Advice for supervising a PhD by published works

The route to a PhD by published works requires a different approach to supervision. Here, Alison Brettle provides aspects to consider based on her experience conducting, supervising and developing institutional guidance

Alison Brettle's avatar
University of Salford
29 Nov 2023
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Research supervision: working with the individual in front of you
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PhD by published works is a route to PhD where registration and doctoral supervision usually begin once a portfolio of peer-reviewed works is complete. Its advantages and challenges demand a specific approach to supervision.

What is a PhD by published works?

PhD by published works takes different forms in different countries, but in the UK it usually involves:

  • completion of a portfolio of publications around a coherent theme prior to registration on a programme
  • the development of a narrative or contextual chapter(s) providing a critical overview of the works and their contribution to the discipline
  • a short period of candidature (one to two years).

The publications and narrative together should be comparable to a traditional PhD. The work is examined in the same way (via written submission and oral defence) and to the same standard (that is, it must demonstrate a unique contribution to knowledge, be independent work that is of peer-review quality, and show an understanding of appropriate research methodology).

Individual institutions may have slightly different restrictions for admission; some offer this route only to staff, honorary staff or alumni, while others allow candidates with undergraduate or master’s degrees from different institutions.

Misconceptions, challenges and advantages of a PhD by published work

Common misconceptions I have faced when championing PhD by published works include that “it is an easier way of getting a PhD”, “it’s a lower quality” and that “it’s a faster way of getting a PhD”.

This is not the case. The award criteria are the same as for a traditional PhD. Most of the work undertaken in compiling a PhD portfolio is done before registration as a PhD candidate. This means that candidates often do the work without supervision, guidance or access to research training while holding down a professional role. Undertaking research and publishing it in academic journals is a rigorous and often painful process, particularly for a novice. Furthermore, academic publishing is slow.

So, while the formal registration as a PhD candidate is short, the journey to get there is likely to be longer and more difficult.

Advantages for candidates in choosing this route to PhD include:

  • flexibility (publications can be developed over time, accommodating career and family changes)
  • opportunities to work on a wider range of projects with a wider variety of people
  • obtaining academic recognition for work undertaken during a professional role.

Tips for supervising a PhD by published works

Supervising a PhD by published works is no less rewarding than supervising a traditional PhD and involves many of the same skills. Each candidate is individual, and their work and portfolio will reflect their own context and journey and be appropriate to the discipline. As with any PhD, no completed submission will be the same. If your experience is with supervising traditional PhDs, supervising a PhD by published works for the first time may require you to think a little differently at the outset and change your standard approach.

What do you need to consider?

  • Be open-minded. What are the key elements of a PhD (theory, critical discussion, understanding of research methods)? These may not have been addressed in the same way or at a particular stage in the journey as during a traditional PhD. For example, the critique of the literature may be addressed in the narrative chapter (so at the end of the process) rather than at the outset of the PhD journey.
  • Candidates may struggle initially to see their work as a whole or coherent story. Getting them to think of an overarching research question that their work addresses or a set of aims and objectives may help overcome this. This can then be used as a framework for presenting the work.
  • You may need to guide your candidate to develop and see their contribution to knowledge. This could be through the development of their critical narrative, which sets their work within the wider field. The contribution to knowledge is across the body of works or may develop further as the narrative unfolds. Individual papers or pieces of work may include separate contributions to knowledge.
  • Candidates may have built up research skills and knowledge in practice but may have had little formal methods training. You may need guide them to get up to speed quickly and help them relate the training to what they have done in practice.
  • Candidates may have undertaken much of their research without planning to do a PhD, so may need guidance to change their mindset, see themselves as an academic and defend their work with confidence.
  • Candidates may have an extensive list of publications; you will need to guide them to choose the most appropriate examples to demonstrate the coherent story that addresses the PhD criteria.
  • For co-authored publications, co-authors need to verify the candidate’s contribution.
  • Across the publications, the candidate should demonstrate the skills and elements equivalent to a traditional PhD, but all the elements do not need to be present in each publication. Over time, you would expect to see development as an independent researcher. For example, in early publications the candidate may have conducted a literature review or the data collection; later they may have progressed to designing and leading the study.

I have spent many years championing the PhD by published works route as a robust alternative approach. Guiding PhD by published works candidates to see their work in a different light and clearly understand their academic potential has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career to date.

Alison Brettle is professor of health information and evidence-based practice and director of the Centre for Applied Health Research at the University of Salford.

Alison has been shortlisted in the Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year category in the Times Higher Education Awards 2023 #THEAwards. A full list of nominees can be found here. The awards will be presented at a ceremony in Liverpool on 7 December.

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