The PhD by Publication: Another Cause for Canadian Grad Student Unions to Champion

(Swedish academic, Jorgen Carling, published the basis for this post on the LSE Blog May 30, 2017, CC 3.0 license.  The license allows for me to share, copy, redistribute the material in any meduim or format; adapt, remix, transform and build upon the material for any purpose).

A PhD by publication requires doctoral candidates to submit a set of papers for peer-reviewed journals plus an integrating chapter, rather than the more traditional doctoral dissertation. This remains a less common, sometimes frowned-upon model, but Jørgen Carling outlines eight reasons why a PhD by publication might be a good option. It allows you to write for real, varied audiences, with differing levels of ambition, and can help you build a name for yourself in academia, which is important not only for your career but also as it affords you opportunities for vital intellectual exchanges that may benefit your research.

As a doctoral candidate you may have a choice between submitting a traditional doctoral dissertation and submitting a set of papers for peer-reviewed journals plus an integrating chapter. The latter option, known as a “PhD by publication” or an “article dissertation”, has become the norm in some contexts and is resented in others. I can’t decide for you, but I can give you eight reasons why I think the PhD by publication is often a good model.

First, writing journal articles constitutes professional training. It is what academics primarily do, and by writing your dissertation in the form of articles, you learn the craft. (If you abandon academia after completing a PhD it is even more important to know that your work is out there, potentially benefiting others, and not just stored in a dusty library.)

Second, writing journal articles ensures valuable feedback. Regardless of the quality of the supervision you get, the review process in a journal can be a valuable supplement. Having your article accepted in a journal also provides a tangible source of independent recognition, different from your supervisor’s assurances that your work is fine. The peer review process can be filled with disappointments and frustration too but living through that is, for better or worse, part of being an academic. Just make sure that you are not handling it all alone.

journalsImage credit: journals by Barry Silver. This work is licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license.

Third, writing journal articles means writing for real audiences. This is a point with several implications: it is a source of motivation during the writing process, it teaches you about attentiveness to the needs of your readers, and it ensures that the resources devoted to doctoral research flow back to society. By “resources” I don’t mean only taxpayers’ money but also the time and trust that research participants have contributed, for instance.

Fourth, writing a dissertation based on individual papers allows you to write for different audiences. In my field, most articles could be targeted to either a disciplinary journal (e.g. political geography), a thematic journal (e.g. International Migration Review), or a regional journal (e.g. African Affairs). Being able to see which parts of your research appeal to different audiences and, not least, to present those parts accordingly is a great skill to develop in the course of doing a PhD.

Fifth, writing journal articles allows you to write with different levels of ambition. This is a crucial point that is often ignored. The time available for writing a dissertation is limited, and writing 300 pages of brilliant prose might be beyond reach. But in a series of papers, there might be one that has great potential, deserves to be revised over and over, is accepted in a good journal, and is still being cited ten years after you defended your PhD. Other papers in your dissertation might fall short of such success, and that’s fine.

Sixth, writing a dissertation by publication provides you with good milestones in the process. The submission, resubmission, acceptance and publication of articles in the course of a PhD give you a firm sense of progress. Signing off on the proofs for a journal article is different from telling yourself that a chapter is finished but thinking that you might do additional work on it before saying that the dissertation is done.

Seventh, writing articles helps you build a name for yourself in academia. There are PhD candidates who do great work but because they are halfway through a traditional dissertation remain virtually invisible. Being visible is not only about being career-conscious, it is also about inviting intellectual exchanges that benefit your research. Conference papers help, of course, but they might not reach many people beyond the handful who were in the room. Writing articles alongside a traditional dissertation might be an ideal but it increases the workload at the cost of something else – be it your family, health or intellectual energy.

Finally, a traditional dissertation is not a book. It can form the foundation for writing a book but a lot of hard work remains. If a book is important in your discipline, then a traditional dissertation is probably the most promising route to follow. But it comes with considerable risk: unless you can secure substantial time for writing the book after the dissertation is submitted, you could be left with no articles and no book.

These are my eight reasons for pursuing a PhD by publication. The biggest counter-argument is a frustrating one but is real nevertheless: in some departments or disciplines a PhD by publication might be formally permissible but frowned upon. Pioneers are needed to swim against the stream and help change attitudes; but whether you want, or can afford, to be such a pioneer is a personal choice.

Beyond the decision to do a PhD by publication, there are many things to consider about the process if you go for it – such as the number of papers, possibilities for co-authoring, and implications for how you define what the dissertation is about. There are also many institution-specific rules and expectations that you need to explore. Some universities require that a certain number of articles be published, or at least accepted. Going through the review process is a valuable part of the experience but such requirements make me uncomfortable both as a supervisor and an examiner. For instance, I think a candidate should feel free to pursue publication in a top journal, even if it means a review process that lasts way beyond submission of the dissertation. The article in question might be just fine as a component of the dissertation even if the editor of a highly ranked journal demands additional revisions. Conversely, as an examiner, I want freedom to independently assess the quality of the dissertation. Good articles sometimes get rejected by journals while poor ones get accepted. So, while it’s useful to know which journals the articles were written for, I wouldn’t want to infer their quality from decisions made by reviewers and editors.

The PhD is, in many ways, an odd exercise – partly an introspective learning and qualification process and partly a piece of research that society has reason to value. Doing a PhD by publication offers a chance to bridge the gap between the two.

Canadian Graduate Student Unions Must Respond to Recent Grad Ed Policies to Remain Credible

What makes a graduate student union different from an undergraduate student union or a community college student union?  If it is advocacy on issues found only in graduate school, then where is grad ed advocacy?   Unfortunately, grad ed advocacy got left out decade over decade in Canadian graduate student unions.  With Canada’s two biggest universities started toward grad ed reform, how can graduate student unions step up their advocacy game in grad ed?

With prominent Canadian universities initiating grad ed reforms, grad student unions need to step up their grad ed advocacy game.

The two top universities in Canada, the University of Toronto and University of British Columbia took substantive new directions for grad ed without significant input from their grad unions.   Grad unions ought to have seized upon opportunities to give union-made input to grad ed reform initiatives save their advocacy efforts leave out grad ed.

The University of Toronto wants to change grad ed with graduate professional development modules.  Grad degrees at UT may recognize and perhaps require completion of graduate professional development (GPD) modules, which are now entirely voluntary and not integral.  The School of Graduate Studies wants grad programs rethought to integrate graduate student skill development via professional skills training modules with grad programs.   On the radical change of adding more requirements to get a grad degree at UT, UTGSU has no policy or opinion or record of discussion of it in official minutes since admin came out with the GPD plan in November 2016.

UTGSU members sit on a university Graduate Education Council, but lacking in-house grad ed policies and advocacy initiatives developed through the GSU, initiatives come down to grad students via administration.  Surely the UTGSU could do better in a core area of concern to students, namely education practices.  Surely union members expect a robust advocacy for grad ed, not just passively sitting on a university committee to endorse and vote on administrative initiatives.   While the union organizes for divestment, queer, trans, decolonization, race and equity causes; all important social justice initiatives, basic bread and butter aspects of grad school get left out.  Oddly, the UTGSU graduate students’ union, like every other grad student union in the country, lacks a robust grad ed lobby.  (In fairness, Canadian student unions in general fail to lobby for better education practices).

In addition, the school of graduate studies at UT published two new brochures on time to completion (TTC), but the union has yet to push for implementation of new TTC guidelines.  Publication of time to completion for every program is now recommended.  Where is the union response?  Where is union action?  TTC provides better information to incoming students and a potential advocacy point for the union to push for better grad ed practices.  Time to completion and attrition are not mentioned in UTGSU executive minutes in 2016-2017, nor is there a UTGSU committee, officer or caucus expressly devoted to grad ed advocacy.

A similar story holds for the UBC Graduate Students Society (GSS).   In 2014, UBC sent a memo of ‘best practices‘ to deans, principals, heads and directors for external review of academic units.  The memo envisioned an important role for the student society, yet the UBCGSS can’t act on the memo as grad ed advocacy fails to be a core business function of the society.  A push from the society to lobby for implementation of these best practices could be part of their new five-year plan.

Arguably, the UBCGSS, neglected meaningful grad ed advocacy for its entire history.  Working to see best practices implemented would have represented a new direction for the GSS when it came out in 2014.  From a scarcity of attention to grad ed over the years, grad student reps face challenges in fleshing out grad ed advocacy as new initiatives come from administrations.  Change is hard.

Sadly, the GSS is now suffering fiscal challenges and asked its membership in a referendum for a more money.   I’ve asked the GSS several times for the results of the referendum vote which ended on March 10th, and although my request is acknowledged, no answer is forthcoming.  Starting up a robust grad ed advocacy initiative for the society can still be done to fulfill the five year plan, even with reduced resources, but they’ll need agility, focus, and outreach like Monfils.

Well meaning grad student unions in Canada have established certain arenas of advocacy; housing, tuition, fees, taxes, social supports, social justice initiatives etc.  Grad ed got left out.  Grad ed changes are finally bubbling out of UBC and UT.   The quality of education in grad school is of utmost concern to grad union members.  Grad students are in university after all for the education.  While almost all student unions, advocate for equity, divestment, lower tuition etc., a grad student union must put the grad education aspect of its advocacy foremost on its agenda. Otherwise, why bother with the extra administrative costs and duplication of a grad union.  Indeed some Canadian student unions, merely elect a rep for grad studies and lobby en mass, grad and undergrad together.

The first action is to recognize the need for more attention to go to the grad ed lobby.  Apropos of spring, grad schools are finally, at long last, coming to life and budding changes to grad ed.  This makes the lobby effort of a grad student union easier and more urgent.  If graduate schools have finally come round to embrace renewal of grad ed practices, then graduate student unions can as well.  Grad unions can organize and commit to policy development and lobbying initiatives in grad ed.  Unions must actively engage with administration.  Grad students’ insights and skin in the game make their policy suggestions solid gold.  A new golden age of grad union lobbying can shape the changes afoot.  Let’s get at it, then.

 

Canadian Graduate Student Unions Take Inspiration in The Impactful Advocacy of Economics Students

The Econocracy

If Canadian grad student unions ever embrace their role to lobby for better grad ed, they can take inspiration from the student movement which changed economics education, the discipline of economics and  maybe even world politics.

Canadian graduate student unions  (and undergrad student unions) can lobby for pluralism in economics education.  Three economics students from Manchester, UK set a model for the kind of analysis sorely missing in academic advocacy for graduate programs.

In their book, The Econocracy, the students review economics education in the Russel group of British universities to point out critical failures in undergraduate economics education.  Instead of learning to critique models of ‘the economy’ students learn economics orthodoxies, in a kind of indoctrination toward a ‘priesthood’.  The priest-like function of university trained economists using airless models of mathematical purity lacks both a heart and a connection to the real world.  Economics orthodoxies failed to predict, explain or care about the ravages of the global economic collapse in 2008.  The writers understand better than their Manchester professors:

The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists” attributed to Joan Robinson who taught economics to future Nobel laureates [page 157].

The movement to change economics education arose from a narrowing of the discipline in the 1970s.  Pluralism in economics calls for more critique of economics models, more connection to lay persons left out of the jargon and decisions of economists and more context in economics education in terms of history, ethics and psychology.

Although the UK suffered economic devastation from the global 2008 financial crisis, the writers of The Econocracy noticed their economics courses failed to explain or care about suffering the 2008 crisis brought on.  As students driven to understand via critique & connection & context, they went about learning the stuff not taught in their official economics courses, reviewing economics education and its failure to bridge a gap to the real world.

The fusion of the word economics with bureaucracy into the word econocracy sums up the power given to university trained economists in political decisions and governments.  Some economics students in the Manchester group studied economics to get an inside track on power at the highest level of decision-making.  The Manchester students noticed their ‘outsider’ status and rejected the closed off, elite, shut out nature of economics training offered to them.

Discontent with the quality of economics courses led to a lobby for better content and spun out to touch many influential economists, economics educators and other student groups.  Economics students internationally soon coalesced into the International Student Initiative for Pluralist Economics.   The many German chapters of The International Student Initiative for Pluralist Economics are an influential force in economics within the country.  The Rethinking Economics organization also knits together many cells of student activism globally.

Students of economics helped to redefine the discipline so it better fits to reality and got luminaries like the chief economist of the Bank of England, a Nobel laureate in economics and Noam Chomsky onside.  Ignorance of an economics connected to real world threatens us all in decisions taken by politicians on the advice of a priestly caste of economists.  Pluralistic economics education makes for sounder, more inclusive political decisions.

The student movement stirred up economics education.  To broaden economics training and thinking, many university economics departments now offer a broader range of courses to provide a pluralistic perspective.  Accompanying the pluralism in economics movement, of course, is pushback against pluralism.  Graduate students in economics can pivot the discipline toward greater pluralism.

One problem with getting economics professors to offer greater pluralism is they can’t.  Training in the mono-culture of the existing discipline prevents pluralism from coming forth in teaching and breeds more mono-culture.   Embracing pluralism begins in graduate school, with new practitioners of economics who will broaden the scope of economics education.  Graduate students in economics can embrace pluralism with new pluralistic research and in teaching undergrads to critique, through context and connection.

Academic officers of Canadian graduate student unions please take inspiration in the activism of students of economics to question, influence and change academic programs.   Note one graduate student website, The Minskys from which new thinking about economics and economics education may take hold.  Canada has yet to catch fire with groups networked to reform of economics education.  Graduate Student Unions can network, introduce and aid students of economic to get in touch with international groups, projects, and new curricula.  This would be a good start on grad ed advocacy.

Graduate student unions in Canada have yet to respond to economics students critiquing economics education and get behind pluralism as a solution.   Advocacy from a graduate student union to embrace pluralism offers a proactive, positive solution to members who trust the union to look out for their economics education.  Academic officers in graduate student unions can take inspiration from the power of disparate groups of international students to come together and make change in their discipline.

Canadian graduate student unions must finally take on advocacy for better graduate education.  For example, the throw ’em in the deep end approach to graduate education which fails so many students somehow never makes it on the radar of Canadian graduate student unions.  With inspiration from the pluralism in economics education movement, academic actors for grad unions can expect success with their graduate education lobby too.

The Manchester students took an activist stance toward their economics education.  Instead of dropping out, they moved to the place of a curious, competent and critical student.  They had enough confidence and solidarity in each other to challenge orthodoxy in their education.  Canadian grad student leaders can certainly do the same and take heart in their success.

What if Canadian Grad Student Union Leaders Asked How Grad Schools Could Better Evaluate Their Programs

What would change if Canadian grad student leaders asked, “How do you evaluate, update, improve, study, learn, contribute to knowledge and stay current in grad ed?”  Perhaps deans and program heads are just waiting to say, “We never thought you’d ask.  Now that you’ve asked, let’s fill this void…”

Grad students have very little information on how their university learns about its grad ed programs.  How do grad programs make their programs better?  , how do universities determine their research training programs fit the world of 21st century research?  What process does the university use for program renewal?

The University of Toronto advertises the Canadian Graduate and Professional Student Satisfaction Survey by way of its performance evaluation.  Really?  Why isn’t the UTGSU graduate student leaders in other Canadian universities demanding better?  The info gleaned in the CGPSS is too vague and aggregated to bring about renewal for one.  For two, the survey aims more for reassuring information like comparisons.   For three, the survey fails to address renewal of graduate education.  How reassured do students feel about program evaluation if their program website hasn’t been updated for a decade?

The widespread use of CGPSS by Canadian and American grad schools just continues the well worn path of ignoring program evaluation for the purpose of change, learning and growth.  After all prominent grad ed scholars like professor emeritus Dr. Debra Stewart still sound a wake up call to action for practitioners of grad ed to learn about it.  One still overwhelming theme in the lit on grad ed is the utter indifference to the practices of grad ed by its practitioners.

Along with the poor excuse for program evaluation coming through the CGPSS, Canadian grad student leaders should notice how much their administrations take up recommendations for improvement and best practices.  The Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) made a spate of excellent recommendations in 2003, very few of which were implemented, even though every graduate school in the country belongs to CAGS.  The lack of interest in program evaluation or development in graduate schools means that even today circa 2017 if grad schools adopted CAGS recommendations from 2003, grad ed would be advanced.

What if Canadian grad student leaders asked administrations to formulate goals by way of grad ed development.  For example, every research student must also complete a three minute thesis with a poster.  Such experiences are available now as tack-ons but the heart of research training programs remains unchanged.   What if the department of grad studies required every research supervisor to participate in ongoing professional development to learn about better supervision practices or new ideas for assessment?  What if  every program had to convene a joint student and faculty committee to study and implement program renewal initiatives?  Canadian grad student leaders must demand more than a student satisfaction survey to evaluate graduate programs.

The status quo and the CPGSS serve the university’s legendary complacency towards grad ed.  Perhaps if grad student leaders demanded more, more would be done.  Grad student leaders are supposed to function as a check on the university after all.

Buried deep in the highest degree given out by Canadian universities, graduate programs entwine a pinnacle of achievement with a nadir of attention to learning how better to surmount the pinnacle.  Grad student leaders need to end the complacency and encourage ongoing, rigorous program renewal designed to make grad ed more responsive and forward looking.   Grad student leaders could form partnerships with other union leaders to ask administrators to pilot projects to push past their passivity.

Student satisfaction surveys are no way to renew grad ed and move it forward.  What if grad student leaders need to demanded better evaluation of programs and confronted complacency?  The impetus to change needs student leadership to get the ball rolling.

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