The “Good Enough” Dissertation

Black graduate cap next to a rolled up diploma

“The best dissertation is a finished dissertation.” “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Spend enough time in graduate school, and you’ll hear both of these truisms at least once. Probably many more times once you start on the road toward writing your dissertation.

Alison Miller, PhD, owner of The Dissertation Coach, has written about the danger of perfectionism. In dissertation writing, as in life, perfectionism—the need for every sentence to be nailed down and correct before being able to move on, for example—is a recipe for never finishing. There’s no such thing as a perfect sentence. Or a perfect chapter. There’s no such thing as perfection. We all know it. The trap writers, including those writing dissertations, sometimes fall into is that they acknowledge that perfection is out of reach, but then replace that with the idea of “greatness.”

The thought goes something like this: “I may not be able to produce a perfect dissertation, but I want to write a great one. My dissertation will redefine my field. It will make a name for me that will precede me everywhere I go. My dissertation will be great, which will prove how great I am.” It may seem like an exaggeration to write that thought out in such simplistic terms. Putting things that way seems to ignore the fact that most people who embark on the graduate student path temper their desire for greatness with an equally (or almost equally) substantial sense of self-doubt. We want to be great; we’re afraid we never will be.

Too much self-doubt can hobble a person. Writing a dissertation—embarking on any challenging project or endeavor—requires some modicum of self-confidence, and it’s important to try to cultivate a healthy sense of belief in oneself. But self-doubt is regularly derided in our culture. We are told from a very young age to be bold. To stand up for ourselves. To dream big. We are told to conquer self-doubt. Greatness, on the other hand, is celebrated. We venerate child prodigies and singular geniuses. We are told, to quote Hamilton: the Musical that “greatness lies in you.”

GOOD ENOUGH

As a recent op-ed in the New York Times, “The Good Enough Life,” Avram Alpert, shows the ways in which the ideology of greatness cuts across historical eras and political differences. Alpert writes about the philosophical underpinnings of the notion of greatness, and he offers systems of belief that counter it by positing what he calls the “good enough life.” Although Alpert writes about a general attitude toward the experience of living, his ideas can be applied to graduate school and writing a dissertation. For the most part, those of us who are drawn to pursuing graduate studies excelled in college. We may have been at the top of our classes in high school, too. We studied hard and were rewarded for it. We were, according to the standards that judges undergraduates, great.

Then we get to graduate school, and the stakes get higher. We are surrounded by people who were just as great at their colleges as we were at ours. Our professors hold us to more rigorous standards. Our futures depend upon writing a dissertation that stands out from the crowd. We start to think that it has to be great. We have to be great. What gets lost is Alpert’s notion of “good enough.” Good enough is not another way of saying “mediocre”. On the contrary, to approach a dissertation with a “good enough” attitude is to understand the dissertation for what it is: not the opus that will define a person’s intellectual life. Not the final word a scholar will say.

A dissertation is a scholar’s first word. It is the graduate student’s chance to enter a conversation about a field, whether it be literature or history or physics, that has been going on before he came on the scene and will continue after she’s gone. It is hard to give up the idea of greatness. Writing a dissertation, after all, is a significant undertaking. It’s also the first time most people will take on a project of that size. And no one wants to think of himself as just ok. But that’s not what “good enough” means, in philosophy or dissertation writing.

Good enough means redefining “great” away from grandiose notions of importance, and replacing them with beliefs about the value of the work. Acknowledging that can remind the writer of why her topic interested her, of what drew him to study it in such depth. It can, in other words, allow some room for the intellectual joy that attracted the person to graduate school in the first place.

In his op-ed, Alpert talks about the Romantic poets and philosophers who “extend this vision of good-enoughness to embrace what they would call ‘the ordinary’ or ‘the everyday.’ This does not refer to the everyday annoyances or anxieties we experience, but the fact that within what is most ordinary, most basic and most familiar, we might find a delight unimaginable if we find meaning only in greatness.”

Striving to make your dissertation singularly great raises the stakes higher than they need to be. It puts an anvil’s weight of pressure onto the dissertation, weight that the project can’t sustain. It is that impractical expectation that can unintentionally lead to the self-doubt that we’re more used to focusing on when thinking about the difficulties of writing a dissertation. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, ratcheting down the meaning and value of greatness can end up helping boost a person’s self-confidence. And that is the best way to get to a finished dissertation, which is, after all, the best kind of dissertation.