3 Paper Dissertation

I’ve been planning for awhile to write a 3-paper style dissertation. I made the case for this to my advisor (who kicks more ass than Optimum Prime) and he has been on board for a long time. As it turns out, the department actually has to have a vote to see if they should allow this. Since I found this out, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the justifications for such a dissertation. I actually wrote something on the subject to present to the students and faculty of the department. In writing it, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the value and goals of the dissertation more generally. It is interesting to think about how the norms for the dissertation might conflict with what is most useful on the market and in one’s career. In any case, I thought I’d throw up what I have below the fold.

A quick note: since I wrote this, I’ve talked with some faculty members who have some minor opposition to the project. If I were to rewrite my little essay, I’d try to take on the worries raised.

Comments are more than welcome.

In what follows, several advantages of 3-paper dissertations are given, and several potential criticisms are discussed. It is worth noting in advance that the 3-paper dissertation should not be seen as a replacement for the traditional dissertation but as an alternative option. The traditional dissertation makes perfect sense for some projects even while it may be less suitable for others.

1. In some areas of philosophical research, a 3-paper dissertation is more representative of the kind of work that will be expected of students in their professional career as a philosopher. In many sub-disciplines, especially the more technical ones, the standard contribution from philosophers is in the form of journal articles, with book-length projects being the exception, not the rule. In light of this, the 3-paper dissertation better prepares students for the kind of work that will be standard for at least the early parts of their career.

2. The 3-paper dissertation allows students to develop a broad expertise that (a) better suits them to contribute in their area of specialization and (b) may have advantages on the job market. With respect to (a), in many sub-disciplines, the contributions to be made by young philosophers are not broad in scope, but often involve the detailed aspects of some very small area of research. By allowing for 3-paper dissertations, the student will be able to contribute to a broader range of problems because their contributions need not be unified in the way required by a traditional dissertation. With respect to (b), a broader expertise may allow students to market themselves more broadly and demonstrate a breadth that some search committees find attractive.

3. 3-paper dissertations are better suited to help students meet tenure requirements. Most dissertations are unlikely to be published as a whole in the form of a book (at least at those publishing houses most useful in securing tenure). Many new professors spend a fair amount of time cutting out chunks of their dissertation into journal-sized articles to send off for publication. The 3-paper dissertation allows students to generate items that are suitable for publication in a shorter span of time and, since the aim is to generate 3 articles, each part of the 3-paper dissertation could potentially be used towards tenure.

4. The 3-paper dissertation may be useful for job applications and for interviews. The format of the dissertation may lend itself to providing both a polished, self-contained writing sample and a polished, self-contained job talk. Furthermore, it may increase the probability that search committees find candidate’s work interesting and that the candidate is seen as a good fit for the department. This will be especially true in cases where the applicant is willing and able to adopt a variety of research programs. A traditional dissertation may not provide the opportunity for a student to genuinely report their capabilities and interests.

Perceived Disadvantages

1. There are no clear standards for writing and/or evaluating the 3-paper dissertation.
Since the 3-paper dissertation is not standard in the field (though this may be changing), there are worries about how such dissertations should be written and evaluated. These worries are worthwhile and discussion about the content of a 3-paper dissertation and the standard for evaluating these dissertations should be discussed. However, here are some preliminary thoughts on content and evaluation that might alleviate some of the initial worries.

With respect to evaluation, it seems that the standard might be similar to that of a traditional dissertation. While the standards of the traditional dissertation are not officially articulated in any detail, it seems that the standard ought to be that the dissertation demonstrates that the author of the dissertation is capable of entering into the profession and of making the relevant contributions to the profession. This standard can easily be adopted to evaluate 3-paper dissertations and in some cases may make evaluation easier since the work is more representative of what will be expected of students (see above).

With respect to the content of the 3-paper dissertation, there might be worries that allowing students to write a 3-paper dissertation doesn’t require enough of them. After all, if a student wrote three, article length papers, they will have produced far less written work than a student who wrote a traditional dissertation. This worry might be addressed in several ways. If page-count is the main worry, the 3-paper dissertation could be made into a 4-paper dissertation. Alternatively, the requirement could be that the 3 papers be of greater length (though this does some work to undermine the first advantage, but still maintains the benefit of breadth and perhaps adds a benefit of depth-within-breadth). If, on the other hand, the page-count is not intrinsically worrying but rather the issue is of fairness with respect to students writing traditional dissertations, it seems that allowing 3-paper dissertations is not unfair. While traditional dissertations would be longer than 3-paper dissertations (in the case where the papers are of article-length), this does not mean that the traditional dissertation involves more work overall. Writing three distinct papers will require students to deal with a literature that is broader and so will sometimes involve more research than would a traditional dissertation. As long as the average amount of work required to write both dissertations is about equal, there does not seem to be a fairness worry.

2. The 3-paper dissertation fails to determine whether the student has a deep understanding of her area of specialization.
The 3-paper dissertation will typically aim at dealing with a broader range of issues than the traditional dissertation and so there may be a worry that students will not come to appreciate the depth of any problems in their area of specialization. Another worry is that there is something of value gained by thinking through a single issue in great depth and this is sacrificed with the 3-paper dissertation.

One response to this worry is to grant that a certain level of depth is sacrificed, but to point out that breadth and not depth is better for students and young members of the profession for a variety of reasons (including those discussed above).

Another response is that the 3-paper dissertation develops a deep understanding of several areas even though this depth is not demonstrated in the written work (for example, by a lit review). This response will apply where a deep understanding of some area is needed to write a short article even if that depth is not demonstrated in the written work (though it will potentially be demonstrated by the contribution itself).

A final response would be to question whether the value of the additional depth of knowledge gained by the traditional dissertation should serve as a constraint on the content of student’s dissertation. While this level of depth may be necessary to demonstrate proficiency in some areas of philosophy, it may be less valuable in others. If the value to be had by writing a traditional dissertation will be of less use to students in their academic and professional career, it seems wrong to appeal to this value to constrain the kind of dissertation project the student should be allowed to pursue so long as the 3-paper dissertation can be used to evaluate the ability of the student to be a member of the profession. This is not to say that there is no value in the traditional dissertation, but only to ask why that value should serve as a constraint when another option would be more valuable in other respects.

3. The 3-paper dissertation fails to cultivate a skill necessary for success on the job market.
It might be argued that in order to have a sustained research program that will allow students to flourish in the profession, they must have a certain skill that is best cultivated by a traditional dissertation. This worry is related to the above worry insofar the necessary skill involves having a deep understanding of a research area.

This worry is significant to the extent that (a) having a sustained research program is necessary for students to flourish in the profession, (b) the 3-paper dissertation is unlikely, or less likely, to cultivate this skill,  (c) there are no other ways to cultivate this skill, and (d) there is reason to suspect that a given student lacks this skill.

(a) seems plausible with respect to research positions but less plausible with respect to teaching jobs.

It seems difficult to assess the plausibility of (b) except in the context of a particular project. Some 3-paper dissertations may well require a deep understanding of several areas that may serve as the basis for a sustained research program (see above).

(c) seems implausible; it is entirely plausible that there are alternative ways to cultivate the relevant skill. In fact, the new prelim system seems to be one such way.

(d) is probably a worry for some students, but this worry will be alleviated to the extent that a student’s advisors are willing to inform that student that it would be best for them to write a traditional dissertation. This alleviates the worry without constraining grad students for which it makes sense to allow a 3-paper dissertation.

4. The 3-paper dissertation will hurt the student on the market.
It is possible that writing a 3-paper dissertation will put students in a worse position in a market where the traditional dissertation is the standard. If the 3-paper dissertation will be viewed in a negative light, this provides a strong reason for students not to opt for the 3-paper dissertation.

It would be useful to see how 3-paper dissertations are viewed by search committees. While more and more graduate programs are allowing for this kind of dissertation, they are typically the very top programs (NYU, MIT, Princeton, Michigan, Stanford, Pitt, Rutgers, Arizona, and CUNY), students of which generally tend to do well on the market. In light of this, the relevant empirical data is hard to come by.

This is a significant worry, but perhaps should not serve to justify a ban on 3-paper dissertations so long as students and their advisors are cognizant of the risk and have fully considered what it might mean on the market.

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