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PhD by Publication

A PhD by publication is a degree awarded in recognition of an existing body of work, rather than at the end of a completely new research project. This route to a doctorate is also known as the PhD by portfolio or PhD by published works/published papers. It differs greatly from the conventional PhD by thesis so this page gives you a simple overview of what a PhD by publication is, and what’s involved in obtaining one.

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What is a PhD by publication?

A PhD by publication is not to be confused with including publications as a chapter or two in your doctoral thesis. It is a doctorate awarded to someone who has several existing publications on related topics which can constitute a portfolio of original work at PhD level. This allows people who have not followed the traditional route towards a PhD to obtain recognition for the research they have done and the subject knowledge they have developed throughout their career.

This type of doctorate can potentially be obtained in any subject in principle (technically, if you’ve already done PhD-level work, there shouldn’t be any reason you can’t get a PhD by portfolio). However, doing the work you’ll need for a PhD by publication is more practical in some subjects than in others. For example, in order to do research in STEM subjects you need the opportunity to develop specific skills and to access specialist facilities. These are usually available during a traditional PhD, making a PhD by publication less common in these subjects.

It’s important to note that not all universities offer this route to a PhD and some may restrict access to academic staff.

How long does it take?

This route towards a PhD is much shorter than a traditional one as all the research has already been done, you just need to form it into a coherent body of work with an introduction and conclusion. Completing a PhD by publication typically takes one year.

Do you have a supervisor?

Similarly to a PhD by thesis, a supervisor is usually involved. They’ll guide you through the process of forming a thesis from your work, helping you decide what publications should be in the portfolio and establish the connections between them.

What types of publications can be used for the PhD portfolio?

The eligibility of the publications submitted for a PhD by publication can vary depending on the university or the institution. Rules apply to the type, the number, how recently the work has been published and how / whether they are linked. The number of publications required usually ranges from three to eight. This can vary depending on the length of the work, for example, if the pieces of research included are shorter forms of work, more items will be required to create a portfolio at doctoral level and length.

These publications generally should not have been used in another research degree and can include the following:

  • Academic papers
  • Book chapters
  • Monographs
  • Books
  • Scholarly editions of text
  • Technical reports
  • Creative work in relevant areas
  • Media presentations
  • Surveys (and accompanying analysis)

This list offers you a general guideline and there may be some universities that do not accept certain types of publications and / or offer additional platforms to present your research.

PhD by publication vs PhD by thesis

There are several things to bear in mind when thinking about whether to complete a conventional doctorate or seek a PhD based on your existing work.

Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of doing a PhD by publication:

Pros

  • Work has already been peer-reviewed and critiqued, which gives you an advantage when it comes to your oral examination, as you may already have some ideas of the types of questions and queries that can come up
  • Offers a faster (and therefore cheaper) way of earning your doctorate
  • You can often continue working whilst creating your PhD portfolio
  • A PhD by publication is a useful way of formalising professional experience, meaning you may be able to qualify for more senior roles and progress in your career

Cons

  • May only be available in specific circumstances (see below)
  • It is not suitable for all projects / subjects (some topics need to be set up as complete projects from the start)
  • You have less freedom to investigate a new area and design your own research methods
  • You won’t normally benefit from other parts of the PhD experience: structured training, academic work experience (teaching, presenting, etc)
  • There is limited funding available

How is it assessed?

A portfolio of various publications is bookended with an introduction and a conclusion, consisting of around ten thousand words (this can vary with discipline). This is then assessed much like a traditional PhD: the portfolio thesis is read and critiqued by two examiners in the relevant field of research. If the candidate is a staff member, then the examiners must both be external (from a different university to the one awarding the degree).

This assessment takes the form of an oral examination, or viva voce, carried out between the PhD candidate and their examiners. Once this has taken place, the examiners will determine whether the portfolio and the verbal discussion meet the requirements to award a PhD by publication.

How do you apply?

Some of the entry requirements for a PhD by publication are similar to those for a normal PhD by thesis (after all, you’re still seeking to prove that you’re up to the standard required for a doctorate).

Admissions requirements

To apply for a PhD by publication, you must have a Bachelors degree and may be expected to have held this qualification for several years (as the PhD by publication is for established researchers / practitioners, not fresh graduates). You may also need to have relevant professional / academic experience on your CV, in addition to your publications.

Other admission requirements vary. Some universities state that the applicant must be a current staff member, whereas others allow external candidates to apply (so it is always best to check with the individual institution). In the UK, PhD by publication is more common among staff members, but this PhD model is becoming a popular option for early career researchers in other parts of the world, such as Scandinavia.

Application process

The PhD by publication route isn’t normally advertised and students don’t usually begin by searching for a supervisor and presenting a research proposal. Instead, universities encourage applicants to contact the head of department in the relevant subject area before applying. They will discuss your previous research and advise you on the application process.

The application generally involves a postgraduate application form consisting of a CV and a supporting statement, outlining how the publications fit together, methodologies (and why they were used), a brief discussion of findings and most of all, how this research has given a unique and original contribution to the field. You won’t normally need to provide a research proposal as you aren’t planning an extensive new project.

Which universities offer a PhD by publication?

This type of doctorate degree is less common than the traditional one and isn’t usually advertised. Also, due to some universities only offering this form of the degree to internal staff, information about it may not be publicly available.

So, if you are curious about doing a PhD in this way, the best way to find out more about it is by getting in touch with someone at your university of interest. You can also try contacting the people responsible for relevant PhD programmes or discussing opportunities at PhD open days and study fair events.

Fees and funding

The costs of a PhD by portfolio are minimal compared to that of a PhD by thesis. However, funding for this route is much less common.

Fees

The cost usually equates to the typical PhD fee for one year of study. The fees can vary depending on whether you are an external candidate or a staff member. In the UK, the cost of a PhD is usually £4-5,000 for a year for home students.

Funding

Unfortunately, there generally isn’t any funding for a PhD by publication, as this type of degree is aimed at established academics and practitioners who will not be eligible for Research Council studentships and PhD loans. Staff members may get a lower PhD fee and/or some help with the costs, but this will vary depending on the university.

Last updated - 22/11/2019

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