Stage Four: EdTech and Archiving
Dissertations of today still largely resemble the dissertations of yesterday. By no means the domain of Luddites, doctoral programs nevertheless tend to behave sluggishly when it comes to adapting educational tech initiatives. But Ph.D. candidates still formulate some innovative, creative strategies for incorporating digital technologies into their final projects. Turin University's Federica Protti, for example, designed an interactive map of the city of Turin as her dissertation in computer science and media science. Adobe urges academics to include infographics in their dissertations and theses. Progress might be slow, but it does exist.
“I think one of the most important changes to scientific literature is the ability to create graphics which convey a compelling argument,” says Huckaby. “A picture really does speak a thousand words, so high-quality figures in a scientific publication can vastly improve the value of the manuscript. … [Scientists] aren't given much room for creativity in our writing, so the visual stimulation is where I think the Ph.D. candidate can shine creatively.”
The following edtech tools may not completely overthrow the reigning structure of the Ph.D. dissertation. However, they have been used to help accentuate points and grant students an edge in their research and presentations. Consider them enhancements, not replacements.
One of the simplest ways edtech has influenced the way dissertations are conducted is the incorporation of voice-over Internet protocol (VOIP). When oral defense time rolls around, tools such as Skype, Google Hangouts, Blackboard Collaborate, Adobe Connect, and WebX can all be pressed into service as digital meeting spaces for committee members in absentia. All of them include ways for students to display and share their presentation materials, either via screenshare or as an upload. Webcams and headsets are a must.
Memorial University, as part of its commitment to support green initiatives (not to mention a relatively painless time- and money-saving measure), organized eDefence in its School of Graduate Studies. Students and members of their oral defense committee meet through Adobe Connect rather than face-to-face. But beyond that, this traditional component of the dissertation continues with a detailed presentation of findings, conclusions, and methodologies as well as a question and answer session. The medium may have changed, but not the procedure or expectations.
Blogging offers a chance for doctoral candidates to compile and share their findings, not only about their fields but about graduate student issues on the whole. Some schools and departments, like the AMS Graduate Student Blog at Williams College, provide their own platforms for enrollees blogging the Ph.D. process. If this option is unavailable, students hoping to enhance their dissertations through blogs often turn to popular free services like WordPress and Blogger.
Keeping a blog has yet to entirely override a dissertation. But it provides an excellent outlet for Ph.D. students wanting a space of their own to interact with fellow scholars, faculty members, industry professionals, and anyone else with information to share. Doctoral candidates flock to blogging, as this listing by The Thesis Whisperer attests. And it makes sense. Blogging offers a more freeform conduit for compiling and sharing resources, receiving feedback from academics beyond their faculty advisor and classmates, test-running ideas before inserting them into the dissertation, and other perks. As an organization and connectivity tool, blogs are an invaluable asset. They may not be a necessity or a replacement dissertation, but they do occupy a unique place in the graduate studies world.
Most oral evaluations require a visual aid of some sort, usually a slideshow highlighting main points through graphs, images, charts, videos, audio, and other media. Tools such as Slideshare and Prezi add kick to the traditional presentation with layers of interactivity, as well as the ability for defense committee members (as well as public audiences) to dig into the more immersive, engaging components afterwards. Both sites host hundreds of presentations by Ph.D. candidates, covering a diverse range of subjects. They also provide a forum where fellow scholars and academics can download the research for future reference as well as leave feedback and participate in discussions.
Here's a popular Slideshare example from Fred Stutzman, who uploaded his research for University of North Carolina's School of Information and Library Science for public consideration. Katri Luukka used the site to host her entire dissertation, not just the presentation materials. Prezi offers up both “reusable” (meaning downloaders can “remix” the interactive content as they see fit) and copyrighted slideshows. Yang Yu's heavily visual exploration of zoning, design, and history stands as a particularly striking example of what can be done with creative presentation tools.
Electronic Theses and Dissertation Initiatives (ETDs) began at Virginia Tech and set the precedent for George Washington University, Brigham Young University, Louisiana State University, Indiana State University, and a slew of other colleges and universities across the United States. Nearly every doctoral program archives copies of the dissertations completed by its graduating students, usually in conjunction with the campus library. Thanks to ETDs, they save shelf space by creating digital databases filled with easy-to-browse resources and research materials. Depending on the school, these initiatives are either open to the public or restricted to current students and faculty or other scholars with special permission.
Most ETDs are open access, reflecting a general higher education industry trend toward open, collaborative learning. They provide another forum for current Ph.D. students to keep track of the latest discoveries impacting their research, not to mention giving undergraduate and master's-level students even more resources for their own assignments. Autodidacts and independent scholars also benefit from being able to browse and learn from their fellow academics.
Beyond the schools themselves, other resources provide opportunities for doctoral candidates to publish their findings independently. ProQuest, PhD2Published, and Scholarius all make it easy for students to make their dissertations available. While not always open access, they do empower Ph.D. pursuers to take charge of sharing their research in a manner they find most suitable. For some, this means furthering discourse by releasing their writing into the public domain. For others, a little compensation for their hard work is appreciated. Both approaches are equally valid, and both options are available.
Kovach notes that the very same online and distance-learning options impacting other degree plans have grown more and more prevalent in doctoral programs.
“Mostly in the last few years I've heard about how instructional technology supports doing dissertations (or other graduate degrees) through distance education,” she says. “I do not think this is the norm these days, as the majority of my colleagues who do advise Ph.D. students do this more locally at their universities. But I think it is a great option so that students can work with those who have the programs/expertise they are looking for to support their particular professional development goals, even if those resources are not available locally. They don't have to relocate just to go to school (although, because not all universities or programs have distance-education options, many graduate students do still have to, or select to, relocate).”
She continues, “Although, I think there may be some in the academic field that feel that graduate programs done at a distance are not as robust as those done through the traditional face-to-face approach. I don't necessarily think, however, that quality of the program or education is determined by the delivery mode. It is more likely that quality is controlled by those who are involved with the program and the quality of their efforts to educate their students.”
Final Stage: Advice
“I think it is important to have a firm understanding about why you want to get your Ph.D.,” Kovash says. “I personally don't think this decision should be taken lightly. Not everyone needs a Ph.D., and, like all things in life, not everyone has what it takes to be successful in pursuing this type of endeavor.”
That doesn't mean you should rule it out, though; just that you should know what to expect. “If you have a clear idea of your own professional goals, and a Ph.D. can help you achieve those goals, then you should pursue it and do everything you can to build the capabilities within yourself that you will need to not only obtain your Ph.D. but also to be successful in your career,” Kovach says. “This introspection prior to pursuing your Ph.D. may also serve to help motivate you through this process and push you to be successful.”
Once you perform the self-audit necessary to decide if a doctorate is the right path for you, the following tips can keep you focused and stress-free. Relatively speaking, of course.
- Be flexible. Since it takes an average of 8.2 years to complete a Ph.D., change is inevitable. The savvy student needs to pay close attention to the latest research in his or her field to remain relevant, which could lead to some changes in the dissertation. Staying rigidly fixed to one thesis regardless of what others publish will not reflect well once it comes time to defend everything. Faculty advisors come in handy when their mentees need to alter their courses to accommodate new data.
- Be a know-it-all. Oral defense committees fire off a volley of questions covering current industry research and trends, how the subject at hand might overlap with other topics, and sometimes even similar (but not identical) emphases. Doctoral students must ditch the tunnel vision and make sure to study “around” their chosen topic. This ensures a more well-rounded presentation and peace of mind no matter what the faculty and administrators might throw at you.
- Pick a good advisor and forge a good relationship with him orher. Never pick a faculty advisor at random. Find one whose studies and goals are congruent with yours before approaching him or her with a thorough, straightforward proposal. Once they agree to serve as a mentor, show courtesy by honoring all appointments and acting polite, even in moments of disagreement or frustration. Reach out and ask questions about directions, sources, and anything else that might improve the dissertation and oral defense. And, of course, show some sincere thanks once the whole ordeal finishes.
- Know exactly what the school wants. Preferably before enrolling. Showing up in a program expecting to write only 40 pages when the school requires at least 100 is almost as embarrassing as showing up to the prom wearing the same dress as the principal. You risk penalization when outright snubbing the house standards. Request dispensations and exceptions if necessary, but don't assume the rules do not apply to you just because you don't like them.
- Be creative. All dissertations will require school- and department-dependent constraints, but students still have some flexibility and opportunities for creativity. Incorporating edtech elements like a blog or a Storify chain or featuring an interactive slideshow would be a good example of “thinking outside the box” without actually exiting the boundaries.
- Only use reliable sources. Failing to stay abreast of what your field does and does not currently consider accurate, reliable information absolutely slaughters a dissertation. You do yourself, your readers, your faculty advisor, your defense committee, and your school a major disservice by approaching sources without a well-trained critical eye.
- Edit. Edit. Edit. Also edit. Poor spelling and grammar also wreck dissertations. You could formulate a cure for all known communicable diseases but fail to gain any traction or attention if nobody can decipher what you're talking about. Read everything out loud to check for awkward wording and sentence structure. Better yet, ask a friend or faculty advisor to lend a fresh opinion. Microsoft Word won't catch everything.
- Make multiple backups. Losing your entire dissertation to a virus or a glitch or a stolen laptop would … well, to be honest, we don't want to think about it. Always back up your dissertation materials to multiple locations. Upload them to Google Drive. Save them to an external hard drive or a flash drive. Sign up for Documents to Go or Bento. Or even go with good old-fashioned e-mailing it to your own address. And remember to back them up after every major change to the file. You will save yourself months of mental and emotional anguish by taking two seconds to back up the essential files.
Conquering the dissertation may sound like a knee-knocking, soul-shattering undertaking. And nobody will consider it easy, or even fun, at every step. But the risk of a migraine or trip to the psych ward significantly lowers when Ph.D. candidates begin their research with clear ideas, organization, and confidence.