Ph.D.s Embrace Alternative Dissertations. The Job Market May Not. (CHE)

FEBRUARY 28, 2016 
[full article here.]

Nick Sousanis has scored some wins lately.

After taking an academic risk to use an alternative form for his dissertation — a comic book about visual thinking — he successfully defended it in 2014 and earned his doctorate in interdisciplinary studies from Columbia University.

The dissertation was published by Harvard University Press. Several professors now assign the book. And perhaps most satisfying to Mr. Sousanis, last month he received a national award, from the Association of American Publishers, typically reserved for more-traditional academic tomes.

“It’s one thing to convince a dissertation committee” of the value of an unusual approach, says Mr. Sousanis, who is now a postdoctoral researcher in comics studies at the University of Calgary. “And maybe you can convince an editor because they could see the novelty and want to sell some books. But to convince an independent body feels like people are buying into this.”

Mr. Sousanis’s optimism, however, is tempered. By one measure, academe hasn’t quite yet bought in to nontraditional dissertations. Despite the accolades and speaking invitations — he spoke with The Chronicle last month while on the road between talks about his dissertation at the College for Creative Studies, in Detroit, and Duke University — he hasn’t landed a tenure-track job.

For a variety of reasons, humanities programs at many colleges have started to allow dissertation formats to veer from the traditional book-length monograph. These proj­ects have taken the form of a suite of three or more papers, a documentary, an interactive analysis of a text, or even a comic book.

“We can’t keep training students as if they’re going to all be professors if 50 percent of them are not going to be professors.”

But as more graduate schools support different approaches, hiring-and-promotion practices at most universities lag behind. Ph.D. advisers and doctoral students need to be thinking sooner about how such alternate dissertations will affect career prospects down the line, say graduate-school administrators.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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