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How can PhD researchers be supported to complete an alternative format thesis?

How universities can best support PhD researchers who wish to produce alternative format theses, based on a review of institutional policies

Caitlin Robinson's avatar
4 Oct 2023
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The alternative format PhD, which is made up of a series of peer-reviewed research papers, is growing in popularity internationally. However, in the UK, universities have been slower to adopt the format. Policies, guidance and support on this alternative approach are patchy at best, recent research reviewing policies from 135 institutions revealed.

There is a lack of consistent guidance between universities, as well as between disciplines and supervisory teams. This is likely to widen existing inequalities in the experience of PhD researchers, both between and within universities. In this article, we explore how universities can support PhD researchers who are interested in the alternative format thesis.

Benefits and challenges of the alternative format

The alternative PhD format has various benefits. It can help candidates to learn about the peer-review process. The format can support researchers to develop strong international networks of collaborators. Publications are of growing importance in securing future employment in an increasingly metric-driven academic sector.

However, there are also challenges associated. A focus on publishing can affect how candidates prioritise time and effort. This is often at the expense of other useful activities, including networking or contributing to wider research culture. The format is less suited to certain subject areas where traditional research papers are less common, or slower to publish. It can be complex to negotiate authorship with the supervisor. Pressure to publish can also be damaging for student mental health and can occasionally promote questionable research practices.

Supporting PhD candidates with the alternative format PhD

For those who are interested, there are several ways that universities can help PhD researchers decide whether the format is suitable, and to make sure that they are supported throughout the process. Here are seven recommendations:

Address unevenness in support for the alternative format across institutions. Only a third of universities sampled had guidelines about the alternative PhD thesis format, rising to 58 per cent of research-intensive Russell Group universities. It is important to avoid differentiation between the experiences and opportunities that PhD researchers receive at different institutions, including the opportunity to submit an alternative format thesis. 

Support candidates to make informed decisions about the alternative format. Perhaps most importantly, the format isn’t for everyone. It will be more appropriate for some researchers, disciplines and projects. University policies should provide guidance about the potential benefits and drawbacks, and prompt early conversations with supervisors, so that candidates can make an informed decision.

Adopt a common terminology across institutions. This seems quite a simple recommendation, but the alternative format has 14 different names depending on the university. Adopting a common terminology would help to facilitate comparison and shared understanding for candidates, supervisors and examiners across institutions.

Clearly define the role of the supervisor in the process. Supervisors play an important role in the publication of papers, but we know that quality of supervision varies. PhD researchers should not feel pressured by supervisors to publish. Universities need to provide clear guidance for how co-author arrangements are agreed.

Ensure appropriate recognition of the contribution of the PhD candidate. There have long been concerns about certain researchers not being properly recognised in collaborative research, based on seniority, race, gender and other forms of social difference. Most institutions that facilitate the alternative format thesis ask that candidates provide a statement describing their contribution to each paper. But they must also provide advice on navigating the authorship process and properly recognise the candidate’s contribution.

Offer flexibility in publication expectations. The number of publications expected varies widely, but most universities do not require a specific number. This flexibility is important. It allows students to overcome a major hurdle to the alternative format thesis by reducing the potential for the publication process to slow down PhD submission. It also accounts for different publication practices between disciplines.

Provide coherent guidance to potential examiners. Presenting a thesis where the majority of research has already undergone peer review is likely to change the examination process. But few universities make recommendations for what the exam should look like. It is important that universities emphasise that even if papers have undergone peer review and been published, they are not beyond examination. Sitting alone, a peer-reviewed paper is unlikely to constitute the body of original research necessary for a PhD qualification.

Caitlin Robinson is an academic fellow and proleptic lecturer at the University of Bristol.

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