The Evil EmpireOrgTheory, Fabio makes a case that, as a default, dissertations should take the form of three-paper (or, more generally N-paper) format. On the whole, I totally agree and think that the three-paper format helped me finish grad school and set me up well for my post-doc and life on tenure track.
But the conversation on three-paper dissertations (or, equivalently, “digital” dissertations in the humanities) often fails to address a major shortcoming of the three-paper format. The introduction and conclusion end up being anachronous appendages that weary students tack on at the end. Or, I should say, that a single particular weary student tacked on at the end of his dissertation.
It was not until I had a faculty position and read cover letters as part of the faculty search committee that I realized how I had screwed myself by tacking on an intro and conclusion. In my own letter I had failed to articulate what my research as a whole meant to the discipline and how I charted my own course for research. I had three pretty interesting empirical results and I dutifully described those. What I was missing, I realized, what a broader statement of overall relevance.
I believe that the three-article dissertation contributed to that lack of awareness. It affected my own cover letter and, I think, prevented me from getting more interviews. It didn’t deal a fatal blow to my career, after all I ended up in a great job. But it did limit my options when I entered the job market. In fact, I didn’t write a really cohesive research statement until I wrote my third-year review since that was the first time circumstances forced me, in a relatively concise way, to explain my contribution to the field.
As with any N of 1, especially with the measurement error that occurs when N=me, too many degrees of variables affect an outcome to certainly argue for a particular cause. And I believe that writing three articles established a direct, clear path of publications that helped me secure my post-doc and job that I now have. As with any benefit comes costs, and the three-article dissertation can come at the cost of thinking about larger research narratives. For that reason, I would caution advisors and advise grad students to think early in their candidacy about the larger narrative they construct with the three articles.