Rise of the Three-Essays Dissertation

21 May 2013 at 3:33 pm 10 comments

| Peter Klein |

Almost all dissertations in economics and business are of the “three-essays” variety, rather than conventional book-length treatises. The main reason is pragmatic: economics, management, finance, accounting, etc. are mainly discussed in journal articles, not books. Students writing treatises must spend the first year post PhD converting the dissertation into articles for publication; why not write them that way from the start? (An extreme example — perhaps apocryphal — concerns Larry Summers, who began teaching at MIT several years before receiving his PhD from Harvard. Rumor has it he forgot to submit the PhD thesis, and simply bundled three of his published articles and turned it in.)

Some counter that the traditional model, or some variant of it, has value — for instance, the treatise conventionally includes a lengthy literature review, more than would be acceptable for a published journal article, which demonstrates the student’s mastery of the relevant literature. My view is that the standalone literature review is redundant at best; the student’s mastery of the material should be manifest in the research findings, without extra recitation of who said what. I tell students: don’t waste time putting anything in the dissertation that is not intended for publication!

The May 2013 AER has a piece by Wendy Stock and John Siegfried, “One Essay on Dissertation Formats in Economics,” on the essays-versus-treatise question. The evidence seems to weigh pretty heavily against the treatise:

Dissertations in economics have changed dramatically over the past forty years, from primarily treatise-length books to sets of essays on related topics. We document trends in essay-style dissertations across several metrics, using data on dissertation format, PhD program characteristics, demographics, job market outcomes, and early career research productivity for two large samples of US PhDs graduating in 1996-1997 or 2001-2002. Students at higher ranked PhD programs, citizens outside the United States, and microeconomics students have been at the forefront of this trend. Economics PhD graduates who take jobs as academics are more likely to have written essay-style dissertations, while those who take government jobs are more likely to have written a treatise. Finally, most of the evidence suggests that essay-style dissertations enhance economists’ early career research productivity.

The paywalled article is here; a pre-publication version is here. (Thanks to Laura McCann for the pointer.)

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Education, Ephemera, Institutions. Tags: .

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. David Croson (@ProfDC)  |  21 May 2013 at 5:14 pm

    The version of the Summers PhD creation myth that *I* heard differed in that he found three *unpublished* articles and turned them in. (Holding the PhD was necessary to receive tenure at MIT.)

  • 2. Isaac  |  22 May 2013 at 1:10 am

    The advantage of writing a monograph is that you can afford to be more daring; do something unpopular, which, regardless of how brilliant, would be hard to publish in AER & Co. Also, you can afford to be *less* efficient and explore the topic from different perspectives, which, of course, you are cannot do given the constraints of the article form.

  • 3. Jason  |  22 May 2013 at 7:26 am

    Hmm I kind of agree that if article publication is the main goal, they should be written that way from the start. I can see the other side too though.

  • 4. Bill M Cooke (@BillCookeIII)  |  22 May 2013 at 1:25 pm

    I agree with Isaac

  • 5. Randy  |  22 May 2013 at 6:07 pm

    Two observations.
    (1) Daring, innovative,careful, admirable, notable, … dissertations can be of either form, depending upon the quality of the student, the advisor, and the examining committee. Since the requirement is not to have the essays published prior to defending, we do not need to worry about AER or QJE editors-as-sticks-in-the-mud.
    (2) The best reason to choose the 3-essay model was ignored by Stock and Siegfried: managing the dissertation committee. In the monograph model, one hears way too often, “just add these important additional runs of the model”, “what happens with this functional form?”, “you left out these pieces (from my grad school days) from the lit review”,”you need to go back and look at…”. The accepted level of extraneous bullshit that can be added to any 30-page essay is much smaller, thus easier to discipline the committee.

  • 6. Mario Rizzo  |  23 May 2013 at 1:01 pm

    My dissertation in 1977 was basically ONE longish essay on crime and property values. I was not only ahead of the times then but ahead of the times now.

  • 7. Warren Miller, CFA, CPA  |  26 May 2013 at 11:48 pm

    I’m scratching my head a bit. Although I’m not an academic, my understanding is that taking the ‘three essays route” resulted in a D.B.A, not a Ph.D. Has that changed??

  • […] [via Organizations and Markets] […]

  • 9. Peter Klein  |  27 May 2013 at 8:38 am

    Yes. The 3-essays format is now standard for the PhD. Which raises an interesting question: Do any schools even offer a DBA anymore?

  • 10. Warren Miller, CFA, CPA  |  27 May 2013 at 9:06 am

    Peter, according to this web page, the Harvard B-School still offers a DBA. Its Ph.D. is still reserved for one field only: “Business Economics.” In addition, there is the list of institutions here, though the primary focus of that list is executive doctoral programs.

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