Getting Creative With Your Thesis Or Dissertation

draft thesis picMost doctoral theses and dissertations are produced as a block of printed paper, with the final version bound into a book. Those studying arts subjects may present a shorter written work that forms the theoretical framework for one or more artworks presented alongside the written work as part of the thesis or dissertation. These artworks could be, for example, a collection of poems, a piece of prose fiction, a short play or screenplay, a performance piece such as a dramatic monologue or interpretive dance, an art exhibition or installation, a musical arrangement or composition, or experimental work crossing artistic boundaries.

In recent years some doctoral students in non-arts disciplines have begun to take a creative approach to their theses or dissertations. For example, Anne Harris from Australia, an education researcher, was awarded her doctorate in 2010. She presented seven video films as part of her thesis on the educational experiences of Sudanese refugee women in Australia. Each film accompanies and complements one chapter of her written thesis.

Nick Sousanis, another education researcher, studied the importance of visual thinking in teaching and learning at Columbia University in New York. He was awarded his doctorate in 2014, and chose to present his doctoral dissertation as a 132-page graphic novel called Unflattening, which was published in 2015 by Harvard University Press. Benjamin Dix, a British visual ethnographer, also used the graphic novel format for presenting his thesis on complex human rights testimonies. He was awarded his PhD in 2016 and has received Arts Council funding to convert his thesis into a graphic novel.

From Canada, Patrick Stewart, a First Nation architect, wrote a doctoral dissertation called Indigenous Architecture through Indigenous Knowledge with almost no capital letters or punctuation, as a form of resistance to the unthinking acceptance of English language conventions. He received his doctorate in 2015.

Even some hard scientists are taking a creative approach to writing their dissertations or theses. For example, Piper Harron, a doctoral mathematician at Princeton University in the US, was awarded her PhD in 2016. She named her dissertation The Liberated Mathematician, and included in each chapter a section for ‘the layperson’, another for ‘the initiated’, and a third for ‘the mathematician’ – and a whole lot of jokes.

(I didn’t know all this till I asked on social media. From Facebook, thanks to Research Companion members Rebecca Ashley for information about the work of Benjamin Dix, and Melissa Terras for pointing me to Piper Harron’s dissertation. From Twitter, thanks to @librarykris for reminding me about Nick Soudanis, @ndarney for highlighting Patrick Stewart’s work, and @meganjmcpherson for directing me to the work of Anne Harris. Which just goes to show that social media is awesome.)

If you’re going to take some kind of creative approach to the presentation of your thesis or dissertation, it’s best to plan ahead if possible. However, some doctoral students may not realise until late in the process that they both want to, and can, do something a little different from the norm. If this applies to you, depending on what the difference is that you have in mind, it may still be possible. Producing a whole graphic novel at a late stage might be too big an ask – though if you are a talented artist and writer, maybe not. However, options such as weaving data excerpts in with your writing, or using a particular kind of format or structure for your dissertation or thesis, could be implemented in the last months of doctoral study.

Also, if you want to be just a little bit creative, it may be possible to take an experimental approach to a single chapter or section of your thesis or dissertation. I did this with my thesis: I wrote a chapter, on reflexivity, as a fictional story. That was an interesting challenge for me, and my examiners appreciated the change of pace. Alternatively, you could use a metaphor to draw your argument together. For example, Australian education researcher Deborah Netolicky, who was awarded her PhD in 2016, used themes and characters Alice in Wonderland as an extended metaphor to help structure her thesis. Or, again, you could do this in a smaller way, in a single chapter or section.

I would have liked to use a fictional style for my whole thesis, but my supervisors deemed it too risky. This was over 10 years ago, before I could ask social media – and even if I had been able to ask, I doubt many examples would have been available. Maybe not any. So I have drawn together the examples in this blog post in case any doctoral student feels creative but needs some evidence of precedent to comfort a nervous supervisor. If you know of other relevant examples, please share details in the comments.

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