What is a good dissertation? (2)

While working on these good dissertation posts (of which this is the second of three), I looked at a few other sources on the web, and I found a blog post by a doctoral student who complained about how the expression “a good dissertation is a done dissertation” angered her and how it felt like it was something of an invitation to lower the quality of her work.  The post struck a chord, because her emotion mirrored what I often felt getting similar advice when I was working on my own dissertation.  It seemed to me like a gross violation of the concern for doing good work.

My view has changed over the years, however.  One factor that has driven that change has been an increasing respect for an idea I got from Laurence Sterne, the 18th century author, who once wrote (I paraphrase) that a bad letter on time is better than a good letter late.

In a way, finishing projects and meeting schedules are a set of skills in their own right—an ability to make practical compromises that are still theoretically and qualitatively acceptable.  The temporal factor is hugely important.  It matters for the audience: what is new and interesting to a person at a certain time may not seem as interesting or compelling five years later.  It certainly matters for the writer/researcher: the longer you spend writing your dissertation, the less time you have for other things.

This is all contextual, of course: someone who is working productively and is generally on schedule ought to focus on maintaining the highest quality possible rather than on just finishing as quickly as possible. But someone who has gotten stuck? For such people, it’s pretty valuable to start thinking about how to limit the scope of the project and focus on “just finishing”.