Daniel W. Drezner

The best paragraph I have ever read in a dissertation prospectus

Your humble blogger is currently knee-deep in dissertation prospectuses (prospecti?), a rather curious literary form.  Here at the Fletcher School, a dissertation prospectus is a Ph.D. student’s attempt to describe his or her dissertation topic, including the central puzzle, the deficiencies in the existing literature, the proposed hypotheses and the testing strategy.  A prospectus runs ...

Your humble blogger is currently knee-deep in dissertation prospectuses (prospecti?), a rather curious literary form.  Here at the Fletcher School, a dissertation prospectus is a Ph.D. student’s attempt to describe his or her dissertation topic, including the central puzzle, the deficiencies in the existing literature, the proposed hypotheses and the testing strategy. 

A prospectus runs about 60-80 pages and, to be blunt, is extremely painful to both authors and readers.  It’s painful for the authors because, after having spent most of graduate school ripping what they read to intellectual shreds, they discover that coming up with their own original arguments is actually a pretty challenging experience.  It’s painful for the readers because it’s the academic equivalent of teenage poetry — there’s a lot of strong feelings and beliefs surging through the text in a thoroughly out-of-control and ungainly manner (and that’s the final version of the prospectus — you can only imagine what the draft versions of these documents look like).  Indeed, the adolescence metaphor works astonishingly well — I have engaged or witnessed many a conversation like the following: 

Ph.D. ADVISOR:  I think you should stop reading Wendt [or insert other trendy academic name here].  I don’t like the way his arguments are shaping your argument.

Ph.D. STUDENT:  But you don’t understand!!  I love him — as much as love can be socially constructed!!  He’s let me see the world in a whole new way.  He’s the key to everything!!!

Ph.D. ADVISOR:  You’re writing a dissertation on cooperation among transnational criminal groups — I just don’t think his argument works here.

PH.D. STUDENT:  How would you know which arguments work and which ones don’t?!  When was the last time you read someone who moved you — the Stone Age?!  I bet you’ve never read a piece of constructivist scholarship in your life.  You don’t understand me at all!!!!!

Ph.D. ADVISOR:  Calm down — I just think you might be better off if you read other people is all.  This is just an intellectual crush.  It will pass. 

Ph.D. STUDENT!!!  No!! Never!!  I’ve never read anyone else who can speak to my topic like him.  Wendt and I will stay together forever!!   

Usually, the final dissertations look significantly better — and thank God for that. 

As you might surmise, this is not an easy literary form to conquer, and in most cases is just a hoop that should be jumped through as quickly as possible.  Reading a bunch of these back-to-back can cause one to start muttering about how grad students ain’t what they used to be and what-not.  I am usually able to resist such mutterings by forcefully reminding myself that my own dissertation prospectus was such a bland and vague piece of crap ("I want to write something about sanctions") that I purged it from my hard drive as soon as possible in order to thwart all my future biographers achieve some peace of mind. 

Every once in a while, however, a Ph.D. student hits upon the delicate alchemy of fear and arrogance necessary to write an engaging prospectus that suggests an excellent dissertation.  Maybe not even an excellent prospectus, but just a scintillating paragraph or two that suggests the student’s intellectual trajectory is really, really promising. 

This morning I stumbled across one of those paragraphs in a fascinating prospectus on international water boundary disputes (really!), which I now share with you: 

While other water law studies have attempted to analyze the origins of water law, the study of water law in ancient societies tends to be cursory and rife with misnomers and mistakes. For instance, most cite the Hammurabi Code as the oldest water law, when with little effort it is easily discoverable that both the codes of Lipit Ishtar and Ur Nammu both contain water provisions, pre-date Hammurabi by at least 250 years, and clearly provide the normative underpinnings on which the Hammurabi Code was constructed.   This study will therefore seek to build a solid historical foundation on which to ground further analysis of modern transboundary water law.

It’s the phrase "easily discoverable" that tickled my intellectual fancy — and, fortunately, the rest of the prospectus appears to back up the promise of that paragraph. 

It’s moments like these that forcefully remind me that, for all of the problems and pathologies with the modern academy, I really, really, really, really love my job. 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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