What is a digital dissertation?

The digital dissertation has emerged as a compelling new format for a final doctoral project across the humanities and social sciences. This post will cover some of the different forms that a digital dissertation can take, make suggestions for possible ways to start designing a digital dissertation, as well as provide resources for further thinking. 

Whereas a digital dissertation does not have an official definition, it broadly refers to a dissertation that makes significant use of digital methods.There are a range of possibilities for what constitutes a digital dissertation, from a fully interactive website to a searchable catalog of images that accompanies a traditional book-length text. Databases, websites, interactive maps, and recordings of sound and video might all be parts of a digital dissertation in any discipline.

Digital dissertations can take (at least) three forms:

  • The first type of digital dissertation is one that makes significant use of algorithmic methodological approaches for data collection, data analysis, and data visualization. This type of dissertation may look like a “traditional” peer reviewed paper in the natural sciences or social sciences, with distinct sections that describe the research questions, the data, the analytical approaches, as well as research findings. This kind of a project may be thought of as a digital dissertation because of the centrality of computational methodology used in its approach. For an example of a digital dissertation that follows this model, check out Rachel Rakov’s (PhD, Linguistics) “Analyzing Prosody with Legendre Polynomial Coefficients.” 
  • The second type of digital dissertation is more common in the humanities, but the model can be applicable to other disciplines as well. Here, a “traditional” dissertation, which is a written collection of chapters presenting research, is supplemented with a digital component, such as an interactive map or a digital archive. This kind of digital dissertation tends to conceive of its digital component as a way of representing dense scholarly material in a more accessible format for a public audience. GC Digital Fellow Stefano Morello’s East Bay Punk Digital Archive is a great example of a digital project that sits alongside a “traditional” dissertation. 
  • The third type of digital dissertation focuses on creating a website, an app, or an interactive game that explores a particular research topic. This kind of a dissertation emphasizes the potential of the digital to create new technologies for research and teaching purposes. Such kinds of digital dissertations are usually composed of the code required to build the app as well as a “white paper” that describes the nature and purposes of the digital project in question. The Graduate Center’s first such digital dissertation was the Vanishing Leaves project by Jesse Merandy (PhD, English). It is a game that teaches users about the poet Walt Whitman’s life and art.  

These are three very broad ways of digital dissertations. Your digital dissertation could borrow elements from each of these three formats, or you can come up with something completely different for your own project. 

How do you design a digital dissertation?

The first step towards working on a digital dissertation is to talk about it with your dissertation committee members. Each academic department has different standards and expectations regarding digital dissertations. It is best to discuss how your project satisfies your departmental criteria by sharing your ideas with your advisor or committee members.

The next step is to begin sketching out what your final project will look like. For example, if you are imagining your digital dissertation will take the shape of a game, then it is a good idea to begin drawing out what the narrative structure of the game might be, how the game’s characters will perform, what every screen in this game will look like, and so on. Once you have a specific idea of what the final project will be, it will be worth identifying which platforms, languages, and other digital aspects are essential to your project. This is when you take stock of your own expertise and figure out what additional computational skills you need to learn to make your digital dissertation happen. Basically, the point of this step is to imagine the end result of your digital dissertation and start working backwards to outline the steps towards completion.

Once your digital project has a clearer shape, you can begin applying for funding to purchase server space, hire a programmer, or acquire the tech/expertise necessary for your project. The GC offers a variety of grants like the Provost’s Digital Innovation Grants and the Doctoral Curriculum Enhancement Grants to help get your project off the ground. Further assistance for digital dissertations can be found at the GC New Media Lab, the Library, as well as GC Digital Initiatives.

As you discuss your project with your colleagues and teachers, and as you sketch out what the final project will look like, new ideas will organically emerge. You should use these ideas to refine and edit your vision of the final project.


  • Next-Generation Dissertations – This contains essential information to plan and evaluate digital dissertations. It includes examples of digital dissertations, resources and guides, as well as information for using digital dissertation to launch a career inside and beyond academia.
  • GC Library Guide to Digital Dissertations – This contains an abundance of additional resources to help you think through your project. It includes links to other digital dissertations as well as guidance on digital dissertations from scholarly organizations.
  • Digital Dissertation Commons Group – This group on the CUNY Academic Commons brings together students, faculty, and staff interested in digital dissertations. It is a wonderful community to ask questions and share resources.
  • Best Practices for Dissertations in the 21st Century – This blog post by PhD candidate Jonathan Reeve proposes a series of best practices when designing a digital or nontraditional dissertation. Reeve provides insight into issues such as version control, intellectual property, and accessibility. He also provides a handy template to help get started.
  • Training the Trainer: Being a PhD supervisor of a digital historian in the making – This short opinion paper provides an insight into the methodologies, challenges, and tools of digital history as well as provides thoughts on collaboration and evaluation.
  • Repository of digital dissertations – This is a repository of all digital dissertations and digital capstone projects at the Graduate Center.
  • Consult with a Digital Fellow – The Digital Fellows are an interdisciplinary group of doctoral students who are committed to building the digital scholarship community at Graduate Center. You can request a consultation with a digital fellow to talk your digital dissertation ideas through.
  • Join a Working Group – The Digital Fellows also lead working groups focused on different digital methodological approaches such as python, R, data visualization, digital archives, GIS, and sound studies. These working groups meet regularly through the semester and are a way to connect with other students who share your research interests and learn from each other.
  • Attend a Workshop – The Digital Fellows, the ITP Program, the Publics Lab, the Teaching and Learning Center, as well as the Library offers a variety of digital skills workshops throughout the semester. These workshops are a way to learn about digital tools and practices that could be very useful to your digital dissertation.
  • Attend the Digital Research Institute – GC Digital Initiatives organizes the Digital Research Institute at the beginning of every Spring semester. The Digital Research Institute is an online training course for learning core digital research skills while connecting with peers in an interdisciplinary environment.

Please note: The content of this page has been updated in December 2020 and in April 2022 by Digital Fellow Param Ajmera.