When Anne Peplau, PhD, finished her dissertation 30 years ago, she wanted to publish the research in a journal as soon as possible. Like many graduates, Peplau, now the vice chair for graduate studies in psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), knew that publication could boost her fledgling academic career. But in the flurry of graduation and finding a job, Peplau found she didn't have time to revise her lengthy dissertation into a publishable journal article.
"It was probably a good year before I had time to take 150 pages and turn it into 20 pages," she recalls.
Three decades later, Peplau's student Emily Impett, PhD, had a very different experience. For her dissertation, Impett conducted two studies on how sacrifice and sexuality influence relationship quality in romantic relationships. Then, she wrote the studies up as two journal-style articles. UCLA's flexible dissertation requirements allowed her to submit the articles, with an introduction that described the trajectory of her graduate-school research, as her dissertation. With some feedback from her dissertation committee and her doctorate in hand, Impett submitted both articles to journals within a month of graduating. After some revisions, one was accepted by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the other by Personal Relationships.
Impett's experience illustrates how, as doctoral programs become more flexible, students increasingly have the option to write a traditional doctoral dissertation--a book-length, highly detailed tome--or an alternative format. At UCLA, for instance, students can write their dissertations in the style of the journal articles they'll be expected to write later in their careers.
Both alternative and traditional formats have their benefits, students and faculty say. "We want to give students the option of putting their time and talents into the directions with the most payoff," Peplau says.
UCLA's psychology department has had flexible requirements about how to write a dissertation for about 10 years, says Peplau. The work must be original empirical research, but students can decide on a format with the agreement of their dissertation committees. The department's official statement on dissertations says that the work may consist of a series of chapters written specifically for the project, a series of journal-style articles or some combination of the two.
Still, students rarely thought about writing dissertations in anything but the traditional, book-length style, according to Peplau. So about four years ago, the department began to actively encourage students to take more creative approaches with their dissertations by publicizing the policy and using department meetings about dissertations to encourage students to consider different formats.
Peplau emphasizes that students put as much work into journal-article-style dissertations as they do traditional ones. For example, the journal-article style might not include as extensive a literature review; however, students still compile that literature review as part their research proposal.
By the time they get to the dissertation defense, the committee already knows "they know the field, they've done the review," she says.
Other universities also offer such flexibility. At the University of Michigan students can write dissertations as three linked, publishable studies, says director of graduate psychology studies Scott Paris, PhD.
He estimates that about five or six psychology graduate students take advantage of the option each year.
"It varies by faculty adviser," he says. "Some like the format better and suggest it more than others."
Former Michigan student Deborah Schooler, PhD, now a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University, used the three-study format to write her dissertation on how body shame influences sexual decision-making. Her dissertation consisted of three studies with an introduction. The studies were accepted at journals within a year.
A BIG-PICTURE VIEW
But some students find that the traditional dissertation style still suits their needs best.
For his dissertation, Adam Fingerhut, PhD--also a student of Peplau's--studied how affiliations and social ties with both heterosexual and gay communities affect stress exposure and mental health for gay men and lesbians. Originally, Fingerhut planned to write his dissertation in the journal-article style. However, he says, the model he developed became so complex that trying to fit it in a journal format wouldn't allow him to address all of the subtleties he wanted to explore.
"Often for a journal article, we have to write the most streamlined version of our work," Fingerhut says. "And I felt like with my dissertation, it didn't really feel like the time for brevity."
Fingerhut, who graduated this spring, still plans to submit his dissertation research to journals-in fact, he's in the process of writing those articles now. But, he says, for him the traditional dissertation provided the most "intellectually satisfying" experience.
In the end, says Carol Williams-Nickelson, PsyD, associate executive director of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students, allowing students to write dissertations that suit their future career goals is an innovative idea that would provide a useful experience. However, she says, students should also remember--as Fingerhut did--that the process of writing a dissertation is an important academic exercise.
"The real purpose of a dissertation is to demonstrate that you know how to do research," she says. "It's another way of showing that you're academically prepared to enter the field."
And indeed, many students who've taken advantage of the flexible requirements have positive things to say.
"I knew people who wrote a typical dissertation who years later were still trying to break their monstrosity of a dissertation into meaningful chunks," Impett says. "For me, there were no downsides that I can think of."
Lea Winerman is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.