caution about three-article dissertations

Over at 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.

4 thoughts on “caution about three-article dissertations”

  1. I say “icing on the cake.” For the average student, getting the essays done is enough. It is only for those on the R1 track that this really matters. Then, of course, the dissertation standards are higher. Even then, I truly don’t see the point in massive lit reviews. If you can’t situate your three essays in 10-20 pages (or less), then you probably don’t understand the field well enough to summarize it.

    PS. Unless it is a draft of a book, I have never actually seen an intro or conclusion published.

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    1. I think it befits people to write short intros and conclusions — I, too, don’t see the benefit of a massive lit review. In fact, I think that the intro and conclusion should be short. But I found it easy to consider it as something “less important,” when that was a real opportunity to situate the importance of my larger research. Even if it’s never published as an article, really working through the writing of a concise intro and conclusion pays dividends when a committee or interviewer asks about one’s contribution to the discipline.

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  2. Incidentally, I do think that part of the issue with discussing “three paper dissertation” is that different people use the term in different ways. In one definition, the three papers may not have that much to do with one another, or maybe two papers are related and the third is on something that requires a stretch to see it as part of the same “project.” In the other, the three papers are all obviously related to one another and obviously constitute parts of a unified research agenda, and what is meant by “three paper dissertation” is more that this large project should be executed as a series of papers that can be submitted individually, as opposed to writing a quasi-book and then trying to figure out how papers can be extracted from the quasi-book.

    I’ve seen examples of both, and am fine with either. But I think sometimes when people talk about “three paper dissertations” they have a quite specific model in mind and other people may have a very different model.

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