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Writing a PhD dissertation as three (or more) papers to showcase versatility

One of the things I resented the most was not getting the guidance I required for a lot of the work that came with the PhD degree. There are things, of course, where I did get advice, and one of them was to write my doctoral dissertation as a package of three papers focusing on a coherent theme or thread. This idea came from my PhD advisor who was originally trained in physics. But I still wondered how we got to that point.

Why are PhD dissertations comprised of usually 3-4 distinct-yet-related papers? Nobody really answered this question when I asked it during my doctoral studies, so I spent some time reflecting on it over the past year or so. Book-manuscript theses can be seen through this lens.

My doctoral dissertation is still a book-length manuscript, but you could very well excise three distinct articles out of it, should you wish. I am in the process, in fact, of turning it into a peer-reviewed, solo-authored book!

I was a bit puzzled because I kept hearing “to me, a PhD dissertation can offer at least three distinct original contributions to the literature”, particularly from my PhD advisor. Personally, I think that’s right (3 distinct contributions) and could apply to book manuscripts (3 chapters, each developing one strand of an argument, or each examining one empirical case) or theses-by-papers.

I came to realize why I agreed w/ this model a couple of weeks ago.

While sitting with one of my PhD students (yes, over the holiday, that was literally the only day we could meet up), I explained to him how different theoretical approaches and empirical strategies could yield similar results for his dissertation.

And then I said…

“One way in which you can demonstrate the versatility of your work is by showcasing how water insecurity can be seen through X, Y and Z theories. Another way would be to examine A, B and C case studies (where you seek to explain variation across cases and impact factors).”

To this day, nobody has yet explained to me why we do the “a PhD dissertation can be a collection of 3 papers” model, but I have rationalized why, and it makes sense in my head. Over the years, this is how I have mentored my PhD students, but I feel like it’s much clearer now.

ots of universities now encourage the “PhD-dissertation-by-papers” model, and seen through the lenses of “argument/empirical versatility” I feel much more confident championing it. I know STEM disciplines have done this for long, two of my brothers have Mechanical Engineering PhDs and they did their dissertations this way.

Given that I’ve successfully helped graduate several of my PhD students now, I am confident I can continue using this model for future research projects that my doctoral students decide to undertake. Hopefully this post helped cement your confidence in this model. And I feel confident this approach could also be applied to help craft each chapter of a book-length dissertation should you desire to do so.

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  1. Russ Romano says

    I really think this is a great strategy. I started my PhD coursework in 1992 (I had already obtained my MA at a different university). I knew the topic I wanted to study before arriving. I decided to develop my dissertation through my coursework by applying every class towards my topic of interest. My three semester theory sequence was applied and became part of my research review, my three part methods sequence (two quantitative and one qualitative) became the part of my methods proposal and all of the rest of my courses dealt with the substantive topic of research became the proposal and initial data collection for my research. Therefore my dissertation proposal had already been seen my most of my committee and other faculty before it was formally presented. I finished coursework and defended my proposal in 1995, went to teach elsewhere as ABD and defended and conferred with my degree in 1997. I know this isn’t the common trajectory but I didn’t want to languish as I was told would happen to most people but each of those sections were considered suitable for publishing.

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