The Cultures of Dissertations

Teresa A. Sullivan
Current President at The University of Virginia;
former Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs
The University of Texas System;
former Vice President and Dean of Graduate Studies
The University of Texas at Austin

Teresa SullivanIn most American universities, two dissertation cultures co-exist. For the sake of convenience, I will call them the science culture and the humanities culture, although these labels do not perfectly overlay any given set of disciplines.

In the science culture, the research often requires expensive equipment and is undertaken as part of the supervisor's larger, externally funded project. From its inception, this dissertation is linked not only to the career of the writer, but also to the career of the supervisor. The supervisor may more or less dictate the topic and methods and watch the results very carefully. Such dissertations are often written quickly, with the supervisor acting as coach. The disadvantage is that the writer may not have mapped out a research program as a result of this work, and a postdoctoral appointment is often necessary to confirm the writer's ability to have an independent research career.

In the humanities culture, the writer develops the topic and methods in relative isolation, often with little advice from the supervisor. The writer often must master vast quantities of literature, with the supervisor acting more as a referee than as a coach. In this culture dissertations are written much more slowly, and the writer needs a source of income (usually teaching) to continue writing. The advantage of this process is that the writer is likely to have a more long-term research plan and often has enough teaching experience to step into a tenure-track position upon graduation.

Understanding these two cultures helps avoid misunderstandings between students from the different cultures. "It's taking you HOW LONG to finish?") It is also a key issue in selecting the members of the dissertation committee. A committee that mixes the two cultures risks conflict among faculty with different expectations for topic selection, supervisor interaction, and completion times. Some of the social science disciplines are especially tricky because both styles of dissertation flourish within a single department without explicit recognition of this fact. What is a "real" dissertation or what constitutes "quality" may become an issue in these departments.

The future publication of the dissertation is likely to reflect its disciplinary culture. The scientific culture favors publication in article form, with each chapter a potential article. Indeed, sometimes the dissertation consists of three thinly disguised articles whose coherence may be difficult to grasp. In the humanities tradition, a book or monograph is the desired outcome, although with current publishing realities a series of articles might be the more realistic outcome.

Dissertation writers need to understand their local culture with respect to dissertations. I strongly recommend reviewing at least the abstracts for dissertations produced within the department for the past three years. Most departments have lists of recently graduated students and the dissertations can be located in the library, on-line, and sometimes in the department office. It is especially useful to review the abstracts for dissertations supervised by one's prospective supervisor. A practical matter to consider, besides the implicit culture of the supervisor, is just how busy the supervisor is at present. Someone who is already supervising many dissertations, even in the referee-style humanities culture, may have too little time to provide meaningful feedback.

It is also useful to consider how to adopt the strengths of the opposite culture. The science culture is communitarian, in that the writer is usually working in a lab with other graduate students, faculty, technicians, and perhaps undergraduates. There are lots of people who can help with a problem or offer advice. Students from the humanities culture may have to work harder to develop a community for their dissertation writing; joining a dissertation writing group is one excellent way to get the benefits of other minds and voices.

The humanities culture allows time for reflection and maturing of ideas, something that the faster-paced science culture may not encourage. The dissertation writer in the science culture may need to spend some time alone, thinking about the larger ramification of the project, its potential linkage to other developments in the sciences, and its theoretical impacts.

Finally, it is an excellent practice for the job market to translate your research for the benefit of an audience from the other culture. Even if your prospective hiring department shares your culture, you might have an interview with a dean or provost who comes from the other culture. If you come from the science culture, rehearse what is unique about your dissertation and how it forecasts a research trajectory for you. If you come from the humanities culture, rehearse the specifics about how your dissertation fits into a larger pattern of scholarship and yet answers a specific question. In either culture, be prepared to discuss potential publication outlets you plan to pursue.

Outside the university, there is also a critical culture for the writer. Any dissertation writer should be prepared to describe the dissertation project without jargon and in comprehensible English to a lay audience (e.g., undergraduates, your grandparents, a Congressional hearing). It is best to have three forms of the plain-English form of the dissertation: a thirty-second elevator talk, a two-minute cocktail-party talk, and a five-minute interview talk. This plain-talk version demonstrates your ability to adapt to the larger, generic culture that supports our universities and pays for research.