Friday, October 27, 2017

The Future of the Dissertation Is Already Here

This post was contributed by Carolyn Law, Thesis and Dissertation Advisor in the Graduate School at NIU
James Whiton: "Aren't you jealous?"

How did we get here?
To talk about the future of the dissertation, you must understand a little something about its past. To say the dissertation has changed over the centuries is an understatement.

The first three doctorates in the U.S. were awarded at Yale in 1861. A dissertation was required, but only one of the documents survives today, the notorious dissertation of James Morris Whiton. It was handwritten, of course, entirely in Latin--six whole pages on the subject, “Brevis vita, ars longa” (Rosenberg, 1961).

Today, the average length of a doctoral dissertation in the sciences is hovering around 200 pages. There was a dramatic surge in length between 1950 and 1990 (Gould, 2016, p. 28), probably for a number of reasons. For one thing, literature reviews over time have grown because, frankly, there’s just more literature to review now and that body of literature is more easily accessed by students. Also, new theoretical frameworks, methodologies, and experimental procedures are often more complex, unfamiliar, and difficult to explain in academic prose than in earlier eras.

But much of the change in dissertations over the course of the 20th century was conspicuously driven by technology. A dissertation in the 1950s was produced on a manual typewriter with carbon paper. Corrections were made with a razor blade. I wrote my own master’s thesis on an IBM Selectric typewriter. By the time I got to doctoral study in the early 1990s, computers were available, but not universally used.

Big change was occurring in the access chain as well. A dissertation has always been a public document, but until very recently “public” did not mean “accessible.” Dissertations were typed directly or photocopied onto cotton-bond paper, bound, and shelved in research libraries. They were very rarely accessed and many (like two thirds of Yale’s PhD class of 1861) have been lost forever.

In 1938, a little firm in Ann Arbor began microfilming and archiving dissertations, mostly because they were a technology company in search of content and the massive stock of dissertations presented a perfect pool of material. UMI is today known as ProQuest International and it is the largest database and repository of electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs) in the world. In 2008, NIU made electronic submission of digital theses and dissertations (in PDF) mandatory. These documents are now discoverable and in some cases fully downloadable anywhere in the world, any time of day or night.

Recognizing the acceleration of technological change in the way research and scholarship are produced and shared in the 21st century, the Council of Graduate Schools convened a symposium in January 2016 on the future of the dissertation, citing “recent controversies about the purpose of doctoral education and the meaning of the dissertation” (Blackwell, 2015, p. 1). What came out of that meeting suggests that the future of the dissertation must include a heart-to-heart discussion of the role of doctoral education in general in the 21st-century knowledge marketplace. That’s changing too. More accurately, it has changed, but graduate education and its grand artifact, the dissertation, are lagging far behind the times.

Where do we go from here?
Graduate schools are just now beginning to grapple with three prominent issues arising in this evolving new-century context: authorship, access, and format. Some of the discussions we must continue to have include:
NIU students collaborating in a study lounge.

Collaboration and Coauthorship 
Most knowledge is created in groups, and in some disciplines the particular skills required to work in teams are absolutely essential to the successful conduct of an individual study as well as the professional development of the student-researcher. Shouldn’t dissertations be allowed to reflect that real-world process?

Open Access 
Knowledge that is not shared might as well not exist, and a dissertation that is not accessible fails to achieve one of its primary purposes. According to Maureen McCarthy (2016), Assistant Director of Advancement and Best Practices for the Council of Graduate Schools, “The idea of the dissertation moving a student from a private to a public phase resurfaced repeatedly” (p. 1) throughout the symposium in 2016. But the public nature of the dissertation in the 21st century is not the same as it was in the 20th. The internet, full-text downloadability, Creative Commons licensing, none of this was even imaginable when dissertations were routinely shelved in brick-and-mortar buildings. On the one hand, such accessibility furthers knowledge dramatically, but on the other hand, that accessibility may run counter to tenure review policies that privilege conventional publication. Shouldn’t dissertation authors choose their own levels of exposure? Shouldn’t students maintain control over their own intellectual property?

Alternative Formats 
In recent years, the idea of the monograph dissertation, an extended discourse on a single topic or experiment, has been challenged. The two most common complaints are that these papers take too long to write and they are not representative of the kinds of writing expected of working researchers. In economics, for instance, the norm now is the “three-article dissertation,” in which the author bundles a series of shorter pieces under a unifying introduction. In other disciplines, the very nature of the “document” itself is being questioned, introducing multimedia, graphical representation, and other digital forms into the dissertation genre. Shouldn’t dissertations be allowed to fly free from the cage of the page when it is technologically feasible and intellectually meaningful to do so?

Dance your dissertation!
These are just some of the questions, not thoughtfully crafted, negotiated policies. But we must ask the questions to arrive at the policies. And we need the policies soon. What do you think? We welcome your comments.


Blackwell, J. (July 2015). Rethinking the dissertation: An opinion piece. GradEdge [Council of Graduate Schools], 4(6), pp. 1-3. 

Gould, J. (7 July 2016). Future of the thesis. Nature, 535, pp. 26-28.

McCarthy, M. (March 2016). The dissertation’s many futures [summary of the January 2016 symposium on the future of the dissertation]. GradEdge [Council of Graduate Schools], 5(3), pp. 1-3.

Rosenberg, R. (1961). The first American doctor of philosophy degree: A centennial salute to Yale, 1861-1961. The Journal of Higher Education, 32(7), 387-394. doi:10.2307/1978076

1 comment:

  1. Excellent blog and very true. I rarely sell at book events, but do sell at craft shows and farmer’s markets. I stay off author sites like Goodreads, and use Linked In where I connect with non-authors. Same with Twitter. Thanks for your insight, right on.
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