Monday, February 5, 2018

What am I training for again?

From PhD Comics

It's been a while since I've had the bandwidth to think about something other than my dissertation proposal.  When I started this process four years ago (starting with matriculation in March 2014) I thought I'd be the first or second person in my cohort to be done (ha!), but like most marathoners I guess I am part of the pack looking at the fast folks ahead of me 😏.  Being part of the pack does have its benefits, such as getting an idea of how long the process takes (having friends in other cohorts also helps with this).  I thought, initially, when someone submitted their draft (be it proposal or final dissertation) that you would get feedback and signs of life from your various committees soonish, but seeing Lisa's journey (currently at 5 weeks and counting) gave me a reality check. Waiting isn't bad per se (we wait for a ton of things in life), but I think it is the expectation of things to come that makes this type waiting much more anxious for us doctoral student. Questions pop in your mind such as: Will they like what we submitted?  How much editing do they need me to do? Will they ask me to go back to the drawing board? How long will that take?  And if I have to defend this thing next week...well, do I have time to prepare? Do I remember everything I read in my review to the literature? eeek!

That said, I think I should rewind a bit.  What have I been up to?  Well, lots, and lots, and lots of reading and then funneling that into some sort of literature review. The past 4 (or 5?) weekends have been about process (and grit?); they have been about sitting down for hours and crafting what I learned into a coherent literature review. They have been about concentration (and probably some weight gain due to all the sitting...maybe some bad posture as well).  And, at last, this past weekend I finished the 139 page monster, put it all into one word file and emailed by advisor (hopefully she won't hate me because of the length 😜 ).  Without counting references, front-matter, and tables of contents, here is what the word count breaks down to:
  • Chapter 1: Introduction  ≅ 3,800 words
  • Chapter 2: Literature Review  ≅ 16,600 words
  • Chapter 3: Methods ≅ 6,700 words
Assuming that the average academic article is around 8,000 words (with references), I've written 4.5 academic articles, and this isn't even the full dissertation!

Now that the draft is submitted I have some free time (maybe 3-4 weeks if other cohort-mates reports are any indication of average length of waiting) to work on a research project that's been on the back burner and that's collaborative. In this project, in order to make it  to the appropriate word length the operative word is cut. This is a little challenging because when it comes to cutting there aren't really that many options.  Do you cut your methods?  Then reviewers will call you out on incompleteness of methods (and you might actually get penalized for it!).  Do you cut your findings?  Well, for a qualitative research paper without some qualitative data (which takes up space) you could be told that there isn't enough data (or they could say that you are making things up).  Do you cut the literature review?  Well, this seems like the most likely place to make cuts, but how is your reading audience assured that you did your due diligence? Hmmmm... dilemma...dilemma...dilemma.

This pondering lead me down another path: a recent (recentish?) tweet by Maha Bali, a critique of doctoral programs.  The gist of it was that PhD programs don't really prepare you for a lot of things that are expected in academia. The traditional pillars of faculty in academia are research publishing (usually of the academic article variety), service, and teaching; however the critique was that doctoral programs don't really prepare you for these things. I think this is is a much larger discussion which first needs analysis of what faculty actually do and what they are asked to do. Maybe this is an opportunity to examine what faculty do and their relation to other roles at the institution, but for now I want to focus on one part of it: the research and publishing.

I consider myself lucky to have had opportunities to research and publish prior to pursuing my EdD, and to do this both alone and in collaboration with others (as an aside, I find collaboration more satisfying as it satisfied both work and social aspects of life). Working on the doctoral degree affords me the opportunity for some directed study to fill in potential areas that I was missing, and to see things from different frames of view; for instance I have a finer understanding of learning in other fields such as military and health-care (just to pick on a couple) because of my cohort-mates.

However the dissertation process, and the reason for this process, seems quite arcane to me. I understand, from a cognitive perspective, that the dissertation is meant to showcase your skills as a researcher; and those with more romantic dispositions among us might also say that it contributes to the overall level of knowledge in our field. But if you are one of those romantics let me ask you this: when was the last time you cited a dissertation in your research?  And, just in case you are a smarty-pants and you have cited one dissertation, how often do you check out dissertation abstracts for your literature reviews? I digress though... Back on point...

It seems to me that as an academic (well, if I chose to go the tenure track once I earn my EdD) I need to contribute to the field by writing research articles, field notes, book chapters, reports, and maybe even a whole book; and I also need to provide peer reviews to fellow authors.  With the exception of book writing (which every academic does not do), the vast majority of writing is between 3,000 and 9,000 words.  A dissertation  is considerably longer. This makes me wonder (again) whether the purpose of the dissertation is one of endurance (i.e. if you can do this, you can do anything!) or of holding us up to romantic, inappropriate, or irrational standards, as in "once you graduate you are expected to write books". As an aside, this may have been the case when there were fewer scholars around, but these days there aren't enough positions open in the traditional tenure-track faculty profession, so the Alt-Ac isn't even addressed or acknowledged...but again, I digress.

The instructional designer in me has pondered the purpose of the dissertation (even before I applied to doctoral programs). If we've already replaced the once prevalent Masters Thesis with other means of assessment (or at least made the MA Thesis as one of a few options), why can't we do the same with the Doctoral Dissertation, which - if we're honest - just another form of assessment.  I should say that my own point of reference here are what are called 'taught' PhDs where there is required coursework before you are allowed to be a doctoral candidate, and not the kind you might find in Europe where you are apprenticed into the discipline by applying as an apprentice (basically) and just work on your dissertation upon completed of a masters program.

So my three questions out there for you:

  1. Do the traditional pillars of academia still hold up or should be re-conceptualized? What might they be? and how do they work collaboratively with other parts of the academy?
  2. Based on these current pillars where does doctoral education fall short (name your field as fields will most likely vary)
  3. Keeping the dissertation in mind: what would you replace it with? What are the underlying assumptions for your model?


Discussion welcomed (if you blog, feel free to post link)