abstract macro photo of water and bubbles, dark blue-green and white

What, Why, How?

What makes a doctoral dissertation excellent? While this question is being asked more and more frequently with regard to dissertations that break from their field’s typical structure, it is not clear that there is consensus even within a single field or department as to what the answer is—even for standard dissertations. Now, as more and more emerging scholars are taking their work in creative new directions, the lack of explicit criteria around dissertation standards is creating needless roadblocks to highly original work.

What do we mean by next-generation dissertation?

A next-generation dissertation is any doctoral project whose form goes beyond the traditional written monograph. It can be a website or other digital product, it can be a graphic novel, a documentary, or a rap album.

“I didn’t set out with the goal of doing a non-monographic project, I wanted to do the work, and this was what made the most sense.”

—A.D. Carson

For next-generation dissertations, form follows function. As Amanda Visconti describes in an interview with Syracuse postdoctoral fellow Chris Flanagan, working in an alternative form is not necessarily groundbreaking. Similarly, as AD Carson put it, “I didn’t set out with the goal of doing a non-monographic project, I wanted to do the work, and this was what made the most sense.”

This site exists to show off some of the possibilities of a next-generation dissertation, showcase some notable projects from recent years, and give you the guidance and advice you need to think about undertaking such a project yourself.

Video of Sonia Estima: What is a next-generation dissertation?

So what’s the big deal?

The nature of the scholarly work that is being articulated in a digital project is not wildly different from the research groundwork that underlies a written text. The key difference is that after reading dozens or hundreds or thousands of dissertations, a reviewer may have an intuitive sense of what strong work looks like. Unusual formats disrupt that intuitive review, surfacing the need for more explicit guidelines.

Dissertation rubrics could be a valuable tool not only for dissertation reviewers, but for writers as well. Explicit guidelines would enable the student, who is (probably) writing their first ever dissertation, to know in advance how their work will be evaluated. There would be less guessing about what an advisor thinks, fewer last-minute changes in expectations, maybe less anxiety.

All this brings up the central question: Is the issue really that faculty don’t know how to thoughtfully evaluate next-generation dissertations, or that graduate education as a whole doesn’t actually have a clear critical sense of how any dissertations should be evaluated?

Video of Ivan Gonzalez-Soto: Why does this kind of work matter?

How this site can help

What follows is a flexible set of guidelines to support students considering developing a next-generation dissertation, and to support their faculty advisors in the guidance and evaluation of such dissertations. The guide includes a rubric that can be adapted for use with a wide range of dissertation types. However, a thoughtful approach to dissertation development, guidance, and evaluation begins much earlier in the process. With that in mind, we begin the guide with a series of questions that students may wish to ask themselves as they embark on a creative dissertation project, as well as process-oriented suggestions for approaching the planning, proposal, execution, defense, and evaluation phases. It also includes resources and project examples; we invite readers to contribute.