What Should I Do With My Dissertation? Solutions to Our Profession’s Failure to Mentor Young Scholars

Reuel Schiller

It’s no secret that the primary thought on the mind of most recent graduates of history PhD programs is future employment. In a world where the number of newly minted PhDs is double the number of advertised jobs in history departments, it couldn’t be otherwise.[1] Accordingly, when you encounter a young historian who has landed one of those few choice jobs, you’re most likely to think how fortunate they are. And, indeed, they are. But that good fortune should not hide the fact that the transition from graduate student to professor is a jarring one and that few institutions of higher education have given much thought to mentoring their newest faculty members. Many of us landed in a new, unfamiliar place, populated by people we didn’t know, facing substantial teaching obligations (some of which were outside of our area of expertise), staring at the face of a rapidly advancing tenure clock. And we were supposed to turn our dissertation into a book.

For the past three years I have run a program designed to assist young historians with this crucial task. Sponsored by the American Society for Legal History, the Wallace Johnson First Book Fellowship is a year-long program designed to guide fellows through the process of writing a book proposal and interacting with academic publishers.[2] It does so through a series of workshops that bring each of our fellows into contact with senior scholars, editors at academic presses, and “near-peers”—junior scholars who have just published their first book. These workshops provide constructive feedback on the fellows’ ideas about the relationship between their dissertation and their book project, and guidance about the mechanics of producing a book proposal. They also provide information about academic publishing. Additionally, the convener of the program interacts with the fellows on an individual basis, working with them on their proposals and advising them as they seek a publisher for their manuscript. Finally, and perhaps most valuably, the fellows benefit from one another. The relationships they build help them through the process of writing their first book both analytically (they are insightful readers of one another’s work) and emotionally.

Running this program has taught me a lot about what young scholars need to help them transform their dissertations into books. It is information that many of us learned by trial and error, if at all. Most obviously, people emerge from graduate school with very little sense of the mechanics of publishing an academic monograph. What does a book proposal look like? Do I need to have completed my monograph before I approach an editor? May I send my book proposal to multiple editors? How long does the process of publishing a book take? How will that fit into my tenure clock? What terms of a book contract are negotiable and what terms are not?

More importantly, most people who have just finished their PhD have never had a chance to think deeply about how a book is different from a dissertation. They frequently approach the process with more than a little wishful thinking. “Can’t I just write a new introduction, eliminate the block quotes, and send it to a publisher?” The focus of the Johnson Program is helping fellows to realize that their book will be very different from their dissertation. As William Germano has observed, your first book is not a revision of your dissertation. It is an adaptation of your dissertation.[3] It’s a book that you write based on the research you did for your dissertation. It has a different audience, a different style, a different structure and, perhaps, a different argument.

This is a daunting and often unwelcome realization, particularly when you are subject to a tenure clock. The goal of the Program is to help the fellows see that this daunting task is, in fact, an opportunity. We did not become historians to communicate our ideas to the four members of our dissertation committee. We became historians to communicate newly discovered narratives and novel interpretations of the events of the past to the public.  The book that emerges from your dissertation is your first opportunity to do that. As you write it you can throw off the restrictions of dissertation-writing: the obsession with historiography, the need to show all your facts, the unfortunate de-emphasis of narrative, the suppression of authorial voice. When you wrote your dissertation, you were writing for experts. Now you are the expert. What this freedom will mean to any given author differs in the specifics, and one of the goals of the Program is to help each fellow figure out how to use it.

Despite its relatively narrow focus (“scholars working toward the publication of first books in legal history, broadly defined”), the Johnson Program receives ten applicants for every slot.  This demand for the Fellowship reveals that our profession has not yet institutionalized ways to provide guidance for early-career scholars. It is a lacuna in our professional training.  There is, however, no reason that programs of this type could not be easily reproduced either by professional organizations, by history departments or, perhaps, by geographically proximate groups of history departments. Such programs are not particularly resource intensive, and they are an investment worth making. By smoothing the transition from graduate student to early-career professor, they will increase not only the quality of people’s first books, but also the well-being of young scholars as they enter the profession.


[1] https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/february-2019/the-2019-aha-jobs-report-a-closer-look-at-faculty-hiring

[2] For specific information about the fellowship, see https://aslh.net/award/wallace-johnson-first-book-program/.

[3] William Germano, From Dissertation to Book (Chicago, 2013), 27.

12 August 2020

About the Author

Reuel Schiller is the Honorable Roger J. Traynor Chair and professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

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