What is a dissertation? What is a project?

Japanese Calligraphy–from Wikipedia Commons

What is a dissertation? You’ve got me, and I’ve been at this for some time. Almost 20 years into helping people write their dissertations and I feel like I am more confused than ever. So, as I often do when facing confusion—I turned to Wikipedia, which defines it as:


[A dissertation is…] a document submitted in support of candidature for an academic degree or professional qualification presenting the author’s research and findings…

They also say that a dissertation is a research monograph and is generally in the form of a research monograph.

An ordinary monograph has a title page, an abstract, a table of contents, comprising the various chapters (e.g., introduction, literature review, methodology, results, discussion), and a bibliography or (more usually) a references section.

Yes, it’s true, I was right—this is the form the world accepts as the dissertation. I love the logic of a good argument, but I am less and less in love with this form and the language in which it is presented.

When I graduated from my doctoral program in 1995 from the University of Illinois, I thought that the rigid form and writing style of the classic dissertation would be of short duration. Little did I know I would still be teaching it in 2017.

Recently in working on my “complex teams in qualitative research project”, I had cause to look up the definition of project. I had worked on many projects, but now I needed a formal definition, which I found at the Project Management Institute, the guru of organizations on the topic.

“…[a] temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources. And a project is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal. So a project team often includes people who don’t usually work together – sometimes from different organizations and across multiple geographies.” (Inserted from http://www.pmi.org/en/About-Us/About-Us-What-is-Project-Management.aspx)

Reviewing this definition made me realize that one reason I don’t like the way we use the term “dissertation” is that we conflate everything into that one word—the process, the product, the committee, the rising researcher. Everything is symbolized by that one little research monograph.

What would happen, I have been asking myself, if we stopped calling it a dissertation and started calling it a project…and adhered to the appropriate definition of project?  What are the implications of making that one change in wording? Here are some ideas:

-it might shift the style of the proposal

-it could lead to a description of the dissertation committee within the document; and accountability for the committee work as opposed to focusing accountability of the student

-it would allow doctoral students to practice writing an up-to-date document, rather than a more archaic writing form

-it would allow for the inclusion of multiple products as part of the dissertation outcome, not just the one research monograph

In future posts I am going to follow up on some of these ideas.