Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Best Dissertation Analogy Ever

I chatting with a NPSIA grad student, and we were joking about what it takes to complete a dissertation.  I said exhaustion--that after drafts go back and forth and comments get sent to the student, the professors agree to hold a defense because they are tired of the dissertation, and the student finally revises as they desired because he/she is tired of getting the same set of comments over and over again. 

But the student had an appropriate analogy from the civil war termination literature--mutually hurting stalemate!  Civil wars end in one of two ways generally--somebody has a decisive victory, leading the other side to surrender (Nigeria/Biafra) or the situation becomes one where both (hence the mutual) sides are facing significant pain as long as the conflict endures (hence the hurting) and neither side sees it as likely that they can win in the near or medium term (hence the stalemate).  Once both sides realize that neither can win and the pain accumulates, then they can start to talk. Of course, this does not guarantee that the two sides will agree to a peace.

Well, a dissertation is done when both sides think it is done, that further tinkering is unlikely to improve it substantially.  Actually, to be fair, all of the dissertations I have read the past few years are victories--that they end is apparent because the question has been asked, an answer has been posed, the research has been done to demonstrate whether the answer is credible/convincing or not, and the implications have been developed.  But sometimes, it does become a matter of exhaustion/stalemate.  And then something matters here that does not matter in a real civil war--there are rules about time of degree for many/all grad schools and penalties that are enforceable and credible become relevant.  Sure, outside actors can also promise such things to end a civil war, but they are often not all that credible.  On the other hand, someone can take longer to finish a dissertation if they get outside assistance that reduces the hurting part of the stalemate, like a spouse with a very good income....

Any thoughts about the advantages/limitations of this analogy?

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