PhD by publication: because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts

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This post from Karen Campbell (@KarencampbellWP) follows on from her previous post ‘What is a PhD by Publication?‘ In this post, Karen addresses the benefits and challenges of pursuing this route. Karen is an education researcher based at Glasgow Caledonian University. She completed her PhD by publication in May 2020.

Why do a PhD by publication?

If you are an expert in your field with a significant portfolio of publications under your belt or are working towards developing such a portfolio, why not write for publication and complete a PhD, hitting two birds with one stone? The scenario described highlights the option to complete a PhD by publication through either a retrospective or a prospective route. I took the latter approach and worked to produce and publish academic papers around my area of work to reach the end goal of a PhD. The publication route to a doctorate is essentially about meta-analysis. It’s about abstracting yourself from the micro-level of your data’s detail and considering the macro themes emerging in your publications. This shows how the body of work you have selected is cohesive, original and adds value by way of an original contribution to the knowledge. It’s a challenge but one worth embarking on.

Benefits

  • I have developed as a researcher. Having to communicate the aims, objectives and outcomes of my research work in the form of publishable papers has meant that I pay more attention to ensuring that the paper’s claims meet my research objectives. I am more aware of the necessity to make my research questions explicit, include caveats about the limitations of the findings, and signal further research possibilities.
  • Writing for an international audience necessitates close attention to detail and developing a critical external eye. I have developed as an academic writer. Through practice, I am more able to present a clear argument relevant to the aims and objectives of the target journal. Moving forward, this has given me the confidence to engage with journal editors to discuss possible papers.
  • I am a more effective reviewer of journal articles and conference papers. Reviewing abstracts and papers involves a close mapping of the work presented to the conference criteria or journal aims and objectives. Thus, the review process has altered me to the necessity to communicate my own work according to strict guidelines.
  • My critical thinking and problem-solving skills have developed from writing for publication. This includes decisions about what to include and what to leave out, ensuring the argument flows, handling reviewer comments, working within word count restrictions and paying strict attention to detail around referencing.
  • Engaging in a PhD by publication also serves to enhance your project management skills. The process includes selecting the appropriate outputs to include, developing your thesis research question and planning your critical review, highlighting the impact of your work and including refection on the research journey.
  • My confidence has grown as I have published, and my academic profile has grown. My outputs have increased and have become more varied. I have had a book chapter published and am now blogging. I intend to write a capstone paper around my thesis and publish my literature review as a stand-alone paper. I feel that my outputs are valuable as they influence institutional strategy and, more widely, they have informed policy developments in the wider Scottish widening participation landscape.

Challenges

  • It’s worth bearing in mind that by the very nature of this route, you are not automatically hooked into support mechanisms available to those undertaking more traditional full-time routes – the help, advice and resources available through graduate schools, for example. Full-time PhD students also tend to develop social networks for mutual support. Academic colleagues completing professional doctorates or Education doctorates (programmes that usually contain a taught element) participate as part of a cohort. They tend to have a peer group to interact with and derive support from.
  • Doing a PhD by publication can be isolating. To mitigate this, I approached three research colleagues, all of whom had PhDs, to ask for their help to mentor me through the writing for publication process. Thus, I built my own mini-community of support that would not have been available otherwise. This proved invaluable, and I now feel able to offer the same backing to others.
  • Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the journey takes a huge commitment in terms of time. The day job inevitably becomes the evening and weekend job so there’s no escape.

Top ten tips

  1. Write papers with a PhD by publication in mind;
  2. Find an enthusiastic and supportive Advisory team;
  3. Appoint yourself encouraging, knowledgeable mentors;
  4. Do as much outlining and writing of the critical review before registering;
  5. Set aside time for writing and set writing targets;
  6. Select publications that fit around a general theme;
  7. Don’t include everything for the sake of it;
  8. Find your ‘golden thread’;
  9. Develop a research question for the thesis;
  10. Consider where and how you will include reflection.

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