A PhD by publication requires doctoral candidates to submit a set of papers for peer-reviewed journals plus an integrating chapter, rather than the more traditional doctoral dissertation. This remains a less common, sometimes frowned-upon model, but Jørgen Carling outlines eight reasons why a PhD by publication might be a good option. It allows you to write for real, varied audiences, with differing levels of ambition, and can help you build a name for yourself in academia, which is important not only for your career but also as it affords you opportunities for vital intellectual exchanges that may benefit your research.
As a doctoral candidate you may have a choice between submitting a traditional doctoral dissertation and submitting a set of papers for peer-reviewed journals plus an integrating chapter. The latter option, known as a “PhD by publication” or an “article dissertation”, has become the norm in some contexts and is resented in others. I can’t decide for you, but I can give you eight reasons why I think the PhD by publication is often a good model.
First, writing journal articles constitutes professional training. It is what academics primarily do, and by writing your dissertation in the form of articles, you learn the craft. (If you abandon academia after completing a PhD it is even more important to know that your work is out there, potentially benefiting others, and not just stored in a dusty library.)
Second, writing journal articles ensures valuable feedback. Regardless of the quality of the supervision you get, the review process in a journal can be a valuable supplement. Having your article accepted in a journal also provides a tangible source of independent recognition, different from your supervisor’s assurances that your work is fine. The peer review process can be filled with disappointments and frustration too but living through that is, for better or worse, part of being an academic. Just make sure that you are not handling it all alone.
Image credit: journals by Barry Silver. This work is licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license.
Third, writing journal articles means writing for real audiences. This is a point with several implications: it is a source of motivation during the writing process, it teaches you about attentiveness to the needs of your readers, and it ensures that the resources devoted to doctoral research flow back to society. By “resources” I don’t mean only taxpayers’ money but also the time and trust that research participants have contributed, for instance.
Fourth, writing a dissertation based on individual papers allows you to write for different audiences. In my field, most articles could be targeted to either a disciplinary journal (e.g. political geography), a thematic journal (e.g. International Migration Review), or a regional journal (e.g. African Affairs). Being able to see which parts of your research appeal to different audiences and, not least, to present those parts accordingly is a great skill to develop in the course of doing a PhD.
Fifth, writing journal articles allows you to write with different levels of ambition. This is a crucial point that is often ignored. The time available for writing a dissertation is limited, and writing 300 pages of brilliant prose might be beyond reach. But in a series of papers, there might be one that has great potential, deserves to be revised over and over, is accepted in a good journal, and is still being cited ten years after you defended your PhD. Other papers in your dissertation might fall short of such success, and that’s fine.
Sixth, writing a dissertation by publication provides you with good milestones in the process. The submission, resubmission, acceptance and publication of articles in the course of a PhD give you a firm sense of progress. Signing off on the proofs for a journal article is different from telling yourself that a chapter is finished but thinking that you might do additional work on it before saying that the dissertation is done.
Seventh, writing articles helps you build a name for yourself in academia. There are PhD candidates who do great work but because they are halfway through a traditional dissertation remain virtually invisible. Being visible is not only about being career-conscious, it is also about inviting intellectual exchanges that benefit your research. Conference papers help, of course, but they might not reach many people beyond the handful who were in the room. Writing articles alongside a traditional dissertation might be an ideal but it increases the workload at the cost of something else – be it your family, health or intellectual energy.
Finally, a traditional dissertation is not a book. It can form the foundation for writing a book but a lot of hard work remains. If a book is important in your discipline, then a traditional dissertation is probably the most promising route to follow. But it comes with considerable risk: unless you can secure substantial time for writing the book after the dissertation is submitted, you could be left with no articles and no book.
These are my eight reasons for pursuing a PhD by publication. The biggest counter-argument is a frustrating one but is real nevertheless: in some departments or disciplines a PhD by publication might be formally permissible but frowned upon. Pioneers are needed to swim against the stream and help change attitudes; but whether you want, or can afford, to be such a pioneer is a personal choice.
Beyond the decision to do a PhD by publication, there are many things to consider about the process if you go for it – such as the number of papers, possibilities for co-authoring, and implications for how you define what the dissertation is about. There are also many institution-specific rules and expectations that you need to explore. Some universities require that a certain number of articles be published, or at least accepted. Going through the review process is a valuable part of the experience but such requirements make me uncomfortable both as a supervisor and an examiner. For instance, I think a candidate should feel free to pursue publication in a top journal, even if it means a review process that lasts way beyond submission of the dissertation. The article in question might be just fine as a component of the dissertation even if the editor of a highly ranked journal demands additional revisions. Conversely, as an examiner, I want freedom to independently assess the quality of the dissertation. Good articles sometimes get rejected by journals while poor ones get accepted. So, while it’s useful to know which journals the articles were written for, I wouldn’t want to infer their quality from decisions made by reviewers and editors.
The PhD is, in many ways, an odd exercise – partly an introspective learning and qualification process and partly a piece of research that society has reason to value. Doing a PhD by publication offers a chance to bridge the gap between the two.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
About the author
Jørgen Carling is a Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) where he does research on global migration and transnationalism. With a disciplinary background in human geography he employs diverse methodologies, including statistical analyses and ethnography. He also has a strong interest in research communication. Jørgen maintains the personal web site www.jorgencarling.org and tweets as @jorgencarling.
A very timely and valuable synthesis piece on this topic. The Fifth Finnish Methods Festival is discussing this tomorrow in a separate session. The PhD By publiction -format is widely accepted and becoming something of a norm in Finland, but doctoral cadidates seem less sure on the functions, genre and requirements for the writing of the summary or integrating chapter. Very diffrent from the article format, and written independently and not with the potential research team. This is what we’ll be focusing on tomorrow. https://www.jyu.fi/edupsy/fi/tutkimus/ihme/metodifestivaali-2017/en/programme/wednesday-31-5
I fully support the eight reasons why a PhD by publications can be a better option than traditional PhD. However, there is one stumbling block the author has not mentioned. I am referring to the issue of coherence between the journal papers. This is felt at the stage of writing the overall commentary or chapter or synthesis. I believe that when too much emphasis is laid on having the papers being strongly related, this could come at the expense of sacrificing originality and widespread knowledge. ‘Originality’ is an essential requirement for article acceptance, especially in science journals. Therefore, with high levels of coherence as a requirement from several UK universities I question: (a) the quality or rate of journal submission acceptance; (b) the level of the student’s (author’s) widespread knowledge, and (c) the number of papers one can publish because there is a limit on how much one can keep adding and repeating onto the previous studies. On the other hand, with low coherence I question how one could develop an overarching hypothesis ie. how could you answer a general research question for all your diverse studies?
I have raised the controversial issue of coherence versus originality and widespread knowledge on two other blogs and I look forward to challenging and scholarly explanations. I feel that coherence should not remain central and more weight should be directed on single-authorship. I am not saying that the papers have to be widely diverse – of course there needs to be a common denominator throughout the papers being used as basis for the construction of the overall commentary but, in my experience, not as strongly related as is with the current trend of requirements. One may wish to contact me personally on firstname.lastname@example.org . Here are the two blogs with my previous comments:
Very good piece.
I think PhDs by publication being “frowned upon” is a phenomenon particular to the UK, and not a very helpful one for young researchers. Some of my previous colleagues with PhDs from highly reputable institution (Oxbridge) now struggle to get academic work because they don’t have any publication records. With a PhD by publication, you have at least three articles ready by the time, or just after, your viva.
Is article coherence necessary for PhD by publications?
In my previous post I wrote that with low coherence it might not be possible to develop an overarching hypothesis or a general research question covering a number of diverse studies. This however, does not mean that if you are presenting a list of widely varied articles (yet, with a common denominator) you cannot show your assessors that you are capable of answering any research question through acceptance or rejection of the null hypothesis. On the contrary, you would probably have several hypotheses testing that you would not know from where to start!
Once, a professor form a UK university wrote me the following: “In many ways a PhD by publication is more onerous than a traditional PhD by thesis due to the requirement to show that this alternative method of submission for a PhD has to be on a level with a more usual direct PhD by thesis. In many universities in the UK this route is reserved solely for serving members of academic staff reflecting these concerns.” I agree, in the sense that if we are to put a PhD by publications on exactly the same weighing scale as for the traditional PhD, it automatically becomes imperative to have a coherent narrative with the standard basic structure of introduction, methods, results and discussion. This is probably the only reason to have the journal papers being strongly related to one another for the successful completion of a PhD by publications as stipulated in various academic regulations governing this type of PhD. Otherwise, I see no academic feat in having a strong element of connectedness between the papers especially if this comes to the detriment of: (a) the quality or rate of journal submission acceptance in terms of originality; (b) the level of the student’s (author’s) widespread generation of new knowledge, and (c) the number of papers which can be kept being added (and repeated) onto previous studies.
However, I feel that the requirement for coherence is not the right way of defending the standards of a PhD by published works, whether retrospective (ie. by prior publications) or prospective (when you start publishing your studies with the university you have registered your application). One has to understand that the point of departure with a PhD by publications (sometimes called, article-based PhD) is totally different from when you decide to undertake a conventional or traditional PhD by monograph with only ideas or proposal in your hands.
So, whereas when you go for a monograph (which is a detailed written study of a single specialized subject), it is justified to have a coherent narrative, for a thesis by publication (synthesis, commentary or integrative chapter), which is basically a form of compilation written independently by the student, it is a different story. To start with, you only need to prepare a 10-15,000 commentary constituting a summary of the appended papers, whereas with a one-topic monograph you can go up to 100,000 words and sometimes even more. Needless to say, the PhD by publication student should clarify the actual contribution to knowledge, especially if the papers are written by several authors. The commentary should not provide new results, but should critique the papers and preferably offer new conclusions by combining results from a number of papers. It may strengthen the theoretical framework, analysis and conclusions, since the extent of the journal articles normally does not allow this kind of longer discussion.
Finally, I feel that coherence should not remain central and more weight should be directed on single-authorship, number of papers published, originality and widespread contribution to knowledge. In my opinion, these should be the distinct features of this relatively new type of PhD.