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Expectations of an MAT PhD Dissertation and a Hypothetical Timeline

August 2011

Many MAT students have a good knowledge of how to write an academic research paper that is up to publication standards. Indeed, writing such a paper is one of the requirements of the MAT Masters degree. However, an MAT PhD dissertation is typically much longer than a typical academic paper. It documents and analyzes the results of many experiments, projects, and innovations over a period of years. By definition, an MAT PhD student has never written a dissertation before. Thus we have prepared this guide.

Expectations of a PhD dissertation in Media Arts and Technology

An "original (novel), rigorous, and significant contribution to knowledge" is not a merely contribution to a student’s personal knowledge, but a contribution to the knowledge of a field, as constituted by a worldwide research community, its work, its history, and its state-of-the-art. The contribution to knowledge needs to be verified on an objective evidentiary basis. While several kinds of evidence exist (empirical, logical, mathematical, scholarly, etc), students still have to select the particular form(s) of evidence by which they substantiate their claim to having contributed to knowledge. It is important to stipulate this early in the research process, since the form of evidence depends on the contribution to knowledge being claimed.

One suggested strategy is to design a map of the research effort: a graphic depiction of the field, their precursors, landmark works, milestone developments, extant theories, key practitioners, fundamental references, state-of-the-art, and so on, and of the locus of the intended contribution. This can help to focus discussions on a student’s progress.

The question of significance, and how to establish it, can also be a source of confusion. Considering the diversity of our interests, publication, technical demonstration, exhibition, performance, or other forms of dissemination may be appropriate. The point is that a high standard needs to be met in any case.

It is sometimes difficult to reconcile creative work with the scientific method, even though the two are not incompatible. Many artistic advances arose out of recognizing problems, formulating theories, positing hypotheses, and testing these hypotheses through the creation of works.

A Hypothetical Timeline of Steps Towards the PhD

Students need to plan their overall trajectory through the PhD program. A possible outline is shown below for a student entering with an MAT Masters degree or equivalent. Note that the actual timetable may be shorter or longer depending on many factors, including the preparation of the student and the clarity of the research objectives. Financial and family issues often intersect with academic progress, hastening some students while slowing others. A few students have completed their PhD in less than three years, while others have taken six years or more. Always be aware of UCSB’s time-to-degree or normative time rules as outlined on the Graduate Division web site:

Year One

Use the first year (or more) to become acquainted with MAT and take important courses as recommended by your degree advisor.

Year Two

Select a topic and assemble a qualifying exam committee six months to a year before the qualifying exam. Develop a proposed list of readings and negotiate with your committee as to the exact list. Use this time to become qualified to undertake the research implied by the chosen topic. Become familiar with the bibliography, skills, methods, techniques, etc, implied by their chosen topic. Consult with your committee on which topics they will likely test you.

End of Year Two or Beginning of Year Three

Demonstrate adequate mastery of topics and skills required for research in order to pass the qualifying exam and proceed to candidacy. The qualifying exam should, in effect, check that the student understands the nature of the effort they are about to undertake and is indeed both knowledgeable and skilled enough to work in the chosen area.

Year Three

Conduct initial round of research in preparation for the dissertation proposal; refine (and state explicitly) the choice of methods and standard of evidence. In consultation with your PhD advisor, prepare the dissertation proposal. The dissertation proposal consists of a document and a public presentation. The dissertation proposal should be substantial enough to already reflect your engagement in the research and demonstrate its feasibility. There is no set time after the qualifying exam to present the dissertation proposal, but it usually takes from a few months to a year to prepare.

It is wise to study dissertations from MAT and elsewhere that can be used as examples. Ask the MAT Graduate Assistant for copies of successful MAT dissertations.

Year Four or Five

Conduct dissertation research. Prepare and submit the dissertation, allowing time for revisions and corrections after their defense, if necessary.

This is merely a hypothetical timeline, and could vary widely depending on the preparation of each candidate. The main point is that the dissertation requirements have an impact of everything that precedes the dissertation, and need to be factored in at the start, even while the candidate is trying to select a topic. What constitutes a “contribution to knowledge" and how it is to be established needs to be clarified as early as possible in the process.