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Talk About Teaching and Learning

March 29, 2011, Volume 57, No. 27

On Advising Doctoral Theses

Margreta de Grazia

The greatest contribution my own adviser made to my doctoral thesis was to tell me that it was finished. Without this call, I might still be writing.  

My own thesis was completed with minimal input from my adviser, none from my committee. My adviser may have mentioned a few books that might be relevant but there were no drafts, comments, rewrites, approvals, disapprovals. I don’t think this was particularly unusual in the 1970s. This is not to say that training for the doctorate in English was less rigorous or intensive then than now: if anything it was more so—more languages were required, more coursework, more exams, more coverage of the literary canon. But the writing of the thesis was another matter.  ABD (all but dissertation) meant you were ready to work on your own.

Now, and certainly here in my department, an adviser at all stages plays a more active role. Perhaps this is because of the increased importance of the thesis in job placement. My generation was not so far from the era when a professor in an Ivy League department would only have to make a phone call or two to place his student. But now it is the thesis that has to open doors; and keep them open, when converted to the book on which tenure will largely depend. Of course there is a more selfish motive for this heightened investment in mentoring, even a vainglorious one.  There is no finer glory, especially in one’s own eyes, than in seeing a stellar thesis to completion.

Of course, much of the work of mentoring is mechanical. We are, perhaps above all, taskmasters who keep a steady eye on the exigencies of thesis production: requirements, funding, conferences, the market, and above all, time. A student is not likely to lose track of the clock, but its management over the course of several years is another matter. And the pressure to produce on schedule sets in with the first step:  the writing of that odd genre, the prospectus.

In the two most familiar uses of the term, the prospectus describes something that already exists. In finance, it provides information about a business’s securities. In book sales, it gives details about the forthcoming book already in production. But with the doctorate, the prospectus is an act of pure projection. It is literally preposterous: it puts first what should logically come last, the description of the thesis before the thesis.

This foregrounds a problem that goes to the heart of the thesis writing process itself. It is often the case that only after many months of being steeped in the materials does a student come to grasp the project’s significance. With many of the finest theses, only in the throes of writing does the subject come fully to light, and that might take some time. In my experience, it is generally best for students to postpone writing the introduction until the very end—when they know what it is that needs introducing.

This would perhaps not be the case if the field of literary studies were a fixed and stable area of scholarship and inquiry. One could then give it a good perusal and identify the missing pieces. But it is a rare thesis these days (I know of none) that professes to fill in a blank, providing what no one has written about before, perhaps, or has, but inadequately or long ago: an overlooked poet, a work in need of reediting or translating, the discovery of a manuscript, focus on an unexamined topic.

When students embarking on their thesis have no trouble articulating a project, my inclination is to probe until they do. This may sound perverse, but how—after several years of encountering and grappling with a morass of materials (literary, historical, theoretical) in a discipline of changing methodologies, values, and stakes—can there be clarity and certainty? It takes time for the materials to settle, take shape, come into view. Often the most promising projects are those that are most inchoate at the start.

Here are four examples of how bewildering beginnings have led to illuminating theses.

One student started off with the blunt announcement that she wanted to work on frames and glass in Renaissance verse. Many pathways and byways later, some theoretical and others quite practical, this resulted in the most brilliant meditation I know on the interrelation of poesis and techne, aesthetics and technology in Renaissance verse.

Another thesis got underway with a startling historical coincidence: in the same year (1520) that Luther published three schismatic theological tracts against Catholicism, he also wrote two biting sermons condemning usury. Deep immersion in the Church Fathers as well as Marxist economics led to a powerful account of the transition from the cultic medieval mysteries to the commercial Shakespearean theater.

A third student began with an ambitious desire to combine postcolonial studies and traditional philology by forging a connection between geographical place and rhetorical places (topoi). Only after a full canvassing of classical rhetoric was she able to identify the singularity of both England’s marginal global position and the stylistic errancy of its most novel poets.

And finally and most recently, a student’s starting point was the teasing colloquialism, “time out of mind,” a key concept in English common law. But what was it doing in literary texts? After painstaking readings of legal treatises along side key literary texts, she determined that in both discussions of political constitutions and literary composition, the concept was used both to secure tradition and precipitate innovation.

To work over time without knowing quite where your work is headed takes considerable intellectual stamina. There are flashes of insight from time to time, but they can be fleeting, and far between. And then there is dread of faltering when asked however casually what the thesis is about, not to mention periodic crises of doubt. But this is the cost of work that makes a difference. And it must be countered by trust in the program, in the practices it has inculcated, and above all in the intuition and curiosity that drive and sustain the project.

But I must not leave the impression that the all-knowing mentor knows all along how each thesis will turn out. On the contrary. I listen and read and wait for it to come together. And when I think I’ve grasped some part, I risk articulating what I understand. More often than not, certainly in the early stages, I’ve got it wrong; but the fact the student knows I have, means she is already closer to grasping it. So both the confusion during the process and its gradual lifting are shared.


Margreta de Grazia is the Sheli Z. and Burton X. Rosenberg Professor of the Humanities and a professor of English.
In 2003 she received the Ira H. Abrams Memorial Award for Distinguished Teaching and
in 2010, the Provost’s Award for Distinguished PhD Teaching and Mentoring.


This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.



Almanac - March 29, 2011, Volume 57, No. 27