Briefly Noted: Can the Dissertation be Defended (Or Is It an Outdated Hazing Ritual Passed Down from PhDs Past)?
In a recent article in the Chronicle, Stacey Patton argues that the PhD dissertation is an outdated and ineffective exercise. Citing “many scholars” and “many faculty and administrators,” Patton argues for new means of earning a PhD. These means are various, but all include the option of canning the practice of spending several years writing a “proto-book” on a very specific topic for (likely) an even smaller readership. Before noting some of her proposals, however, she notes the problems with the dissertation.
Dissertations take too long and are too lonely: many take five-to-seven years to complete, and these projects are undertaken by a lonely soul toiling in a library or lab in the wee hours of the night–for many, many nights. Dissertations are too specialized and burdened with jargon so that “they are incomprehensible to scholars from other disciplines, much less applicable to the broader public.” Dissertations of the traditionally ink and paper sort “ignore the interactive possibilities of a new-media culture.” Moreover, dissertations continue to be written in an ever-increasing tight job market for those who actually finish (and successfully defend) a dissertation. Thus William Pannapacker, professor of English at Hope College, says the PhD dissertation is “a hazing ritual passed down from another era, retained because the Ph.D.’s before us had to do it.”
Because of this laundry list of negatives, Patton surveys several universities for the new approaches some are taking to the dissertation. Graduate programs at City University in New York, Michigan State University, and University of Virginia have increased funding and resources for students to do digital work, i.e. nontraditional dissertations. Some other schools allow students to produce three-to-four “publishable articles instead of one book-length text”; others encourage work for “public consumption.” Still other schools, such as Emory University, allow students to wok collaboratively on history or geography projects. Many of these changes stem from the digital revolution. As Patton notes, “to the extent that dissertations have changed already, technological advances have been largely responsible.”
Patton notes that although the digital revolution promises (or threatens, depending on who you ask) to revolutionize the dissertation, there are barriers to the implementation. Many programs are behind on the technology, either for financial or administrative reasons. Other programs do not have faculty with the expertise to oversee these sort of digitally based dissertations. Still other faculty members believe the book-length dissertation itself still holds value as an academic and vocational exercise.
In response to Patton’s article, allow me to note two things. First, related to the discussion about dissertations is a discussion about the value of doctoral studies in the humanities in general. Doctoral programs usually are designed to produce graduates equipped to be professors. However, after years spent in coursework and writing, most graduates find that positions they longed to obtain do not exist. Thus, the dissertation finds itself in the sights of trigger-happy academics because dissertations tend to spend productive years of a graduate’s youth on an investment which may have little or no return in terms of a job. Those spent years often lead to debt and lost wages for aspiring academics who are not able to find full-time professorial positions. As a result they are forced either to take underpaid, part-time adjunctive positions or to seek work outside of the academy altogether, where many employers view them as failures, as overqualified for the job under consideration.
Theological education faces many of the same challenges. Like the humanities in general, there are far more graduates of doctoral programs than there are available professorial posts. Unless the PhD graduate intends to serve in a pastoral position from the outset, he will likely view his himself as failure if he does not obtain a teaching appointment. Are five to seven years of specialized study, capped off by a grueling dissertation worth the time and effort?
Second, I am not at all convinced that we should do away with the dissertation as a requirement for all PhD students in the humanities. A well-researched and well-written dissertation is the fitting culmination of a PhD program, and it can serve a pastor, missionary, or counselor just as well as it serves a future professor. PhD seminars, colloquia, and dissertations equip students to answer important questions by building tight arguments, and this skill is relevant to any ministry profession.
Take, for example, a PhD in Theological Studies (Systematic Theology), such as the one offered at SEBTS. During any given seminar, the students gain breadth in the topic of that seminar (e.g. Theological Method) by reading 10-12 books and they gain depth in one aspect of that seminar (e.g. the relationship of theology and the sciences) through the major research paper they write for that seminar. Further, during the seminar they present their paper to the class, after which time they learn to engage in higher-level debate and discussion as they defend the thesis of their papers. Throughout the two years of seminars, they increasingly find themselves able to ask a theological question, and then construct a sound biblical-theological-historical argument as they answer the question. They learn to argue without misrepresenting their opponents, overstating their case, or relying upon untrustworthy sources.
The dissertation is the culmination of the program, as the student tackles one final question and provides a tight argument in answer to that question. In the end, the student has learned a skill that he will use for the rest of his life, whether he ends up being a professor, a pastor, a counselor, or a missionary: he learns to use his critical thinking skills to build sound and sustained theological arguments in order to answer the questions he encounters. So I’m not convinced that we should do away with the dissertation, which is an effective and practical exercise for anybody doing a Ph. D., even if the person doing the Ph. D. does not end up taking a job as a professor.
 Stacey Patton , “The Dissertation Can No Longer Be Defended,” in chronicle.com (Feb. 11, 2013)