How to Grade a Dissertation


Faculty have implicit standards for evaluating the dissertation. They owe it to their students to make those standards explicit.

The PhD dissertation is the ultimate educational product. It reflects the training of its author and the technical, analytical, and writing skills he or she developed in a doctoral program. Successful completion of the dissertation and the award of the PhD certify that the degree recipient can do independent scholarly work. That much is generally agreed. But who decides what an acceptable dissertation looks like? What are the standards by which faculty evaluate dissertations?

Identifying these criteria—and they do exist, however reluctant faculty are to write them down—could help faculty develop informed measures of learning outcomes. These measures would constitute powerful indicators of the success of research training, provide a method for evaluating PhD programs, and allow more objective comparisons among them. Such standards would also make evaluation of dissertations more valid and reliable across candidates in a department or field.

This article draws on a study that asked faculty to make explicit their implicit criteria for evaluating dissertations. The study aimed to help departments, disciplines, and universities develop objective standards for the outcome of doctoral training—the dissertation—and to use these standards in two ways. At the student level, the goal is to employ them to improve graduate education and training and make it more transparent to students; at the program level, it is to assess educational effectiveness.

The Study
In 2003–04, 276 faculty members in 74 departments across 10 disciplines at 9 research universities participated in focus groups in which they were asked to characterize dissertations and their components (the problem statement, the literature review, theory, methods, analysis, and discussion or conclusion) at four different quality levels—outstanding, very good, acceptable, and unacceptable. They were also asked what it means to make an original and significant contribution in their disciplines and what the purpose of the dissertation is. The study targeted faculty members who had produced high numbers of PhDs in four science disciplines (biology, electrical and computer engineering, physics or physics and astronomy, and mathematics); three social science disciplines (economics, psychology, and sociology); and three humanities disciplines (English, history, and philosophy).

To get a measure of the faculty members’ experience and productivity, we asked them to specify how long they had been a professor, how many dissertations they had supervised, and how many dissertation committees they had served on. Together, the 272 focus group members who provided background information had 6,129 years of experience, had advised approximately 3,470 dissertations, and had sat on about 9,890 dissertation committees. The average focus group participant had been a professor for 22 years, advised 13 dissertations, and served on 36 dissertation committees.

The faculty members said that they often make holistic judgments about the quality of a dissertation after they have read it. In other words, they do not have a mental checklist of items against which they assess a dissertation. Still, our results demonstrate that faculty members do make quality judgments about dissertations and that they can (and did) make those judgments explicit. Across focus groups and disciplines, there was a high degree of consistency in the way faculty members characterized the levels of quality we identified. However, no dissertation does or can achieve all of the individual benchmarks the group identified. Indeed, taken together, some of the items are self-contradictory.

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