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three article default

On  Twitter, Brad Spahn asked:

I actually had two answers: First, eliminate the monthly/weekly faculty meeting. But our department already did that!! Except for “big” issues like hiring or curriculum rewrites, we leave most decision making to our elected executive committee. Also, we genuinely try to reduce required meetings.

My real answer, though, was “make all dissertations three chapters.” One of the biggest time wasters in academia is this belief that dissertations are the huge, 500 page master works. That is WRONG, but you do get bonus points for being brilliant in a thesis. The REAL purpose of the dissertation is to show the faculty and wider scientific and scholarly community that you have (a) mastered the current literature/techniques of your field and (b) you can produce new analysis and knowledge. Thus, the standard for a dissertation is “scholarly competence,” not “highest level mastery.” This is true for all programs from the most humble to the top of the profession.

Once you buy that, then the question becomes: what format is the most efficient way to teach scientific competence? Three chapters is probably the best. Since half of PhD don’t teach or do research, there is no point in doing more. Even when people go into university positions, almost all science disciplines require articles. History is the only social science that is not primarily article based. Even in the humanities, many fields are article based (philosophy, linguistics, etc). And even if you are in a book oriented field, like English, why not write a few articles unless you are gunning for the R1 market?

The policy of “three article default” makes people happier and productive. Students have a concrete expectation. There is a stopping point to the dissertation. If they do academia, the format will help them. It is easier on faculty in that we no longer need to manage these mongo dissertations. More time for other work.

Brad thought I was slamming book. I am not – I have written two academic books! But most people don’t do what I do for a living so why not let them default to three articles? And remember, it’s a default – not a rule. If you really, really have a book in your dissertation, you can do it. But most students would be way happier doing three articles.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!!

Written by fabiorojas

March 30, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in academia, fabio

13 Responses

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  1. Totally agree on the second point, but am curious about the first: while weekly meetings do indeed sound excessive, I can see a lot of reasons why it might be worthwhile to get the faculty together as a group 5 or so times a year for an hour, so I am wondering why you think this sort of practice is so problematic.

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    Mikaila

    March 30, 2015 at 3:43 am

  2. A few reasons:

    1. The more people talk in meetings, the more likely they are to say something that ticks someone off.

    2. Economics: If my wage rate is $40 an hour and 20 of us show up, then we spend $800 an hour doing the meeting. It better be important. (10 monthlies per year is $9600 in time!!!)

    3. Experience: I have live ten years in a meeting light department. My colleagues and I are happy because we actually have time to do real academic work, like teaching and writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    fabiorojas

    March 30, 2015 at 3:47 am

  3. The basic economics should routinely rule-out all sorts of behavior at Universities.

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    Nicholas

    March 30, 2015 at 1:59 pm

  4. Well, 10 monthlies per year does seem a bit excessive, but 2 or 3 meetings a semester doesn’t seem nearly as bad. Anyway, as in all things in life, there is good and there is bad. Perhaps meetings can be a waste of time, but they can also provide valuable opportunities for people to connect. Unless there are other significant structures for social integration, junior faculty members may feel rather lost in their new surroundings, there is a lot of communication that gets lost, and people may feel excluded from important decisions. To me, the benefits of integration and inclusion are worth losing a couple of hours a semester.

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    Mikaila

    March 30, 2015 at 10:43 pm

  5. 1. Our beloved dean showed up for our last department faculty meeting and was appalled that we wasted time by having 3 meetings a semester. He suggested we could successfully use 1. I cannot fault his analysis.

    2. I support the 3-paper default. But I have seen a number of graduate students who are incapable of writing three separate pieces in any reasonable time. They do better with the 500-page monolith. They do not have to be succinct. They do not have to argue closely. They can wallow in every scrap of literature they have reviewed, rather than winnow out the chaff. They will likely finish faster. And they can believe they have written a book.

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    Randy

    March 31, 2015 at 4:08 am

  6. @Mikalia: Inclusion and integration, especially in a smaller program, can easily be reached via informal methods. Meetings sound cool in the abstract, but once you give them up, you see they were never needed.

    @Randy: I am surprised that people produce 500 pagers in management. I am even more surprised that anyone lets them.

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    fabiorojas

    March 31, 2015 at 4:11 am

  7. @Fabio, while the 3-paper dissertation is becoming close to the default, there are many senior dissertation advisors who are from the massive monograph era and that is what they are comfortable with. Typically they ask their students to do an ambitious lit review as Chapter 2 and when the student estimates 11 “alternative” models and explains them fully, the results chapter gets lengthy. Admittedly, 500 pages is a mild hyperbole…

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    Randy

    March 31, 2015 at 2:16 pm

  8. My dissertation as deposited was a one-article dissertation (an experiment), although with revision it turned into a two-article dissertation (article #2 turned into a pretty good theory article that got me the job I have now). I think the expansion in dissertation expectations happened after the mid-1970s.

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    olderwoman

    March 31, 2015 at 9:55 pm

  9. I’m all for three-paper dissertations, but not for three-paper dissertations where one or more papers are co-authored. I think this is relatively common in Europe, where the structure of academic careers is quite different, but I’ve also started to see some of it popping up in the US. Hard to see how co-authored dissertations are good for the students who (partially) write them, or in the long run for the discipline.

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    krippendorf

    April 1, 2015 at 11:42 am

  10. @krippendorf, I had a student who co-authored one of his three dissertation papers with a law professor who specialized in intellectual property law. The official dissertation examining committee were management and economics profs. The committee felt that (a) this was good for the student as it guaranteed that he would be better able to navigate the roiled waters of IP and to navigate the process of publishing in a law review and (b) it enhanced the scope of the dissertation for the benefit of the discipline.

    Is it really possible to tell where the the contribution of the major advisor ends and the contribution of the student begins on any form of dissertation which is allegedly sole-authored?

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    Randy

    April 1, 2015 at 3:00 pm

  11. Randy: “is it really possible to tell where the contribution of the major advisor ends…?” True enough, but I still think it’s a slippery slope. Is a dissertation still a dissertation if 3 of its 4 chapters are co-authored with senior colleagues in the same department, as in a dissertation that I recently encountered? 2 of 3 co-authored papers? If the only solo-authored paper(s) is weak, should the student really be launched into the world as a card-carrying PhD? Or would such a student have been better off taking a masters and getting on with life?

    With all due respect, your example conflates the value of co-authoring a paper with the value of co-authoring a dissertation chapter. Your student could have published a standalone paper with the law professor and gotten the same benefits the committee identified.

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    krippendorf

    April 2, 2015 at 11:06 pm

  12. @k, I suppose you are right. We could have called that law review article a standalone paper associated with his dissertation topic and forced him to plan and execute a third solo-authored paper to be folded into the dissertation. Alas, he and I shared incentives that were misaligned with this strategy. He wanted to finish and take a tenure track job and I wanted him to finish so I didn’t have to get another grant to pay his assistantship for another year. I will do better next time.

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    Randy

    April 3, 2015 at 12:53 am

  13. Or, maybe three standalone articles isn’t the right number for all dissertations. I suspect the discipline kind-of-settled on three because the “standalone article” dissertation emerged in fields where articles tend to be relatively short, use existing data sets, and are focused on reporting incremental gains in knowledge. Think the average paper in SSR, not the average paper in AJS. Producing three of the former style of paper for a dissertation is feasible, producing three of the latter is not.

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    krippendorf

    April 3, 2015 at 1:13 pm


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