Death of the Dissertation?
The lives of doctoral students are usually defined by one thing: the dissertation. PhD candidates log in hours at libraries in front of computers and pouring over books, conducting research-based interviews in order to produce a massive text that will define their doctoral study. Yet while producing a dissertation has been the norm for decades, some are lobbying to change this process.
Stacey Patton wrote an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “The Dissertation Can No Longer Be Defended” which challenges the dissertation writing status quo in graduate studies. Patton argues that dissertations, which could take anywhere between four and seven years to complete, are no longer ideal in a world that is increasingly digital and where tenure-track professorial positions are shrinking.
More and more PhD students are seeking jobs outside of academia as the job market shifts to reflect dwindling opportunities to become tenured track professors. Columbia University’s Center for Career Education, for example, offers an online resource for non-academic career options for humanities and social science PhDs, among other more interactive online networks. The task of writing a dissertation is meant to prepare students for a life of academia and research. Academic advisers also find it difficult to offer constructive advice to students about pursuing careers with a PhD outside of academia.
PhD students are faced with unemployment and financial crises as the doors to jobs in academia shut. In the United States, between 2007 and 2010 the number of people with graduate degrees applying for food stamps, unemployment, or other forms of financial assistance more than tripled.
Dissertations no longer reflect the reality of the job market, where new forms of innovation and ideas are shifting jobs away from the traditional forms of research that most university students are accustomed to, depending on the discipline. Some professors and administrators believe that as the road to employment shifts in new directions, so too should degree requirements.
Various universities are making headway in revamping graduate level study in order to challenge the norm of dissertations. Patton notes that the City University of New York, Michigan State University, and the University of Virginia have begun to make changes to some of their graduate programs, particularly in the humanities, to better incorporate technology and new media. PhD students in history at Emory University, Stanford University, University of Texas at Austin, and at Washington State University, among others, work on tangible projects with colleagues. All of these new techniques are meant to challenge the traditional thinking behind a dissertation, which is often isolated and standardized, by encouraging collaboration and the use or production of new technology.
Despite these new advances in graduate studies, producing a dissertation remains the standard path towards a degree for many. Getting the conversation started on alternative means of defining PhD certificates requires more critical thinking of what it means to have a PhD in this day and age.
Are you a current or aspiring PhD student? What is your dissertation experience? Let us know in the comments section!