the downside of having a Big Book thesis

This is a guest post by Katie Wheat. Katie graduated with a PhD in Psychology from University of York and now works as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience at Maastricht University. She is currently using brain imaging and magnetic brain stimulation methods to explore aspects of how the brain recognises written words. She blogs at Life After Thesis.

Reading Pat’s latest blog post on the PhD by publication versus a written thesis stirred up many thoughts and feelings that I had been mulling over for a while. I think it is crucial to have an open conversation about the differences between these two paths, particularly in the context of the difficult employment market for PhD graduates. From my experience of these two PhD models, it seems that adopting the PhD by publication model more widely in the UK would need to be accompanied by other changes to the typical PhD programme.

When I embarked on my three year funded PhD in psychology in the UK, there was never any doubt that over the course of those three years I would write what I would describe as a ‘traditional’ thesis. That is, by the end of my PhD period, I would produce a multi-chapter written record of my research. The standard format in my department was three or four experimental chapters, in the style of research articles, sandwiched between a literature review chapter and a discussion chapter. The PhD student handbook provided guidance about the expected format and content of the thesis and a ‘research committee’ (now called a thesis advisory panel) oversaw that the research was progressing towards the end goal of a coherent thesis. This included the upgrade process at the end of the first year, where students were expected to submit a full draft of their literature review chapter, as well as any experimental work completed so far, in order to formally progress from the MPhil stage to a full PhD student. At no stage was there a discussion about whether I would opt out of this traditional process and instead aim to complete my PhD by publication. In fact, although I vaguely knew of this possibility, it never crossed my mind as a favourable option and I didn’t know anyone who had taken this route.

My first experience with the PhD by publication model was as a visiting PhD student in the Netherlands, and since, as a postdoc here. In my department at least, the typical route to a PhD is very different to my own PhD in the UK. There are commonalities, but I would certainly not say that they are equivalent. The most obvious difference is, of course, that students are expected to produce and publish around four original research articles in order to complete their PhD. At least two of these are expected to be published or in press in respected international journals by the time the thesis is defended. Often, all four articles are accepted or at least submitted before the thesis defense. These journal articles are then compiled (in their original format or with some edits) into a booklet, with an accompanying introduction and discussion chapter intended to tie the articles together.

At first glance, the two models described here probably sound very much the same. In the end, a PhD student following either route will have produced a body of work composed of around four research chapters, with an introduction and discussion chapter. However, I think the two routes are actually very different. For example, in the UK, PhD funding usually lasts three years, or 1+3 for a masters followed by a PhD. In the Netherlands, PhD funding is usually four years (although three year PhDs are becoming more common if the student already completed a two year research masters in a closely related research area). This extra year is usually the time when the first articles of the PhD are actually accepted and published and the final articles are submitted. It would be very difficult to research, write, and publish such a body of work in only three years. This means that UK PhDs tend to carry on working on the publication aspect of their PhD long after their funding ends, and possibly alongside their next job. It may even mean that a UK PhD needs to carry on writing these articles without any pay in order to have enough published work to compete for postdoc funding. This would be especially true in order to compete against European PhDs.

Another significant difference between my experiences as a UK PhD student, compared to a PhD student in the Netherlands comes down to money. PhD students in the Netherlands receive a monthly salary on a national pay scale that amounts to roughly twice my PhD bursary. Although I refer to them as students, in actual fact they are research employees of the university, with all of the benefits and responsibilities that accompany this; for example, paid holidays and a company pension come as standard, with the expectation that ten percent of one’s time will be spent on teaching, supervision, and admin duties.

I believe that these differences mean that PhD graduates in the Netherlands are ultimately more prepared for a research career because they are employed as a junior researcher from day one of their PhD. The whole PhD is structured around the realities of life as a researcher, such as writing for publication, the pressures and struggles of the peer review system, teaching obligations, and (usually during the fourth year) grant applications. However, without a full salary, and especially without the fourth year of salary, it would seem unrealistic to expect a PhD student to take on these responsibilities. This makes the UK PhD model seem quite artificial to me; a strange limbo between student and employee.

In sum, if I could go back, I would almost certainly choose the European PhD by publication route. However, I definitely would not choose to squeeze a PhD by publication into the UK’s three year PhD system. I think the time pressures and financial pressures this would create would be unworkable.

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Big Book, doctoral research, early career researchers, Europe, PhD by publication, thesis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to the downside of having a Big Book thesis

  1. Pingback: Today I’m Pattering | Life After Thesis

  2. Anthea says:

    Interesting blog post since it reminds me of a discussion that I had with a British student who was doing a PhD in McGill in Biology which was similar in structure to the European PhD by publication. She told me that she’d noticed that her PhD programme was radically different to the PhDs taken by her colleagues in the humanities and social sciences in McGill since while it was the same length of time it wasn’t a PhD by publication.

  3. I’d largely agree that the Dutch system does sound like a much more rounded process. In the Uk there’s emphasis on formal training in transferable skills (for which, read team-building exercises and courses on brainstorming), but far less on formal training of non-transferable-but-very-important (if you will) skills. As a slight counter to your final point, I actually did do my PhD (effectively) by publication under the UK system. Clearly this isn’t workable in some areas, where research will take far longer to conduct, and it’s true that my experience was pretty unusual. But it’s doable. (though note, I also had 3.5 years funding, which took a little bit of time/money pressure off – just that little extra funding makes a surprising difference). Nevertheless, I’d actually recommend it where possible.

    • katiewheat says:

      Thanks, Matt. It’s interesting to hear a more positive perspective on the PhD by publication process within the UK system. I think you make a very good point that the type of research probably contributes quite heavily to how feasible that route will be. I think these are important discussions to have for the sake of current and future PhDs.

  4. Claartje says:

    Thank you for this illuminating comparison between two systems, Katie and Pat. As a Dutch PhD who has written and defended a Big Book Thesis (as is rather common in the humanities in the Netherlands), I am left wondering about the distinctions between PhD by publication / big book thesis on the one hand and the UK 3-year PhD student / Dutch employed PhD on the other. They do not amount to the same, although one combination may be easier than the other. If I may shamelessly say so, I have written a little bit about the Dutch discussion about our PhD system in this respect myself (http://vansijl.com/2013/01/22/value-of-the-dutch-approach-of-the-phd).
    I agree with you, Pat, that we need more discussion about the changing nature of the PhD as an end product in relation to publication, but we also need to talk about what this means for our view of the person pursuing the PhD. I think it obvious that having 4 rather than 3 years to complete a PhD is an advantage in terms of career perspective, but I would be very interested in your opinion on different systems (e.g. UK/Dutch) and their perspective on the Phd student or employee.

    • katiewheat says:

      Thanks for your comment. I completely agree that there are two very important issues here; the format of the thesis on the one hand, and the structure and length of the PhD period on the other. The overall structure of the PhD is perhaps far more important than the thesis that is produced in the end. So it’s very interesting that the Dutch system of employed PhDs is under threat when I really think it is a model that should be adopted more widely.

  5. Thanks for the post.

    I did a PhD by publication here in the UK. it was a 6 year endeavour completed as part of a RA / Research Fellow post I was working as at the time.

    It was a rewarding experience it has to be said. Indeed, most of the work went on getting the 8 publications (peer-reviewed) designed, completed and published, before venturing into the thesis.

    The only issue I found to be slightly problematic was the thesis itself. Speaking to colleagues based in Europe who had also followed this PhD by publication path, I went under the impression that I could just include the publications with a short booklet discussing the work and bringing it together under one banner. After all it was peer-reviewed and published, what could go wrong.

    Well as it turned out, after a bit of nervous viva (under-statement), a short intro and discussion was not what the examiners wanted, and 172 pages later (not including references and appendices), I ended up with a very thick traditional-type thesis.

    I wouldn’t change my PhD experience, because the process of experimentation, writing and peer-review publication definitely made the thesis preparation so much easier. Indeed, not having to worry about writing up publications after the PhD made the whole thing a lot more rewarding.

    • katiewheat says:

      In some ways it sounds like you got the best (and perhaps worst) of both worlds. The experience of the dreaded thesis write-up at the end of my PhD was certainly character building, if at times almost soul destroying. I couldn’t think of a better possibility than to have had that experience but still come out with all my chapters published as papers by now. I think that time must be a big deciding factor here, and it seems like 3 years is far too short to do what took you 6 (albeit alongside a fulltime job). Perhaps the PhD students of tomorrow can look forward to a hybrid of the two processes that really does keep the best of both models.

  6. Joanna says:

    Thanks for a really interesting comparison between these 2 routes. I’m a 2nd year PhD student in the UK and just considering how my thesis is going to look. I feel like I’m trying to do the PhD by publication route but within the 3 years… I wrote a post on this subject recently: (http://squirreledthoughts.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/fitting-the-pieces-into-a-thesis/)
    It’s good to see what other people think about this and I found your post really useful- thanks!

    • katiewheat says:

      Thanks for your comment. It’s nice to hear that you are managing to fit the PhD by publication route into the UK system. Good luck with your final year!

  7. Pingback: Giving the researcher perspective at #Vitae13 | Life After Thesis

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