Which doctor debate

June 16, 1995

Support for the PhD by publication rather than by thesis is growing. Ayala Ochert reports. In Cambridge anyone can do it, in Oxford nobody can, and elsewhere you have to be a member of staff to do it. The "PhD by publication" allows you to submit a collection of published papers in lieu of a thesis, but whether or not it is available to you depends on which university you are at, which subject you are studying, and the stage of your career.

Currently, the universities of Reading and Leeds are considering whether to allow staff who do not have PhDs to obtain them in this way. But although many of the older universities already offer such a path to a PhD, and have done for many years, very few of those eligible seem to know of its existence. Few graduates of Cambridge University know that six years after graduating, by paying an exam fee of Pounds 320 and supplying a set of published papers, they can apply for a PhD.

David Hamill, of the department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at the University of Surrey, had already embarked on two years of a conventional PhD before he happened upon a short paragraph in the university handbook and thought, "maybe I can do that instead, and kill two birds with one stone". It was Dr Hamill's practical experience in industry that got him his post as lecturer, but he felt something was missing: "All the students assumed I was Dr Hamill, which was a bit embarrassing," he says, so he collected together his work and was awarded his qualification. He also believes that his PhD was an important factor in his recent promotion to senior lecturer.

Luck played a significant part - had he been at Oxford University, then Dr Hamill would still be Mr Hamill. Oxford considered the possibility of introducing the PhD by publication in 1993, but decided against the idea: "We decided to maintain a link between study in Oxford and submission of a thesis. The characteristic of the DPhil has always been supervised study in the university," says Richard Hughes, director of graduate studies.

The National Postgraduate Committee has mixed feelings about the idea. Its biggest concern is one of quality - it should not be a backdoor for academics. But Peter Beardsley, academic registrar at the University of Surrey, disagrees with those who say it could be a token qualification: "It's not materially different from a conventional PhD. It has to satisfy the usual criteria of demonstrating originality and making a distinct contribution to knowledge. We're very careful not to devalue the PhD," he says.

Though work may take the form of separate papers, collectively it must still form a coherent body of work, with an introduction linking the various strands of work, as well as a literature review.

In some universities, and in some subject areas, it is not unusual for students to submit theses in just such a format. Professor Harold Hanham, vice chancellor of Lancaster University, claims that in his 45-year experience he has seen many theses of this kind: "It is not particularly remarkable, but it does vary a lot between subjects." But at Leeds University, only a specially prepared thesis is acceptable, although published papers may be added as appendices, which may count in the student's favour.

Jamie Darwen of the NPC points to the differences between published papers and PhD theses: "A thesis goes into every detail of research, which would not be appropriate for a published paper. As a standard route to a PhD, I would be a bit sceptical about it."

Practices also vary considerably from country to country. In Scandinavian countries, candidates choose whether to present a monograph or a so-called "composite dissertation", but must also take several taught courses. They see the PhD as a training for a career in research.

Those that emphasise the role of the PhD as a training course often welcome the possibility of submitting published papers. They argue that this is a significant part of being a researcher. It is only in its role as a qualification that the PhD can mean anything to an already established member of staff: after all their academic positions imply that they are already trained in research. The univerisities of Leeds and Reading will therefore have to decide what is the role of the PhD, before they can decide whether to approve the PhD by publication.

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