Publication-based doctorate: is it for me?

Potential research higher degree candidates from academia or industry will need to decide between a doctorate by thesis or by publication. Here are key questions to ask before embarking on the doctoral journey

Riad Shams's avatar
Northumbria University
27 Mar 2024
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Asian scholar working at laptop, PhD by publication

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Prospective doctoral candidates have much less understanding of the process and requirements for a publication-based doctorate than they do for the more popular thesis-based route. Completing a doctorate, thesis- or publication-based, takes time and effort. Selecting the right mode is important before starting a research higher degree (RHD), so that the prospective doctoral candidate can be confident of completing it.

Here, I discuss the questions that future doctoral candidates should ask if they are considering a publication-based doctorate.

What is my goal in completing a doctorate?

A thesis-based doctorate helps the candidate to explore a subtopic of a research field as deeply as possible, based on few theoretical variables and within a limited practical context (for example, a limited dataset from a single socio-economic setting). A publication-based doctorate could explore a topic with more variables and contexts (for example, different publications on same topic would have different variables and datasets). It gives a publication-based doctorate a little more flexibility to explore a topic more widely. Therefore, the goal of exploring a subtopic area as widely as possible could fit better for a publication-based doctorate.

What is my thesis?

Yes, even for a publication-based doctorate, candidates need to produce a thesis, a theory or a proposition on a single topic, in combination with the overall contributions of published papers. As a result, the candidates need to think about how they can draw together the relevant findings from published papers to produce new knowledge on a single topic.

Are my publications cohesive?

For a publication-based doctorate, the publications you may already have and the outputs you plan to produce within an agreed time frame should focus on and contribute to a single subtopic. So ask yourself: how unified are my existing and planned publications? Designing the research aim, research question, methodology and contribution of your intended publications in relation to these sections among your existing publications is instrumental to ensuring that your publications are cohesive.

Where am I publishing?

Understanding where you publish should be a key consideration, as not all publications will be eligible for inclusion in your submission. All fields of studies have their own benchmark publications. For example, in business, the journal lists of the Association of Business Schools in the UK and the Australian Business Deans’ Council are often used to indicate a publication’s quality. In general, a publication-based doctorate could consist of journal papers, book chapters or published conference proceedings. Industry-based publications could be considered as well in some instances (for example, if you have an article published by a reputable chamber of commerce). Articles in predatory journals and publications such as brief op-ed articles or blogs might not be considered for a doctorate by publication.

Will the findings and contributions of my publications stand the test of time?

Doctoral candidates may already have publications, perhaps even in good academic journals, but they may be 10 years old. The knowledge produced perhaps made a contribution to your field of study, but the subsequent progress of the field may have surpassed your work or made it obsolete over time. So considering the potential significance of publications during the projected time of a doctoral submission is important. Comparing your work with existing publications in your field is a good way to understand the significance of the work you produce.

What is the extent of my theoretical and practical contribution? 

All doctorates should make significant contribution of theoretical knowledge and practical implication. But we know that the extent of theoretical and practical contribution of a RHD can differ based on the type of doctorate someone would undertake. For example, a doctor of philosophy needs to produce significant theoretical knowledge, whereas a professional doctorate would need more practical implications. Therefore, the candidate needs to consider the extent of theoretical and practical implications of their publications, in order to decide whether a doctor of philosophy or a professional doctorate would be more relevant.

Am I publishing as a sole author or a co-author?

Often, we work in a team and publish with our co-authors. Therefore, if you are planning to include one or several co-authored publications in a publication-based doctorate, securing permission from co-authors to include the relevant sections (that you have contributed to those co-authored publications) into a publication-based doctoral thesis will be helpful in avoiding any future conflict of interest among co-authors.

What is my career stage?

Career stage would have an influence on whether to opt for a doctorate by publication. For example, a candidate may already have five or 10 years of academic teaching or industry experience but has perhaps produced few academic or industry-based publications. In general, working to publish more papers in next two years, and combining them with existing publications to produce a new knowledge, would be useful to submit a thesis by publication. Mid-career candidates from either academia or industry might be considering a publication-based doctorate alongside other commitments but find that their work-life balance is unsustainable. In this case, a doctor of philosophy would be more appropriate for academic candidates, while a professional doctorate would be more relevant for candidates from industry.

How do I find a PhD supervisor?

Irrespective of whether the doctorate is by thesis or publication, RHD supervisors play a significant role in training their candidates to become independent researchers. So looking at the prospective supervisors’ profile, comparing your topic with their research area, emailing them to share your draft proposal, and requesting an appointment to talk about it further will be valuable for prospective candidates. It will help them to develop their topic of research, understand research procedures and requirements, and secure a supervisor.

These questions will help an academic or an industry professional considering a doctorate by publication to weigh their options carefully.

Riad Shams is assistant professor and head of the PhD programme at the Newcastle Business School at Northumbria University, UK. He is a board member of the Northern Advanced Research Training Initiative, a fellow of the Higher Education Academy and the EuroMed Academy of Business, and associate editor of the Journal of Social Entrepreneurship.

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