Dissertations writing “versus” three papers

As a former journalist, assistant professor, and seasoned dissertation-writing-workshop coach at New York University, I can promise you there is only one fail-safe method, one secret, one guaranteed trick that you need in order to finish your dissertation: Write.

Theresa MacPhail has a very good piece about writing a dissertation (found through Stuart Elden’s Progressive Geography blog). What I like the most is the warning about the fact that no magic shortcuts exist, but that of making of writing a “non-negotiable part of your daily routine”.
At the end of the day, researching in social sciences – and to a certain extent in technical sciences as well – is about writing: research projects, reports, notes, papers. And dissertations. Those of us who wrote or are writing their PhD thesis remind and experience the process as something inherently connected with the theoretical and empirical research process: the drafting of the table of contents, the building of the reference section, the writing of each chapter were, in my experience, the moments where ideas and concepts could be translated to a more concrete and transferable level. I wonder whether I’ll have further occasions, during my career, for the in-deep analyses that writing my dissertation allowed me to develop.
Nowadays in several countries and school, the hype is that of asking for three papers instead than a dissertation. This is considered a way to increment the “productivity” of the student, therefore supporting his/her career and the evaluation of the hosting institution – dissertations are barely evaluated in assessment procedures. We had an interesting debate about this processes with prof. Rob Atkinson during the academic writing workshop at the YA conference a few days ago.

Is the need for start publishing as soon as possible a good reason for abandoning the learning process allowed by dissertations?

(Simone Tulumello)


  1. You reminded me about Karl Weick’s citation of Graham Wallas “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” (in “Sensemaking in Organizations”, p. 12). Writing is a process through which the writer him/herself can better understand what he/she thinks. Which form the writing will acquire depends on the needs of the writer and on the purposes of the research. Short papers allow for more interaction during the research process. Dissertations allow to develop more complex thoughts. Quantity (in terms of time spent on work and in pages produced) is not always synonym with quality, and every opportunity to write should be an occasion to deal with ideas and thoughts. Therefore, both papers and dissertations allow for a learning process to take place and should not be regarded as opposites, but as means to achieve different aims.

    1. Thank you Ivana, I do agree 100% about this. Nonetheless, we (as researchers/students) usually have just one occasion in life for writing a dissertation of the kind of those asked for PhDs, which is.. the PhD. On the other hand, we’ll be writing papers during all our active lives. In other words, the trend for downplaying PhD dissertations may result in the disappearance of dissertations themselves, and this is something that I’m really concerned about.
      But it is a much wider issue, which concerns also (i.e.) how academic work is “evaluated”…

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