What is a good dissertation? (1)

There is a common saying in academia: “A good dissertation is a done dissertation.” It’s a claim that is a little cryptic to me because it can be interpreted in a few ways.  Is it saying that if it is good, then it will be done (i.e., accepted)? Or is it saying that if it is done, then it is necessarily good? 

I don’t want to get lost in debating the finer points of how that phrase could be interpreted, but rather to focus on the idea of a “good dissertation.”  What is a good dissertation?  By what standards or criteria do we say “it’s good?”  Phrasing the question that way, however, focuses on abstract criteria and obscures a crucial reality: research projects (including dissertations) are not matched up against abstract criteria in an abstract context, they are evaluated by individuals.  And different individuals hold different standards.

If you’re writing a dissertation, your standards are certainly the first to which you ought to refer.  If you hope to do original research, you need to start by trusting yourself and believing in your own judgement.  But, of course, self-evaluation is a tricky thing and it’s pretty easy to get lost in self-doubt.  

Because self-evaluation is difficult, it can be useful to rely on the evaluations of others, particularly the evaluations of professors with whom you work.  Speaking generally, you do not want your professors’ views to wipe away your own, but when it comes to saying whether the work is good enough, that’s a good time to take their views over your own. If your professors are satisfied, why push beyond that before getting your degree? And, in a way, the most important time to listen to your professors with respect to “good” is when you’re setting the limits of your project, because people who object to “a good dissertation is a done dissertation” often do so because they are ambitious (and ambition is good, in appropriate measure), which leads to trying to carry out projects that are large and difficult.