Academia is changing. The old standard 500+ page, written dissertation may become obsolete as new technologies develop and academia starts accepting new models of the dissertation. One model is incorporating digital components (i.e. a map, database, appendices, or other entities) into dissertation projects. Because of my participation and experiences in the CHI fellowship, I have been asked by a few people (including CHI director Ethan Watrall) whether I want to incorporate the skills I have learned to add a digital component into my dissertation. Honestly, I have been fearful of even bringing up the idea to my committee chair. Why am I so afraid? I think this stems from the idea of doing something ‘different’, ‘new’, or something that ‘isn’t the standard’ for a PhD dissertation in the heritage/human sciences.

I asked some of the other CHI fellows what their concerns would be with a digital dissertation or having a digital component of their dissertation. Most noted the lack of acceptance in their field of digital components and fear that it would not be accepted by their committee/university/community/academia (Galarza et al. 2012). There are no protocols in my department (Anthropology) for the acceptance or consideration of digital dissertations, and it is usually up to the committee that oversees the student’s research. As times have changed and graduate students interact with and utilize more and more digital interfaces, our department had to reassess how it views digital projects, including blog posts and digital case reports, in our annual funding reviews. This is one example of a department adapting to the changing foci of their graduate students. Standardization is another problem facing digital dissertations – should universities create their own model for incorporating digital components into dissertations, or should PhD Students and their committees be in charge of dictating the terms of the project? Other concerns include accessibility and durability of the dissertations – where will they live, how will people access them? And then a major issue, especially in Academia, are copyright issues related to publishing an open-digital dissertation.

I do not have any real answers to these questions (if you have any suggestions or want to share your experiences, please comment below) as I think every research project may have different goals. In any case, I think the first step would be to bring up the idea to your doctoral committee and look into policies at your institution for digital dissertation projects.


There are a few recent examples of digital dissertation projects, including those by Dwayne Dixon (Duke University), Jason Heppler (University of Nebraska), and Amanda Visconti (University of Maryland).* Many of these are ‘hybrid’ dissertations – where a truncated physical dissertation is actually submitted along with a digital component (Dixon 2014) and many are a work-in-progress. Amanda Visconti’s project is ongoing and consists of multiple research components beyond the dissertation itself, including tech/theory blogging, scholarly multimedia article, and formal usability and use studies. In 2012, Alex Galarza used his CHI Fellowship to build a model of a digital dissertation for his PhD work in History at MSU. It is clear that a “digital dissertation is not [a] one-size-fits-all” kind of undertaking (Davidson 2014); not everyone will incorporate digital technologies in the same way to represent their research.

It is important that we discuss these examples, to show that times are changing, and digital dissertations are being accepted by institutions, “we need to hear these kinds of stories because the technology and the creativity of dissertation students is often outpacing the institutional acceptance of the new platforms and the assumptions about “scholarship” and “research” that digital dissertations embody and encode (Davidson 2014).” Knowing that these projects are out there, may lead other PhD Students to start the conversation with their committee and may lead to more digital dissertation projects. Even with these examples of successful digital dissertation projects, I am unsure whether a digital component will fit into my dissertation project, but I think I will start the conversation with my committee chair about what I could do to make some part of my dissertation digital.

Examples of Digital Dissertation Projects:

Dixon, Dwayne

2014 Endless Questions: Youth Becomings and the Anti-Crisis of Kids in Global Japan, Digital Dissertation submitted to the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. 

Galarza, Alex

2012 The Ciudad Deportiva. Model for a Digital Dissertation Developed for the 2011/2012 Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative Fellowship.

Heppler, Jason

2015 Machines in the Valley: Growth, Conflict, and Environmental Politics in Silicon Valley. Digital Component of Dissertation submitted to the University of Nebraska.

Visconti, Amanda

2015 How Can You Love A Work If You Don’t Know It?”: Critical Code and Design Toward Participatory Digital Editions. PhD Dissertation submitted to the University of Maryland, College Park. 

* If you know of any other recent digital dissertations or projects with a digital component, please comment on this post below.

Other References:

Davidson, Cathy

2014 Writing and Defending Your Digital Dissertation: Join the Conversation. 

Dixon, Dwayne

2014 Comment: Writing and Defending Your Digital Dissertation: Join the Conversation.

Galarza, Alex, Jason Heppler, and Douglas Seefeldt

2012 A Call to Redefine Historical Scholarship in the Digital Turn. Journal of Digital Humanities, 1(4).