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.