the big book thesis has some advantages

This final post in the series on publication in the PhD and as the PhD comes from Dr
Greg Thompson, an Australian Research Council funded early career fellow at Murdoch University. Greg also blogs at Effects of Naplan and tweets as @effectsofNAPLAN

As an academic who just squeezes into the definition of “early career” in a School of Education, the series of posts by Pat Thomson and Katie Wheat about the merits of theses by publication against the “big book thesis” caused me to reflect on my experience of being both a candidate and a supervisor, how much I have learnt and how much more I have to learn.

The point I would like to make in this post is that there is an upside to the big book thesis.

I wrote the traditional monograph. Subsequent to it being passed, it yielded a couple of conference papers, a couple of journal articles and was published as a book. It also landed me a job as an academic in a university.

Now, I do not claim to be an expert on either thesis modes, nor am I attempting to argue that one mode of thesis is better than another. They both have advantages and disadvantages.

I have found that the preparation of doing the big book thesis has served me well in my early career in academia. Of course, this is offset by the acknowledgement that the majority of PhD candidates no longer find tenured jobs in the academy. Whether people feel well-served by the big book thesis if they do not enter academia is a moot point.

However, in an environment where there is an increased interest in thesis by publication, particularly as universities become subject to various research metrics and rankings measuring outputs and their quality, I am aware of more examples of candidates undertaking thesis by publication where emphasis is placed on the outputs.

This leads me to wonder whether this movement to outputs pays enough attention to, or values enough, that moment when a candidate realises that they can equal, or have surpassed, the expertise of their supervisor in the area of their study.

It is a rich and powerful moment, and one to be celebrated. I still remember that moment in my candidature when, whilst discussing a complex theoretical point, I realised that I was engaging as an equal, rather than as a subordinate. That I ‘knew my stuff’ and could argue beyond the limits of the project on which I was engaged. That I was ready to engage in academic debate with others, and had something that was worthwhile and important to contribute.

Now, when I supervise PhD candidates, I explain this as a critical part of their journey, and a moment that I am both trying to cultivate and will welcome when it happens. It happens at different times, rarely early, but hopefully before the end of the thesis process.

I wonder if this is made more or less likely by the mode of thesis that a candidate undertakes? In other words, is the big book thesis better at facilitating that process? I doubt that if I had been focused on outputs this moment would have been as important or significant, or maybe as likely. As somebody who has seen and experienced the best and the worst of the peer review process, I also doubt that we can rely on reviewers who cannot know they are giving feedback to a candidate or a full professor to fulfil this function.

I have no answers to these questions – the limits of my experience prevent a more developed picture. But I would value your perspectives and experiences. We talk a lot about imposter syndrome – is it more or less likely in the big book or publication thesis?

I think these are important considerations that have practical consequences.

At the end of 2011 I was awarded an ARC Discovery Early Career Research Award. As part of its co-contribution, my university offered a PhD scholarship to work on the project. This placed me in a dilemma – in some ways it would have been easier to offer it by publication. In the ARC model, Investigators commit to outputs including the number of articles they will publish throughout the grant. Having a PhD student producing their thesis by publication, with the supervisor as a co-author, would count as outputs.

But I thought it would be worthwhile to canvas some more experienced colleagues and talk to some candidates about their perceptions. Should the scholarship be for a thesis by publication or by monograph?

From the anecdotal perspectives of supervisors and candidates, there are merits and problems with each of the modes of thesis. Monographs can be formulaic, require a structure that is stultifying, require an academic artifice that hides practical applications and can make it seem like there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Thesis by publication can lack coherence as a stand-alone project, rely on the vagaries of peer review, journal publication schedules and time frames and candidates compete for journal space with more experience and celebrated academics. However, one comment caused me to sit back and reflect – the candidate who only co-wrote with their supervisor always remained subordinate. They never experienced becoming a peer.

In the end I offered the PhD scholarship by monograph.

Thompson, Greg Who is the good high school student? Cambria Press

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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 dissertation, doctoral education, expert, monograph, PhD, PhD by publication, thesis. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to the big book thesis has some advantages

  1. Phillipa says:

    I couldn’t write about my research by publication. It is such a huuuge topic, and would not be coherent in any way as separate journal articles. I feel that in social sciences/humanities that thesis by publication is a waste of time, because it looks like 3 coursework masters essays sandwiched together! That said, my good friend submitted a thesis on dna analysis of horseflies by publication – but that made sense because his analysis was in discrete units, and scientists need to be more on-top of publishing as in the 4 years to complete the thesis the science may not be relevant anymore.

  2. Pingback: The big book thesis has some advantages | Life ...

  3. I earned my phd in english the old fashioned way 9 years ago. when i couldn’t find a tenure track job, I left academia. From that vantage, I have to admit, I would advise anyone in the humanities to pursue neither of these options. I don’t mean any disrespect, but looking in from the outside after all these years, it seems like a strange conversation to have, given that most humanities phds will not find well-paid or secure work in the university after graduation.

    That said, I couldn’t resist commenting because I do remember the moment when I realized I had surpassed my advisor. It was a great moment. If I’d been afforded the opportunity to pursue my academic career under non-exploitative conditions, it certainly would have been a major turning point in my career.

    And last, I was reading your About page and wanted to comment on your interest in using the arts as a method of instruction. I have two kids with learning disabilities and ended up becoming a tutor for dyslexic learners. I can attest from the ground for the importance of movement and art in educating out-of-the-box thinkers who grow to be our sources of innovation and creativity.

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