The Doctoral Dissertation – A Consultation

Friday, June 2, 2017

Guest blog by Anna Ryoo, Congress 2017 blogger

The Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences brings together leading thinkers, academics, researchers, policy-makers and innovators to explore some of the world’s most challenging issues. Congress celebrates the vitality and quality of Canadian research contributions, and helps train the next generation of Canadian ideas leadership. This year’s theme “The Next 150, on Indigenous Lands" celebrates the history, legacy and achievements of the peoples and territories that make us who we are, and anticipates the boundless opportunities of the future. Organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, this year’s Congress is being hosted by Ryerson University in Toronto from May 27-June 2. Follow this series of Big Picture at #congressh blogs.

The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies co-hosted a Congress 2017 event to offer scholars and students a chance to participate in a round table discussion on the future of the doctoral dissertation. This is part of a year-long set of consultations based on the CAGS discussion paper on the same topic. The consultation was facilitated by Heather Zwicker, a humanities scholar and Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at the University of Alberta, and Lisa Young, a social science researcher and Dean at University of Calgary.

Participants at the session – who included graduate students, graduate program directors, deans of graduate studies and professionals working in the field – shared their perspectives on graduate education in the Humanities and Social Sciences, and two issues percolated to the top: time to completion, and the quality of supervision and pedagogy.   

Probing these further led to an animated discussion on PhD and doctoral education as a whole. Some of the issues raised were specific to humanities and social science disciplines.

  • The move toward alternative forms of the dissertation – whether the three articles model or inclusion of non-traditional components – challenges the scholarly monograph. One participant asked: Isn’t the pursuit of the PhD perhaps the only time that a student can learn the skills needed to write a scholarly monograph?
  • How does the tradition of individual scholarship affect the graduate student experience in the Social Sciences and Humanities? Would supervisors have more invested in their students if they routinely co-published with them, as is the case in the STEM disciplines?
  • How well do other components of the PhD prepare students to write a dissertation? Are they equipped with the skills they need before they start working with their supervisor on their own thesis? Can programs be structured to better prepare them?
  • In light of the challenging academic job market in the Humanities in particular, should the dissertation be altered? Should the model be ‘one form fits all’ or should we move toward a ‘bespoke’ model in which the form of the dissertation is different for students who want to pursue an academic career, and those who do not? Would this create two “levels” of PhD?

A lively discussion of alternative forms and formats for the dissertation, noting that this challenges the boundaries of scholarship. Here, the participants identified an important role for faculties of graduate studies in highlighting exemplars, to give students and supervisors an idea of what is possible.

This consultation shows us — as have many other consultations that have taken place across Canada — the need to engage in ongoing conversations and the need to reimagine the PhD.

The workshop session entitled “The Doctoral Dissertation – A Consultation” was held at Congress 2017 in partnership with the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies.




Congress of the Humanities and Social SciencesCongress 2017