Graduate students have a basic understanding of the format of a PhD dissertation. Whether it is a single piece that gradually builds a substantive contribution or three chapters that share a common theme (read: three completely different chapters that are somehow tied together by a title like “Topics in…” or “Chapters in the Field of…”) we all know that there will be arguments expressed in words, figures, and dreaded long tables. Dissertations are a daunting document that is often read only by the author and committee members and rarely does one hear in academic circles phrases like “let me send you a copy of this dissertation I just read.”
However, there are a number of recent examples that take a very different approach when it comes to the format and aim of a dissertation. They all still represent a meaningful contribution to our collective knowledge but they exploit methods and formats that are foreign to the text-table-figure recipe. An explanation of what this new wave of dissertations is best served by a few examples:
- Unflattening is Nick Sousanis’s dissertation about how we construct knowledge. He draws from multiple domains and delivers the synthesis in a comic book. The result is visually stunning as well as thought provoking. I am not sure as to how to deliver the results of a regression in a comic book but I know I am interested in thinking about it.
- Infinite Ulysses is an interactive reading-commenting website that forms Amanda Visconti’s dissertation in literature. The link above will take you to the project’s GitHub page (which makes me think that all dissertations might benefit from having a GitHub page) where you can also find the link to the website itself as well as the dissertation version of the project.
- Atomic Size Matters is Veronica Berns’s dissertation, in comic book form, yet much more cartoonish than Unlfattening, about quasicrystals. Yes, this is a comic book about cutting edge research in chemistry and it is written for the general public – hence the use of Kickstarter to produce printed copies of the work.
The examples above make me think that there are multiple ways through which academic research can be conveyed and communicated to the public. Does this mean that academic research should transcend the use of tables crammed with results and data intensive figures? Not really. When it comes down to it I think the standard format serves us well and we should keep writing our research that way. We just have more than that standard format and we should use these options to engage with a readership that is outside our immediate literature niche.
Know of any other interesting dissertations that defy the standard format? Put them in the comments and I will try to construct a repository of them.