How long is the average PhD dissertation?

Though page number is obviously far less important than the content and quality of one's work, it is nevertheless very common for PhD candidates to obsess over the length of their theses. How many pages should it be? How long are other people's theses? Short answer: it varies. And by more than you may realize.

How long is the average PhD dissertation?

This chart was created earlier this year by Marcus Beck, who was, at the time, preparing to defend his dissertation for a terminal degree in Fisheries & Aquatic Biology from The University of Minnesota. As many PhD candidates are wont to do, Beck took the pressure of readying for his defense and channeled it toward an incredibly interesting (if entirely thesis-unrelated) side project. For Beck, that meant coding a data scraper that could gather information about students' dissertations (page-length, year and month of graduation, research focus, etc.) from the University of Minnesota's electronic thesis database. He then singled out the fifty majors with the highest number of dissertations and charted them to boxplots to illustrate their relative distributions. Voilá! A sexy data-mining/visualization project. Selective procrastination for the win!

"I was fortunate in my own dissertation research to have access to a large database," Beck tells io9, "so I was able to spend a lot of time learning how to manipulate and analyze data." Most conservation biologists spend a lot of time collecting data in the field, he says, so the time they have available to dedicate towards learning analytical techniques can sometimes be limited.

"I think my interest in analytics was the direct product of my experience staring at a computer screen for hours on end. I also hope that some of the tools I've presented in the blog have motivated others to develop their own."

Dr. Beck successfully defended his own dissertation back in May (w00t!) – all 214 pages of it. This puts him in the 80th or 90th percentile for his area of study, but he's quick to point out that size isn't everything. "I like to compare dissertation length to the argument for tallest skyscraper," he tells us. "I've heard of several cases where the maximum height of a skyscraper has been increased by adding radio antennas. This is similar to stacking on appendices in a dissertation."

"There are no limitations on what a student can include in an appendix and their inclusion can greatly increase dissertation length. This seems like cheating, but as I try to stress in my blog, dissertation length is not a good metric for the quality of the work."

Read more of the nitty-gritty, geeky (nerdy?) project details on Beck's blog. For more academia-themed diversion, see here and here.

Top image via Shutterstock