Friday, April 18, 2014

Ancient Formats

Yesterday was a pretty cool day. One of my MS students successfully defended his thesis which was highly attended by fellow students, faculty, and even a bunch of industry folks. For me, this is student number 4 who has successfully defended so I guess I'm not totally floundering in the mentoring department. Given that I have been reading his thesis, I thought I would discuss (or complain about) something which I think all universities in the US should address relating to theses and dissertations: ancient formatting. Let me take a step back and put this into some context.

As someone who has written an MS thesis and a PhD disseration in two entirely different systems (US for MS, Europe for PhD), I feel like our approach in the US is terrible. If I think back to writing my MS thesis, up until that point in my life, I had no greater personal joy than when I turned that document in. I was ecstatic with it and when I had it bound as a hardcover book (as required), I wanted to show it off to everyone. I was pretty damn proud of that book. But then about a year later my perception changed.

At this point, I was studying in Europe and when I showed up in my office one day, there was a slim, sleek book sitting on my desk. I looked it over and it was the PhD thesis of a fellow graduate student but it looked like a professionally typeset book. It turns out that in Europe, when you write your thesis, you are expected to have 200-250 copies printed to give to your colleagues, committee, and anyone who shows up to your defense. When it came time for me to write my PhD thesis, I wanted to make sure my thesis had the look and feel of a professional document, something worthy of 4 years of work.

My MS thesis, much like the theses that 4 of my students have written, was in the "university standard" format that I think virtually every US university uses. Single column, double spaced, print on one side of the page, weird formatting rules about margins, header height, etc. In contrast, my PhD thesis was B5 sized pages (think about the size of a 7" tablet) with whatever format you want for the contents. Most are single column given the page size but you can use single spaced typesetting, whatever margins and font you want, and you (shock) print on both sides of the paper. In contrast, a European thesis looks like a professional book whereas the US thesis looks like a long high school report.

So why doesn't this change? Most people that see a European thesis almost universally agree that the look and formating makes it much easier to read. I can only think of two reasons why US universities don't change: 1) nostalgia and 2) minimum quality. I can understand (but not agree with) why US universities would do it for nostalgic reasons. They have a legacy of X number of years and they want everything to look and feel the same. That's such a bullshit reason, where it is basically saying the institution is afraid of change. As for minimum quality, there are a many reasons why this doesn't hold weight. The first of which is because the tools of our trade have changed (handwritting to typewriters to computers). Just the difference between a typewriter and a computer improves the quality dramatically. Also, every discipline has its own formats for manuscripts, citations, etc, so why have a generic, awful looking format for very discipline's thesis in a university?

But, the minimum quality really doesn't hold weight when you compare it to a European thesis and their method. From a European university, It is just simply expected that you must produce a professional document. There are no other directions other than that. I can see that being a fear from US universities where they would say "Well if we didn't have these rules, who knows what we will get. So we must have some type of format." But when you see your fellow peers produce a professional document and have 250 copies printed up for their committee, everyone in the lab, and the general audience at the defense, just peer pressure alone is enough to make you produce something that looks good. Also, if nothing else, I think we can agree that no modern journal has a format that comes anywhere close to looking that awful, otherwise people wouldn't want to read it. I know I wouldn't want to. I wish universities would at least say "Pick the format for the standard publication medium for your field and use that as your guideline. We expect your advisor(s) and committee will be able to advise appropriately.". If we could get to that point, I think that would be a win. But until then, the US will be lagging in the professional aspects of our theses and dissertations.


  1. This is not US vs. Europe. This is Anglo-Saxon tradition vs. continental Europe, becuase UK and Ireland have exactly the same situation as your US example: producing a hardbound monograph that only your committee will read (and the defense is private). While the rest of Europe mostly produces collection-theses (a set of articles + an introduction that binds the articles together), published in 150-200 examples as a professional document or a book, which is then distributed at a public defense and sent to colleagues everywhere.

  2. I did not know that UK/Ireland had the same format at the US (or the US has the same format at UK/Ireland). Interesting...