Big-book theses are failing PhD students

Assessing doctoral candidates’ published papers instead would teach more useful skills and improve morale, says Noam Schimmel

August 16, 2020
A tired student in the library
Source: iStock

The traditional big-book thesis emerged in Germany more than a hundred years ago, in a cultural and temporal context in which such feats of scholarship were particularly highly valued. Yet it has been adopted fairly inflexibly across the world, with little attention paid to how it relates to the needs and interests of students – not to mention society.

Of course, the traditional thesis still has value in many fields in the humanities and social sciences, from history to anthropology to political philosophy. It should certainly be an option to be open to all doctoral students. But while PhD dissertations are largely available to anyone with an internet connection, they are not read or cited with nearly the frequency of peer-reviewed articles and published books. And too many go entirely unpublished and unread even by academics, depriving their authors of any opportunity to influence public policy or culture. Some are only ever fully appreciated by the student author, their advisers and, in the American system, the other members of the evaluation committee.

Moreover, there is a level of difficulty and tedium that accompanies the composition of a big-book thesis model, both because of its unwieldy size and because doctoral students have had little exposure to it, as a genre, in their academic studies or in personal reading. They can read other dissertations to gain familiarity with the writing style, but that really does not make the “craft” of writing a dissertation any more relevant to them. After all, even if they remain in academia, satisfying a PhD committee is not a task that doctoral students will face again.

True, thesis composition is not an entirely untransferable skill. It gives students experience of defending their ideas against sustained scrutiny, which can serve to make them more rigorous thinkers. And for those in disciplines in which the monograph is still the exemplar of academic achievement, the sustained effort of composing a thesis can be a useful dry run – in some cases even forming the basis of a monograph.

But, in many cases, students would learn more, produce more relevant and consequential research, and be better prepared for both academic and non-academic careers if their doctoral studies were, instead, focused on publishing a certain number – perhaps three – of peer-reviewed articles.

After all, unlike satisfying thesis committees, passing peer review is fundamental to academic research and writing, as is responding to feedback from editors and peer reviewers and editing and revising accordingly – itself an intrinsically valuable process and learning experience for young researchers.

Moreover, many of the mental health challenges and stresses that impact a large percentage of doctoral students stem in part from the daunting nature of the big-book thesis. Making it more manageable, both in length and in thematic focus, would make PhD-level writing far less overwhelming, enervating and demoralising.

Writing articles also enhances opportunities for exchange between students and enhances learning and community on doctoral programmes. And a doctoral education structured around article production would become more about the process, and the learning that comes through the process, and less about the product – even as the product, arguably, becomes more focused and finely crafted.

With little fanfare, some departments at leading universities are already offering the opportunity to earn a PhD via article composition; some have been doing so for over a decade. The European Institute at the London School of Economics, for example, provides such a route. But many more institutions should follow their lead.

If academia is serious about making more meaningful and consequential contributions to society, communicating its voluminous doctoral research in a more palatable format must surely be one of the more obvious remedies to consider.

Noam Schimmel is a lecturer in international and area studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Reader's comments (2)

This might work in the US system, where PhDs can take 6-8 years. But in the European system where PhDs take 4 years at the absolute maximum, it is more or less unthinkable that a student straight out of undergrad will be able to produce 3 published articles where they are a primary contributor in the time allowed, and efforts to do so are a recipe for disress and an incentive for low impact, or even fraudulent studies.
Preparing a 'big book' thesis shows that the candidate can systematically address the posed research question and provide a fully integrated and comprehensive report (thesis) on the work. By only writing a number of papers there is the risk of slicing up the work into bite-size and potentially little related pieces which do not require the same understanding of the bigger question. In my experience examining thesis that consist of just an assembly of published papers has been that they often do not really show that the student understands the work done etc. In some cases, where I as examiner have queried some aspects it became quite clear that there was a lack of understanding by the student indicating that the students was good lab technician material, but not of PhD quality.