Alternatives to the Traditional Doctoral Dissertation: A Research Literature and Policy Review

Alternatives to the Traditional Doctoral Dissertation: A Research Literature and Policy Review

Gary Berg (University of Phoenix, USA)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 11
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7832-1.ch013
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In response to increased criticism of the utility of the traditional doctoral dissertation, some institutions have incorporated additional options for students such as articles, portfolios, and industry-specific projects. This trend towards allowing alternatives for doctoral students coincides with the rise internationally of what are variously called professional, applied, or practitioner doctorates in various disciplines. The goal of this review of the relevant research literature and policy documents is to understand the evolution of professional doctoral degrees, and how rigor and quality are evaluated specifically with non-dissertation capstone projects. Findings suggest that universities, accrediting agencies, and professional associations recognize a need for new standards for alternatives to the traditional dissertation in order to make such options rigorous and relevant for the students.
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History And Evolution Of Doctoral Education

Unlike in Europe, early American higher education focused on undergraduate education (Archbald, 2011), and did not focus on graduate degrees with seriousness until the late 19th century. The first doctorate was awarded in the United States in 1861 at Yale, which conferred three doctorates in that year (Storr, 1953). In 1876, influenced heavily by the German research universities, Johns Hopkins University was established and for the next 50 years changed higher education by influencing the formation of American graduate schools. Academic authority was placed with faculty and an Academic Senate, and administrative control distributed in academic departments (Horton, 1940). Johns Hopkins’ first graduate program by design required a thesis: to “show the candidate’s mastery of his subject, his powers of independent thought as well as careful research, and his ability to express, in clear and systematic order, and in the appropriate language, the results of his study.” (Johns Hopkins University, 1878, p. 27.)

By 1900, doctoral programs in America had developed in both private and public institutions including Hopkins, Chicago, Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Cornell, California, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The main structural features of the doctoral program were established requiring full-time matriculation, two to three years of coursework, and several years writing a dissertation. Typically, doctoral funding subsidized students in apprentice-like research or teaching assistantships to cover costs of living. The traditional doctorate’s function was thought of as preparation for a research career (Archbald, 2011). This traditional structure remains little changed since its inception. The growth in the number of doctoral degrees granted in the United States alone reached 40,000 annually at beginning of the 21st century (Golde & Walker, 2006).

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