The Role of Dissertation Research

An article, provocatively entitled “The Dissertation Can No Longer Be Defended,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education discusses new digital models for dissemination of dissertation research. Stacey Patton, the author, begins her article by stating: “The dissertation is broken, many scholars agree. So now what?”


This statement displays the author’s bias in dismissing the relevance of dissertations. Do “many scholars” really agree that “the dissertation is broken”?  If so, where is the evidence of this?

The author sets up an absurd dichotomy between a “21st century” dissertation and a “traditional” dissertation (which is presented as backward). I would instead argue that approaches to doctoral research are incredibly complex and are always changing.

Faculty members are in a unique position to assess cutting-edge (21st century) research questions and methods and to direct doctoral research. Many faculty members, such as myself, embrace digital technologies as having important roles in doctoral research, but that hardly means that dissertations are outdated.

Faculty doctoral advisors—not reporters or university administrators—have the skills and experiences needed to determine how doctoral research should best be disseminated.

Although the author of “The Dissertation Can No Longer Be Defended” has received a Ph.D., she seems to misunderstand broader dimensions of doctoral research, as well as the academic job and publishing markets. Almost all of her quotes seem to have come from interviews with critics of a “traditional” dissertation and proponents of digital institutions. Programs that have not embraced digital dissertations are presented as “behind the curve.”

When  Anthony Grafton (Professor of History at Princeton University) is quoted, the reporter marginalizes him by minimizing the significance of his argument. The reporter writes: “Meanwhile, some scholars say the traditional approaches to the dissertation aren’t necessarily in need of overhaul at all, even if digital and other nontraditional formats may be preferable for some projects.” Grafton is not just “some scholar,” but a recent President of the American Historical Association, a highly published Renaissance historian, and an influential scholar who has actually directed many doctorates.

Toward the end of the article, the reporter off-handedly remarks that “Many other professors say that until the tenure process no longer requires the publication of book-length works, scholars in the pipeline will continue to follow the traditional formula for writing dissertations.” This point is, of course, at the heart of the matter.

Doctoral research is intended to prepare graduate students for their professional research responsibilities, which involves conducting new research and publishing research findings in articles, collective volumes, monographs, and other formats. The role of doctoral research, as I see it, is to advance knowledge and contribute to addressing human problems through systematic scholarly research. Only active research scholars in each discipline can determine the standards for relevant and quality research methods and findings. This is the reason for using doctoral mentoring and peer review processes, which are always evolving and never “traditional.”

This article seems to be typical of much of the reporting for the Chronicle of Higher Education: pro-technology, pro-administration, anti-faculty, anti-humanities, simplistic, and one-sided.

This entry was posted in Academic Publishing, Careers in History, Digital Humanities, Education Policy, Graduate Work in History, Humanities Education. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Role of Dissertation Research

  1. Stacey Patton says:

    Stacey Patton here. In fact, I had a very good experience with my own dissertation process at Rutgers. I’m now revising my “traditional monograph” for university press so I do in fact understand the dissertation process, the importance of conducting scholarly research, and how scholarly communication works across various disciplines quite well. What seems to be lost here in your judgment of my so-called biased article is some basic media literacy. What I have written is a “reported” piece which reflects what the people I interviewed had to say about the dissertation and the dissertation process when rethinking doctoral reform. This was not my own opinion. I suggest a careful re-read.


  2. Stacey: Thank you for your comment and for your interest in my recent post.

    Your article is certainly not the first to question the concept of the “traditional” monograph. Indeed, the Chronicle of Higher Education has published many pieces critiquing or even outright attacking the monograph as outdated. A number of professors in history and other humanities have proposed moving those disciplines toward an article-driven model of scholarship and promotion. But, I believe that the majority of historians still see a real value in longer, more complex studies as the basis of historical scholarship.

    So, I am glad to hear that you are working on turning your dissertation into a monograph. Within the framework of the monograph, there are many possibilities for creativity and innovation. New sources, methodologies, interpretive strategies, and writing techniques can be used to create exciting and relevant dissertations and monographs. Many historians, including myself, are striving to ensure that the monograph survives, but that there is nothing “traditional” about it.

    Good luck with your revisions and I hope that you produce a decidedly “untraditional” monograph.

  3. Stacey Patton says:

    Dear Brian,

    Thanks for your note. My comments were not directed at your post but at the person who left comments to your post. I see those comments have since been removed….

    Thanks again for your encouragement. And best wishes to you.


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