Writing a Dissertation is a Public Issue as well as a Private Trouble


Howard-S-BeckerHoward Becker et l’équipe des ACT sont heureux de vous faire partager la préface de l’ouvrage collectif : Devenir chercheur – Écrire une thèse en sciences sociales (dir. M. Hunsmann et S. Kapp), ici dans sa version originale. Pour consulter la version française ainsi que la table des matières de l’ouvrage, suivez ce lien. Bonne lecture !

Graduate students all over the world confront, as the final test of their scholarly abilities, the task of writing a dissertation. Dissertations surely cause more suffering than all the other traumas of post-graduate education—more sleepless nights, more false starts, more destruction of morale and self-confidence. Doing a large research project creates real problems of planning and execution. You need real skills to do it all. But the biggest problem is unnecessary. The would-be authors think that their inability to do the final task, which so many others have successfully done— to write a report of what you did and what you found and what it means—makes plain for all the world to see that they have some fatal weakness of character or intellect. They think, in short, that their problems of writing are their own fault. Sociologists, of all people, should know better.

millsIf they haven’t figured it out for themselves, C. Wright Mills (1959, p. 9), the North American sociologist, explained the problem in the simplest possible terms, telling us that we must never mistake public issues for private troubles, that we should always look for the roots of those troubles outside of individual people and their weaknesses and shortcomings. The great example of people blaming their private, individually suffered troubles had been created by the Great Depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929. Millions of people were out of work and suffered doubly because they felt that in some way their failure to find work showed a fundamental flaw in their character. They thought their own actions had caused their lack of work, instead of blaming an economic system that did not create enough jobs for everybody.

Why not apply that kind of thinking to the problems of writing a dissertation? We can adopt as a sociological guideline that whenever many people in a similar situation, but otherwise differing in personality, social background, cultural training and aptitudes, etc., have the same troubles, the cause is probably not in them but in the situation they find themselves in. When so many graduate students who, for all the talk of the privileged lives they lead and the huge amounts of cultural capital they control, have trouble doing something they learned to do long ago in the schools that sent them on to do their graduate work, we have to ask what aspects of those graduate programs cause them to lose their ability to write a coherent report.

I have never thought this was a difficult problem to solve. The solution is obvious. We often solve problems by watching others solve them, not just seeing the “answer” to the problem but seeing the steps by which the solver arrived at the answer. I will tell you a few things I have learned, painfully, from years of “doing it.”

There are really only three problems someone who wants to write a dissertation has to solve: how to start, how to stop, and what to do in between those two points.

The solution to the first problem—how to start writing your thesis—is simple. All you have to do is recognize that it isn’t a problem at all, since you started doing that long ago. “No, that can’t be right! I’m sitting here looking at a perfectly blank computer screen. How can you say that I’ve started already?”

I can say it because it’s true. You decided what the answers would be to many of the questions that now seem so perplexing when you made, day by day, the hundreds of decisions about what you would do on each of those days. What data will I collect today? What short note will I write to myself about a very specific question of interpretation of something I’ve learned? Where will I put this fragment of material I collected today so that I will be able to find it when I need it? You have already made hundreds of decisions like that, day by day, decision so tiny and unimportant in themselves that you hardly think of them as “decisions” at all. And yet the cumulating weight of all those small actions has sent you down this path rather than that one, has closed off this possibility while enabling that one, so that you no longer have so many possibilities to choose among. You have the data you have, because you decided many times to talk to this person rather than that one, to investigate that source rather than some other one, ignore that path that seemed so inviting in favor of another one that looked even better, concentrate on this idea rather than that one. Now, as you finally settle down to write, you think you have “to start,” that you are just at the beginning. In fact, you’re at the end and the main thing you have to do is recognize all the choices you have made, and see how they have given you this particular thing to say and made it difficult, maybe impossible to say some other thing that now, for the moment, seems like a better idea. It might be a better idea but you long ago decided not to pursue it.

So when to start is not a problem, it’s a fait accompli. Your only difficulty now is to recognize and accept what you have done and set down that recognition in words and paragraphs. Not as difficult as sitting staring a blank screen.

The third problem—how to finish—is even easier. You finish by saying to yourself “Stop!” the way a mother would say it to a child who is banging on a drum, or crying uncontrollably over a spilled ice cream cone, or pulling the cat’s tail. We all want to put off the moment when the document leaves our hands and goes out into the world to meet its fate. I was once director of a collection for a maison d’édition and one of the authors had put off giving me the final manuscript of his book, offering instead one excuse after another, the last one being that he had to go from New York to London to check one final reference. Which he did not get around to doing. One day, the publisher, being in New York, went to the author’s apartment to see if he could extract the manuscript by wheedling or, if necessary, by force. He was in luck. The author was not home. But his wife was. And when he asked her if she knew where the manuscript was, she said she did, led him to it, and let him walk out with it. The author, the matter having been taken out of his hands, didn’t call the police.

When my colleagues and I were nearing the end of our research on undergraduate students at the University of Kansas, we suddenly had a brilliant idea. We knew that these students, who came from everywhere in this largely rural state, made contacts while they were in college with people from everywhere else in the state, people they would never have known had they studied somewhere closer to home. And that these students, because of the networks they had established, would become part of the elite of the state and thus have social and economic and cultural advantages they would never have had otherwise. And that, because of the experiences they had shared at the university, they shared a lot of understandings—what we usually refer to as “culture”—that would make it easier to find partners for any kind of enterprise they wanted to undertake. (Well, alright, we didn’t really “know” any of that, but we thought they were reasonable guesses.) So, after fifteen minutes of talking about this wonderful idea excitedly, we looked at each other and almost in unison (not quite, but it felt simultaneous) said, “That’s it. The study is finished. We’re through.” Because we knew that our great idea would require another three or four years to do properly and we were all tired (maybe tired of Kansas too, fond as we were of it).

The point is not that it wasn’t a good idea, but that we saw clearly at that moment that there is no really good, logical place to stop. There are always new and interesting problems just ahead, beckoning to us, enticing to spend just a little more time, and to think how much better our work would be if we did that. The corpses of wonderful studies that might have been, had the authors avoided such lures, litter the history of our fields. Since there’s no logical end point, it’s only sensible to let circumstances tell you when it’s time to quit. External signals abound. Your companion is tired of hearing you complain about how hard this is and threatens to leave. You will lose a chance for a wonderful post-doctoral fellowship if you don’t have your degree by a certain date. Your manuscript will not be included in a book you want very much to be part of if you don’t send it in tomorrow—all these give you very good reasons to stop. The world you work and live in is telling you something. Pay attention.

How does all this optimistic talk fit with my earlier insistence that the problems of writing are problems of the social organization, of the places we write in and for? Does it mean that those problems aren’t real problems, after all? No, it isn’t that easy. But the social organization of our work also gives us, if we know how to look, the solutions to these problems.

In Thomas Kuhn’s (1970, pp. 56-7) description, natural scientists learn their craft by watching others in their laboratory at work and seeing “how they do it,” whatever “it” is. But social scientists don’t work in labs that way, where what they’re doing can be seen by neophytes. On the contrary, social scientists, both those already at work and those in training, are usually very secretive. They don’t tell others about their troubles. They act unconcerned, hiding their anxieties and difficulties behind an optimistic façade. Students seldom learn that their professors have trouble writing. They only see the newly published book or article, which hides the anguish and frustration of the production process. But, if we social scientists don’t see someone in the lab doing the very thing we don’t know how to do, so that we can watch and imitate, we can see the solution in the finished product, if we look for it. The solutions seldom sit out in plain view. We have to do a little work.

These successful authors (successful in the minimal but important sense that they actually finished what they were writing) don’t say “I had this problem and solved it this way.” They just show you the solved problem. Anyone writing a dissertation knows at least one person, usually more than that, who has successfully finished one. How did they do it? If we inspect their manuscript, we will very likely find the analogue of the problem we can’t seem to solve, see how they dealt with it, and  do the same. I finished my dissertation relatively easily at least in part because I took as a model the excellent dissertation of a somewhat older student at the University of Chicago who had written on a topic that differed from mine in detail, but resembled it, more or less, in its general outline. Oswald Hall (1948) had written his dissertation on the careers of medical practitioners in a small American city. Mine reported on the careers of schoolteachers in a large American city. Not the same problem, but not completely different either. (“Close enough for jazz,” as my musical colleagues and I used to say when they tuned up to the piano before we began playing.) I took Hall’s thesis as a template, solved the problems as he had unless the circumstances of our two cases were too different for that, in which case I made the adjustments the difference called for.

(As a bonus, I will tell you the other secret that let me finish my dissertation promptly and without undue suffering. I wrote two pages every day without fail. That was a day’s work. If I finished my two pages by nine in the morning then I took the rest of the day off. If necessary, I worked for several hours. But I always ended the day with two new pages. A friend of mine did the simple arithmetic for me: if you write two pages a day at the end of a year you will have 730 pages, enough for at least two dissertations.)

My final injunction to anyone having trouble writing is: start writing! Never sit looking at an empty screen. Write something, anything. Keep writing until you find something that looks useful and then work on it. S. I. Hayakawa, one of the leaders of the general semantics movement many years ago, used to teach a class in writing at San Francisco State University. His very popular classes usually had about six hundred students. How can you teach writing to that many people at once? Easy. Every day, when the students came in and sat down, they had first to spend twenty minutes writing. Not something to be handed in and given a grade. Just writing. The pencil moving, no matter what it wrote. If they couldn’t think of anything to say—a common complaint, as you might imagine—he told them to write their name and address. If they were still unable to think of something, write your name and address again. Students testified that after a week of this regimen they had absolutely no trouble writing on any topic. They had learned this important lesson: nobody cares about the stupid things you write as long as, in the end, you write something they find useful or interesting or enjoyable.

I mentioned three problems, the last of them being “what to do in between getting started and stopping.” What about those problems? Actually, they aren’t easy to deal with, but the entire literature of our fields is filled with advice on those matters. The only thing to add is that it is always better to do something than do nothing, to keep active, keep looking for things that will move your project along.

In the words of the great American baseball player and philosopher Satchel Paige, “Keep moving and don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

Howard S. Becker


Hall, Oswald. 1948. « The Stages of the Medical Career. » American Journal of Sociology 53:243-253.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 9.

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