Graduate Students

The Dissertation Can No Longer Be Defended

Fabrizio Costantini for The Chronicle

Alex Galarza, a Ph.D. student in history at Michigan State U., works on an interactive digital dissertation on soccer clubs of the 1950s and 60s in Buenos Aires.
February 11, 2013

The dissertation is broken, many scholars agree. So now what?

Rethinking the academic centerpiece of a graduate education is an obvious place to start if, as many people believe, Ph.D. programs are in a state of crisis. 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.

As a result, many faculty and administrators wonder if now may finally be the time for graduate programs to begin to modernize on a large scale and move beyond the traditional, book-length dissertation.

That scholarly opus, some say, lingers on as a stubborn relic that has limited value to many scholars' careers and, ultimately, might just be a big waste of time.

"It takes too long. It's too isolating," says William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College and a critic of graduate education who writes frequently for The Chronicle. Producing a dissertation is particularly poor preparation, he adds, for graduates whose first jobs are outside of academe—now roughly half of new Ph.D.'s with postgraduation employment commitments. "It's a hazing ritual passed down from another era, retained because the Ph.D.'s before us had to do it."

Scholars cite numerous reasons for why the dissertation is outdated and should no longer be a one-size-fits-all model for Ph.D. students.

Completing a dissertation can take four to seven years because students are typically required by their advisers to pore over minutiae and learn the ins and outs of preceding scholarly debates before turning to the specific topic of their own work. Dissertations are often so specialized and burdened with jargon that they are incomprehensible to scholars from other disciplines, much less applicable to the broader public.

The majority of dissertations, produced in paper and ink, ignore the interactive possibilities of a new-media culture. And book-length monographs don't always reflect students' career goals or let them demonstrate skills transferable beyond the borders of academe.

Nontraditional Approaches

Some universities have started to make changes. Graduate programs in history, literature, philosophy, anthropology, and sociology the City University of New York, Michigan State University, and the University of Virginia, among other campuses, have put significant amounts of money into digital-humanities centers and new-media and collaborative research programs that can support students who want to work on nontraditional dissertations. They hold digital boot camps and have hired faculty with the expertise to train graduate students who want to do digital work.

Others allow students to write three or four publishable articles instead of one book-length text. Or they encourage students to shape their dissertations for public consumption. History students at Washington State University, for example, work on projects that can be useful to museums, historical societies, and preservation agencies.

Some graduate programs allow students to work collaboratively. Doctoral students in history at Emory University and Stanford University, among others, work together on projects with help from faculty, lab assistants, computer technicians, and geographers, who use digital techniques like infrared scans and geolocation mapping to build interactive maps that, for example, tell the history of cities and important events in visually creative ways.

These programs seek not only to move students beyond the single-author monograph but also to improve upon the isolating dissertation experience and to replace the hierarchical committee structure with the project-management style of collaboration that is required by many employers.

"The economic realities of academic publishing, coupled with exciting interpretive and methodological possibilities inherent in new media and digital humanities, mean that the day of the dissertation as a narrowly focused proto-book are nearly over," Bethany Nowviskie, director of digital research and scholarship at the University of Virginia Library, said in an e-mail.

While such efforts to modernize and digitize the dissertation are good, they do not go far enough to revamp doctoral education, many scholars say. To reduce time to degree and make other key improvements, they argue, broader changes in need to be considered.

"You can't separate the dissertation from its context," says William Kelly, president of ­CUNY's Graduate Center. "We need to look at the degree as a whole and be student-centered."

Faculty and administrators, he says, should find ways to help students move more efficiently through graduate school from Day 1. Changes in the dissertation process are key, including focusing course requirements and exams more squarely on preparing students to write those dissertations, as long as that task remains necessary.

To help more students complete their Ph.D. programs, and to do so more quickly, CUNY has unveiled a five-year fellowship program that will aid 200 new doctoral students. Participants will have their teaching obligations reduced from two courses to one course per semester during their second, third, and fourth years. Their annual stipends will be increased to $25,000 from $18,000, in the hope that they will spend less time on teaching, grading papers, and outside work, and more on their own research.

The graduate center will also reduce enrollment across its graduate programs by one-fourth by 2015, to put more resources toward helping students succeed. CUNY now enrolls 4,200 doctoral students.

At the University of Washington, starting this fall, students in a doctoral program in Hispanic studies will be required to enroll in a new course that will help guide them in beginning preliminary work on their dissertation prospectus. They will also be trained in public forms of scholarship, so that their work will be more attractive to employers outside higher education.

The program will also alter exams, to make them directly relevant to students' dissertations. The tests will comprise three elements: an annotated bibliography of the books that are relevant to student's research projects, a 10- to 15-page dissertation prospectus, and a 90-minute oral exam.

Stanford has recently proposed changes in its dissertation requirements, in an effort to reduce the time that students spend in Ph.D. programs to five years, from an average of nine years now. The plans include adopting a four-quarter system and providing students with financial support during the summer, so they can use that time to make progress on their dissertations.

Departments would be required to provide clearer guidelines about writing dissertations and to offer students alternatives to the traditional format, so that their academic work will match up with their career goals. Advisers would be called on to do a better job of providing students with timely and effective feedback.

A 21st-Century Dissertation

To the extent that dissertations have changed already, technological advances have been largely responsible. The rise of the digital humanities has opened up new interpretive and methodological possibilities for scholars and has challenged conventional understandings of the dissertation. Graduate students looking to take advantage of the interactivity of online platforms are doing digital dissertations that integrate film clips, three-dimensional animation, sound, and interactive maps.

One of those students is Sarita I. Alami, a fifth-year doctoral student in the history department at Emory. She is looking at the rise and fall of American prison newspapers from 1912 to 1980 and how prisoners used journalism to shape their experiences behind bars. Many novels and memoirs about prison life have been written for people outside prison. But Ms. Alami wants to provide a lens into prison culture through the words of inmates themselves, particularly how they discussed prison conditions and national and international politics.

She has done the usual work of reading scholarly articles and books. She's spent time in prison archives analyzing thousands of newspapers to see how their coverage changed over time. But she is also taking advantage of a digital microfiche scanner that Emory recently acquired. Its algorithmic software processes large amounts of text and returns useful keywords, allowing her to better analyze prisoners' use of language over time.

For example, at the height of the black-power era, she saw the use of words like "pig," "whitey," and "solidarity." "That was black-power rhetoric centered around prison activism," she says, "and it captures the anger, prison revolts, and rashes of violence discussed by outside media."

Much of her work, while taking advantage of new methods of analysis, will still result in a text-heavy, book-length document. But a big component of her dissertation, she says, will be a searchable online repository of prison periodicals, graphs, online exhibits, and explanatory text. On a Web site, she is documenting her research experience and introducing others to new digital tools.

Amanda Visconti, a doctoral student in her third year at the University of Maryland at College Park, entered the graduate program in English with a background in Web development, information studies, and user testing. She hasn't yet started on her dissertation—which will be digital—but has experimented with a prototype digital edition of Ulysses, which allows users to read the novel's first two episodes with explanatory annotations and images that appear when the reader moves his or her mouse over words that might be confusing.

"Digital editions do a lot of things, but I'm interested in making them more participatory, meaning that readers get an interactive, engaged experience instead of a passive reading experience," Ms. Visconti says. "Producing a traditional, book-style dissertation wouldn't help me do the scholarly work I need to do. And it wouldn't present that work to others in a way they could test, use, and benefit from."

Alex Galarza, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in history at Michigan State, is working on a digital dissertation on soccer clubs of the 1950s and 60s in Buenos Aires, examining how they were connected to political, economic, and social changes in the city. Rather than produce a written text that readers would engage with only passively, he wants people to be able to interact with his work, to dig behind his documents to see the sources he's using and draw their own conclusions.

A more traditional approach to his dissertation, he says, wouldn't provide an experience nearly as collaborative. He and a faculty mentor created the Football Scholars Forum, an online "scholarly think tank" that includes a group library, film database, audio archive, academic directory, syllabus repository, and online forum where researchers discuss monographs, articles, films, and pedagogy.

Mr. Galarza is a graduate fellow at Michigan State's digital-humanities center, which has 15 full-time employees, and he has received $2,000 in travel grants to attend digital-humanities workshops. Other than the scholars he meets at digital-humanities conference circuits and institutes, though, he doesn't hear many graduate students talk about incorporating digital methods into their dissertations. Most of his peers, he says, are neither exposed to those methods nor encouraged to try them.

Had he not received encouragement from faculty mentors at Michigan State, he says, he, too, probably would be writing a traditional dissertation. "If you don't have a program, mentor, and peers that are demonstrating that these are real possibilities," he says, "then it's hard to part from what everyone else around you and what your adviser tells you to do."

Barriers to Change

If most people agree that, after decades of debate, it's time to finally do more to revamp the dissertation, then why isn't such change widespread? The majority of graduate students are still sticking to the monograph version of the dissertation, producing static texts that are hundreds of pages in length and take roughly five or six years to complete.

The barriers to change are many, faculty members say. Graduate students themselves are part of the time-to-degree problem. More and more Ph.D. candidates intentionally linger in departments, in order to write exquisite theses, which they hope will help them stand out in a brutal job market.

What's more, many programs are behind the curve on technology, and many do not have professors with the skills to train students to do digital dissertations. On more than a few campuses, little, if any, technical support or clear guidelines exist for students doing digital dissertations. Nor do the usual dissertation books and workshops provide much help to those students.

Meanwhile, some scholars say the traditional approaches to the dissertation aren't necessarily in need of overhaul at all, even if digital and other nontraditional formats may be preferable for some projects. Anthony T. Grafton, a historian at Princeton University, argues that some of the proposals for changing the dissertation and reducing time to degree could affect the quality of students' projects.

"For me, the dissertation makes intellectual sense only as a historian's quest to work out the problem that matters most to him or her, an intellectual adventure whose limits no one can predict," he says. "There's no way to know in advance how long that will take. Cut down the ambition and scale, and much of the power of the exercise is lost."

Many other professors say that until the tenure process no longer requires the publication of book-length works, scholars in the pipeline will continue to follow the traditional formula for writing dissertations. Some students complain that when they create a digital dissertation, they must also produce a text version. Many campus libraries have not ironed out the wrinkles in terms of submission, guidelines, and repositories. And the extra work, of course, doesn't tend to lessen the time to degree.

Ms. Visconti, the Maryland student, says she has had to defend her decision to do a nontraditional dissertation to academics who don't seem to think that digital projects on their own are scholarly enough. Some people assume, she says, that projects like hers are just Web sites where scholarship get published electronically; those professors don't seem to understand how digital work can produce new tools for analysis that allow researchers to ask new questions.

"There is the lingering opinion that writing monographs is the only scholarly act," she says. "Other activities, such as coding, designing, scholarly editing, and experimentation, are pre- or postcritical."

Ms. Alami, at Emory, says the measurement of student success is still usually the traditional monograph. But in the long run, she believes, she will benefit from the digital skills she's acquired. She's lucky, she says, to work with an adviser who pushes her to try new approaches. But her situation is not the norm, she acknowledges, and there is far to go before the dissertation is truly modernized.

"Even if faculty members are agreeing that things need to change with the dissertation," Ms. Alami says, "they usually end the conversation by saying, 'We're not there yet.'"

Correction (2/11/2013, 9:08 p.m.): This article originally stated that history students at Texas State University were among those allowed to write short articles instead of book-length dissertations. As a commenter pointed out, Texas State has no Ph.D. program. The program intended was that of the University of Texas at Austin, and the article has been corrected to reflect that.

Correction to the previous correction (3/22/13): This article implied that the history department at the University of Texas at Austin allows students to write several short, publishable articles, and it stated that they could submit projects related to public history, including for museums and historical societies. However, UT at Austin does neither; it requires traditional, book-length dissertations. Washington State University is thus the only college mentioned that encourages its students toward dissertations for public consumption. The article has been corrected to reflect that.