What To Read to Write 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 writing an effective dissertation that conveys all of the work that has been done? That part of the dissertation receives very little attention. This is crippling. When I was in graduate school, most of my advice on how to write came from a course taught by a writing consultant hired by the graduate school. Now that I am trying to help students write their own dissertations, it is very apparent how hard we struggle to write well.

Why there is so little attention to the craft of writing a dissertation is probably a subject for another post. But, two factors seem important. One is that you don’t have to write a good dissertation 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.

Third, this list reflects my own education, and my own tastes. These are books that I myself found useful as I learned to write, not least because many of them were written by people familiar to me between 1995 and 2005. Obviously there are lots of other good books to read! Some readers may wonder why I did not look back earlier than around 1990 for examples. The answer is surely in part a kind of recency bias, but also that it is harder for me to come up with books from prior to 1990 that I would recommend emulating as pieces of writing for current graduate students.

My fourth and most subtle caveat is that these are almost all examples of “early books.” By this I don’t mean that they were the first book that each author ever wrote (some were, some weren’t), but instead that these are books that almost certainly had to win a contract on the merits of the argument and writing rather than the identity of the author. If you are writing a book style dissertation, this is how it will work for you too. As a result, these books are missing the type of grandness that one can find in a third book from a senior scholar, with one important exception that I will discuss below.

I’ve divided the list up by style, depending on the form of evidence that the dissertation uses.

For theoretically informed single-country studies:

For small-n cross-national and historical comparisons:

For nested/multimethod designs:

For dissertations that employ formal theory:

For IR theory and history:

I really struggled to recall exemplary political science writing in books that were almost exclusively quantitative and that inspired me. This is not a comment on the scholarly value of these contributions, but it does perhaps suggest that without sustained engagement with at least a couple of cases, it can be difficult to construct a compellingly-written book. One example that I do think is quite effective on this regard—but which violates the “early book” rule—is

If you are writing an exclusively quantitative book, this is where to look for inspiration.

What do all of these books have in common? I’d highlight a couple of features. An effective introduction—you know what the book is about and the argument by page three. Many actually write “This book is about…” (and therefore, so did I). Subtle signposting throughout the book. An effective argument that the phenomenon under consideration is important and interesting.

But really what characterizes these books as a collection is direct writing in non-specialist language and a chapter and sub-section structure that reflects the analytical problem. When form follows function like this, the result is a book that you can read carefully… but also one that you don’t have to read carefully. This is the goal to which all dissertation writers should strive.