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Report Finds Trend Toward Research Article Dissertations

Meagan and student at white board
Meagan Kittle Autry, left, helps guide students participating in the Dissertation Institute. (Becky Kirkland photo)

Doctoral dissertations — the last achievement of a Ph.D. program – are more likely to be research article dissertations at institutions focused on science, technology, engineering and math, according to a report by NC State University’s Graduate School.

The results of the study will be presented this week at the Council of Writing Program Administrators by Meagan Kittle Autry, director of Thesis and Dissertation Support Services, Karissa Wojcik, graduate services assistant, and Mike Carter, associate dean, all of the Graduate School. The council’s annual meeting is in Raleigh this week.

Kittle Autry said that she and Wojcik decided the time was right to take a close look at the types of dissertations being produced at NC State. Graduate students were asking for discipline-specific advice on what they should be planning for their dissertations. Additionally, the most recent large-scale dissertation study was conducted in 2002 and found that only a few students were writing research article dissertations, she said.

“No one has analyzed what dissertations look like at a STEM university in 15 years. We really wanted to do this again,” she said.

Kittle Autry and Wojcik examined nearly 400 dissertations submitted by NC State doctoral students in 2014 and 2015 and found that the majority – 65 percent — were research article dissertations. The dissertations also were analyzed for each of NC State’s 10 colleges, and among those, only two colleges had no research article dissertations.

A research article dissertation – one of four distinct styles of dissertations – is a record of published research articles, chronicling different facets of the student’s research.

Based on the report findings, Kittle Autry says the research article dissertation is a trend at STEM universities. “This is a huge change since 2002. It reflects the increased professionalism of Ph.D.s,” she said.

Today, the expectations for those seeking jobs that require a Ph.D. are much higher than in the past, Kittle Autry said, so published research findings are critical to finding employment, especially in some fields. Including research articles in a dissertation is one way to showcase a Ph.D. candidate’s scope of work.

The study identified four major types of dissertations produced by NC State students:

  • Type 1: Simple Traditional Dissertation. This type is a report on a single large study and follows the structure for research reporting called, IMRAD: Introduction, literature review, methods, results and discussion (conclusion).
  • Type 2: Complex Traditional Dissertation. This type is an extended version of the simple traditional dissertation. Though the structure is highly similar, this version reports on more than one study.
  • Type 3: Topic-Based Dissertation. The most variable of all dissertation types, after the introduction, the chapters are topical. This is more common in non-empirical research fields.
  • Type 4: Research Article Dissertation. This type of dissertation may include an introduction and conclusion, along with a literature review, in addition to the research articles,which each constitute a chapter.

In the report, Kittle Autry suggests that the research article dissertation could be strengthened by including both an introduction and conclusion chapter in all dissertations of this type. Without both the introduction and conclusion, she said, a dissertation doesn’t read like a cohesive work.

Some research article dissertations had an introduction or conclusion chapter, and then some in the dissertation study had both, Kittle Autry said. An introduction can be helpful in establishing what is already known about an area of research, as well as describing gaps in the research and setting up the problem to be investigated.

“An introductory chapter sets up the studies (in the dissertation) and demonstrates the researcher’s grasp of the ‘bigger picture’ related to the research,” Kittle Autry said.

A conclusion can bring the research back to the original problem – after these research studies, what do we know now and why does it matter, she said.

“In theory, a conclusion chapter brings the work full circle,” Kittle Autry said. “It demonstrates higher order thinking about your own contribution to knowledge in your field.

The report also compares dissertation types between colleges at NC State by length, dissertation type and number of chapters. The findings can help Ph.D. candidates and their advisors see how their dissertation plan stacks up to those of other candidates in their own college and across the university.

“The idea behind the report is to give students, faculty and directors of graduate programs an idea of what is happening with dissertations in their own fields,” Kittle Autry said. “People should realize that dissertations reflect the value and type of work that has to be done in their field.”

Kittle Autry and her colleagues are excited to share some of their findings at the Council of Writing Program Administrators’ program this week. Until now, most of the council’s focus has been on undergraduate writing programs, but that is changing, she said. Her Graduate School program – Thesis and Dissertation Support Services – assists graduate students with academic writing from the time they enter graduate school through the completion of their master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation.

“Graduate writing is a new frontier, and NC State is a leader in this field,” she said.

Learn more:

Read the dissertation report online.

See article on the report published by Inside Higher Ed, 7/14/16.

Read about how NC State’s Dissertation Institute helps doctoral students complete their degrees.

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  1. It is a very interesting study! Thanks for conducting it!

    I am not surprised about this trend. It also reflects the stress from funding agencies to project PIs to publish the results, as many students do not publish their work once they get a job, leaving the PIs a bad situation to compete for the next round of funding.

    I think NCSU and other research universities should require all PhD students to publish/submit at least 3 journal articles before they are considered for final exams, which would fulfill the project obligation as well as benefit the students in their job hunting and future career.