A dissertation is proof that you can create new knowledge to the standards of scholarly rigor.

A dissertation is a story you tell about how the world is or ought to be.

A dissertation is a thousand cranes.

We keep talking about what a dissertation is and what a dissertation does for two reasons. First, because our mission is to move you from All But Dissertation (ABD) to becoming a PhD and the dissertation is the sine qua non of that process. Second, because a dissertation is a hard thing to wrap your mind around. It’s both similar and wildly different from things you’ve written before.

A dissertation is unlike anything but itself and so we use analogies and metaphors to get a grasp on it. The metaphor or analogy that works for you, that finally makes it click, like, “Oh! This is how I do this thing!,” is going to be different for everyone so we keep cranking them out hoping that you’ll find yours.

My PhD advisor used to say “A dissertation is an institutional document.”

She said this to me for four years and I never once understood what the hell that meant.


Until one day she told me that, for her dissertation, she had this idea to start each chapter with a short story and got lost in a creative quagmire which she was only able to pull herself out of when a friend told her, “A dissertation is an institutional document.”

That’s when I got it.

What she was telling me was that a dissertation was like any other institutional document:

  • A Passport
  • An Ikea furniture manual
  • A Job Ad
  • A CV
  • Teaching Evaluations

What institutional documents have in common is that they are meant to check off a series of boxes.

A passport establishes your citizenship and ability to travel as a citizen of a certain country.

An Ikea furniture manual is a legal document that prevents you from making a million dollars for suing Ikea because you didn’t know that the floof went in the florb.

A job ad is designed to recruit a qualified candidate while representing all of the interests of the parties contributing to the funding of the line.

A CV is designed to show off your experience in the three categories of an academic job: teaching, research, and service.

Teaching evaluations are designed to make sure that you don’t do anything that the university could get sued for in your classroom.

In some ways, thinking of the dissertation as an institutional document can be helpful. It can free you from the paralyzing fear that your dissertation has to be beautiful. Institutional documents are not beautiful. They are neither elegant nor eloquent. They check off boxes.

If that idea helps you get rid of some dissertating insecurities then take it with you.

The problem I see with thinking of the dissertation as an institutional document is that most of us don’t read or write institutional documents with any regularity.

As any successful writer will tell you, reading widely is an essential part of writing well.

It’s difficult to write well in a genre you’re not familiar with.

Familiarizing yourself with your genre is important for any writer to do. This is why we’ve previously advocated that, if you have time, you read the introductions of a few dissertations to familiarize yourself with the conventions of the genre.

However, you may not have time to look up and read dissertations in addition to everything else you’re doing.

That’s why we’ve come up with another technique that has helped our clients.

Instead of learning a new genre so you can write in it think of your dissertation as a story you’re telling.

The reason this works is because you are familiar with stories. From commercials to movies to novels stories are part of every day life.

You know stories. You know their benchmarks and how they progress. When you think of your dissertation as a story you’re telling you put yourself in familiar territory and writing your dissertation transforms from wandering lost in a dense wood to a magical adventure.

If you’d like to learn more about how to think of your dissertation as a story join us this Wednesday, 2-26, for our FREE Dissertation as Narrative webinar at noon PST. To receive your spot send us a message through the Contact page.

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