“The New Ph.D.” Again

“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
C.S. Lewis

A while ago, I wrote a blog post Re-Envisioning the PhD +13 Years.  While a graduate student, I was associated with the Woodrow Wilson Re-Envisioning the PhD project.  In that blog post, I reviewed my old notes to see if my opinion had changed. I concluded that the problem was not with a PhD degree but people trying to hijack the degree for other uses.

Today I came across an article in the Chronical of Higher Education, “The New Ph.D.: Momentum grows to rewrite the rules of graduate training.” While I am reluctant to dip back into the topic of changing the PhD, there is a lot going on, and I think we should give the Chronical article a look.  As Rear Admiral Grace Hopper said, “The most dangerous phrase in the language is: We’ve always done it this way.” (By the way, if you don’t know who Grace Hopper is, shame on you and educate yourself.)

The article starts with a story about Meg Berkobien, a graduate student in comparative literature.  Her dissertation was on 19th-century Catalan-language periodicals.  Meg was not motivated by her project and eventually decided to leave the program.  In a letter to her department chair, Meg wrote,

“Every time I sit down to write, I’m overwhelmed by a quiet despair — that our world is literally on fire and I’m not doing nearly enough to build a better world,” Berkobien wrote in an email to her department chair. “Pair these concerns with a downright awful job market, and I hope it’s clear why I think my best option is to leave.”

Instead of letting Berkobien leave the department let her “reimagine her dissertation as a series of essays focused largely on her public-facing work, which included building a translators’ collective that prints books and creating translation workshops for immigrant high schoolers learning English.” Beyond Berkobien’s story, the authors focused on a whole section of the Chronicle article on the dissertation.

One complaint is that the dissertation does not prepare students for jobs outside of academia. Since the bulk of Doctoral graduates will work outside of academia, maybe the dissertation should reflect that.  Sidonie Smith argues, “The one-size-fits-all proto-book structure shackles scholarship,” “It often yields bloated projects that don’t merit such long-form treatment.” While Earl Lewis says, “Lewis made a much-discussed suggestion that historians should consider allowing students to pursue co-authored dissertations. This, he says, would enable them to produce better answers to really big scholarly questions.”

The Chronical article lists several programs experimenting with alternative dissertations. It also contains several examples were alternative dissertation formats have been successful. However, the article never talks about the purpose of the dissertation.  Why is the dissertation part of the PhD?  Additionally, the dissertation is not that old.  According to DED: A Brief History of the Doctorate, a University awarded the first doctoral degree in the 12th century.  Universities awarded the first PhD in the 19th centaur, and Yale awarded the first US PhD in 1861.  Therefore, in the US, at most, the PhD dissertation is only 159 years.

What is the dissertation purpose? Why should the students write anything? The PhD is predominantly a research degree. If you do, a web search asking what a PhD is some were in the description will be a phrase like “original research” or “contribute new knowledge to your field.” The writing of a dissertation is how you show that your research answered the original research question.

I think the writers of the Chronical article are confusing several different problems. Let’s use Meg Berkobien as an example.  Meg was not engaged by her original research into 19-century Catalan-language periodicals.  As the article said, “What excited her was political organizing and mobilizing her translation expertise outside academe.” The department let her change her research topic to her translational working outside academia. They also changed the format of her dissertation.  Did the department have to do both?  Why couldn’t they have let Meg do a research project about her translational work outside academia while still writing a traditional dissertation?

Over the years, I have met many graduate students that have complained about their research projects.  There was an English lit major that wanted to study a 20th-century science fiction writer. The student’s advisors told the student no because science fiction wasn’t scholarly enough.  There was a biology student who wished to understand society’s comprehension of science. The student was told that it was not scientific enough.  I know an engineering student that wanted to understand how engineering impacted government policy; their advisor told them the department didn’t care.

In the end, these three students and many others left school.  In this case, the problem was not with the dissertation but with what was considered “scholarly” research.  However, it seems to me that almost any topic can be a research project, especially if we truly believe that all knowledge is worthwhile.  Do books have to be 100, 200, or 400 years old to be worthy of research. Isn’t it worthwhile to understand what the best way to communicate scientific information is?  The dissertation does not have to change to let in new and modern research questions.

The other reason given to change the dissertation is because it does not adequately prepare a student for work outside of academia.  While it is undoubtedly vital to train people so that they can be happy contributing members of society, we also need to train people for jobs in academia and research.  Part of the problem is overfilling in graduate programs, coupled with schools not being transparent about prospects.  I have had several faculty members tell me the only reason their departments enroll the number of graduate students is to fill the Graduate Teaching Positions, not because they need them.

While schools should be aware of student futures and provide their prospective students with realistic expectations, instead of changing the dissertation, why not allow a student to create additional projects or participate in internships to complement and enhance their graduate experiences.

The last issue brought up by Dr. Smith, and Dr. Lewis is that the current dissertation model inhibits the type of research and questions that students can ask. These are good questions concerning changes to the dissertation.  If a change to the structure of the dissertation improves the student’s ability to do research or open new kinds of research, then we should make changes.

While continuing to do something because we have always done it, that way is dumb.  It is equally foolish to change something because of problems with something else.  It is still worth looking for a better way to do things.  Just because something is not a perfect fit for everything doesn’t mean it should be changed.  After all, there are things for which a PhD is ideal.  As time and society change, schools will undoubtedly have to adapt to provide an educated society. However, as I have said before, perhaps the appropriate switch is to create a new degree not to edit the old degree out of existence.

Thanks for Listing to my Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

PS. In case you think rose-tinted glass biased my opinion, I hate my dissertation.  Not just because the company my school used to print and bind the digital files did such a horrible job.  The entire document looks like a bad copy produced off a low-quality copy machine. 

I suppose what gets me is that while I was worried about writing a document that large, I had a plan and was looking forward to creating the pseudo book.  I had a story to tell, present the background, which showed where there were holes in our knowledge.  Then develop the experimental methods to address the gaps.  Finally, I would get to show how my data added to the models and lead to new questions for future research.  Instead, my department wanted a catalog of every single experiment I did.  In the end, I felt like “my” dissertation belonged more to my committee, then it did to me.

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