I was at one of the field’s doctoral schools a while back, to give a talk, and heard from a couple sources — both grad students repeating what they’d been told as well as from a faculty member — that the primary purpose for students to be enrolled in graduate school (or perhaps at that particular one) was “to write a field-changing dissertation.” Sure, being professionalized as a grad student, such as accumulated publications of your own and gaining teaching experience, can be important but, or so it was claimed, that can distract from your primary purpose: to write a field-changing dissertation.
I admit that I found this rationale a little odd. Even risky.
First off, given the labor conditions of the Humanities — conditions that stretch back decades, of course, but which keep getting worse (from an applicant’s point of view, at least) — the imprimatur of one’s training and the topic of one’s dissertation may end up mattering far less than the practical skills you bring to the table on day one of your first job. Sure, you might have a job interview at an elite school, with a light teaching load, small class sizes, and a large Department filled with specialists — thereby affording you the luxury of focusing all of your writing and classes on, say, just Krishna’s first speech in the Gita — but then again, you may have an interview at a dramatically different sort of Department, a small one in which you’ll teach three of four classes each semester, across a broad range of more or less general topics in the field. As important as your research may be to you, the ability of the Chair to have confidence that you’ll know what you’re doing when the first day of classes rolls ’round could, conceivably, trump some of those other things that you’ve been taught to value on your CV.
But more than this: I’m not sure what a “field-changing dissertation” even is; for if such a thing exists then it’s not changing the field as a dissertation but, instead, as the book it (might) eventually become; and, not growing on trees, books sometimes takes years to write (aka making revisions to your dissertation), let alone the length of time required to be contracted, copyedited, and published. And I’ve not yet even factored in how long it takes to get into people’s hands, to attract a readership, to be reviewed, and, if indeed “field changing,” the time it’ll likely take for the book to weather the initial criticisms and somehow rise above them. For field’s are not changed painlessly; there’s a lot of kicking and screaming on the part of those who have done it this way, and only this way, for their entire careers. There’s a lot invested in doing things a certain way. Change doesn’t come naturally to any group, academia included.
And so, despite the tremendous feeling of accomplishment that justifiably comes from finishing and defending your dissertation, changing a field (if it ever actually happens) is an incremental process that takes years, and more than likely decades, and thus involves far more people than a lone writer penning a revolutionary treatise — and so what will you be doing with yourself in the meantime? Hopefully paying the bills by means of those skills you acquired throughout your graduate schooling, no?
And then maybe working on your second field-changing book…
So aim high. Sure. But my unsolicited advice is also to recognize that, like any institution, there are a variety of factors at work in determining your long term success in academia. So while aiming to write a field-changing dissertation sounds like a great idea, it also sounds like an awfully long range goal that, to your own detriment, overlooks the many short term accomplishments (i.e., do you have teaching experience? what sort of service have you done? are you presenting conference papers?) that will likely determine whether you’re around to accept all of the accolades that your first book (might) earn for you some day.