Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Is the Dissertation still relevant?

It seems like the cosmos is back on another round on beating down on the venerable dissertation as final exercise for a doctoral degree. Stephen Downes posted yesterday this article from Times Higher Education which is asking the question as to whether or not the Doctoral Dissertation is obsolete.†

The article quotes Jeremy Farrar of Imperial College London:
“An awful lot is going unused and unread,” he says. “Is this really appropriate for the modern world? Communication within the science world and with the public is becoming shorter and snappier, yet our PhDs still seem to be stuck in the 1960s.”

Another strand here is a recent post from Maha who writes:
What’s a PhD got to do with….
  • Writing 6,000 word articles? My PhD was over 100,000 Words. That prepared me for writing books but not articles. Some PhDs are composed of articles but most aren’t so… 
  • Working collaboratively – you work alone and you learn to manage. Then in real life your research can be so much better when working with others 
  • Teaching. Unless your uni offers prof dev or you teach while doing the PhD  Audience. PhD prepare you for the safe-ish limited audience of your supervisor(s) and examiners. The rest if the world seems so much more intimidating by comparison. –
  • Confidence/ego. Let’s face it we need some kind of confidence and ego to succeed in academia. PhDs don’t help with this really unless the transformation happens within you. I was lucky i got some stuff published and some good feedback from mentors to give me that push in the end. 
  • Carrying oneself. I still get the “no, you have a PhD?” look/talk because I wear jeans and stuff to work more often than not (P.S. Having a 3-year old means other pants look dirty real quick from her shoes as i carry her on my lap and walking to daycare and stuff).
And finally, Latour (from the fifth uncertainty) writes:
A 50,000 word thesis might be read by half a dozen people (if you are lucky, even your PhD advisor would have read parts of it!) and when I say ‘read’, it does not mean ‘understood’, ‘put to use’, ‘acknowledged’, but rather ‘perused’, ‘glanced at’, ‘alluded to’, ‘quoted’, ‘shelved somewhere in a pile’.

I've been thinking about the dissertation as a final exercise for one's doctorate for a while now - maybe I've even written about it on here before (I honestly don't know what I've written over the last 5 years on here!).  Personally I think that the idea of one academic monograph, that is of book length, as your final exercise in a doctoral program is pretty antiquated.  I get the historical reasons for it, but I think that our world has changed a lot since doctoral degrees started being conferred. While writing a book, or having your hand in some sustained piece of writing is important, I don't think that  it is indicative of what we are asking of academics to do today! 

What we are asking of academics to do, people who have earned a doctorate is to publish original research in journal articles that are space-constrained (which boggles the mind considering that we are mostly foregoing print these days for OA journals). We aren't asking academics to go our and write books.  If anything (book related) - we are asking them to be editors, to compile works of others into cohesive and coherent volumes. Now, your mileage may vary by your discipline.  I can only speak from my little corner of the galaxy - the field of education.  Are there original works out there?  YES.  Are they coming out in droves?  Nope!  The most published things are academic articles.

No convinced? Pretty much all faculty members that I have spoken to about a potential dissertation (not at Athabasca- but that's just by chance, but at my home institution) tell me that I should pick a dissertation topic that lends itself to break it apart and creating a few publishable articles out of it.  Huh?  Really?  If you are meant to show a train of thought, and a way of processing something from soup to nuts, how are you also going to break it apart and have the smaller chunks make sense?

Furthermore, even if we accept the prevailing narrative of the one monograph standard, we have Latour (above) who bursts our bubble who says that the thesis is only read by half-a-dozen people.  We may not believe him, but I can also go (anecdotally) by my own experiences.  Most of what I read are academic articles.  I did read through a few dissertations this past semester as part of a class project and I have to say that most of them didn't impress me much. They were OK reads, but I expected much more quality, fewer typos, more coherent thought processes, and the answer to the "so what?" that Pat Fahy asked us to ask of what we read and what we do.

Lastly, having spoken to an acquisitions editor for big academic press a few years ago about dissertations I learned that dissertation almost never get published as books unless they undergo heavy editing and changes.  If the book is the gold standard, and publishers won't publish unless major rework is done, there is something wrong here.

So, where do we go from here?

Do you have any suggestions? What would you want to see in lieu of dissertation? I have some ideas, but I am pretty sure they would all get rejected by faculty councils ;-)



SIDENOTES:
† I didn't know until recently that Downes is ABD (all but dissertation). Maybe he does have a bone to pick, but does that mean he is wrong? I don't this so :-)
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