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Jul 28, 2023

Rethinking the Dissertation: Moving Towards Authenticity and Career-Relevance in Social Sciences

Higher education's traditional forms of assessment and instruction have long been the subject of critique, discussion, and reform. Perhaps nowhere is this truer than the capstone dissertation – a mainstay of doctoral studies in the social sciences including education. There is an increasing sentiment in academia that the traditional dissertation may not be the most useful or authentic form of scholarly work for students in these disciplines.

The dissertation is an unauthentic genre, as it often represents an academic exercise that a student is likely to engage in just once in their lives. This poses an interesting problem for social science students, as the disciplines they study tend to communicate primarily through papers, not monographs or books. While in humanities, a book is a conventional and widely accepted medium of communication, it is different in social sciences. Although there is an abundance of books in social sciences, they do not typically follow the structured format of a dissertation. Consequently, students learn to work with a genre that does not reflect the true nature of scholarly communication in their field.

As an alternative to the traditional dissertation, some institutions, particularly in Northern Europe, are embracing the "publishable papers" model. This model requires doctoral students to write three to four related papers of publishable quality. Some institutions even require that at least two of these papers be published or accepted for publication. The student then writes a brief overview detailing how the papers relate and the overarching point of the project.

This approach has several key advantages. Firstly, students acquire skills that are directly applicable to their careers, improving their academic writing and research abilities. Secondly, it enhances their publication record, increasing their competitiveness in the job market. Finally, the model benefits the institution, as published papers contribute positively to the reputation and ranking of the university due to their doctoral program affiliation.

In practice-oriented programs, like Education Doctorate (EdD) programs, the dissertation can feel especially incongruous. Students in these programs are learning to apply research skills to improve the organizations they lead, and neither a dissertation nor a traditional research paper truly reflects the kinds of documents they will be expected to produce in their careers.

Rather, these students should be writing reports, strategic plans, grant applications, accreditation reports, and papers for practitioner journals - the genres of communication that are native to their future careers. An academic approach that values these authentic forms of assessment is likely to be far more beneficial for students, better equipping them for their professional roles.

Resistance to changing the dissertation tradition often stems from faculty who believe that the way they were trained should be the standard for all students. There's an element of academic hazing in this attitude, an idea that you must "suffer through" dissertation writing to become a better scholar. But the truth is that academia is always evolving, and clinging to tradition for tradition's sake can hinder progress.

In summary, it's time for academia, particularly in the social sciences and education, to reconsider the traditional dissertation. We must ask ourselves: does the dissertation truly prepare our students for their careers, or does it simply perpetuate an outdated tradition? Is this the only genre where research skills can be assessed? Adopting an approach that promotes publishable papers or career-relevant genres of communication can make doctoral education more authentic, career-relevant, and beneficial for all stakeholders.

1 comment:

  1. Andrew Taylor4:14 PM

    In Australia and the UK, most postgraduate degree courses contain no coursework. None at all. These nations’ postgrad degrees are awarded grade-free, or not awarded at all, on the basis of the dissertation and its defense, alone.

    Why? Because postgraduate work is regarded as Original work, work that has never been done before, and therefore, not possible for anyone to teach in a course, or grade on a rubric. In Australia/UK, the postgraduate student is sailing in unknown waters, not paddling their canoe down the SanFran Bay.

    Also, I know folks who do some “peer review” work for some primo academic journals. They all comment on how little work their co-reviewers do on their reviews, amounting to couple of sentences, if that, often showing clear eveidence they haven’t read the paper they’re reviewing. The idea that journals would somehow provide better oversight of postgraduate work than professors would, is not supported by this. Nor is this supported by the scandals surrounding fake data at Harvard and Stanford, which has led to several articles being withdrawn. If a degree was awarded based on the publication record, would folks’ degrees get withdrawn if a co-author faked work on the paper?

    I disagree that necessarily derivative coursework qualifies a student for “post”-graduate accolades. However, I do agree that students hoping to access a non-academic career need non-academic proofs of their work. Just, not in a university, but instead in a place where the work occurs in the context of the education they’re seeking.

    This leaves the university in a quandary - do they preserve the originality that used to be the hallmark of what the whole idea of “research” is, or do they chase the money that comes with courses-for-employment?

    In my opinion, universities should stop chasing the money or they will end up as just another Ed-mall-store chain-store, the one for adults that’s next to the one for their kids…

    This means universities that wish to stay as honesty-focused researchers of new or forgotten knowledge will have to accept a shrunken position in the ed-market. Fewer professors, less need for fancy funding for fabulous fripperies, and a singular focus on research and teaching of research.

    Go look on the internet for professors advocating that their universities shrink and depend on less money. Good luck!

    If an industry really needs the work of researchers, they can hire them in to train those who work in those industries, in the context of their workplace. My mother qualified for the Supreme Court of NSW in Sydney by completing her coursework, er, at the Supreme Court of NSW, literally in the building where real cases were being tried. She wasn’t awarded a degree of any kind, instead she was allowed to take the Bar exam. In the music industry, Hargreaves (1997) and Saville Kushner have the data (which has been checked…) which shows that 0% (thats nobody) gets into a professional career through school/university. Most classical musicians get there through private lessons from practicing pro’s, again with no “degree” at the end. Rock musicians learn from online videos, and yeah, you can get a degree from the internet if you really want one, but…

    Carpentry/construction - apprenticeships. Racecar drivers - Skip Barber school where they provide a track and cars, but no “degree”. TopGun Navy Weapons school - No degree, but you can survive a fight.

    I think the resistance to changing the dissertation model doesn’t all come from momentum, the old folks demanding the young folks do the same as them. I think the resistance is coming from professors who don’t want to be sold as course-delivery-techs at their local strip-mall.