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Thinking about the thesis

Graduate research and scholarship can take many shapes, and so the thesis can be structured in many different ways.

Thesis exhibition: 'per/forming memoration' Leah Decter, 2018
Thesis exhibition: 'per/forming memoration'. (Leah Decter, 2018)

Doctoral education has traditionally been viewed as an apprenticeship towards a professorship. Nearly three in five students starting a PhD degree aspire for a career in post-secondary education, according to a recent Ontario graduate program outcomes survey.

Many institutions – including Queen’s – have been thinking about how the PhD must evolve to ensure that graduates are prepared to translate their academic learning and experience in ways that position them for success in many career paths.

In addition to promoting opportunities for graduate students to apply their research skills and to share their research findings beyond the scientific and academic communities, the School of Graduate Studies has looked inward at its own policies.

In recent years, the university’s regulations on the thesis format were revised to allow greater scope in presentation. This allows students to package their research in ways that maximize uptake and mobilization. The added flexibility recognizes the many ways of knowing that constitute scholarly work, and the value of that work beyond the academy.

“The thesis structure used to be limited to monograph or manuscript format targeting academic audiences, yet students may gain tremendous benefit from adopting a different approach,” says Brenda Brouwer, Vice-Provost and Dean (Graduate Studies). “Portfolio or project-based formats, or the incorporation of a white paper or a policy paper, helps increase the potential impact of research, and can yield considerable benefit when navigating the job market.”

Dr. Brouwer notes a white paper or policy paper, for instance, is more easily digestible by government, business, and other stakeholder groups than a traditional thesis manuscript.

Dr. Brouwer says that Queen’s is among the leaders in ensuring that academic policies and regulations support creativity and scholarship in its many forms, and supporting student-centric approaches to graduate education and learning. And with a couple of years having passed since the new policies were implemented, the School of Graduate Studies is starting to see some innovative thesis submissions.

Leah Decter recently completed her doctorate in cultural studies, and used the opportunity when she completed her doctorate to incorporate her work as an inter-media artist. In addition to her full-length written thesis, Dr. Decter demonstrated a collaborative curatorial art project and her art exhibition. She also chose to defend her thesis within an art gallery, allowing her committee to be exposed to the artwork itself. 

'365-257-54' performance documentation by Leah Decter, 2018 (Supplied by Leah Decter)
'365-257-54' performance documentation by Leah Decter, 2018 (Supplied by Leah Decter)

“Research-creation is an integrative form of knowledge production combining traditional research methods with modes of artistic and creative practice that are dependent on the distinct literacies of creative practitioners,” she says.

Producing a thesis is a significant accomplishment in its own right; however, there’s so much more to it than just completing the document according to Dr. Brouwer. “Students oftentimes get so wrapped up in getting the thesis done that they don’t sit back, take a breath and think about all they have accomplished and learned along the way,” she says.

With the new regulations, students can choose to include their reflections on the process, their learning, and the skills they have acquired. These reflections can be helpful to the student when prospective employers ask them about what they bring to the table.

And when graduate students submit their thesis to the Library’s QSpace system, they can catalogue their reflections in the form of a written piece, podcast, or video alongside the document.

The Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS), of which Dr. Brouwer is past president, has been engaged in a national conversation about the evolution of the PhD for some time. Learn more about the national conversation at www.cags.ca