Several friends of mine have been recently finishing their Ph.D. dissertations, which of course were the cause of much stress: they tend to be quite long (100+ pages usually) and cover most or all of the work one did in grad school, not to mention the symbolism of the dissertation as the physical embodiment of 5+ years of labor. But underlying all the effort and angst that goes into a dissertation is a cold, hard truth: almost no one will read it.
Lenny Teytelman over at the Spectroscope recently addressed this reality, prefaced by his story of pulling a pretty fantastic prank to test his advisor’s scrutiny of his dissertation (of course his advisor failed). I don’t have definitive proof, but I suspect no one on my committee read my dissertation in any more detail than maybe flipping through it — they certainly said not a word about it at my defense. I know a few people whose advisor or one committee member did diligently read their dissertations, but anecdotally the majority of people I know didn’t get anything more than a cursory reading and few minor suggestions.
But besides negligent committees, I think the truly important issue here is whether writing a dissertation is a good use of a grad student’s time at all. The fact is that almost all significant scientific work is published as papers in peer-reviewed journals, and these papers are not only the primary currency of a research career, but they are also the canonical scientific record that people will read and cite in the future. Dissertations, on the other hand, are almost never cited in most areas of science I’m familiar with; I’ve only ever referred to other people’s dissertations a few times, and maybe cited one once. This is of course compared to the thousands of times I have referred to or cited papers. So if no one’s going to read or cite your dissertation, and it’s redundant with your papers anyway, is there really any point to writing one?
In the comments of the aforementioned blog, Nikolai Slavov noted that in some fields (namely certain areas of experimental physics), dissertations are actually read and cited since they often contain detailed descriptions of experimental or computational methods not available elsewhere. I heard something similar from a friend, who said her research group used a former member’s dissertation as a standard reference for new members to learn a particular method used by the group.
Nevertheless my personal opinion on the matter is that dissertations are just a relic from a different era of science (and science publishing), and that senior grad students would be much better off spending that time doing more research, writing another paper (which might actually get read!), or maybe just basking in their newfound PhD-ness. To the extent that some people or fields use dissertations to provide technical methodological documentation, I think it might be better anyway to put such material in standalone methods papers that are probably easier for readers to find anyway.
What do you think? Have dissertations outlived their usefulness in science, or are they still an important part of the Ph.D.? Please vote in the poll and leave a comment below!