Folmsbee: Reconsidering the utility of dissertations


Sai Folmsbee, Columnist

Writing your final thesis, or dissertation, in graduate school has always been the capstone to achieving a Ph.D. After years of study, the summation of your entire work is to be compiled, analyzed and submitted to a faculty committee for meticulous review. Only after their approval can one finally graduate with a Ph.D. At least, that’s what a graduate school thesis was intended to be. Now, it is a bloated, cumbersome document that drains productivity, gives a false sense of evaluation and is read by barely anyone. If science, or even academia itself, is to progress into the modern age, the senior thesis requirement needs to be eliminated.

Perhaps a century ago, writing a thesis was valuable. That was a time when research was much less crowded and competitive, when publishing work involved simply putting together your latest observations for the community. Writing a thesis was an easy and productive task, compiling your significant contribution in your field of study to share with the world. But this idealized world of science no longer exists.

Research is now brutish and unforgiving. More and more, specialized fields are becoming crowded with competing scientists who work non-stop to publish earlier and in better journals. Papers are not just work anymore; they are currency. Receiving grants to continue your research, getting a secure job in academia and even just having someone give your CV a chance requires that you have published early and often.

This is what makes the thesis so useless. By necessity, everyone graduating with a Ph.D. has written a thesis, rendering it a metric that is summarily ignored. All that matters to employers is drive and productivity, and a thesis does not accurately measure either.

Furthermore, no one really reads a thesis. Sure, a student’s thesis committee and mentor are supposed to read it, but even then it is often more a formality. No one learns anything from the document itself. Although a thesis is often uploaded online to some repository,  it might as well be buried deep underground. Real science happens in peer-reviewed journals, and no respectable scientist has the time to dig through theses to look for a piece of data which has not been peer-reviewed anyway.

Many may argue that the dissertation is a learning opportunity, that it teaches students to write scientifically and dive deeply into a topic. But the structure and style of a thesis is unlike anything used in the professional world of science. Theses are filled with all the experiments done during graduate school, even those that never became published works. Then, all the data is analyzed to an absurd depth, eventually creating a thesis spanning hundreds of pages. Real science writing — be it for grants or published articles — needs to focus on intent, be clear and concise in language and be unendingly compromising between the wills of the authors, reviewers and editors. Forcing graduate students to write non-peer reviewed, gargantuan tomes of extraneous data simply encourages poor writing habits.

Finally, Ph.D.’s are getting longer; it is not uncommon for students to take between six and eight years to graduate. It is already difficult to build the skills and accomplishments needed to secure a job after graduation, so why burden students with unnecessary obligations like a dissertation? This is even more important for those seeking employment outside of academia, which is becoming more the norm in such a competitive scientific environment. Students in graduate school programs are in the prime of their scientific drive, and these are years that could be better used in the professional world, not simply dawdling around in some illusion of academic growth.

Unfortunately, a similar parallel can be found in undergraduate honors theses. These typically do not help applications to top M.D. or Ph.D. programs, since nearly everyone with research experience will have some kind of thesis. What these programs really care about is drive and intelligence in the lab, which is measured by authorship on real, published scientific papers, research awards and fellowships, not theses.

The solution is to simplify the process, reducing the graduation requirement to simply private and public oral thesis defenses. A written document is unnecessary since students  seriously considering graduation should have written and published at least one significant paper at this point. But they should still give an oral defense of their work to a faculty committee, since this should only require minimal time of any qualified candidate. Although academia’s inherent inertia makes such a change to the system unlikely, institutions need to seriously consider how academia is grown in this country. There is a fine line between testing and hindering the next doctoral generation, and the largest flaw with the current system is that it is blind to the distinction.

Sai Folmsbee is a Feinberg graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.