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.

2016’s Turn to Post-Truth Politics Threatens Grad Ed more than Neglected Attention to Grad Ed Practices

Who needs a doctoral education in the Trump era?  In Canada under our former, anti-intellectual, authoritarian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, knowledge came under siege, government academics lost their jobs and their freedom of expression.  Libraries closed, books were tossed out, and some information websites were stripped or shut down.  Canada lost respected scientists to other countries more amenable to their knowledge.

A PhD is an international passport.  Academics often move to other countries.  With a wave of right-wing politicians getting elected in Western Liberal democracies, the list of countries to which an academic can now move, shrunk in 2016.

The biggest development in graduate education in 2016 comes from the political system in which doctoral programs are embedded.

Fast away our old era of Enlightenment values passes, and with it passes an unprecedented era of government and cultural support for research.  A new era of hate, division, suspicion, corruption and avarice comes with a paradigm political shift in 2016.  The election of Donald J. Trump, the vote in the UK to exit the European Union, and right leaning leaders in prominent European countries hearken in a new dark age.  Already some forward thinking US scientists are copying archives and records related to climate in anticipation of the knowledge suppression turn in the US.

Academics forget how unsettling some of their research findings are to politicians, to political orders and to uneducated people.  The history of science is replete with those, like Galileo, who suffered for their writing and research.  Muzzling scientists makes the problem go away temporarily.  Better yet, to stop educating and funding scientists. Better yet to stop  funding universities.

The new US ruling party blames universities for producing liberal thinkers who tend to belong to the other political party.  The new political environment rejects those who traffic in science, journalism, free thought and free speech.  As is the wont of fascists, leader glorification in the Trump Era will likely push aside the academic heroes up held by our pre-2016 culture.  The countless movies, plays, posters, songs, music and art works celebrating great academic achievement also celebrate academic freedom as a deeply held cultural value. Such academic freedom simply makes no sense within authoritarian and fascist-type states.

A ‘Ministry of Truth’ promoting conspiracy theories and revisionist history hardly seems far-fetched now.  Steve Bannon, former chief executive of Brietbart, can apply his skill set for the benefit of the Trump administration as a most trusted inner sanctum advisor to president-elect Trump.

Analysis of Trump’s news sources from tweets during the campaign figure Brietbart as his biggest news source.   Brietbart produces ‘news’ to encourage race hate, antisemitism, white supremacy, authoritarianism  and conspiracy theories.  An example of one such Brietbart conspiracy theory saw a North Carolina man take a rifle into a Washington, DC pizzeria to liberate the children held in the basement from a child sex or porn ring. The ring was being run by demonized Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton.

The sites Trump has tweeted since announcing his campaign in summer 2015 mapped by frequency. BuzzFeed News / Lam Thuy Vo

In the US, education will be under siege. How does research training figure into the budget for state universities in this new anti-intellectual climate?  Why fund PhD programs when right-wing think tanks  serve a more direct purpose?  Hire the likes of a Jason Richwine, with his politically opportune history of writing about the politicization of science, to produce ‘scientific’ reports to justify divisive policies instead.  Allow PhDs to become a commodity to be sold through a black market like they are in Russia.  Spending on programs for the common good, like public education might just be too much at cross purposes with a government agenda pegged on ignoring facts, suspicious of learning and eager to strip wealth from institutions serving the common good through privatization.  In such a climate, the local state university faces grave danger.

The Trump administration’s view of the purpose of university may be gleaned from Trump University.  Perhaps, other such bait and switch university education schemes will find favor in the pro-business, anti-regulation Trump administration.  Trump may simply fail to understand how to nurture higher education if no direct profit gets returned to shareholders, even though the overall economic impact of universities is incontestable.  Unfortunately, indivisible from a university education comes openness to new thought.

Unless universities stop producing a preponderance of liberal thinkers, a Trump administration will see little reason to value universities and research training.   Maybe corporations will be allowed to turn universities into ‘farm teams’ to dictate academic research agendas and own the intellectual property generated.

Look at the state of graduate education in Russia to see the future of graduate training.  The PhD is bought and sold on the black market.  In an environment hostile to research, as in Russia and Canada under Harper, economic output goes backwards towards natural resources.  Citizens loose rights to privacy and the government exercises information control so as to create an environment hostile to academic development and exchange.

How will knowledge production as we know it stay alive?

Academics should take measures to protect the integrity of PhDs.  An independent verifying body which can certify a PhD credential, can protect the integrity of the PhD.  The Open PhD movement should be developed as an alternative pipeline.   Researchers should maintain the rights to their work and share it and their data freely.

How will doctoral programs adapt?   Brexit fears may see 15% of UK university staff leave, group warns is a headline of the academic fall-out of Brexit.  Academics in the US may feel the same urge.  As demand for academics and support for higher education declines and the culture shifts academics off their place of high regard, student willingness to take up doctoral training will also decline.  Expect output of new doctorates to slow to a fraction of the present 55 000 doctorates per year in Canada and the US.

The political war on knowledge will play out as Trump takes office.  Expect serious threats to graduate education.  Fasten your seat belts for the wild roller coaster ride about to be unleashed.  A fury of pent-up hostility toward change, new ideas, experts and technology may even see the roller coaster car go off the roller coaster rails.  Who needs a doctoral education in the Trump era anyways.


Why Canadian GSAs have yet to speak up on times to completion and attrition: Blind spots in CFS and CASA’s agendas


Graduate students in research training need advocacy different from undergraduate students, otherwise why distinguish the two?

Graduate students attend cash cow programs in Canadian universities.  Prestigious MBA programs can cost a $100 grand in Canada, not that they are any better than a cheaper program.  Students pay for the prestige and the opportunity to network with others who have the means to pay the exorbitant tuition.    These cash cow MBA students would be at odds with CFS campaigns designed to bring down the cost of education.  Do they want their student union fighting for lower tuition?  Do they want their student union fighting for higher, more exclusive tuition?

At a national level, Canadian graduate student associations and undergraduate associations can join the CFS or CASA.  Neither focuses on graduate student concerns, although the CFS does have a graduate student caucus.

Graduate students have real needs.  Needs that go unaddressed.  Advocacy around times to completion and attrition have yet to make the agenda of a national advocacy organization for Canadian students.  If GSAs get action on undergraduate student issues from national industry groups and no representation on graduate student issues, then why even join CFS or CASA or the provincial industry group in Quebec, the UEQ?  Canadian graduate students could save money.  CFS is costly to miss the mark for so many years on graduate student needs.

Graduate students, who lack importance in the agendas of  CFS or CASA to take up their issues, might be better served as a part of a larger student association consisting of graduate and undergraduate students. FACEUM combines reps for graduate students as part of the overall student union.  Would this be a better model than the grad and undergrad division that presently exists?  Unless agendas specific to graduate education come from graduate student associations, what is the point of a separation between grad and undergrad representation?

Graduate student associations in Canada notoriously defederate from CFS and tear down their own national or provincial industry groups, so as at 2016 no stable, long-lasting national or provincial group manages continuity and stability of campaigns across the yearly changes in graduate  student union leadership.

Why hasn’t CFS or CASA campaigned for grad students on times to completion and attrition in all these years?  The campaigns and issues addressed center on the undergrad, fees, minority groups and tuition.  While CFS urges Justin Trudeau to keep his promises to Indigenous students, CFS needs to find the problems in grad schools buried under pluralistic ignorance and silent exits.  CFS campaigns need to better address issues unique to grad students or grad students need to find better industry group representation.  Without industry group coordination and continuity, GSAs have little hope of mounting a campaign to bring down times to completion and attrition statistics.

Grad School’s Psychological Imprint Morphs into A Bigger Blind Spot Later On

Dig, if you will, a fathering, in the form of a folkloric, social psychological blindness, known as pluralistic ignorance.  Read an argument for how a hidden curriculum of pluralistic ignorance, that is acquired in grad school, impedes future action to make graduate education better.  In Leaving the Ivory Tower (2001) Barbara Lovitts uses the psychological defense called pluralistic ignorance to explain why some practices in graduate education, which don’t make sense to students, go unchallenged.  When pluralistic ignorance gets sewn into the fabric of graduate school, it goes on to blind the eyes of those staffing graduate education or those representing graduate students.


The Emperor and his men watch the spinners make the invisible fabric for his clothes.

Pluralistic ignorance works like the social psychology in the story The Emperor’s New Clothes.   Graduate students don’t want to appear stupid or ignorant. Students assume that everyone supports the status quo, save only them.  Students zip their lips to gain acceptance in an educational culture which has failed to take an interest in its practices. While all the residents of the kingdom know that the emperor is not wearing any clothes, none of them can say anything, not even to each other. The entire kingdom has too much to loose by speaking out.  The only one with nothing to lose, is a child, who finally bursts the bubble and announces, “The Emperor is not wearing any clothes”.   The child rescues the kingdom from a dangerous, shared delusion.

Pluralistic ignorance reigns still.  At the International Conference on Developments in Doctoral Education and Training in Oxford in March 2015, the keynote speaker, Dr. Debra Stewart, who is president emeritus of the Council of Graduate Schools, issued another ‘wake-up’ call.  Wake-up calls, which go unheeded and unheard, are oft-repeated throughout the history of graduate education studies.

Pluralistic ignorance writ large over careers in graduate education can not hear a wake-up call.  When a grad student acquires a pluralistic ignorance filter, that filter becomes part of the armamentarium going forward.  When these students take their place as supervisors, department heads, and deans, the reality shut out by pluralistic ignorance in grad school becomes a blind spot.  Graduate educators can not hear or heed wake-up calls because of the deafening and blinding that took root in grad school.

Whether pluralistic ignorance explains a lack of initiative on the academic front, ‘don’t ask’ offers a reasonable excuse.  Graduate student leaders, like other graduate students, may assume the mantle of pluralistic ignorance even as their experience tells them otherwise.  As such, graduate student advocacy bodies in Canada have achieved precious little in getting departments to change academic practices that do not serve their members.  Even with legions of former union  members, who add to the ranks of the high attrition statistic, pluralistic ignorance preempts action.  Let’s not notice, forms a tacit agreement between grad ed leaders.

Any sound program that looses 50% of students bears some responsibility for high attrition, save in the censure of ‘don’t ask’.  Pluralistic ignorance allows graduate students to leave their programs in shame, taking full responsibility.  What if  graduate students got proactive messages crafted by graduate student associations that in grad school students often assume more responsibility for academic struggles than is warranted?   Why haven’t grad associations crafted such messages?

Graduate programs escape responsibility for their failure to pay attention to the wake-up calls in high attrition statistics via the clamp of pluralistic ignorance.  Hence the ‘silent’ exit of grad students.  Silence, induced by shattering shame and self blame, fails to ring the alarm bell for the grad department and the graduate students’ association.  In exiting their program and blaming themselves, not their indifferent programs or unresponsive graduate students’ associations for failure, the drop-outs experience in grad school goes unaddressed.

A tacit trust between Canadian grad school leaders, from the dean to the graduate student leader, seems to exist that all is well with academic matters. Some Canadian graduate student associations lack and do not elect executives designated to represent the membership on academic matters.

Graduate student leadership awakened to academic issues briefly when a national graduate students association enjoyed brief support in the early years of the millennium. Unfortunately, Canadian GSAs withdrew their support, even though research undertaken by the organization specifically addressed graduate student concerns.  The research undertaken by the national association spoke to not gaps but holes in the literature.    Since then no cohesive efforts to address academic matters from a graduate student’s perspective have punctured the delirium of the shared delusion.  The blind spot persists.

Dig, if you will, a mothering, calling for graduate education leaders to say, “oh but the emperor is wearing no clothes.  Let’s put some real clothes on him.  Ah,  when first we practice to self-deceive, we doom the future for qui vive”.

See Wikipedia for the definition of pluralistic ignorance.



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