Thesis by publications: you’re joking, right?

This post is written by Dr David Alexander, who has recently been awarded his PhD at the University of Queensland. He is currently taking a well-deserved break and pursuing some non-academic endeavours, including motivational speaking, trivia hosting and professional calligraphy writing. In this blog, David writes about his experience of producing a thesis composed entirely of publications – a hot topic in thesis land!

Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 3.46.10 PMThree years ago I sat in my supervisor’s office for the first time; a tad nervous, a touch excited and certainly overwhelmed. We discussed my PhD project. The research topic, the methods, the potential outcomes… I don’t really remember much about this meeting, apart from the question he posed me at the end.

“So, when will you submit your first paper for publication?”

This question left me speechless, for once. I was confused. You’re joking, right? I thought I was writing a thesis, not publishing journal articles. How could he think that a mere peasant like me had the ability to produce papers remotely worthy of publication? But this question, more than any other he posed to me over the subsequent three years, changed my outlook and approach during my PhD candidature.

Let’s step forward three years. Late last year I submitted my thesis. No all-nighters, no stress, no dramas. The biggest issue of the week was deciding which colour cloth I would like my thesis to be bound with. (For the record I went with black.) I say this not to intimidate or to gloat (truth is I feel rather guilty that I had nothing go wrong in the final week!). I only say this as I want to explain the reason as to how the last few months of my thesis eventuated in some of the most relaxing, and yet some of the most rewarding months of the PhD experience.

The reason, in short, was that I wrote my thesis entirely as a series of publications. Now I’m joking, right? Certainly not. This approach splits the thesis up into manageable sections, or papers, or perhaps even mini Honours theses. Rather than having one deadline for one large piece of work, a thesis by publications allows manageable and achievable goals to be set, which provide more immediate and visible outcomes from the research.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying along the lines of “you always work hardest in the final 6 months of the PhD. That’s when you do all the writing”. In my experience observing other PhD students, this is definitely the case. Why? Because publishing by the traditional thesis makes it very hard (but not impossible) to set realistic and timely goals, monitor and evaluate progress, until…it is far too late. And the stress, panic and (perhaps) insanity begin.

Writing papers and submitting them to journals throughout PhD candidature allows progress to be monitored and evaluated as you go. I presented two published articles in my PhD thesis, and three other submitted articles (two of which have been re-submitted), all as individual chapters.

My research area is in science, and more specifically glaciology (the study of glaciers). I’m not sure whether a thesis fully by publications is the intended approach of many science theses or theses across different faculties for that matter. But it should be. The publication of articles in journals is one of the most important aspects to any application for scholarships, funding, and jobs, especially in academia or other areas of research.

Undoubtedly, one of the toughest parts of doing a thesis by publications is that the research is critiqued/criticised/torn-to-shreds immediately. I submitted my first article six months into my thesis. When I received the notification email from the editor that the review was complete, I was absolutely petrified. Stomach churning. I could hardly breathe. I even asked my supervisor to read them for me to which he responded “just read them yourself you coward”.

Fair enough.

Major changes were required, but that was ok. I resubmitted it and not long after it was published. I’ve also had three rejected papers. No worries. I carried out the changes and re-submitted the papers elsewhere. I quickly learnt that having my work reviewed early on had some major benefits. It allowed specialists outside of my supervision team to review the research and provide helpful feedback before thesis submission, rather than writing and editing furiously in the hope nothing will go wrong.

If several articles are published, accepted or even had a round of reviews, there is a much greater chance of success with the review of the thesis. The best part is that there’s no stress in the final few weeks before submission. The biggest stress is choosing a cloth colour or deciding whether to use Arial or Times New Roman font. I mean, sure. Those decisions have an element of stress associated with them, but that’s something I can deal with!

As I sat in my supervisor’s office for the last time, we discussed the possible scenarios from the examiners review of the thesis. They could reject it. It’s possible. Major changes, there’s a chance. Minor changes, wouldn’t that be nice? But regardless of the outcome, we both agreed that a thesis by publications was the best approach, both for enhancing the quantity and quality of research, preparing myself for a potential career in academia and most importantly for me, thoroughly enjoying my time as a PhD student.

Thanks David! There’s a lot written about the PhD by publication, but very little of it is from the point of view of someone actually DOING one. So I’m interested to hear from others. Are you doing a PhD by publication?  How are you finding the process? Any traps people should look out for?

Related Posts on the Thesis Whisperer

Objects in the mirror might be closer than they appear

Publications in your PhD

Other articles of interest

PhD by publication or PhD with publication? A very peculiar practice

PhD by publication – a student’s perspective.

62 thoughts on “Thesis by publications: you’re joking, right?

  1. I’m doing PhD by publication as it is encouraged at my university (funding is tied to research activity right? and research activity is measured on published research. Great idea – let’s get the students to do the work . . . ). I’m just starting Year 3 of my thesis and I’ve submitted two papers, both still undergoing review. Another paper is 20% written and the fourth still needs more data collected. It’s not all about the published papers though. I will need to tell a story with those papers so I have to write linking chapters that tie them all together and create a cohesive whole with a strong narrative that runs through the four. That part could be tricky. Also papers are subject to strict word limits, so a lot of data and literature gets left out. Some of that will need to make its way into the final bound thesis via linking chapters or appendices. Everything else David wrote is true – manageable chunks, early review of work and so on. There are definitely advantages to working this way.

    • Sounds like mine. My first two papers are now published, and took many, many months and multiple informal revision with my supervisors and formal revisions with the journals. I’m just about to submit a third paper, which has already taken about 7 months to write and get approved by the supervisors. In terms of the thesis, writing all the linking parts will need a lot of work – as you rightly note, it needs to tell the story and include all the data & literature that was not in the papers. I’ve got a feeling that the total time I will have spent on the papers, and then pulling it into a thesis, will actually be significantly *more* than just writing the thesis alone.

  2. This is a timely post as I have been thinking of taking this option, however, I haven’t found a lot of information on this option. It seems that it isn’t a common approach to PhD thesis. Thanks for the post!

  3. I have four weeks before I submit my Phd by publication. The fact that I’ve had time to read ‘The Thesis Whisperer’ as I drink my coffee (and no, I’m not just procrastinating) and am now replying, should indicate my agreement with David’s comments.
    I had always fancied writing a ‘door stop’ thesis but was advised by my supervisors against it because of my part-time status, among other reasons. This thesis has taken me over six years to complete and there was a fear that what I did in my first year may well be irrelevant by the time I got to my sixth year. What I have now is a series of papers that are an accurate and interesting picture of the way my own thinking on my topic has changed as a result of my research. I still have to submit and be examined which makes me feel very nervous but I’ve really enjoyed my time as a PhD candidate.

  4. Having just handed my PhD by publication in I can wholeheartedly agree with David – time line planing, minor accomplishments to keep you going and an avoidance of the all-nighter are definite advantages of this method. However, for mine, the greatest advantage is that I now don’t have to sit down and write publications associated with my thesis. By publication would absolutely be my recommendation if it is appropriate for a given discipline. Except for the poor pay, my PhD is the best job I’ve ever had!

  5. Thanks for a great topic and post : )
    Thesis by publications always sounds very interesting and appealing for all the advantages mentioned here, but I often wonder how you actually manage to cover all the essential components and requirements for the PhD within individual articles (and linking chapters). For instance, I could imagine that a paper could possibly be produced from the lit review or maybe the discussion chapter from the end, but I can’t imagine how a chapter about theory, methodology or findings could function as a stand-alone paper?? (or, perhaps it’s just my theory, methodology and findings chapters that would not be suitable, but other topics could be?). It would be interesting to read a table of contents (which, I assume, would include the titles of the published papers as chapter names?) to get a better idea of how this approach can actually be implemented for various topics.

    • Often (and the case for me) you need to include a separate methodology chapter that sits alongside your publications. Not every chapter needs to be a published article – it can be a mixture of published papers and more traditional ‘chapters’.

    • That also depends on the discipline of course, In law and philosophy, I never needed to include methodology chapters. (Although I could of course think of topics in criminology where one would need to.)

  6. When I started my PhD A year and a half ago in nineteenth-century literature, I spoke to the educator at the Graduate Research School at my university who strongly recommended the PhD by publication method. However, when I spoke to one of my supervisors I was strongly advised against it as the monograph plus 1 or 2 article is still the expected norm within English departments. I asked the same question, PhD by publication or PhD as monograph, at a conference a few months later where three scholars in my field (from UK, Australia and USA) gave a seminar for post grads on the job market, and was virtually scoffed at for even suggesting that a PhD by publication was a possibility in English. Whilst I think it makes perfect sense when post doc funding and career opportunities are so clearly linked to your publication history my experience suggests the acceptance of this model differs quite a lot between disciplines. So I, and my peers in English and Cultural Studies, continue at this stage on the traditional path of aiming for a monograph and a couple of publications along the way.

  7. I am about to do my exit seminar for a PhD by publication. It has been a hard journey to get my six publications (2 lit reviews, a methods article and three results articles) written, reviewed, corrected and accepted but I am glad that I have done my PhD by publication. Thankfully, I have had no rejections but then my supervisors are fairly ruthless with my work. I now know the process of writing the articles and essentially my PhD has already been marked. It would be fairly hard for examiners to say that your research is crap when it has already been peer reviewed. I still had to write an introduction and design chapter and tie it all together with a conclusion/summary chapter. The only difficulty that I have had is that alot of the background sections in the articles are very similar meaning that a person who reads my thesis will be reading the same thing four times and means the thesis does not flow as well as a traditional thesis.
    There is a certain buzz about getting your work published and then seeing your work getting cited especially by prominent people in the field. In a way it is like doing a PhD on steriods but it is worth it.

    uding chapter but the rest id already been examined.

    • Just a warning: the people who reviewed your publications are not the people who will be examining your thesis. They will be looking for different things. As David points out in the blog post, prior publication of a chapter as an article is no guarantee that your examiners will just give it a tick. They will still be looking for a coherent story throughout your thesis, which needs to be much more than just the sum of its parts. Having said that, I hope your examination process is as enjoyable as your publication process has been. Good luck!

      • That’s wrong because those examiners are effectively arguing with people who are more of an expert in the field than the examiner is. This the reason we publish in the first place during the PhD.

      • You’re right, a PhD by Publication is not simply a threshold quantity of peer-reviewed publications, it must be integrated. Not all peer-reviewed journals are equal and not all peer-reviewed research is of high quality. But it does work in the candidate’s favour that the external reviewers may assume that if the research has already been peer-reviewed in a good journal, it is good enough to meet the quality of what one would expect from a PhD candidate. It is also very difficult to request revisions to the publications if the university guidelines require the publications to be included verbatim.

        The coherence of a PhD by Publication is perhaps my biggest concern. All publications included need to be different in order to justify separate publications, but they must also be similar enough to integrate into a coherent story. If someone wanted to reject a PhD by Publication, it would often be easy to argue that the publications are either not coherently integrated, or they are integrated but too similar to justify separate publications.

  8. I’ve just submitted my thesis by publication. This is a new option at King’s College London who will only accept publications which are published, not just submitted.

    I did a long intro chapter followed by three published papers, a methodology chapter, a traditional chapter (because my 4th paper is not yet published) then an extended discussion chapter.

    I feel more confident about my Viva than most colleagues. There is no question of my having made a unique contribution as I’ve had papers published and the peer reviewers have grilled me anonymously via email which is far more manageable than during a viva!

    This was a good option for me as I’ve always had a full time job alongside my PhD and two pre-schoolers to look after so I was very glad of the reduced writing time. I probably spent the equivalent of about 3-4 weeks on my final write up.

    Very interested to hear others’ experiences. Good luck everybody!

  9. I am finishing my PhD made in a “monograph” format. I have to be thankful for a particularly nice and friendly relationship with my supervisor – her support has been awesome. Maybe that leads me to think how supervisory practices change across the different types of dissertations. I know that the student-supervisor relation goes way beyond the format of the dissertation itself, but it seems like a PhD by publication heavily relies on the comments, requests and revisions from blind reviewers.
    This changes the roles or the “types of advice” we might receive from supervisors in relation to not only the research itself, but now adding to the equation the different journal audiences, writing styles and well, everything else that comes along with the contemporary editorial practices (impact factors? open access?). Sounds great as training but seems like additional worries on the top of the research itself throughout the PhD journey.

  10. I recently completed my PhD by publications (and have just heard that I’ve been nominated for the University Medal, which I was really chuffed about as it shows that PhD by publication can be as good as any other sort). I had a number of specific issues about structure which were difficult to resolve, and I’d be happy to share my experiences if this would be useful.

  11. While the idea of a thesis by publications makes perfect sense to me, the way my university does it (or maybe just the department) – by making you write a general statement of the problem and lit review chapters, mini-chapters between each article, and a general discussion chapter at the end – means it ends up being a lot more work than a regular thesis. Also, it can end up taking longer because you thought you were done, and then you get the submitted article with “revise and resubmit” and you don’t feel like you can include it in the bound thesis before you rewrite it…After watching a friend go through this, I decided to go the traditional route, and write articles along the way, and afterwards. But if it were just 3 or 4 articles and nothing else, I would definitely have done it!

  12. I am nearing completion to a PhD by Publication, which will be a series of 6 peer-reviewed journal articles, plus an integrative component (4 articles are in print, one under review and another to be submitted soon). I am in the social sciences, so it is an uncommon approach, at least in Australia. However, I chose to forgo my APA and do my PhD externally at an EU university because the Go8 university I work for does not allow for previous peer-reviewed publications to be included. It is worth “shopping around”, to find an institution offering the best support for this method because some treat it with suspicion.

    My experience has undoubtedly been positive, particularly the potential to collaborate on some publications (one can’t feasibly collaborate on a monograph). However, it is not for everyone and I couldn’t imagine doing it without the strong support I received from my supervisor. There are many risks, the biggest I think being the time frame for getting publications reviewed. In most universities I am aware of in Australia, PhDs do not collect data or conduct their empirical research until 2nd year (after ethics approvals and “confirmation” seminar). This leaves less than 2 years to do the research and have it reviewed (allowing for time under review). It must be different in the sciences at UQ where PhDs conduct research within the first 6 months.

    Personally, I think it is wrong for a supervisor to expect a PhD to be based on publications (“So, when will you submit your first paper for publication?”), nor do I think “it should be” the norm across all faculties. It should be up to the candidate to decide if it is the preferred approach. The peer-review process is rather conservative and time consuming, some disciplines are much more contested than others. There are many good reasons to do a PhD by Publication, but appeasing to the demands or expectations of a supervisor is not one of them.

  13. I am at the start of my PhD by Publications, and the main reason I have gone this route is that my primary supervisor (who comes from a science background) had highly recommended this approach. Having now engaged a bit more with the idea, I must say that I am really enjoying the ‘mini’ deadlines of various papers for submission despite being a bit of an experiment in my department (where I am the first person to take this approach).

    My understanding of the process is that you need to have a number of finite pieces of research which revolve around a central topic. In this way, when the time comes to bind it all together, one adds an introduction which shows the overall research umbrella and a conclusion which highlights the total contrition made.

    Despite being right near the start (I have only been registered for a year) I have one paper at a journal under review, another on hold due to data issues (am so happy I found that gremlin now rather than in a couple years – another advantage of this approach!), and two more in the planning stages. These four papers above sit outside the ‘core’ three papers I presented at my proposal defense, however, they all still have a common research thread. That is, they all link together around a central point, and so I am not too worried about pulling them into a single document for submission as the links between the papers are clear.

    For anyone who has done a thesis before, you will know what a headache converting a thesis into papers can be. A major advantage of this approach, especially if you are a member of academic staff / you benefit from research output, is that your work is already in the ‘correct’ format. I also understand that an increasing number of universities around the world require a submission/publication of at least one paper for a PhD to be granted, and so again this approach lends itself to checking off that box sooner rather than later.

    Regardless of approach to PhD taken, the underlying criteria to obtain a PhD remain the same, and so one might consider that the form is simply a matter of personal preference.

    • Having ‘mini deadlines’ was certainly a big factor for me as a part-time PhD student. I was also advised that aiming for publications can keep your supervisors more engaged since there are short-term benefits for them as co-authors.

  14. I spent a good chunk of time during my PhD actively representing postgraduate students, and I was incredibly surprised at the range of (often strongly voiced) opinions that academics and university administrators, as well as PhD students, have on the issue of PhD by publication. I’ve seen people having angry, loud arguments (particularly in the social sciences) about whether a PhD publication is a positive development for the academy.

    I think the reason for the divergent opinions is that this issue goes to the very heart of what we think scholarship should be about. The monograph model suggests that good scholarship should be based on an ability to produce an indepth, book length analysis of a given issue, whereas the publication model tends to correlate more closely to existing research evaluation frameworks, which value large numbers of papers more highly than other forms of research output (such as books).

    I don’t have an answer on this yet, but it will be useful to see what effect the increasing levels of open access publishing have on this. I would chance a prediction that it will not revolutionise the existing focus on papers as the most valuable research output, and that more universities will begin to adopt the publication model. It would be nice, however,if there could be more of an open debate across the academy about this, rather than just a general move towards PD publication because it prepares students more effectively for the academic job market (regardless of the points re. advantages in terms of process in this blogpost, which are all completely true).

  15. I think the most important think that publishing your thesis by publication is that it makes you think ahead and plan your writing, rather than do what most people do and leave everything till the end. I wrote my thesis officially as a monograph, as such, since in my University you could only include accepted papers, and early on I decided I did not want to have that hanging over my head and waiting for the papers to be reviewed accepted.

    However, in many ways it was still similar to a thesis by publication, in that I had a lit review chapter (already published), methods chapter (brought together the methods sections from the upcoming papers/chapters together) and a couple of results and discussions chapters (1 already published, 1 under review and got accepted the week before my viva, but would not have counted otherwise, and the other two which I converted to papers after my viva) and then a conclusion.

    At the end I still did not have much stress, going into the thesis submission (I submitted my thesis last May around 5 months before my 3 year funding limit and had my viva around 2 months later, which gave me time to write the remaining papers in that time, but without the worry of the viva still hanging over my head and whilst looking for jobs). I think, however the fact that I was submitting papers, and getting feedback from my supervisors/reviewers at an early stage was key. Therefore, even where submission by publication is not allowed/regulations are a bit too strict e.g. on how many should be published etc. I think that thinking about your writing in that way is a great idea, and reduces the stress in the end.

  16. In my country (the Netherlands) thesis by publication is the standard. I agree with all the positive points mentioned in this post but I would add that the whole process becomes really output focused. It has happened multiple times and at multiple research meetings that my supervisors express that they don’t know what I’m working on – they are only interested as soon as the first draft of a manuscript is finished. For me this was especially hard in the first 6 months of my PhD, when I did not have any papers to work on yet. Instead, I was left setting up an RCT with very little guidance, which can be overwhelming for someone who has just finished a Master’s degree..!

  17. Yes! Yes! Yes! This is exactly what I have also done and now, with about six months to go, I feel totally relaxed because I already have two chapters published, two more about to go out, and lots of reasons to be confident about the viva. Because I’ve already defended by work via the peer review system! I’m at the University of Cambridge, which is pretty backward in lots of ways, and doesn’t encourage this sort of approach (at least, that’s my feeling). But it’s worked for me; and I’m glad to hear it’s working for other people too!

    • I’m at Kings where it’s now an officially accepted approach but some colleagues have had negative feedback from examiners. . My supervisor recommended ensuring examiners knew exactly what they were getting so they weren’t suprised… might be a good idea for you too?

      • That’s a great point, and idea – thanks. My papers/chapters fit together in quite a logical narrative, so probably it wouldn’t be too obvious anyway!

      • Ah I see – at kings we have to insert the papers exactly as published (not via word, literally a PDF of the published paper) so it is fairly obvious! Good luck and I’d also recommend you double check what’s accepted etc as I had a similar problem to someone else here where I’d been advised that a paper that was under review could be included but it went to a committee and it was eventually decided it couldn’t cue hasty rewrite!

        I’m glad I’ve done it this way though. Everyone else seems to write papers up afterwards but given that I work full time I’d find it hard to find the time or make it a priority over paying work.

  18. I submitted my thesis by publication last year, it contained 3 review articles, 3 published journal articles and one manuscript in preparation. The university research committee would not allow my thesis to be sent for examination, because it apparently didn’t strictly meet the policy. I have since been forced to reformat the thesis into the ‘traditional’ format, and it is yet to be resubmitted. For anyone considering this option I would ask lots of questions of those in authority, because it seemed that at my university thesis by publication was untested waters, and sadly I have been the victim of university politics.

    • I think you make a good point. It is very important to read the regulations carefully and recognise the politics of how the PhD by Publication may have been established. I chose my university based on very clear guidelines over what was expected and their experience with these types of theses. In other universities, the PhD by Publication is new and its establishment was contested (i.e. by traditionalists who view the monograph as the only true form of a PhD). This means that people doing a new form of PhD can come under extra scrutiny to prove the quality of their PhD and its integration.

  19. I am doing a phd thesis by publication. Here in The Netherlands that is how almost eveybody does it. It has been this way for quite some time. We need to carry out our research and write articles during the four or five years of our phd. For me publishing in the first three years was difficult because we had datacollection all the time. But for others who carry out multiple experiments based on each previous experiment it is easier. In between experiments they will write an article. I published two articles and submitted one. Two others are in preparation and will be submitted to journals by the time I have to submit my thesis to the committee in september. Having published articles aready will help me in my future carreer. This does not mean thst the last months are stressful. I still need to write a separate introduction and general discussion chapter. but probably stress is only relative to my own idea and my collegues’ experiences. I do not know how stressful it is for phd student who does not write a phd thesis by publication.
    Well, because it is common in The Netherlands it does not mean you have better carreer opportunities by writing a ph thesis by publication. Everybody who just obtained a phd here has published articles.

    • In addition to F.’s remark about supervisors who are only interested in the output. I do not recognize this, my supervisors have been very interested and involved in my research project from the start. So I guess it depends on the field of research and the supervisors how involved they are.

      • Good to read that your supervisors have always been very involved in your project! I guess you’re right about the field of research. It probably also depends on the setting (whether you work at university, a university hospital, or a research institute). I know my experience probably doesn’t reflect everyone’s but I do feel that the thesis-by-publication system encourages supervisors to focus on the output, not the process.

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  21. I’m so confused about this as I’ve heard that you’re only allowed to publish up to a certain percentage of your thesis prior to submission of the final dissertation. A professor I spoke to today said that the situation with regard to how much you’re allowed to publish was ‘very volatile’ and that he didn’t think you should publish any content that will appear in your thesis!
    Is this an arts/ sciences divide (I’m in the humanities)? Or am I missing something?!

      • I’m in Lonfon too and I included 3 papers in my thesis and published a book based on my findings prior to my thesis submission.

        My field is ‘psychological medicine’ so maybe your arts / science suggestion holds true?

        What’s your topic? Good luck!

    • I would check on the regulations at your university. Your supervisor may not be up-to-date with changes – this happens in complex institutions. As earlier writers have said, make sure you know exactly what will and will not be acceptable before you go so far down a path that it’s a lot of work to get back.

  22. Some years ago, in the late 1990’s, there was a concerted move by the Australian government to encourage the research universities to be more proactive and efficient in graduating their PhD candidates.

    The main reasoning was that the PhD is supposed to be an gate into the world of research. Basically the PhD should be the ‘test’ by which one demonstrates the level of analytical thought, and research skills needed to work proficiently as an independent researcher.

    Over time the PhD thesis (dissertation) had become a career unto itself. Which in modern education is generally recognised as not being the valued or desired intent. Too many PhD’s were taking anywhere between six and ten years to complete the degree. By the time the students were done, they had spent so much time on their thesis, their potential career as a researcher had been drastically reduced, in terms of real years. Which then is a loss to the academic world.

    Realistically and essentially, the PhD is a license to enter the research community and be respected as a qualified member.

    What this discussion raises for me, or reminds me of, is that too often PhD students spend so much time on this one research project that they end up having narrowed their vision of the field that they are in. In addition, their actual amount and breadth of experience with research methodology is quite brief, because the research methods utilised and analysis of data/results is limited in scope.

    I would argue that a PhD by publication can not only be rigorous, due to the peer review process, whether internal or external, but it also likely demands that the student demonstrate a variety of research skills across a number of research studies.

    The PhD by publication is much closer to the real life work of a career academic, where quantity of publications is a ‘fact of life.’

    The time is gone of professors producing a single volume of ‘knowledge’ and then spending the remainder of their careers resting on that laurel.

    Personally, I like to see research that is more practical in that it causes the reader to reflect on the results and how they can be used within or on the ‘field’.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with either route to obtaining a PhD. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. What should be the focus, is whether the candidate’s certificate validates a level of thought, analysis, and methodological skill, that is requisite to being an independent researcher and author.

  23. “How could he think that a mere peasant like me had the ability to produce papers remotely worthy of publication?”, this is EXACTLY what I thought. It took much prodding by my supervisors to convince me otherwise and that my lit review was worthy of publishing. I’ve now 2 papers and plan to submit the remaining chapters to journals after thesis submission. I needed the 2nd paper to prove to myself that the first wasn’t a fluke!

    I would recommend this style of thesis to all phd students. The feedback from reviewers as you go along is really worthwhile.

  24. I’m an anthropologist and, while I didn’t follow the thesis by publication route, I did take the advice of one of a senior member of staff in my department, and presented my work at national and international conferences. Four distinct papers I gave at conferences became transformed into four distinct chapters of my dissertation. Having to refine my ideas into 15 or 20 minute talks, and then getting feedback from the floor (both during the session and over food and drinks later) was invaluable to the development of those chapters. Presenting my work in front of people who didn’t know me, gave me confidence in what I was doing, and the feedback I received convinced me that I was on the right track. And three of those four chapters turned into post-PhD publications.

    Putting your work out there when it’s only half baked is scary. But the rewards are endless.

  25. I hadn’t even considered this option but my supervisor is guiding me in this direction. As a part-time researcher with a decent clinical load I can see some advantages – certainly gives a clear sense of direction and an easy ability to break up the broader thing into manageable sections – a lit review, then a methods paper, then some papers already planned out. It’s probably also more representative of the way I’ll work in the future as I seek to incorporate research into the balance of my work profile.

  26. My supervisor wanted me to take the “by publication” route, and on reflection I thought it was a good idea (apart from spreading the stress, surely getting published is far more productive than writing a massive thesis that nobody will ever read again!)… but my university doesn’t allow it. Or it does, but it is only intended for existing researchers who want to get a PhD off things they have already published – so you have to complete within one year of starting. This seems old-fashioned to me.

  27. Ph.D by publication is not acceptable in some countries as the qualification. I think traditional Ph.D (Doctor of Philosophy) is better that Ph.D by publication.

  28. On my experience with the New Zealand academic history community, a significant publications list usually serves as a device for provoking the intellectualised worth-denial by which this community keeps its doors closed to any who dare achieve anything, outside their chosen in-groups.Few universities in any case offer degrees based on prior publications. But on my observation even preparing a PhD on new original research is likely to be made artificially difficult for a student with a prior major publishing record.To my mind it is a function of the miniscule scale of New Zealand’s academic history community and of the way those who benefit from it validate their personal self-worth via the status they gain from their own publications in the field – a status they apparently feel is threatened by rival publishing work. Academic success is not applauded; it is a liability here. Sigh.

  29. I believe that thesis by publications is a more successful route for any PhD candidate. Atleast this route will give you less nightmares before your defense. Also, thesis by publications already indicates that the work done within the thesis has already been qualitatively evaluated by international researchers of one’s field and meets the standards of the scientific communtity and increase the confidence level of the defendant on the day of defense. On the other hand, if the thesis has more unpublished work, the thesis committee members and opponent can become more critical about your work and its quality.

  30. It’s good to read so many positive responses to PhD by publication. It is the preferred apporach in Engineering as well.

    But my experiences have been dismal. My core work covers the application of a relatively new mathematical theory to an emerging field in engineering. I’ve had nothing but rejections from conferences and journals. I’m unsuccessfully arguing that in a thesis I can present chapters to bring engineers and applied mathematicians up to speed in the “other” discipline so that they may appreciate the contribution. But my supervisors are too hung up on the “publish or perish” approach to accept this argument.

    If anyone has any suggestions, then I would be most appreciative.

  31. I loved this article. Many great points.
    I am defending my PhD by dissertation in June, but I have already accepted Asst. Professorship at a top Uni. (and am on the clock). I feel that I got the job because I knew best at how to get the job, not necessarily because I would do the job the best.
    I didn’t read all of the comments so this may have been covered, but there is one glaring benefit to PhD by dissertation: Competitive Advantage. I have published 4 papers, and have 2 submitted others. Two of these aren’t related to my dissertation topic. I have also presented at 3 conferences. The biggest advantage I found by being ‘forced’ by my prof to do it this way is that this shows potential employers is that a) I already know how to navigate the publishing process, and b) I’m a workhorse. I might not actually be a workhorse, but it sure seems like that to them. And believe me when I tell you, this is important to them.
    Additionally, when it comes time to defend my work in a few months, I have a great way to defend my work…it’s already been accepted by the academic community! It will be pretty hard for them to fail me don’t you think?

  32. I graduated with a PhD last December, having published (or submitted) seven manuscripts, which substantially comprised key chapters of my thesis. It has really helped my track record, I am being cited and I have much improved skills to write for publication (including dealing with reviewer feedback and rejected papers). I also have a new job with very good prospects. It really was worth doing a PhD by publication.

  33. This is the first I’ve heard of a thesis by publication, and I’m now very curious. I finished my MA last year and wrote 100-ish page thesis for that, but I won’t be going back to do my Ph.D. for at least five years, and probably closer to ten. If I end up in a program where this is an option, I may be able finish in a timely manner. I’m working on articles to submit to a couple journals right now, and we’ll see what happens from there. I plan to keep writing and submitting and hopefully I’ll end up with an article or two published.

  34. This debate is as old as the hills :-) My understanding, which may be wrong, is that the PhD by publications route was originally intended for mature scholars who hadn’t happened to get a PhD and then needed one. This, of course, was before the time when a PhD was needed before you could get your foot in the door of a teaching appointment. There are still professors around, here and there, who haven’t bothered to get a PhD and they are so renowned that they don’t actually need one!

    One or two people have touched on the point that they were recommended the ‘by publication’ route because univ. departments are evaluated on the quality of their published research outputs and, stupidly, in the evaluation world, PhD theses seem not to be regarded as research outputs at all. Well, at least in the UK they don’t enter the equation. This is the worst possible reason for doing a PhD this way, because it puts the aims of the department ahead of the aims of both the research field and the student.

    On the point of timing the writing process: I have always required deadlines for the introductory chapters to a thesis and any supervisor who fails to set such deadlines is not doing his or her job, and if you have someone like that, get a replacement. If the introduction is drafted (since you are going to rewrite it at the end of the process), and if the literature review and methodology chapters are written, before any fieldwork is undertaken, this leaves chapters on the research process, the findings, the analysis and discussion, and the conclusions, to be written. This is not a load that requires years of work after the fieldwork, or experimental work, has been carried out. Managing a timetable like this is no harder than managing a series of publications.

    There is also a very great problem in some fields: the volume of submissions reaching some journals has become enormous, as the publish or perish syndrome has become more pronounced – if you are looking to get six publications accepted in, say, four years of a PhD programme, or, more likely, in the last three, you could find yourself trying to finish before three of them have been published and the last one might not even have been accepted by then – you need to check very carefully the time from submission to publication of the key journals in your field. The other problem here, is that in some fields, research evaluation is based on the impact factors of the journals to which you submit – if your university favours the ‘by publication’ PhD, they will want publication in the top journals, which is even more difficult in terms of acceptance and publication date.

    To my mind, the monograph route is cleaner and truer to the name “thesis” – the proposal of an argument, research to explore that argument, and presentation and discussion of the results of that research. I have known some people who have been in very great difficulty in getting the required number of pages published – and I’ve never known such difficulties with the 30+ PhD students I’ve supervised.

  35. I’m really curious about the “too much information” aspect. Right now I’m putting my PhD on hold – to bust out an MS. Weird, I know. Long story short, I’m about to start my 6th year as a grad student (spent over 3 years just collecting field data, not including all the planning and coordination prior to that). I also have to TA to support myself when I am not in the field. Anywho, I want more than anything for my thesis and publication for the MS to be one and the same. But how on earth can you do that without providing too much information in that thesis chapter for a scientific journal’s standards?? I’m just about to start writing (hopefully I mean it this time!!!) I’m not sure whether to start with the simpler publication and add in details later, or do the detailed version now and simplify later. My gut says to start simple because I am very detail-oriented by nature and I REALLY struggle with whittling down any sort of text that I’ve already written. Anyway, I’d appreciate ANY input on 1) the detail issue in regards to publications, and/or 2) which method people seem to prefer (start with the thesis-level text or start with the publication-level – ie, shortened – text). Obviously the second point is moot if the first point is truly possible, but I think it’s more likely that unicorns exist.

    • I guess it depends heavily on your discipline, method and intended journal outlet, but I can’t see how an MS thesis and a journal article can be the same publication. I used my M.Phil thesis as a basis for a journal article (within sociology), this was part of my plan, but they are still very different publications (e.g. one is 120 pages, the other maybe 15). The M.Phil was a process of reading the literature, writing up a review, constructing a theoretical framework, reporting the data, analysing it, discussing it, and drawing conclusions. Cutting everything back for a journal article was only possible having organised my thoughts and examining many different avenues of analysis in the M.Phil. The M.Phil process also involved a lot of writing things up just for the sake of demonstrating I had read something or examined something. The journal article needs to be focused and assumed people know the literature you cite. Pages and paragraphs become sentences with many citations, and the non-core results and literature disappears. My advice would be to write up your MS first, identify the most important results (e.g. 5 or so), then cut your MS back into size for a journal article by excluding all results and literature which is not core to your main findings. There may be short cuts, but for most people identifying the quickest route is only clear in retrospect.

  36. Pingback: Ever thought of publishing your data? | The Thesis Whisperer

  37. Pingback: ‘Tis the season to eat lollies (and enter competitions) | The Thesis Whisperer

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