There’s a joke that they stand for Piled higher and Deeper. The idea isn’t that far-fetched. Your coursework may cover a broad area – but the dissertation itself is narrow. My dissertation topic was the outmigration of Dariusleut Hutterites in South Dakota. The population included about 6,000 people. Outmigration – leaving the colony for the outside world – probably averaged 30 or 40 people per year over the time period I studied. I researched and reported a very small topic that is insignificant to most people.
One of the measures of the dissertation’s success is if it is cited in other works – and by that criteria, mine was successful – it has been cited by other researchers in both scientific and popular publications. I know that number is still under 50. To put that in its place the youtube video I watched on replacing the vacuum tube that powers the fuel pump on a riding lawnmower has been viewed 220,000 times over the past 10 years. Humbling, isn’t it?
Essentially, putting the Ph.D. behind the name says “I am capable of being trained.” In my case, trained to perform demographic research. I’ve seen some dissertation titles that suggested the author watched a lot of television programs. Then again, that guy worked in student services.
Another guy, with a history Ph.D. had all of his research on Abe Lincoln’s poetry handed to him by an old neighbor who was in to studying about Lincoln. There is also the risk of being ABD – all but dissertation – all the coursework completed, and no dissertation completed.
Theoretically, the difference between a Ph.D. dissertation and a Master’s thesis is that, while the master’s thesis may contain original research, the dissertation must contain original research. I’ve seen some MS theses that contained a lot of original research. Still, originality isn’t required at the Master’s level. The dissertation is also expected to advance the scope of human knowledge. I advanced the scope of human knowledge, but most people aren’t particularly interested in the topic.
Time was when the word masterpiece meant something like “a piece of work presented to a guild as evidence of qualification for the rank of master.” The dissertation wasn’t meant to be my greatest accomplishment – in general, referencing “my dissertation” is kind of a faux pax in Academia. My Ph.D. basically says I was successful at being trained to conduct research.
Generally speaking, my dissertation won’t provide any information that is generally interesting.
The guy who made the youtube video on replacing the vacuum tube has been significant to many more people.