The place where dissertations go to die …

So you’ve just spent the last few years of your life working on your research project, and now in front of you, you have the final thesis, all smartly bound with a rather dashing cover that would not look out of place in Mr Darcy’s library, with your thesis title and your name glistening in silver or gold lettering. You have a sense of achievement. It has been a difficult labor, but finally your baby has been born, and you cradle it in your arms lovingly as you walk it to the library, and hand over your precious bundle of academic joy to the librarian. They take it from you and head back to the dusty shelves where theses of thousands of past graduate students have accumulated, the place where your dissertation will go to…to die.


Because after the thesis is submitted, suddenly life starts happening: you have to get a job to pay off your student loans; you’re searching for a new house because that elusive job finally came through; then you’re moving; and before you know it years have passed and you never got around to writing up your dissertation as papers. Now, as you settle down for a quiet evening in front of Downton Abbey or Iron chef, spending hours cutting up chapters into manuscripts and reformatting citations is the last thing you want to do. Soon, the work becomes out of date, and you’d have to spend even more time reading up the latest literature, and the idea of turning your dissertation into publications is even less attractive. But what the heck, your thesis, and your research, was ground breaking, it will be read… won’t it?

The average readership of a thesis is the number of committee members, plus one. This addition is usually some long suffering friend or partner who has foolishly agreed to proof your manuscript, to add actual punctuation into your 20 line-long run-on sentences, or to temper some of your most purple of purple prose to merely a subtle lavender. And, let’s face it, many of your committee members probably didn’t read the full thesis, as evidenced by that cringingly obvious typo on page 34 that you noticed just after you sent the final copy to the binders, that somehow multiple members of faculty who were supposed to be reading your thesis entirely missed. Quite frankly, once your thesis goes onto the library shelf, it’s unlikely anyone will ever pick it up again, unless it’s to move it to another wing, or to dust the shelves.

Many universities these days are storing pdfs of their student’s dissertations, which at least means that a google search might stumble upon your thesis, if you are lucky. But even if someone does find it, it is still only a dissertation and therefore “grey literature,” despite having been approved by a committee of faculty. Scientific articles in peer-reviewed literature get cited little enough as it is, so the odds are that your dissertation will, in fact, never actually ever get cited.

The research done for a thesis, whether it be for a master’s degree or PhD dissertation (or even an undergraduate honors thesis), is supposed to be original research. You are pushing the boundary of knowledge out just a little further. Boldly going where no one has gone before. You’ve spent months or even years of your life conducting this research, usually at great personal expense and sacrifice, so presumably you thought it was important or interesting. But if you don’t publish, then all that work goes for naught. Putting it simply, every time a thesis goes unpublished a science fairy dies.


  1. Phillip Hershkowitz · March 19, 2015

    Wow, what a depressing post. Isn’t there anything upbeat about the dissertation process?

  2. Drew Scerbo · March 19, 2015

    Liked this a lot. Pertinent and hilarious. Thank you.

  3. Perry Willett · March 20, 2015

    I understand the lonely feeling, but actually, we find that when dissertations are published in an open access repository, they’re used far more than we anticipate. Dissertations at UC Berkeley from 2009-2014 in the eScholarship repository , were used *on average* almost 8 times each in Feb 2015, with a high of 262 times. This is after factoring out Google and other web indexers. There’s a report available here:

    And the situation is similar at other UC Campuses that publish their theses in eScholarship. So buck up, there, disserator, things aren’t as bad as they might seem.

    • Anton Angelo · March 23, 2015

      Our experience at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand is very similar. We have just about uploaded all our Doctoral theses, 100 years worth, and only accept digital versions for the library. (You can get a nicely bound one for yourself and your mother, but we haven’t got the space). I have had appreciative messages from ostrich farmers in Nepal, and many, many thousands of downloads. From the concern some publishers have about us putting theses online immediately affecting the sales of journal articles based on the same research, I can only conclude that there is a real concern about their easy availability. In fact, I think there is a real opportunity for an editorial team in each discipline to create an overlay journal pointing to the best theses, and they should be regarded as publications in their own right, rather than something to scavenge for ‘real’ publications.

  4. J. J. Markin · March 20, 2015

    ” … every time a thesis goes unpublished a science fairy dies.” That is a classic line that (perhaps mutatis mutandis) begs to be put into more general circulation. Luckily for me, things seem to be a bit better in the humanities — my diss. has been cited, if not often, then, still, cited. And the (museum) library where I now work buys quite a few theses via UMI, almost all of them anthropology, art, archaeology, history, sociology, or some intersection between those. (The one on my desk has as subtitle: “How the cyborg trickster is (re)inventing American Indian (NDN) identity”.)

  5. J. J. Markin · March 20, 2015

    Phillip Hershkowitz: Yes, there is something upbeat about the process. You will have proven, not simply to your advisors and faculty committee, but to yourself, that you are capable of doing an enormous amount of research, gather mountains of data, organize and analyze said data, and produce out of it a coherent book-length academic piece of prose. (Preferably a readable one.) Do not discount the enormity of this task. It can, will, and should bolster your self-confidence for a long time after it’s finished.

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