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Kyle Whyte

I agree that this trend in dissertations is occurring. It also feeds into previous conversations we've been having on this blog about how people with little experience land TT jobs. So I imagine that are people with no publications, little to no teaching experience, and 100 page dissertations, who land great jobs. Anyways, my point is not to enter into this discussion here, but to mention that this shortening of and lessening of ambitions for dissertations will likely be a trend. (1) Some administrators at some schools are calling for this, see http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/12/14/problems-and-potential-solutions-humanities-doctoral-education-essay

(2) The increasing difficulty of the job market means dissertation committees are thinking differently about when it is appropriate to sign off on a dissertation project. That is, people are prioritizing getting on the market quickly with Ph.D. in hand as the best strategy for landing a TT, or good VAP or post-doc, instead of the tribulations of going through the market ABD.

elisa freschi

I completely agree with Marcus' point regarding the fact that not writing a dissertation means missing a great opportunity, even more so in working environments where one is encouraged to write articles instead of books (as, typically, in Analytic Philosophy departments, I think). We have discussed a similar issue on this blog here: http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2012/11/book-or-articles.html


Just because a dissertation is written as 3 or 4 independent articles doesn't mean it deals only with small problems, is unambitious, or is unsystematic. This should be obvious. In many pockets of the discipline, articles rather than books are the norm. This is why the paper option is preferable for some graduate students. (It should also be obvious that length of dissertation does not correlate with ambition, systematicity, or more importantly, quality. Need this really be said?)

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa

I haven't seen enough dissertations to have an opinion on what the trends are or what the expectations should be, but I don't think I agree with the suggestion you attribute to David McNaughton, that if you don't learn grand, systematic thought early, you're unlikely to do so later on. Philosophy is always hard, but grand, systematic thought is REALLY hard. It doesn't seem to me particularly far-fetched that in many cases, a very good PhD student can cut her teeth on more manageable portions, thereby developing --- and giving good evidence of developing --- analytic and creative skills that will serve her well in a more ambitious and unified positive project later on.

Marcus Arvan

Jenn: it may be *true* -- though I am skeptical -- but I don't think it is obvious, by any means. The 100 page dissertations I have read recently mostly do seem to be less ambitious and less systematic than longer ones. In fact, some of the ones I've read are three chapters on a single, very specific thesis -- in other words, they have been more about hammering on one moderate sized point rather than developing a system of any sort. There's only so much one can do in 100 pages, after all. The 300 pagers that used to verge norm not so long ago -- and I've read many of them -- seem to me to much more systematic and ambitious than the 100 pagers I've read recently.

Also, although it may have indeed become commonplace in certain areas of philosophy to write articles rather than books, I am by no means certain (I do not think it is obvious) that this is a good trend.

Lewis Powell

Marcus: How many dissertations are you reading, and in what range of areas?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Lewis: Thanks for the question. Let me break my reply into two parts.

Over the *years*, I've read a really wide variety of dissertations in many different areas. In grad school, I was very much a generalist: I did philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and political philosophy -- and I had no idea what area I would do a dissertation in until pretty late in the game (I only settled on moral and political philosophy very late in graduate school).

During the time I was thinking about dissertation topics, I read a wide variety of dissertations -- in epistemology, philosophy of language, metaphysics, political philosophy -- just to get idea of what a good dissertation looked like (so I would have some idea of how to write one).

At that point in time, just about all of the dissertations I read were well above 300 pages. Many were well above 400 pages. They were almost without fail very ambitious and systematic.

More recently, I have read maybe a couple of dozen dissertations, also in numerous areas. In just the past week, I've read a dissertation in the history of philosophy (on Kant) and a dissertation on practical reasons. I've also recently read dissertations in the philosophy of mind, perception, and, if I recall correctly, one or two in metaphysics. A surprising number of them were around 100-135 pages. On average, they came across to me as *far* less systematic than the 300-400 page dissertations I read in the very same areas when I was a graduate student (when 300-400 pages was -- as far I can recall -- the general expectation in PhD programs at the time).

Marcus Arvan

I don't mean to say that the 100-pagers weren't good by the way. Some of them have been very, very impressive -- just less ambitious and systematic than the 300-400 pagers I read a decade ago.

Chike Jeffers

For what it's worth, I agree with you that doing the dissertation is a great opportunity for would-be scholars to be made to think in a large-scale, systematic way about a topic, coming to know it in-depth. I also would like to agree with Jenn's point that length and systematicity need not correlate, meaning that a 100-page dissertation may very well be systematic in a way that a longer dissertation fails to be. (I think agreeing with her on this point helps me feel unbiased by the fact that I'm one of those people who foisted a 400+ page tome on my committee!)

I don't get why Jenn thinks switching from the book-form to the indepedent-articles-form can be detached from the systematicity point. At the point where this collection of a few articles can be seen as constituting an admirably systematic investigation of a particular topic, what exactly would separate it from the book-style dissertations?


I don't think that a great system of thought entails the work to be lengthy. Wittgenstein's Tractatus is less than 100 pages long. I can't remember if Anscombe's Intention is less than 100 pages, but I do recall it being fairly short.

I like the idea of having a shorter dissertation, especially because of the advantages it may have in the current job market.

I can only speculate, but it seems that having 3 or 4 stand alone pieces will put one at an advantage when applying for academic jobs. A short dissertation allows a graduate student to polish the chapters to publishable quality.

It also seems that a shorter dissertation will fair better than a longer one with hiring committees. There is a better chance that a hiring committee will read in full a 100 page dissertation rather than a 300 page dissertation (this will depend on if the committee actually reads dissertations). The committee members will likely notice the difference in quality as well. If candidate x has a 3-4 papers compiled into a dissertation that are ready to be sent out to journals and candidate y has some good ideas spread throughout 300 pages but not ready to go, the committee may prefer x over y.

As I said, I can only speculate on there being advantages for shorter dissertations.

It would be interesting to hear from recent British or Australian PhDs since both systems require lengthier dissertations in comparison to the US.

Marcus Arvan

LJ: fair enough -- but it's one thing to say that a 100 page dissertation can be great, and another thing to hold that it is a good norm for developing young philosophers. I don't deny the former, but I am skeptical of the latter.

Part of what concerns me about the trend comes across in your comment. You mention the job market and search committees. But, as I see it, the primary aim of grad school shouldn't be getting people jobs. It should be developing philosophers of breadth and depth, which was I think the rationale of the old 300 page norm.


Chike (if I may): Ah, I was thinking that the only thing technically differentiating the 3-paper from the book-style is that the first involves writing standalone papers and the second does not. At least at Rutgers, we were required to write an introduction explaining how the papers relate to the broader project. Why do this rather than a book? Well, since the papers are presumably going to be published as articles, it seems pointless to string them together only to take them apart again. If Marcus was only talking about the sorts of 3-paper dissertations which cover fairly miscellaneous topics, then I guess I don't know anyone who did that. In fact, I don't know of anyone who wrote a dissertation that was only 100 pages (most are closer to 200). But I haven't read that many dissertations!

Matt DeStefano

Perhaps someone could shed some light on this for me: Why think that length and systematic thought have anything to do with each other? LJ has a few good examples, but I'm also thinking of shorter papers (like Gettier's famous one) that are short, but have changed the philosophical landscape.

Of course, I say this as an MA student who has yet to even begin his MA thesis... so take it for what it's worth.

Chike Jeffers

Hey Jenn. My question - certainly, admittedly, born out of a lack of familiarity with the collection-of-articles approach - is whether that approach is really just a book with the petty difference of no references made to what has been accomplished in other chapters? Because, if that's the case, then yeah, such a dissertation can be just as systematic, but that's because such a dissertation is not different in any significant way from a book-style dissertation.

But if the collection-of-articles approach releases a student from the burden of producing a book in a more substantial sense, it seems to me like it would necessarily mean releasing the student from producing a more systematic work, no?

I didn't imagine that they were generally based on miscellaneous topics but that there was no need to tie the related pieces into a greater whole. You describe the requirement of an introduction explaining how the papers relate to a broader project... I would think that that's important precisely because the approach serves to release the student from accomplishing a broad project.


I agree with Jonathan.

First, I don't think it's true that one has to try to be systematic right from the beginning if one is to have any hope of ever producing a grand unified picture (I probably also disagree with you about the extent to which everybody ought to be aiming at that, but we can set that aside for now). Take somebody like David Lewis. He was a systematic philosopher par excellence, but he didn't set out to be one right from the start: “I should have liked to be a piecemeal, unsystematic philosopher, offering independent proposals on a variety of topics. It was not to be.”

Given that most philosophical research is in article form, I don't see why grad school shouldn't train you to do what you'll be doing once you're out of grad school: write articles. Even if you set out from the start to write independent articles, that doesn't rule out their ultimately together constituting a unified world view, as they did in Lewis' case.

Not only does the article style dissertation not have, I think, the disadvantages you claim for it, but you haven't addressed the disadvantages of the traditional dissertation. Here are two main ones: (1) If you try to publish articles from it, you'll have to spend a lot of effort dissecting it to find parts that stand alone, rather than just submitting already-independent chapters. (2) If you do get it published as a book, in all likelihood, nobody will read it; people usually only devote time to reading books by people who are already somewhat established.

Given these considerations, it seems to me that the move away from traditional dissertations should be welcomed.

elisa freschi

LJ and Matt, I am somehow surprised by your examples. Gettier's point has been extremely influential, but it is no more than a well-put point (i.e., it had nothing systematic in it —this is not a criticism, since this was not Gettier's purpose). Wittgenstein's Tractatus was shorter than 300 pp., fine. But are not our PhD theses meant to be an attempt of critical thinking on philosophical topics, rather than an attempt of doing "boundariless" original philosophy? In other words, Wittgenstein's Tractatus would not be an example of a good dissertation (at least, certainly not in Europe, let me know whether you think it might be a good PhD thesis in the US). This does not mean to say that the Tractatus is not an excellent philosophical work, but the genre is different. Similarly, one would not expect someone working a PhD thesis on English poetry to write a (wonderful) poem, isn't it?


In my program, the guideline was to shoot for ~180. Mine, of course, was 250 (and that's after cutting out another 20-50 pages). Part of the reason for the length is precisely what you point to: it was an ambitious project, and that's how long it took. But that's not even "how long it took" since I'm now turning it into a book that'll be even longer, because the dissertation wasn't the whole story. There are lots of pieces left out.

Let's bear in mind that dissertations are merely projects required to obtain a PhD. They aren't meant to be finished products: they're often a starting point for one's career. They should allow the student to demonstrate their command of a literature, ability to engage the literature, and make some contribution to the field.

I think that the 100-120 pages trend is problematic because that's not long enough to accomplish those tasks. I don't worry about not being able to be ambitious or systematic in one's thinking. It's reasonable, I think, to suggest a cap on dissertations: something like 250 pages. Projects just don't need *that* big for a dissertation: people can take their projects and go further afterwards.

James Griffith

I feel compelled to chime in, though I do not have the time to be systematic. In the interest of, and attempt at, brevity, I offer the following points:
1. It is interesting that some of you, having previously completed long dissertations, and now asserting that dissertations need to be long (or longer than the current trend) do not seem to have a firm grasp on the literature you cite. To wit,
(1a) the original poster claims, "Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Heidegger -- didn't just hammer away at small problems; they developed entire systems of thought." In fact, this is precisely what Plato did most and first. Most of the dialogs are rather short. In addition, though we have long works attributed to Aristotle, it is good to remember that these are largely notes from his students. I'll admit to not knowing whether references from his contemporaries give us any idea of the length of projects as he released them for public consumption. Meanwhile, the works of Kant and Heidegger are notoriously difficult to get through. The OP continues, "And the same is true of more recent people of influence: Quine, Rawls, Davidson, etc." Rawls I'll give you, though I do believe most of the content of many of his chapters was first introduced as papers. I'm not sure if Davidson _ever_ wrote anything other than articles (or invited standalone chapters). His "books" are collections of his independent, but related essays over periods of time.
(1b) elise freschi, in response to the point that the Tractatus was fairly short, states, "Wittgenstein's Tractatus would not be an example of a good dissertation (at least, certainly not in Europe, let me know whether you think it might be a good PhD thesis in the US)." The Tractatus _was_ Wittgenstein's dissertation/thesis, and at Russell's urging that it be submitted as such for his Ph.D. from _Cambridge_. Moore's comments at the end of the defense, include the statement, "it is well above the standard required for the Ph.D. degree."
2. With the above in mind, I hold roughly the same view as offered by Jenn and Jonathan (and apparently Daniel).
3. Many of you seem to be suggesting that dissertations should be on par with, or aim to be so, the great philosophers' master works, which is absurd.
4. Full disclosure: I am currently writing a dissertation that will almost certainly exceed 300 pages, perhaps 400. I am also almost certain that it would be better written as individual papers.
5. So much for brevity...

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