Monday, March 07, 2016



Katie Shives’ piece in IHE on dissertations is well worth the read.  It’s an attempt to bring the dissertation down to earth, so folks in the midst of writing them don’t lose perspective.

From a hiring perspective, I can attest that there are exactly two kinds of dissertations: done, and not done.  I’ve heard all sorts of variations on “not done,” but they all boil down to “not done.”  Not every job requires a doctorate, of course, and that’s fine.  But for the ones that do, or for the ones for which it’s strongly preferred and the field is strong, “not done” is just not the same as “done.”

That sounds simplistic, and in a sense, it is.  But dissertations have ways of expanding to overfill available time.  I’ve seen too many people distracted for years on end as they try to slay the dragon that they swore would be done in a semester.    

The catch, of course, is that graduate student funding is often predicated on still being enrolled.  When graduate funding expires with the dissertation, but the real job requires that it be done, the strike zone gets forbiddingly narrow.  And a gap year (or more) is not a pleasant prospect, given typical adjunct wages.  That’s one of many design flaws in the academic job market.

In grad school, I remember being initially terrified of the prospect of writing a dissertation.  It just seemed too big a task.  The idea loomed large for several years -- a cause of no small number of sleepless nights -- until I got the bright idea to go to the library and actually look at a dissertation that a colleague had written a few years before.  He had done quite well, the dissertation had won awards, and people spoke of him in an “I knew him when” sort of way.  It seemed like a good place to start.  I found it and took a look.

And it was...fine.

It was a long, perfectly competent, humanly-produced piece of work.  That’s all.  

Suddenly it seemed possible.

Still, for my money, the wisest words on dissertations belong to The Girl.  This exchange happened in 2012, when she had just turned eight.

The Girl brought a hardcover copy of my dissertation to me as I was typing.

TG:  Daddy, did you write this?

Me:  Yes.

TG:  So you just wrote your second book?

Me:  Well, no.  That’s my dissertation, not a book.

TG:  What’s a dissertation?

Me;  It’s like a really, really long paper that you have to write to get your Ph.D.

TG:  Who are the characters?

Me:  It doesn’t really have characters.  It’s more like an article.

TG:  That’s a long article.  It has a cover like a book.

Me:  Yes, it does.

TG:  But it’s not a book?

Me:  No.

TG:  That’s silly.

She wasn’t entirely wrong...

I'm not sure how common this is, but I've heard of grad programs in the biological sciences give Ph.D. students the option of four peer review journal articles as an alternative to a long dissertation. This seems like a very reasonable alternative to me.
We have that as an informal rule in places I have worked although I don't know how widespread it is. It's more aimed at PhD candidates who have already been working in research so they are already pretty immersed in the literature and have a pretty clear idea where they are going rather than fresh grads who haven't worked in the area before.
I'll second your point from the hiring side and the point of the original article from the ABD author of the article. I've been on both sides. That was a nice take on the old (and true) saw that "the best is the enemy of the good". The problem undoubtedly originates with same pyramid-of-success issues you raised in yesterday's blog entry. We got where we are by being the best, and find it terribly difficult to change that approach.

I learned something about that when my major prof showed up at my defense with a bottle of champagne in a plain paper bag. They didn't care about little details that horrified me, and never caught an actual error that I found when working on a part of it that would later be published. They cared that it was my work and that "I would not embarass them". (An implicit standard that I had learned about a year earlier when a student got grilled during his defense when he wouldn't admit the obvious, that he didn't know the answer to the question. There really is nothing worse in science than BSing when you aren't really an expert.)

BTW, I had heard in my department that a paper (either a monograph or first author) could be a complete chapter in your disseration, after copyright permission from yourself and the journal, provided it was part of a coherent whole. However, those who could have done that usually just cited the paper(s) and used the dissertation to record the many things that could never actually make it into a paper. The option might be there to avoid self-plagiarization in a case where the paper contained all that was needed and the dissertation only needed to add a chapter that worked through the preliminary details.
This is actually true. Writing and completing a dissertation is a very important part of a PhD research and hence it becomes vital for a student to turn their "not done" thesis into a "done" one.
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