Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear

I suspect it’s annoying to be my friend if you are doing your PhD. While you think you are having a casual conversation with me over coffee and a muffin, I am writing a blog post about you in my head. Some of my friends at RMIT have started a thread on Twitter called #tabit due to my habit of exclaiming “there’s a blog post in that” and are threatening to make Tshirts.

So, to my latest victim.

The other day I had a drink with a friend of mine who is doing his PhD. Let’s call him Todd.

I know lots of very smart people, but Todd is exceptional; mind like a laser and all that. He doesn’t fritter away time on social media and blogging, he writes serious academic papers and thinks about stuff. Since he works in my field I am a little jealous of the focus that Todd brings to his work and always interested in what he is doing.

The drink was an thinly veiled opportunity to hear about his latest effort: a book chapter destined to go in a prestigious edited compilation (the sort I never get invited to I might add – possibly because I spend so much time blogging). It was an impressive piece of work by anyone’s standards, which is why I was surprised when he told me that it wouldn’t “fit” in his PhD.

In fact Todd seemed a little depressed and anxious about getting his PhD done at all because everything he had written so far “didn’t fit”. This is a problem for Todd. Like many of us, Todd is in marginal academic employment while he completes his degree. He needs to do casual academic work to pay the rent, which takes time away from his PhD,  but he doesn’t have a hope of really escaping this casual work trap until he has a PhD.

Todd is acutely aware that he needs to finish his PhD quickly, so I asked him what to me was an obvious question:

“How many words have you written this year?”

“About 40,000,” he replied.

“OK then,” I said, “20,000 to go. For you that’s about 6 months right?”

Todd looked at me like I had grown an extra head. He didn’t seem to be able to grasp the idea that a thesis can be thought about as a matter of meeting the word count. But it can. Let me explain.

In the last 30 or so years how we think about knowledge inside academia has been changing. Without getting all postmodern on you, there’s been a gradual acceptance of the idea that knowledge can be partial and contingent and yet still valid. With this idea has come a shift in the way we make PhDs. While a PhD used to be thought of as a book, with chapters held together with a consistently argued position, it is quite acceptable now in many universities to produce a PhD as a series of publications with a bracketing essay. Even in science.

In fact, our colleagues in science were the first to point us in this direction. For a long time now science PhDs have been encouraged to publish and compile their papers into a thesis. This is often referred to as a ‘PhD by publication’ and makes sense for you professionally as you are building a research CV as you go.

Some people think they have to be enrolled in a PhD by publication to do their PhD this way, but this is not always the case. And it doesn’t just have to be articles that you are publishing. At RMIT we have many people doing PhDs in Architecture and Fine Art. These people make things – paintings, buildings, sculptures, computer games – and then write about them. The things count as much, if not more, than the writing. We call this ‘PhD by Project’; I did my masters degree this way so I can vouch for the fact that it’s not straight forward or easy, but you can make a bunch of seemingly unrelated things, collect a bunch of disparate writing about the things, wrap it in an extended essay and pass your degree.

This idea of these ‘patchwork PhDs’ has been slow, as far as I am aware, to penetrate into traditional humanities areas such as social science and education, which brings me back to Todd’s problem. I suspect Todd’s comment about his writing not “fitting” into his PhD is really about a secret longing for coherence. This coherence is only achievable with extensive rewriting; hence Todd’s despair.

But I have to wonder, is this labour really worth it? In my view taking all that time to make a big coherent document that, to be frank, not that many people will bother reading, seems ridiculous given the pressing matter of paying the rent. Far better, in my view, to present these articles as discrete ‘projects’ like an architect would present a series of buildings or a painter a series of paintings.

If Todd took this approach the bracketing essay would be an extremely important piece of the thesis. It would take a lot of time and effort to craft an essay which would serve as introduction, guide and conclusion: around six months work for Todd. Taking my patchwork metaphor seriously for a moment, this bracketing essay would be the thread which sews all the patchwork pieces together. Even though the pieces would have their own identity, the essay would help them make some kind of sense as a whole.

I put this idea to Todd, but he just sat there, looking a bit sceptical (like I said – he’s very smart). I asked him if there was any holes in my argument. He was silent for a moment before he said: “I don’t know Inger. That sounds kind of like cheating”. We turned to other topics then, but I took this “cheating” comment home with me on the train and chewed over it for a few days.

If it is “cheating” who or what is being cheated? Todd is not cheating the discipline of education. If a PhD is an original contribution to knowledge and demonstration of scholarly competence, his published articles are out there as evidence he can play with the best in his field.

Does Todd think he is cheating himself by taking the ‘easy way’ out? I doubt it – he has worked damn hard to produce those 40,000 excellent, publishable words. Or is he worried the examiners will think he is cheating? Perhaps, but that’s something his supervisor has to deal with. As I mentioned in my post the other week about choosing examiners, it’s important that your examiners understand how you are trying to make knowledge. In this case it’s simply a matter of finding an examiner who understands and is open to the concept of PhD by publication.

I wonder how many other people are out there, with tens of thousands of words on their hands, thinking that they have to rewrite these words to ‘tame them’ into the traditional thesis format? If you suspect you are one of those people I suggest you take a good hard look at what you are doing. You might be longing for coherence which, while desirable, is not that practical or necessary.

Count all those words – perhaps your PhD is closer than it appears? What do you think?

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26 thoughts on “Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear

  1. Thesis by publication is being done in some parts of our Uni but there is the problem of getting published in time for examination. Some journal articles, for example, can take up to two years to get published and books also take a long time.

    One thing our discipline (Communication and Media) does really well is thesis by project or practitioner based enquiry (PBE). The PhDer makes something and writes a 40,000 word exegesis about it. We’ve had a documentary-maker, scriptwriter and feature writer do their RHDs this way. They make the project and examine and write about their creative process. It’s also one of the offerings for our Honours students and we’ve had people examining journalism, radio, screenwriting, etc.

    It’s an excellent way to get an insider’s perspective on media production.

  2. This post is perfectly timed for me as I am trying to nut out my chapter outlines for confirmation, and I’m having trouble working out where my current writing/research fits in.
    It makes much more sense for me to look at the chapters as stand alone pieces, rather than trying to push them to fit exactly into an overall thesis – I hadn’t considered that – so a big thanks.

  3. I’ve literally ‘just begun’ (my enrolment started on Monday) but this is good to read as I’m about to embark upon creative practice research accompanied by an exegesis. Although it is a long way off, I have been concerned about my pieces of creative work possibly becoming divergent… I won’t concern myself with this any longer & I’ll just see what happens!

  4. Janet, you can check with your Uni as to the regulations. It may not be necessary to have articles published in order to include them – it may be that they only have to be accepted for publication, or even ‘of publishable standard’ or something similar.

    At my Uni it is possible to present things you have written or made as part of your thesis, but many students and supervisors are surprisingly reluctant to do that. I’ve even been told that I ‘must’ have five chapters in my thesis, and what should be in each of them. The academic concerned was very angry when I said that wasn’t true, and kind of implied that I wouldn’t pass my examination. (Do I look bothered?) It’s always the best to check on your regulations, ring the graduate studies office, do whatever you need to to make sure you are within the rules. And, of course, talk to your supervisor.

    I talked to a fiction writer who presented for her thesis extracts from all her books written over 20 years, and a 10,000 word essay on what she’d learned as a writer in that time. She flew through! Anne Else in NZ did the same with her non-fiction work on social policy. There are many ways to skin the PhD cat. (Apologies to readers of a nervous disposition.)

    • When I was looking at how to do a PhD by publication, it was still a very new idea and the guidelines were a bit grey but I’m talking about six and a half years ago and It’s much clearer now. I eventually did a standard PhD but used conference papers/journal articles that I did during my candidature as the basis for chapters.

      But, yep, I agree about the different kinds of PhD cat-skinning.

  5. I find your posts so useful. Being an external PhD person and out on a limb most of the time, they fill the many gaps I am always trying to deal with. Thanks.

  6. If it’s “cheating” then I’m a cheat because I’m doing a thesis by publication. My Department encourages it because it allows PhD graduates to hit the job market with publications already on their CV, assuming they actually got published. My department doesn’t have a requirement that the papers submitted for examination have actually been published, which is a huge relief because as we all know it can take years for a paper to work it’s way through a few review and “reject” cycles before it actually gets published. That’s not Todd’s problem . . . seems like he has been very fortunate to have good supervision and good enough skills to publish quite quickly. Those with fewer skills or less intensive supervision learn how character-building it can be to try and get something published.

    Anyway, enough about getting published. I have heard nothing but praise about the thesis-by-publication route from academics in my university and other places. Sometimes I feel as though I would like to attempt a big-bang thesis of the sort Todd was intending, but I don’t think my training a as a real academic would be quite so “real” if I wasn’t trying to publish along the way. I’m looking forward to writing that bracketing essay – it will be like crafting a very special narrative that weaves around my various publications. I think it will be a creative and intellectual task and I’m looking forward to the day when I start the process of pulling everything together.

  7. This is different in different locations. Some European PhDs is socsci now almost all by publication. PhD by publication not the done thing in the UK. Still the Big Book. Did a symposium on this a while ago with people from Norway where it’s publish three papers plus exegesis as the new norm. In UK only university staff get to do by publication but hard. One of my colleagues had a book and 12 papers and a 20k exegesis!! I examined one staff PHD by publication at another university which had much the same.

  8. As Pat comments, this is not common practice in the UK. I recently sat in on a committee meeting about potentially introducing this at our uni, and there was considerable discomfort about the idea from all of the academics. The general feeling seemed to be that editors wouldn’t be as rigorous as examiners and a viva, and that this might unfairly privilege those in the arts (especially creative writing) or science compared with the humanities. There was concern about whether “any” publication would count – especially with the rise of self-publication. I was interested to read in the comments that work needn’t have been actually published to contribute towards the PhD by publication – I think this would also cause consternation, but perhaps correct the presumption of anti-humanities balance. I think these worries will take a long time to be overcome here, although I assume they will if this is common practice elsewhere in the world as your article suggests. It sounds like a much more PhD friendly approach, and so helpful in making one more employable, which is always a concern.
    One other thought – my supervisor made clear at the outset of my PhD that although it was a standalone piece of work, it really needed to contain at least 2 chapters adaptable into journal articles, and I should always keep this in mind whilst researching. Through the process so far we chat about what she and I think could work independently without too much chopping about, and she makes suggestions of where to publish the resultant articles. Maybe I should consider myself extremely fortunate and this sort of early supervision advice is the best of both worlds?

    • I think if a phd by publication is examined in the usual way a lot of these fears could be put to rest… But you are right, long timeframes to publication make this method problematic to say the least. The last paper I did took 1 year to get into print from acceptance – a real problem if I was doing a phd.

  9. I share Todd’s feeling that an ‘article dissertation’ (the preferred term at my department, where they are accepted) represents ‘the easy way out’. Nevertheless, it is extremely reassuring to think of it as a plan B. The mere thought takes a lot of pressure off my plan A!

  10. One other option for Todd would also be to submit the necessary papers for a phd by publication – and hold on to the rest, expanding that, and making it coherent at some point in the future for an academic monograph. This would get him the PhD with whatever he already has – but would only postpone, rather than cancel, that famous grand coherent major book…

    I am sometimes contemplating this route, anyway. And yes, it is kind of an easy way out – but too much of academia already expects people to work without pay. If the money runs out, it is perfectly fine to be pragmatic.

    That standards are being upheld is, by the way, chiefly the responsibility of the examiners, methinks. Bad publications (even if they passed peer review) would not lead to a PhD, as a bad thesis wouldn’t. In Germany, for instance, there is always a clause that the sum and overall standard of those publications must be equivalent to a monographic PhD. And there is of course still an examination (and viva) of the work involved – this is not at all delegated to the journal reviewers! The only change, really, is that the overall body of work can be less coherent (though it needs to have a discernable red thread, but less so than a monograph), and that parts can already be published before submission (and need to be at least accepted by a journal). I think this is a pretty sound model…

  11. I did a professional doctorate (with a substantial – 65000 word – thesis), originally intending to take the submission by publication route. At my uni the requirement was a minimum of three publications, of which at least one had to have at least been accepted. The articles still had to be presented in a thesis, with an introduction and discussion to integrate them. I was encouraged by my supervisors to take the publication route, which initially was presented as being in my best interests, but which I now suspect was also driven by their own motivation to have more publications against their names.

    However after several tortuous years of negotiating between two finicky supervisors and trying to get just one paper published (one submission – rejected), I put my foot down and went the traditional route. This was ideal for me because I’m not in academic work, so publications weren’t a huge priority for me. I still structured my thesis as “papers” – i.e. each chapter could potentially be adapted into a paper, rather than structuring in order of method, results, etc. Now I’m working full-time, and not constantly feeling stressed/exhausted by deadlines and financial hardship, I can take the time to polish up papers.

    By contrast, another student who started at the same time as me, working on a similar project with the same supervisors, is still slogging away trying to get publications accepted. I’m about to graduate and have been enjoying a full-time income all of this year. No regrets!

    • Thanks for sharing this story Lou, you point out that the structure of a phd by publication may still be used to produce a phd – in the end it’s a matter of convincing your examiners that you have met the criteria.

  12. Great post; this is exactly how my wife’s PhD program is structured, and she moving apace through the publications. The horizon, of course, is the bracketing essay/chapter, and while that may appear at first blush to be incredibly complex, my response is, “Not necessarily.”

    And that would be related to your other great observation: Might as well both admit to the “secret longing for coherence” and jettison it with your next breath. Because that longing will be a dead weight upon the energy needed to complete the bracketing chapter. I’m proud of my wife in this regard: she never gave a second thought about letting the coherence desire run free, and really went after the research needed to publish.

  13. Thanks, this is a great post. I am only required to write a max of 40,000 words as an exegesis for a doctor of creative arts. Just recently I extracted a ‘chapter’ that really worked, and submitted it as a paper. My supervisor had given me feedback that it was well written and outlined what I was on about quite clearly. Don’t know if it has been accepted, but the process of rewriting that chapter as a paper really put my entire exegesis into perspective.

  14. I completed my PhD a few years ago in the UK and each year my university offered a one day seminar giving advice to students appropriate to their particular stage. At the third year seminar we were told that a PhD was defined as (paraphrasing here) “Three years of hard work written up in a coherent and critical manner”. There was no absolute need for any publications at all – despite what most supervisors seemed to think – and as long as you have worked hard and can write about, defend your work and show evidence of original thinking, you deserve a PhD.

    Mine was a traditional science thesis format (introduction, methods, 6 results chapters, discussion) – of the 6 results chapters just one was based on a paper of my own, two were based on my contributions to papers where I was second or third author and the other three were based on work that was not publishable either because another lab beat me to it, the results were negative or the method was never fully optimised. But each of them represented a large chunk of my time and I wrote them up and evaluated my work critically – and tied the whole lot together into a coherent story. I spoke to many other students who felt that negative results couldn’t be included and after nearly three years of lab work still worried that they didn’t have enough results for a thesis. Under this definition, as long as they had been working hard for those three years, whatever they had was enough.

    I guess my point it that sometimes the institution’s definition of what is required for a PhD may be different from that generally understood by its academics/supervisors. So it is worth finding out what that definition actually is. And sticking to your guns if your supervisor disagrees!

  15. Great post and an interesting discussion in the comments as well. I would like to add though that I think it is frightfully easy in discussions of this type to confuse Thesis as product i.e. “the big book or even one derived from published articles” and Thesis as idea/conceptualisation/thread throughout i.e. the thinking that glues it all together in context of the work done by others etc. If the aim of the thesis is not clear and well thought through initially (irrespective of the format/way that the intellectual work is going to be presented) and notwithstanding the development of ideas, learning and understanding that takes place as you do the research /creative work that is planned as a consequence of all that initial thinking, that writing the “essay” that “links” it all together is not going to be easy no matter which discipline you are working within. Lastly, if your university can’t provide you with clear instructions (these are not guidelines from others or even supervisor informed vague descriptions) as to what is required for a thesis by publication, and information about how potential examiners are to be informed about what is required of them in examining what is still for potential examiners a relatively new type of thesis, then proceed with caution!

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  18. I’ve never posted on here before. But I’ve got 6 to 9 months to complete my mixed methods thesis (I say that because it feels like two PhD’s in one) and I’m pretty stressed out about it. So it’s encouraging to hear stories from elsewhere about being pragmatic. I have done this with my PhD, structuring my chapters similar to papers, but before reading this post I was worried it wouldn’t feel ‘thesis-y’ enough and too patchworked- I have really struggled to feel confident about any of it being of a good enough standard. I realise I’m not doing a thesis by publication, But actually, that is what it is in a conceptual sense- a patchwork of my experiences over the last 2.5 years, using differnt forms of data collection and analysis. It does have a coheret thesis, which I need to make clear. But I don’t think it needs to be sensational. Your post has made me realise that actually what I’ve secretly been wanting is some magical happy-land where I write this totally unique, blisfully coherent thesis that will have my examiners shedding tears like Jodi Foster in Contact. This is very problematic because it is not true. I want to finish it. I want it to pass. And most importantly, I don’t want my thesis to cost me my sanity. In the immortal words of someone else, ‘Done is better than perfect’.

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