Briefly Noted: Can the Dissertation be Defended (Or Is It an Outdated Hazing Ritual Passed Down from PhDs Past)?

In a recent article in the Chronicle, Stacey Patton argues that the PhD dissertation is an outdated and ineffective exercise.[1] Citing “many scholars” and “many faculty and administrators,” Patton argues for new means of earning a PhD.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.

[1] Stacey Patton , “The Dissertation Can No Longer Be Defended,” in (Feb. 11, 2013)

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  1. Josh Herring   •  

    Dr. Ashford,

    I am curious how you would distinguish the PhD from a solid undergraduate education. The ability to write clearly and argue well is not a skill that the student must wait to attain at the PhD level; classical high schools (Greater Hearts in Phoenix to name one) and intense liberal arts colleges (like Hillsdale College) regularly produce students already able to think and articulate their thoughts correctly and well. What then is the distinction of the PhD? Is there something more than reading, writing, and arguing correctly that one receives from a doctoral education and dissertation process?

  2. David (NAS) Rogers   •  


    I have completed doctoral seminars, passed the oral examination, and have written a dissertation that was not graded (complicated story). Doctoral work immerses one in the world of academia by learning the shorthand jargon of scholarship and enables one potentially to develop skills for first-level original research and then write to provide the informational resources for those who only have the time and/or skill for second level reception of that information. Unfortunately all too many academics have weak skills in translating academese into an accessible receptor language for both the second level receivers (in this case, pastors going to seminary) and also training those same pastors in how to translate all of that into third level reception, namely to the parishioners of a congregation, for whom all this work is actually for.

  3. Bekah Stoneking   •  

    Being a SEBTS student (who is also an Ed.D. hopeful!), I absolutely appreciate the dissertation process. Because our library houses our graduates’ dissertations, I have been able to delve into deeper research at the Master’s level by using their very specific work. Where other scholarly sources have covered my selected topics at a general level or have devoted only a chapter or two to my specific topics, dissertations have proven very helpful in some of my quests to dig deeper and to get specific answers. Additionally, the bibliographies of these dissertations have also helped me as I research. I think the dissertation process is a rich tool, not only for the PhD student, but also for other students in the learning community.

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Josh, David, and Bekah, thank you for your input!

    Josh, in relation to your question, I’ll add to Josh and Bekah’s comments: The PhD builds upon sucessful BA and Master’s courses of study. It goes far beyond an undergraduate by combining (1) 50,000-100,000 pages of PhD-level reading, by the time the entire course of study is finished; this reading gives the student breadth and depth in his chosen field; (2) requiring him to argue an original thesis which defends its view in relation to competing views, and is defended in a room with 2-4 other professors; and (3) exposing the student to a community of scholars composed of other PhD students and professors, with whom he/she is considered peer, and with whom he/she learns in community.

    Those are several ways the PhD advances beyond the BA.


  5. Kenny Hilliard   •  

    I just wanted to write thanking you for this article. As a PHD student, I have found the study in preparation for my dissertation work to be invaluable. My area is Old Testament, and in the past two years my mind has been opened up to the depths of the OT. I wouldn’t trade it for my money back, or more. Yes, the dissertation will indeed be grueling, but all things worth while are. It teaches us how to write books that stand up to scholarly scrutiny. I doubt I’ll ever be a professor. If that were my only aim I think that I would quit today. I hope to take good theology over seas where it is needed, or the local church, because I do believe that every pastor should be a theologian. If I get to do professorial work then that is a bonus. I do, also, understand that this is unique to my area of study, since it is religious. For the Christian, regardless of circumstance there is only victory, whether a professor, a missionary, or an unpaid church member. There is more to life than titles and esteem.

  6. Bruce Ashford   •     Author


    Hey bro. Thank you for this contribution. You’re right. The value of a PhD is found primarily in its ability to catalyze rigorous theological reflection. That ability to theologize then serves us well as laypersons, profs, pastors, missionariest, etc.


  7. Bruce   •  

    I went into an EdD program because I wanted to do research. Oh, and I wanted to be a professor and administrator at a university. I enjoyed the dissertation because I picked a topic I was interested in and felt like I made a real contribution with my research.

    I did become an assistant professor and a director of institutional research. And I loved it. But, for a variety of reasons, I switched to being a middle school teacher.

    Was my doctoral degree a waste?

    Well, I still consider myself a researcher. To me, that’s a vocation, in the sense of the root word vocal; it’s my calling. I am a researcher. And my research background frequently comes in handy, although my school and county administration aren’t always appreciative when I point out flaws in their research or their interpretations of others’ research.

    I wish I had more time to do my own research, though. One of my surprises was just how busy K-12 teachers are.

    Anyway, the people who struggle tremendously with the dissertation probably aren’t really interested in research. And as for dissertations that “are incomprehensible to scholars from other disciplines,” that’s a problem of poor writing.

    I was always a good writer, and was always told so throughout school. But then I was blessed with a professor in my doctoral program who told me I could do better. And he told me how.

    Also, any discussion of the overproduction of PhDs should probably ask whether universities/seminaries and the federal government (which funds a lot of the work) bear some blame for growing PhD programs, and conducting those programs, as if they were actually preparing future professors. When SEBTS considers applicants for its PhD programs, is consideration given to the applicants’ career goals and whether the programs are likely to lead to the realization of those goals? Or, is the sole/primary consideration whether the applicants are likely to successfully complete the programs?

    And just because I like to promote it, here’s a link to my dissertation:

  8. Bruce Ashford   •     Author


    Hey man! Thanks for checking in at BtT. You make some good points. As for SEBTS’ program, yes we advertise it openly as something to prepare for a variety of callings, including the pastorate, the mission field, the counselor’s office, and yes, even, the professorate.

    And I got a kick out of the last line of your comment!


  9. Joe   •  

    Society is finally starting to realize that a phd is not the be all, end all. There is something called multiple intelligences. I know people with phds who are utterly stupid, and others without even a degree that are very well read. Save your time and money…an education can be acquired in any number of ways, and for free I might add.

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