Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: Reforming the Dissertation Process

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Reforming the Dissertation Process

  After coursework, after all the seminar papers, after exams -- the dissertation looms large for all doctoral candidates. But a recent article in The Chronicle provocatively suggests that the dissertation process is "broken," and that "[r]ethinking the academic centerpiece of a graduate education" might be a first step in addressing the larger problems happening in the graduate school world. Writer Stacey Patton notes that "Ph.D. programs are in a state of crisis,"and that some academics are beginning to talk about needing to "modernize on a large scale and move beyond the traditional, book-length dissertation." Patton notes:
"Universities face urgent calls to reduce the time it takes to complete degrees, reduce attrition, and do more to prepare doctoral candidates for nonacademic careers, as students face rising debt and increased competition for a shrinking number of tenure-track jobs."
One scholar/ writer, William Pannapacker, suggests the dissertation is outdated: "It's a hazing ritual passed down from another era, retained because the Ph.D.'s before us had to do it."
According to the article, what are some of the problems that the traditional dissertation presents?

  • It's too long of a process: Students are forced to "pour over minutiae" and "learn the ins and outs of preceding scholarly debates before turning to the specific topic of their own work." Students wind up in too much debt.
  • It's too specialized and jargony: so "burdened with jargon that they are incomprehensible to scholars from other disciplines, much less applicable to the broader public." Projects wind up only being read by a few people, making it feel, ultimately, like a meaningless exercise.
  • It's too limiting, intellectually and practically speaking: The traditional format "ignore[s] the interactive possibilities of a new-media culture" and may not "reflect students' career goals or let them demonstrate skills transferable beyond the borders of academe,"which only results in limiting the students' potential for future success. 

What are some potential solutions?
Have students create "three to four publishable articles" rather than one sustained book length project.

Providing new digital resources for students who may want to complete projects using new media formats. 

  • Here's what I envision this might look like: Spending a few years a creating digital, hyper-linked, "social" book project, conducting studies that explore new ways to read or teach based on digital and telecommunicative formats, learning the skills of digital archiving and producing an Internet-based project based on these skills. What do you all think or imagine?

"Encourage students to shape their dissertations for public consumption."
  • The examples in the article are inspiring -- a history student could work on a project for a museum, or a preservation agency. Again, like the solutions above, this option lessens the sense that the dissertation is just an exercise, and actually makes it useful to society, or to a company. Is it absolutely ridiculous to ask or think that a graduate student's final degree project could actually make a cultural or social impact? I think not!
What do you guys think about these suggestions? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of reforming this process? Do you agree that this is a "hazing ritual" that hasn't kept up with the times? Let me know what you think, and how you imagine the future! 

To send you off with a laugh, here's a P.H.D. comic I love:

Until next time, Liza


  1. I will follow your blog.If i did this before surely i could have done my dissertation very well.But now i am very clear with that.

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  2. Writing research and grant proposals is one of the most difficult -- and unavoidable -- requirements of graduate study in the

  3. It would have been into better understanding if they'll be sharing interesting dissertation topics online.

  4. Writing a dissertation is one of the most difficult process.
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