A good dissertation
Graduate students working on their dissertations devote the vast majority of their effort to working on theory, research design, on evidence and inference, on case selection and language training and implementing surveys and getting into the archives. On all of these things, students have plenty of resources and places to go for guidance. But actually to get a job in political science, you need to write a good job talk. Since that is the hurdle that grad students need to jump through, the vast majority of advice from graduate programs targets the job talk and the job market paper.
The second factor, the subject of this post, is that we don’t encourage graduate students to read books, not really. Instead, because we recognize how little time students have and how much they need to read, we encourage them to read effectively, to get the main argument and to understand the evidence.
Yet it is only possible to read effectively if the thing you are reading is written well. That means that dissertation writers do need to write effectively. And that, in turn, requires dissertation writers to sit down and read books, not for argument, but for style and form and structure. The single most important piece of dissertation writing advice I received was to read more books, and to read them slowly and carefully while actively reflecting on style and structure. “Read this, and then write like that.”
That advice from a decade ago, coupled with several conversations over the past week, has inspired me to put together a collection of books that I think are exemplars of excellent political science writing in book format. That they all happen to be good books too is useful, but not my main point. My point in collecting them here is that these are books to read to learn how to write a good dissertation. Read these, then write like them.
Some caveats: First and most obviously, this advice is for writers of “book style” dissertations rather than “three paper style” dissertations. If you do not intend to sustain a single argument over the course of the dissertation, then obviously you don’t need to read examples of how to do it. Second, these are identifiably comparative or international political economy books—if you are writing a pure IR theory or pure area studies book I’m not sure how helpful these would be. Same with American Politics and Political Theory. These are books that were useful to me in no small part because I was writing a dissertation that was in some way similar.