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Writing Your Dissertation and Creating Your Research Agenda

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By Michael Munger


It is important to remember that your research agenda and dissertation are the main reasons you are in graduate school. They need to be your main focus…even though that may be a hard fact for you to reconcile. You may like to read books and articles, and you may love to take classes and learn new things. In fact, I hope you like those things, because they are deeply rewarding. However, as you near the end of graduate school you will be trying to convince some very smart and skeptical people that you are a truly gifted original thinker, someone who can express herself in writing. No one cares what classes you have taken, and no one cares what books you have read lately.


This comes as a shock to a lot of people. I have noticed that there is a real transformation, approaching an inversion, around the third or fourth year of graduate school. Many of the students who were stars in classes in the first two years, the people everyone admired and looked up to, suddenly have trouble making the switch from taking classes to writing original papers for publication. And several of the marginal students, the ones who didn’t care that much about pleasing the professors by reading every page of every assignment, suddenly are sending their own papers off to journals, getting published, and transforming themselves into professional scholars.


Don’t get me wrong; classes are important. But it is important to repeat what I said above: you are not going to try to get a job as a professional taker of classes. You have set out to become a teacher of classes, and a producer of original research.


Ten Truths About Scholarly Writing


  1. Writing is an exercise. You can get much better, and faster, with practice. Think of writing as if it were running. If you knew you were going to run a marathon, would you wait until the day before the race and then run twenty-six miles? Of course not. You would build up slowly, running a little more every day. You might start on a flat surface, then gradually work up to more difficult and confusing terrain. Write every day, every day.
  2. Set goals for writing, and make sure they are based on output rather than input. “I will work for three hours” is a delusion; “I will write three typed double-spaced pages” is a goal. Don’t worry that much of what you write is not very good, and may not be immediately usable. You learn by writing, and you get ideas from writing. After you write three pages, go for a walk, study for classes, do something  else. If later in the day you feel like writing some more, go for it. But if you don’t, then you wrote your three pages and you got something done. I am often surprised by how much of what I write I am able to use later for other parts of the project I am working on.
  3. Write for the ages. One of Professor James Buchanan’s questions for job candidates is this: “What are you writing that will be read ten years from now? What about 100 years from now?” Having gotten the question myself, I can tell you it is pretty intimidating. And embarrassing, because most of us don’t think that way (which is another reason most people don’t get nominated for the Nobel Prize). Young scholars focus on “getting published” as if it had nothing to do with ideas, or the importance of your arguments. Paradoxically, if all you are trying to do is “get published,” you may not publish very much. If you write important papers about profound problems, the publishing will take care of itself.
  4. Give yourself time. Many smart people got through their undergraduate education by telling themselves pathetic lies, like “I do my best work at the last minute,” or “It helps me to be under pressure. I’ll stay up the whole night before the paper is due.” Look: It’s not true. No one works better under pressure. Sure, if your goal is to produce some undergraduate quality paper that will get your professor to pat you on the head, then you can wait until the last minute. (“Good student! Here’s a biscuit!”) But that is not what you are trying to do, or else you ought to switch to that I-banking job you were looking at. Sure, you are a smart person. But if you are writing about a profound problem, why would you think that you can make any kind of important contribution right off the top of your head in the middle of the night the day before you present the paper? Read biographies of the people you admire most: Smith….Mill….Hayek….I could go on. They all sat at their desks for hours and hours every day, wrestling with ideas. They became obsessed, over months or years. They thought deeply, all the time. They asked questions, talked to other smart people at dinner, or on long walks. And then they went back and wrote a whole bunch more. It may seem to you now that their books simply appeared, as if commanded by God. But these books were struggled with, and written out over thousands of hours. They were written by men and women sitting at their desks and forcing themselves to take profound ideas and translate them into words. Writing can be magic, if you give yourself time, because you can produce in the mind of some other person, distant from you in space or maybe even time, an image of the ideas that exist only in your mind at this one instant.
  5. Edit your work, over and over. Have other people look at it. One of the great advantages of graduate school is that you can exchange papers with peers, and when you are sick of your own writing you can read someone else’s work. You need to get over a fear of criticism, or rejection. Everybody’s first drafts are not very good. The difference between a successful scholar and a failure may simply be that the successful scholar writes every day, gives herself time to reflect, and then edits the work over and over until it is better. She doesn’t necessarily write better than the other scholar who fails, but she writes more often and spends more time editing.
  6. Pick a puzzle. Both as a matter of style, and genuine intellectual value, it is often most useful to portray, and for that matter conceive, of your research agenda as the answer to a puzzle. There are several common, important forms of puzzles. They include: (a) “M and N differ in their conclusions, but start with same assumptions. How can this be?” (b) “Here are three (four) (N) problems that all seem different. But, surprisingly, they are all actually the same problem, in disguise, and here’s why.” And (c) “Theory seems to predict (something). But we almost always observe (something else). Why is this? Is the theory wrong? Or are we looking in the wrong places?” You don’t need to stick too closely to these formulas, but they are very helpful in presenting your work to an audience, whether that audience is composed of listeners to a lecture or readers of an article.
  7. Schedule time for writing. Put your writing ahead of your other work for classes. I happen to be a “morning person,” so I try to write early in the day. Then I spend the rest of my day teaching, having meetings, or doing paperwork. You may be a “night person,” or something in between. Just make sure you get in the habit of reserving your most productive time for writing. Don’t do it as an afterthought or tell yourself you will write when you get a big block of time. Squeeze the other things in; writing comes first.
  8. Not all of your thoughts are profound. Fortunately, they don’t all need to be, at least not at first. Many people get frustrated because they can’t get analytical purchase on the big questions that interest them. So, start small, just like you would start running in the valleys instead of straight up the mountain. The wonderful thing is that you may find that you have traveled quite a long way up a mountain, just by keeping your head down and putting one writing foot ahead of the other for a long time. It is hard to refine your questions, define your terms precisely, or know just how your argument will work until you have actually written it all down.
  9. Your most profound thoughts are often wrong, or at least are not completely correct. Precision in asking your question, or posing your puzzle, will not come easily if the question is hard. I always laugh to myself when new graduate students think they know what they want to work on, and what they will write about for their dissertation. Some do, but by and large they don’t, and nearly all of the best scholars are profoundly changed by their experience in graduate school. They think in new ways, they have new insights and directions in their thought, and they end up writing about something they could not have foreseen when they started graduate school.
  10. Everyone’s unwritten work is brilliant. And the more unwritten it is, the more brilliant it is. You will meet a lot of very glib, intimidating people in graduate school. They are at their most dangerous holding a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, in some bar or at the table in some apartment. They have all the answers. They can tell you just what they will write about and how great it will be. Years pass, and they still have the same pat, 200 word answer to “What are you working on?” It never changes, because they are not actually working on anything. You, on the other hand, actually are working on something, and it keeps evolving. You aren’t sure you like the section you just finished, and you are not sure what will happen next. When someone asks you the dreaded, “What are you working on?” you stumble a bit, because it is hard to explain. The smug guy with the beer and the cigarette? Because he is a poseur, and never actually writes anything, he can practice his pat little answer endlessly, through hundreds of beers and thousands of cigarettes. Don’t be fooled: you are the winner here. When you are actually writing and working as hard as you should be if you want to succeed, you will feel inadequate, stupid, and tired. If you don’t feel like that, then you just aren’t really working hard enough.


Let me try to summarize what I have said so far: write every day, and write about big, hard questions. Most of what you write will not be very good, but you will learn a lot, and become a better writer. Start now, or as soon as you begin graduate school. Understand that writing well on profound problems is a skill you will have developed, if you are lucky, in five years from the time you start.


Your Dissertation


For reasons I have never understood, graduate students elevate their dissertation thesis to an almost mystical status, at least in their own minds. In fact, it is just a lengthy school project, not all that different from a big paper for class.


There are really only two rules you need to remember for beginning and working on your dissertation: 


The first rule is self-explanatory. Nonetheless, I will explain. (a) You are working on one requirement for your Ph.D. receiving less than half (maybe much less) as much money as a grad student than you will get once you finish your thesis and get a job. You need to get this done, instead of trying to become a tenured grad student. (b) This is your first work on a major topic. You don’t really know enough to make a lasting contribution. You should do the best you can, but you should only think of your thesis as a rough draft, at best, of the book you will eventually publish on the subject. (c) Finally, there are four, or in some cases five, professors who form your “committee,” but in fact they will often communicate with each other only through you. You will take a draft to one of them, and they will give you some instructions. Another may give contradictory instructions, and the third may dislike one of the first two so much that she makes new criticisms just to have something to say.


Those are three big problems: You need to finish, this is only a rough draft, and your committee is likely not of one mind. It would be truly remarkable if you were able to make a truly deep and lasting contribution to knowledge under these circumstances. You should make your thesis a solid exhibition of your talents as a scholar, but you need to lower your expectations a lot. Your thesis will probably not change the world. Life is long. Just finish the thing.


The second rule was “Don’t read. Write.” I suggest that every student I work with write this on a 3×5 card and tape it up in their work space where they see it constantly. Once you start your thesis, reading is a luxury. Don’t do it unless you have to. And you can tell if you have to when your dissertation adviser, or a member of your committee, tells you you have to. That’s it. Not some guy with a beer a cigarette in a bar, not your office mate. The reason they know all these obscure books is that they are spending all their time reading, instead of (say it with me) writing. You will continue to expand and fill in your bibliography for a year, or more, after you defend your thesis and before you submit it to a publisher.


Besides, why not let smart people everywhere be your research assistants? The best person I ever saw at this was one of my own dissertation advisers, Douglass C. North. The first time he would present a paper, it would be incomplete, with significant gaps in the argument. Doug is a very smart man, so an incomplete paper by him is still better than a complete paper from most of us, but it always seemed strange to me.


But then I realized what he was doing. It was what a computer programmer would call “machine-intensive debugging”: run the job, and see what error messages you get, instead of puzzling out the code all by yourself. Professor North would present his paper, which had the germ of a good idea but needed some more work. One of the people in the audience would say, “Oh, you should read Smith’s 1996 book on that, and also the articles by Mbuto and Jones.” North would then take the suggestion, and incorporate the new ideas. Don’t get me wrong; he fully acknowledged the comments, and cited the new books and papers appropriately. My point is that the writing comes first. If you read North’s published work, it contains some of the most profound and broad-ranging ideas of the last three decades. Those ideas are all North’s, but he wrote them down and then solicited comments on how to make his argument more effectively, and also on how to find other people’s work that contained some related ideas.


Of course, it really helps when “the germ of the idea” that motivates the paper is really good. But fortunately you don’t have to have a really great idea to write a pretty good thesis. When students go to graduate school, they often worry: “Will I have any good ideas?” Let me put your mind to rest: You have plenty of good ideas. The problem is that everybody in grad school has great ideas. Heck, the guy in the bar with the beer and cigarette…he has some great ideas.


What separates successful grad students from those who never finish their thesis is not so much the quality of the idea as their level of desire and their ability to finish projects. You can’t practice getting ideas, because that just happens spontaneously. But you can practice this: every time you have an idea, whether in class or while you are reading or when you are jogging or whatever, write about the idea as soon as you can, before you forget it. Keep a directory of possible dissertation or paper ideas on your hard drive or in a folder on your desk. Write down the main question, the puzzle you would use to motivate the work, and the references or thinkers that made you come up with the idea in the first place. If you do this seriously, and make each idea note a page or more, you will be surprised at how quickly you will accumulate ten or more publishable ideas.


Now, you have a stock of partially developed ideas to expand into thesis topics. You should be planning to defend your thesis proposal (or whatever your graduate school calls it) at the end of your third year if everything goes well, and under no circumstances later than the end of your fourth year. Work backward from that deadline, and plan out the sequence of intermediate mileposts.


It might look something like this, starting at the endpoint:



In conclusion: most people have a problem finishing their thesis. They say the reason is that they have trouble coming up with a good enough idea. That’s nonsense. Worse, it’s a copout. The real reason they have trouble is that they lack the discipline to make themselves sit down and write every day. And the reason for that is that they failed to develop discipline early in their academic careers. If you try to write three pages a day, four days a week, you will find the dissertation process easy and enjoyable.


Your Research Agenda


One of the reasons your dissertation ends up being not all that important is because everybody has one. Sure, some people don’t finish, but I’m talking about the people you will be competing against for jobs. You will be asked about your thesis, and people will care about the answers. But then they will ask you something about “What’s next?”


It’s worth having an answer to this question. You have plenty of pieces to work with if you have taken my advice and kept a file of ideas since the day that you started graduate school. The important thing to do is weave these threads into a fabric, something cohesive. You are not committing to the sequence of projects that you talk about, but it is important to have some ideas of an overall strategy or approach.


The main thing is to have an answer, a good answer, to the James Buchanan question I posed earlier: “What are you working on that people will want to read about ten years from now?” A common mistake is to think that if you simply accumulate a sufficient number of publications you will be a success. There is some truth to that, but remember why you got into this business in the first place? Ideas. You are interested in ideas, and how they shape the world. You owe it to yourself, if not the world, to try to refocus, to keep an eye out for the main goal.


As I said above, not all ideas are big and important. That isn’t a problem, because even small ideas have a perfectly legitimate role in the development of normal science. However, you have to carve out some time, maybe once a week, and think about it: “What am I working on that people will want to read a decade from now? What will I want to think about a decade from now?” If the answer is ….nothing….then you need to go back to the things that made you excited about this business in the first place.


Lots of ideas take years to bear fruit. I started my Ph.D. thesis in 1983, and finished it in 1984. I wound up publishing two papers from that thesis, one in 1986 and one in 1988. Those two papers have made a huge difference in my career. In both cases, I spent nearly an extra year working on the idea, developing it further and placing it more clearly in the literature to make sure the contribution was clear. The 1986 paper has been cited more than 150 times in the professional literature, and the 1988 paper was for a short time the definitive paper on committee rankings in the United States Congress.


When I talk to a junior person, and he (or she) tell me about their research agenda, he (or she) often say something like this: “I have a paper I am sending to [journal], and then I am sending one to [journal]…” and so on. What I am looking for, and what you will need to think about, is more like this: What really interests me about research? Why would a prospective employer believe you are so motivated to write about this exciting subject that they should give you a job, instead of the 100 or so others who applied for the position? You can’t fake deep interest, or commitment to ideas. So, work on your research agenda, and take stock of it every once in a while. I hope you do well.


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