Rise of the Three-Essays Dissertation
| 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.