The Agony and the Ecstasy

December 19, 2016

This particular blog post is probably a bit more personal than previous posts.


The title might be misleading if you have not read The Agony and the Ecstasy. Give it a read if you have not. It is quite interesting, especially the ideas of representation and authenticity. 


I was recently flipping through a book I bought a while back called The Book of Symbols. I was particularly interested in time and calendars when looking through it, though it is full of some really great art and text.


Dissertating (yes, that is a word) is not always fun, though it most certainly is rewarding just from the perspective of learning some new, and often unexpected, things that challenge your worldview.


It's fascinating how the non-fun things sometimes lead to the most fulfillment once problems are solved, tasks are completed, and feedback is positive.


However, it is sometimes the case that not everyone is 100% on board with a dissertation project, especially when a dissertation proposal is quasi-approved. It doesn't make sense to move forward with analysis when there are lingering questions about whether or not that analysis will make its way into the document. That said, if it doesn't, it can always be submitted to a journal for publication, but I have some thoughts on that below.


Writing a dissertation is not necessarily a team effort, but it does involve (hopefully) a ton of communication about the nuances of theory, methods, and the essence of what makes a dissertation have a high level of quality.


Recent trends suggest that the dissertation is becoming somewhat of an avenue toward publishing. That is great, and that is not new, but there is a newer trend occurring, which is the "three paper dissertation."


Essentially, academic departments are becoming so focused on publishing in journals that the point of the dissertation is perhaps becoming lost. It is less about original contribution and more about lines on a CV in order to get an academic position after completion of PhD.


This is it: Write three separate journal articles and bookend them with an introduction and conclusion.


Is that what you imagined a dissertation to be? I didn't.




To me, this is disconcerting and not why I decided to pursue a PhD. I could have stopped at a master's degree, but that's not quite how my department is set up, as it does not typically award terminal master's degrees.


The academic publishing industry is changing the landscape of academia. In fact, a recent study claims the ethos of "publish or perish" is actually generating bad science.


When do graduate students speak out about this? We are becoming less students and more of commodities to bolster the reputation of academic departments through publishing in a select list of academic journals these departments find "reputable." Does this help us get jobs and contribute something original to the body of scientific knowledge? That is debatable.


The dark underbelly of this publishing scheme reveals some of these "reputable" journals actually game their impact factors to make them "reputable." Why is academia feeding this system when it is clear it is corrupt? How or why should graduate students tolerate this when, at least for some of us, the goal is to contribute new, original knowledge through innovative methods and analysis?


Short answer: In my experience so far, it is very, very difficult. It almost seems advantageous to download a dataset such as Add Health or NHANES, run a series of logistic regressions, and say "AH HA! I have determined something that has been determined dozens of times before, but I added a variable."


That is not good science, in my opinion.




The critical question is this: If academic publishing and revenue streams for academic publishers are so central to a dissertation, why bother with the dissertation at all? It seems that the document has become a mask for feeding the system and training scholars to feed the system. What does that have to do with science? In my mind, very little, if the sole purpose is to publish for the sake of publishing.


All this said, my dissertation progress is happening, though much more slowly than I would prefer. Part (or most) of this is my own making, especially given the results of the presidential election. I was somewhat interested in networked knowledge and the spread of information online, but now that topic seems more timely.


So, the agony of this is outlined above.


The ecstasy is the potential outcome and the learning process along the way. Though it is difficult, and seemingly unnecessarily so, I learn something new every day about not just my subject matter, but how people operate in the academy. 


But is it authentic? I'm not sure what authenticity is, objectively.


I'm of the mind of "let's do this and make it awesome the right way" rather than wringing our hands for months over how to go about it. At some point, people must trust others to use their best judgment and get the job done to satisfaction and a high degree of scientific quality.


I suppose it is my job to manage my graduate school experience more closely, which I have been doing, but it is a difficult process. 


At any rate, godspeed, fellow dissertators (pretty sure that is not a word). If you're not a dissertator, godspeed anyway, and send me an email if you have any feedback on your own experiences.



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