Alt-Dissertation Scholarship

Interrogating Form and Function

Humanities scholars are increasingly encouraging academic departments to re-imagine the work that the dissertation is expected to do.

In a 2014 article in the Chronicle of Higher EducationLeonard Cassuto points to a pragmatic reason to change the way we approach dissertation projects, noting: “The higher the Ph.D. unemployment rate, the more unconscionable it is to demand that all graduate students write the kind of dissertation best suited for research-driven academic jobs. Students need a chance to prepare themselves for the types of jobs that they are actually going to get, not just the one that graduate-school culture has deemed the ideal.” 

Alternative dissertations have the potential to reach a wider audience than is common for traditional dissertation projects, academic books, or journal articles.

The traditional dissertation’s audience is limited because of its esoteric format.

In her thesis on alternative dissertation formats, Rebecca Thomas notes that dissertations often lie fallow after the completion of a PhD or reach a very limited audience (Thomas 8). This is due in large part to the need to extensively revise the dissertation project to suit the distinct genre of a journal article or book. The high demands either of the job market or a new academic job limit PhD graduates’ ability to revise their work. Recent grads may become burnt out on their research or their project may lose its timeliness during this period (Thomas 8).

This is compounded by the fact that access to conventional avenues for traditional publication is shrinking.

As Vimal Patel points out in The Chronicle of Higher Education, struggling university presses mean that up-and-coming scholars have more limited access to high-impact journals.

In contrast, web dissertation projects such as Amanda Visconti’s Infinite Ulysses can invite much wider audiences into a conversation.

For example, as of January 2018, Visconti’s project had received more than 24,000 unique visitors and almost 800 registered participants.

Writing an alternative dissertation may not be an asset on the traditional, tenure-track job market. However, it may be an asset on the non-academic or “non-traditionally academic” job market.

Leonard Cassuto points out that regardless of format, undertaking a dissertation process is a kind of professional development in its own right.  Vimal Patel and others emphasize that alternative dissertation formats offer opportunities for scholars to develop and showcase a wide range of new skills. In Patel’s words

for those who want to land nonacademic jobs, rethinking the dissertation can be appealing. Jesse Merandy, a Ph.D. candidate in English at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, says a traditional dissertation wouldn’t have served his career goals. His dissertation will be a game for mobile devices that tells users about the life and work of Walt Whitman as they walk Brooklyn Heights, where the poet lived. “A monograph may have even been a disservice for me,” Mr. Merandy says. “When I started, I thought my degree was going to lead to a teaching position. But it became obvious to me that doors were opening constantly as a result of my tech skills.”


Key Discussions
Archbald D. (2011). The emergence of the nontraditional doctorate: A historical overview. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 129, 7–19. 10.1002/ace.396

Storey, Valerie A, and Hesbol A Kristina. “Alternative Dissertation Formats: Preparing Scholars for the Academy and Beyond.” Contemporary Approaches to Dissertation Development and Research Methods, edited by Kim Nehls and Doris L. Watson, IGI Global, 2016, pp. 43–52.

Beyond the Dissertation as Proto-Monograph: Examples and Reflections | #alt-Academy: Alternative Academic Careers. Accessed 9 Jan. 2018.

Cassuto, Leonard. “The Dissertation: Then, Now, and What Next?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 2014. The Chronicle of Higher Education,

Patel, Vimal. “Ph.D.s Embrace Alternative Dissertations. The Job Market May Not.The Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 2016. The Chronicle of Higher Education,

Thomas, Rebecca Arlene. The Effectiveness of Alternative Dissertation Models in Graduate EducationMasters Thesis, Department of Instructional Psychology and Technology, Brigham Young University, 2015.

Transforming the Dissertation.” HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory), Accessed 9 Jan. 2018.

Visconti, Amanda. “Scholarly Values for a Digital Humanities Dissertation.HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory), December 2013.

What Is a Dissertation?(Collaborative Google Document), Accessed 9 Jan. 2018.

What Is a Dissertation? New Models, Methods, Media | #alt-Academy: Alternative Academic Careers. Accessed 9 Jan. 2018.