For Alt-Acs: Lose the Dissertation Requirement, PhD programs

What might a PhD program designed specifically for alternative-academic careers look like” asks Joshua Kim in the Inside HigherEd article “Collaborative Work, Academic Training, and Alt-Ac Careers.” It’s a good question. Kim’s article points out how much PhD work – the prospectus, the lit reviews, the research, analysis, and the dissertation, are all done as solo efforts. But alt-acs “do almost all of their work in collaboration.”


Nearly all of my work is as part of a team. Yes, there is a rhythm between doing individual tasks independently (writing curriculum, writing training workshops, etc.) but that is balanced in at least equal amounts of time by coming back together to work with a team (instructional designers, web developers) on how the curriculum I’ve written will be developed and delivered as eLearning.

The other alt-acs I work with – their work is largely structured the same.

The independent alt-ac consultants I know work with others to market and brand their services. Some who do certain things (software development, training, and technical consulting in their subjects come to mind) may do the bulk of their work solo, but they usually have at least an up-front series of team meetings with their client to do needs assessments and to gather the info they need to write their proposed scope of work and estimates. And then, once hired, have weekly or more frequent team meetings to report on progress, troubleshoot together, and adjust course.

The independent alt-ac editors I know work with individual faculty (a team of 2 but still a team) on promotion and tenure applications and solo authored articles. But they also work larger teams of interdisciplinary faculty and research administrators on large grant proposal applications.

Even my alt-ac career coaching I still consider me plus my client a team of two. (A good coach doesn’t tell you what to do nor can they help you without your feedback on their strategies).

There’s almost no work I can think of – at all – that is purely done solo. I think Kim is onto something here.

So “what would a PhD program for alt-acs look like?”

It’s Dissertation Free

Well, for starters: toss out the solo authored dissertation. Let’s broaden what “counts” as terminal degree-level work.

Shepherding a multi-authored volume to the finish line, one that is cohesive, and stays focused around its theme is HARD work. It takes leadership, self-discipline, accountability, project management, time management, and excellent writing and editing to pull out the theme that unifies various voices.

What about the production of a web site? Why must we limit ourselves to print media? Depending on the scope, the student might have to learn HTML and CSS, PHP, hosting, troubleshooting, design basics, how to organize a wireframe, how to do marketing, SEO, produce online courses and/or multimedia…They may have to work with graphic designers, web designers, and instructional designers.

What about convening a major event? Building a single-day workshop around a theme requires event planning, finding speakers, managing a budget, keeping the content on track, being responsive to audience needs, writing and/or reviewing the content, facilitating panels, public speaking, and staying calm under pressure.

What about a complete resdesign of a course in their discipline, replete with new outcomes, teaching methods, content, activities, and means of evaluating the learning? This would entail working with curriculum developers, instructional designers, faculty, K-12 teachers, producing multimedia, slide decks, and materials for the instructors.

Sure, this would build team skills for grad students, but it would also force students to tackle the real challenges that arise on the daily in any workplace.

Figuring out what approvals are necessary, who can help with navigating a process or lending a hand, how to find and approach partners inside and outside the department, what resources are available and how to get them. All of these are things all workers face on an everyday basis and grad students will get first-hand experience navigating them. They will have to learn to quickly and clearly communicate needs, be forced to talk about their project in lay terms, and build relationships across disciplines and skills. (GASP, networking!)

What else would you suggest for the kind of project that would be appropriate to replace a dissertation for a generalist alt-ac?

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