Tuesday, 10 February 2015

We need to talk about the dissertation

It's been over two years since I picked up the 8 bound copies of my dissertation from the library of Johns Hopkins University. The box weighed a ton. The printing had cost me a fair amount of money I no longer had by that point. I confess that when, upon asking her if she wanted a bound copy, my mother said "yes", I was more than a little annoyed. That was another 400 sheets of acid free paper, another 40 dollar binding fee. I dutifully handed my advisor and my department a copy, posted two more to my US based committee members, and boarded the plane back to the UK with three hard copies, because they took up too much of my limited baggage allowance to be worth putting in the hold. Of those copies, I handed one to my committee member who was in Glasgow, one came back with me to the US when I started my postdoc. The third is on the table in my mother's office, more or less exactly where she put it two years ago, slowly getting covered by bills and newspaper clippings.
If you've read this post, you'll probably find the sentence above an apt metaphor for the fate of dissertations such as mine. My program still required dissertations to be written in the monographic format, and despite vague encouragement to publish during my PhD, my advisor never pushed me to realise that my focus on my dissertation as a monolithic project was a liability. Thus, none of that 400 page tome was published by the time I finished up my program. And to this date, all of it that is published is this (unless you count four conference abstracts, which no one does). Other than that, there's a revise and resubmit that's been in limbo for almost a year at this point. And when that gets published, that'll be it, I think.
Given the above, you'd probably think I'm kind of sour on monographic dissertations. And I won't deny that the CVs of graduate students from paper focused programs made me jealous when graduating. Certainly my affection for the object itself is limited. But I am still proud of what's within those pages. That project is solid, cohesive science I would (and have) stand up and take ownership of. It's grounded in a deep understanding of the issues that drove it, both methodological and theoretical. It leveraged under used ressources (museum collections). Moreoever, it is the brainchild of my own intellectual development. Thanks to my masters, I was already well versed in the techniques I applied in my PhD, and I knew the kinds of questions I wanted to ask. I chose to work with my advisor because he too was interested in those questions, and because he has access to the resources (fossils) i needed to do my project. So the intellectual process that lead to my dissertation I am proud of, and happy with. Like others, I defend the holistic, root and branch approach to science that a good monographic dissertation requires. But only up to a point. And the point at which I stop defending the monographic thesis is the point at which it hobbles the already dim career prospects of graduate students. More fundamentally, the point at which it perpetuates the lie that your research is valued irrespective of your productivity, which is publication. If graduate school is training for academia, then it must reflect the reality of academia. And that is both that your work must be thorough, rigorous, and yours, and that it must be published.
Instead of focusing on sterile arguments about whether or not three papers bound together counts as a dissertation, we need to work on developing a system of awarding graduate degrees that both encourages and develops thorough, original thinking and research in science, and which encourages regular, high quality publication of said research. Rather than end this post on my half baked ideas, I'd like to hear your thoughts on the topic.

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