Should you do a PhD by publication?

So you’ve decided to do a PhD, but did you know there are different types? Read on to learn how a PhD by publication could be right for you.
James Davis
James Davis
Team PostgradAustralia

Making the choice to do a PhD is no trivial decision. It’s a huge personal commitment, requiring an enormous amount of time.

The traditional PhD is centred around a thesis, which is the culmination of each candidate’s work. Just writing it can take months; this is without including the blood, sweat and research that went into it. It’s a task that requires self discipline arguably above all else, as candidates are responsible for scheduling their time properly, meeting personal deadlines and making good use of their supervisor. This is the way it has been done for a long time, but now that doesn’t have to be the case.

A PhD by publication is centred around submitting a variety of separate works intermittently, which are then bound into a thesis later. This means having papers published in reputed peer-reviewed journals during the program, making it a sound alternative.

The merits of each are hotly contested. Post-doctoral researcher Chris Keyworth from the UK insists PhDs by publication prepare candidates for academic careers far better than traditional programs. ‘Not only is this an efficient way of writing your thesis as well as preparing and submitting scientific papers,’ he recommended, ‘but it allows you to refine your writing skills throughout your PhD.’ The University of Sydney insists each paper must be thematically linked, but otherwise these programs provide students with a body of published work to their name immediately upon graduation, which can help them get future work published too.

Another advantage that Keyworth touched upon was the value of having work reviewed early on. By submitting smaller papers over the course of a program, candidates can get feedback much earlier and correct any mistakes or oversights for future reference. A traditional thesis, on the other hand, could end up riddled with these mistakes without any time to correct and learn from them.

There is still a case to be made for the traditional PhD, however. The pressure to begin publishing immediately could be overwhelming for many candidates who might otherwise be more comfortable getting acclimatised before commencing written work. Mhairi Cowden from The Conversation recommended students aim to publish their first work within six months of beginning their PhD by publication. This means completing all relevant research, writing and editing in a comfortable enough time frame for work to be sent out to potential publishers over the course of a few months. This is due to the sluggish nature of review and publication, which is a process candidates have to repeat many times if taking this route. In this way, the traditional PhD could be far better suited to those who wish to do all their writing in one large quantity near the end and not worry about dealing with publishers until after graduating.

The question of what’s right for you is entirely dependent upon what you value highest. Would you prefer easing into your PhD and only committing pen to paper near its end, or would you like to endure the publication process and get some works to your name before graduation? It seems that given the choice, most candidates ought to choose the latter. The ability to ponder and extensively research is comfortable, but the publication route equips candidates with the means to retain their PhD after graduating and learn a process crucial to their future career. Graduates that can point to seven or eight different peer-reviewed journals that feature their papers are far more employable than those with nothing to their name.

No matter what path you choose, you’ll learn and write a great deal throughout your PhD. The difference is that one teaches you how to do the singular most important thing to professors and researchers: getting published.