01 Jul Blog: What I wish my PhD supervisors had told me (part 1)
By Ward Berenschot
Area Studies is shooting itself in the foot with its singular focus on dissertations
To be clear: during my PhD trajectory I had two wonderful supervisors, whose kindness, erudition and inquisitiveness were both very stimulating and supportive. When I defended my dissertation on Hindu-Muslim violence in India in 2009, I felt lucky that I experienced none of the supervision problems one often hears about. And yet in the years after that that defense I felt that something had been missing.
Actually, two things had been missing: I realized that during my PhD I had never really discussed article writing and research design, two of the main challenges of academic life. I also realized that this was not really an error or omission on the part of my supervisors. These two issues are actually commonly neglected in the supervision of PhDs in Area Studies, my academic field where social scientists specialize in countries and regions rather than disciplinary topics. I will discuss research design in my next blog. Here, I will focus on the neglected art of article writing. A disclaimer: yes, I am generalizing terribly and exceptions can be found.
The focus of PhD trajectories in area studies is on The Book. PhD students graduate on the basis of a dissertation. They do not graduate on the basis of a set of articles, like most of their peers in, say, political science or economics. There are good reasons for this preference for a dissertation: area studies is about capturing complex realities which are not easily condensed into an article. Furthermore, writing a monograph is an important academic skill.
Yet this emphasis on The Book comes with important downsides. Ever-pressed for time, such a system stimulates both students and supervisors to focus on chapters-writing, while article-writing gets perceived as an extra, which students are expected to do on the side. The result was that when I defended my dissertation, I knew next to nothing about how academic articles are written. Like many of my colleagues, I had never discussed a draft article with any of my supervisors. They had never advised me on the particular challenges of getting an article published in a peer-reviewed journal. In the years that followed, I slowly acquainted myself with these challenges – ranging from reviewing an academic debate and formulating your contribution to picking a journal and dealing with reviewers. As I struggled on my own to master the tricks of the trade, I often thought: how much easier and faster it would have been if my supervisors had schooled me about these things. The life of PhD students and post-graduates would be much easier if learning these tricks of the trade would be a standard aspect of PhD supervision.
But this is about more than individual learning curves. Area Studies as a field is shooting itself in the foot with this relative neglect of article writing. Due to the emphasis on The Book, Area Studies PhD students often enter the academic labor market with relatively few publications under their arm. Those graduating on the basis of articles usually have three or four article to flaunt, while area studies PhDs have to make do with an as-yet unpublished manuscript. This curtailed competitiveness of PhDs is a self-inflicted contributor to the decline of area studies in recent decades.
The narrow focus on dissertation-writing is a luxury that PhD trajectories can no longer afford. Article-writing – preferably jointly by student and supervisor – should become a standard feature of PhD supervision, as is the case in other fields. That would boost individual careers as well as area studies as a whole.
Image: www.phdcomics.com – Jorge Cham.