tenure track and I am not, the stakes are relatively similar: publish publish publish! We spent a good deal of the evening discussing whether or not we would convert our dissertations into book publications.
If you had asked me five years ago what I would do with my dissertation when I finished, my answer would have inevitably been ‘publish it!’ Indeed, I suspect that the majority of people moving through humanities PhDs are doing so with that advice in mind. What happens if the dissertation doesn’t become a book?
Completing one’s degree is not unlike moving into a new phase of a serious relationship, I think. Indeed, the completion of my own PhD coincided with the end of my relationship with my then-partner who was also a PhD student in the same department. This was traumatic, to be sure, but though many of Gwendolyn Beetham‘s statements about her own trouble returning to the dissertation ring true for me, I don’t think my own reluctance to return and revise stems from the same place (it certainly is reassuring to hear someone else think through these issues though!) After the dust of the defense settled I went through the steps to publish my dissertation. I contacted a Big University Press, sent in a proposal and a revised manuscript and then stopped thinking about it entirely. I heard from the Big University Press about a year and a half later: the manuscript had been sent out and unfavourably reviewed by two reviewers (one advised heavy revision, the other advised that the thing should be burned) and so the editor did not feel as though the time was right to go forward with the project. Needless to say, I was devastated. Garments were rend, teeth were gnashed, wine was drunk, tears were shed. There was some yelling, and there was despair. I shelved the thing and did not look at it again for a year. I thought dramatically that there was no point. My career, I decided, was over before it begun.
Happily, I have a few mentors in my life who know how to walk that line between caring benefactor and cold authoritarian. ‘Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and do not tell me that this one bump in the road is enough to derail you,’ wrote one. And so, I did. I have published at least an article a year since my defense, and I am working on a new book project. It is slow going for all of the obvious reasons, first among which is time. But every now and then I look over to my bookshelf and wonder about my dissertation. Should I try to do something more with it?
If you were to Google ‘dissertation to book’ one of the first articles to pop up is this one from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Leonard Cassuto’s article brings together advice from publishers as well as professors. The advice centres mostly around the perils of putting your dissertation online with ProQuest. Kathryn Hume offers similar cautions. While both of these articles are incredibly interesting, informative, and a little nerve-wracking they both focus heavily on the assumption that one will publish the dissertation as a book. Ultimately, it was Jo VanEvery’s advice that came closest to answering my seemingly inarticulable questions. She suggests that while there are compelling and indeed career-mobilizing reasons for publishing your dissertation, you may not necessarily choose the manuscript as the ideal format. VanEvery notes that the dissertation is a “particular kind of document” whose primary purpose is to fulfill the requirements of the degree. Most importantly for me, she underscore the necessity of moving forward.
I may return to the dissertation and heavily revise it. That said, I am really jazzed about the new manuscript project I have begun, so perhaps I’ll only pull a few more articles out of the thing. I am not sure. One thing I do know, however, is that moving forward is essential.
What about y’all? Did you/will you publish your dissertation as a book?