I don’t have a Ph.D. On balance, I think this is probably a good thing. There is no doubt that I would have learned a great deal in such a program (no matter what the substantive focus was). Ph.D students, though, seem to pick up terrible writing habits. This is what I like to call the “dissertation disease” that afflicts so many books and law review articles. So what are the symptoms of dissertation disease?
1. Excessive use of jargon.
A panelist on book publishing at the AALS Annual Meeting summed this up well by saying that “a dissertation is an exercise in showing what you know. A book makes an argument.” One trait that I can’t stand is the use of complex terms to explain ideas when simple words or phrases will do. The only purpose of jargon is to impress (a few) people with your knowledge. Jargon does not help explain what you are trying to say. My idea is that if a 2nd-year law student can’t understand what I’m saying, then I’ve failed.
2. Too much discussion of what other people think.
Writers with Ph.D training always give themselves away by spending lots of time talking about what other scholars say rather than making their own case. Citation to authors in the field is clearly important, and sometimes it’s necessary to refer to someone else’s work in the text. There is no need, though, for a tour of every book written on the topic.
3. Way too long.
I’ve posted about this before, but many people are guilty of writing papers that kill too many trees. There is a story that when Karl Marx wrote “Das Kapital,” a friend told him that it was too long. “I know,” Marx replied, “but people won’t take this seriously if it’s short.” In this sense, almost all professors are Marxists.
4. Dull writing
Lively prose is not the hallmark of a dissertation. This may be because dissertation advisors stress formality. It may be because their students are risk-averse and don’t want to offend anyone through the use of humor. I’m not sure.
So my advice if you have a Ph.D is to follow Yoda’s advice and “unlearn what you have learned.”