Five Reasons Not to Embargo

To embargo your dissertation or not to embargo? The question has been debated within the historical discipline. Recently I had a conversation on Twitter with Michael D. Hattem (@MichaelHattem) on the subject, particularly over his guest AHA blog post. On Twitter he made the perfectly reasonable assertion:

With that in mind, I have written this blog post with a few quick reasons why I think graduate students in history should consider NOT embargoing their dissertations. I do not expect this to end the discussion at all, but I hope to help provide a counterpoint to a strong narrative that asserts any grad student who cares about an academic future should embargo.

(1) Other scholars do have a harder time finding and reading your work

My own dissertation is available open access through the University of Kansas ScholarWorks site. (Go read it!) Since I finished it in May 2013, dozens of people have downloaded my dissertation including, as of this post, eighteen views outside of the United States from seven different countries. I do not know eighteen people outside the U.S. who might be interested in my work! Perhaps those folks would have emailed me to ask for a copy of my dissertation, but I am doubtful of that.

Another quick story: I am friendly acquaintances with a prominent scholar in my field. Out of the blue that scholar sent me an email last year asking for more information about a source I cited in my dissertation. Would that scholar have emailed me to ask for my dissertation? Perhaps—it is definitely possible. But the ease of getting a copy of my work made that person reading it more likely. Put simply, embargoing your dissertation means that fewer people will read it.

(2) Embargoing creates a culture of fear

Every graduate student I have talked to who has said they are embargoing is doing so because they fear that not doing so will somehow make their dissertation unpublishable and thus hurt their job and career opportunities. The fear is palpable in their comments, thick with worry during such a difficult and uncertain moment to be seeking employment in our profession.

Graduate school, at times, seems designed to psychically damage young, bright, hardworking people. This discussion plays into that by helping to convince new PhDs that the reason why they have not found a job is because they are not working hard enough, not publishing enough, not doing something they should be doing, etc. For many fields this is nonsense—as has been stated time and again, there are simply too many applicants for too few positions. This means that many good candidates will not get any position, let alone the dreamed tenure track job. Do not let fear convince you that your difficulty on the job market is purely because of some step you are not taking.

(3) I have real doubts that most editors care

I have never heard of a press or series editor who cared whether a potential author embargoed or not. Even more, I have never even heard of one asking me or anyone else under any context whether we did. In this discussion I have heard from a number of academics at all stages of their careers that “editors care.” Who are these editors? Why do they care? Because…

(4) No matter the embargo length, it is not forever

This means that any potential book would be out after or only shortly before the embargo ended. Most embargoes are slated to go one to three years. It is nigh impossible to get a first book out within three years time, as the amount of work revising a dissertation (intended to demonstrate to a committee that you are ready to join the profession) into a academic monograph (intended to make a scholarly contribution to your field) is substantial. Moreover, those substantial revisions mean that when the embargo does end the book will be something very different than the dissertation ever was. As an example, one friend is starting completely from scratch with the book manuscript, using much of the dissertation’s research but adding to it so substantively with new research and arguments that merely revising would have made a total mess of things.

Even the AHA’s recommendation of six years means that, presuming someone was fortunate enough to secure a tenure track job immediately out of graduate school and had to have their first monograph out before tenure review in 5 years, the dissertation embargo would end within a year or two of the book’s printing anyway.

In the historical discipline the embargo simply does not hold the work out of the public realm for long enough to make much of a difference. In other disciplines this point can completely change. For example, in the natural sciences there are frequently patents and that application process involved. Such people have very, very different concerns than a history PhD looking to publish a monograph. Since the embargo will likely end before the book is published, the supposed gains from embargoing seem moot.

(5) Embargoing wastes time

I put this reason last, but I do not think it is entirely inconsequential. Embargoing may only take a few hours of your time to get the appropriate signatures and turn in the correct forms, but why spend that time if you do not have to do so? Spend that time instead reading another book in the historiography, revising an article, or even preparing your book proposal for a press.

Or… spend that time doing something entirely unrelated to work. Graduate school seems frequently makes people feel guilty about not working every minute of their lives. That feeling does not end with PhD conferral, either. Instead of dealing with the embargo, read for pleasure, watch a movie, or have dinner with friends and family. Start practicing what it will be like to be a professional who balances a career and a personal life right now, because hopefully that is what you will be soon.


At the end of his post, Hattem notes, “conflicting anecdotal evidence and a lack of metrics exacerbate the problem and call for caution and individual choice.” Absolutely fair in some ways—all I have presented above is anecdotal.

But I would assert this: Cowing to fear of the unknown is no way to live your life. Caution is one thing, but there is a difference between reasonable caution like looking both ways before you cross the street and unreasonable caution such as an unwillingness to walk on street grates for fear that you might fall in (one of my wife’s phobias). If you are going to embargo make sure you are doing it for concrete reasons that directly affect you and not merely because of some career or job market bogeyman you fear.