This is a guest post by Katie Wheat. Katie graduated with a PhD in Psychology from University of York and now works as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience at Maastricht University. She is currently using brain imaging and magnetic brain stimulation methods to explore aspects of how the brain recognises written words. She blogs at Life After Thesis.
Reading Pat’s latest blog post on the PhD by publication versus a written thesis stirred up many thoughts and feelings that I had been mulling over for a while. I think it is crucial to have an open conversation about the differences between these two paths, particularly in the context of the difficult employment market for PhD graduates. From my experience of these two PhD models, it seems that adopting the PhD by publication model more widely in the UK would need to be accompanied by other changes to the typical PhD programme.
When I embarked on my three year funded PhD in psychology in the UK, there was never any doubt that over the course of those three years I would write what I would describe as a ‘traditional’ thesis. That is, by the end of my PhD period, I would produce a multi-chapter written record of my research. The standard format in my department was three or four experimental chapters, in the style of research articles, sandwiched between a literature review chapter and a discussion chapter. The PhD student handbook provided guidance about the expected format and content of the thesis and a ‘research committee’ (now called a thesis advisory panel) oversaw that the research was progressing towards the end goal of a coherent thesis. This included the upgrade process at the end of the first year, where students were expected to submit a full draft of their literature review chapter, as well as any experimental work completed so far, in order to formally progress from the MPhil stage to a full PhD student. At no stage was there a discussion about whether I would opt out of this traditional process and instead aim to complete my PhD by publication. In fact, although I vaguely knew of this possibility, it never crossed my mind as a favourable option and I didn’t know anyone who had taken this route.
My first experience with the PhD by publication model was as a visiting PhD student in the Netherlands, and since, as a postdoc here. In my department at least, the typical route to a PhD is very different to my own PhD in the UK. There are commonalities, but I would certainly not say that they are equivalent. The most obvious difference is, of course, that students are expected to produce and publish around four original research articles in order to complete their PhD. At least two of these are expected to be published or in press in respected international journals by the time the thesis is defended. Often, all four articles are accepted or at least submitted before the thesis defense. These journal articles are then compiled (in their original format or with some edits) into a booklet, with an accompanying introduction and discussion chapter intended to tie the articles together.
At first glance, the two models described here probably sound very much the same. In the end, a PhD student following either route will have produced a body of work composed of around four research chapters, with an introduction and discussion chapter. However, I think the two routes are actually very different. For example, in the UK, PhD funding usually lasts three years, or 1+3 for a masters followed by a PhD. In the Netherlands, PhD funding is usually four years (although three year PhDs are becoming more common if the student already completed a two year research masters in a closely related research area). This extra year is usually the time when the first articles of the PhD are actually accepted and published and the final articles are submitted. It would be very difficult to research, write, and publish such a body of work in only three years. This means that UK PhDs tend to carry on working on the publication aspect of their PhD long after their funding ends, and possibly alongside their next job. It may even mean that a UK PhD needs to carry on writing these articles without any pay in order to have enough published work to compete for postdoc funding. This would be especially true in order to compete against European PhDs.
Another significant difference between my experiences as a UK PhD student, compared to a PhD student in the Netherlands comes down to money. PhD students in the Netherlands receive a monthly salary on a national pay scale that amounts to roughly twice my PhD bursary. Although I refer to them as students, in actual fact they are research employees of the university, with all of the benefits and responsibilities that accompany this; for example, paid holidays and a company pension come as standard, with the expectation that ten percent of one’s time will be spent on teaching, supervision, and admin duties.
I believe that these differences mean that PhD graduates in the Netherlands are ultimately more prepared for a research career because they are employed as a junior researcher from day one of their PhD. The whole PhD is structured around the realities of life as a researcher, such as writing for publication, the pressures and struggles of the peer review system, teaching obligations, and (usually during the fourth year) grant applications. However, without a full salary, and especially without the fourth year of salary, it would seem unrealistic to expect a PhD student to take on these responsibilities. This makes the UK PhD model seem quite artificial to me; a strange limbo between student and employee.
In sum, if I could go back, I would almost certainly choose the European PhD by publication route. However, I definitely would not choose to squeeze a PhD by publication into the UK’s three year PhD system. I think the time pressures and financial pressures this would create would be unworkable.