Thesis by publications: you’re joking, right?



Three years ago I sat in my supervisor’s office for the first time; a tad nervous, a touch excited and certainly overwhelmed. We discussed my PhD project. The research topic, the methods, the potential outcomes… I don’t really remember much about this meeting, apart from the question he posed me at the end.

“So, when will you submit your first paper for publication?”

This question left me speechless, for once. I was confused. You’re joking, right? I thought I was writing a thesis, not publishing journal articles. How could he think that a mere peasant like me had the ability to produce papers remotely worthy of publication? But this question, more than any other he posed to me over the subsequent three years, changed my outlook and approach during my PhD candidature.

Let’s step forward three years. Late last year I submitted my thesis. No all-nighters, no stress, no dramas. The biggest issue of the week was deciding which colour cloth I would like my thesis to be bound with. (For the record I went with black.) I say this not to intimidate or to gloat (truth is I feel rather guilty that I had nothing go wrong in the final week!). I only say this as I want to explain the reason as to how the last few months of my thesis eventuated in some of the most relaxing, and yet some of the most rewarding months of the PhD experience.

The reason, in short, was that I wrote my thesis entirely as a series of publications. Now I’m joking, right? Certainly not. This approach splits the thesis up into manageable sections, or papers, or perhaps even mini Honours theses. Rather than having one deadline for one large piece of work, a thesis by publications allows manageable and achievable goals to be set, which provide more immediate and visible outcomes from the research.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying along the lines of “you always work hardest in the final 6 months of the PhD. That’s when you do all the writing”. In my experience observing other PhD students, this is definitely the case. Why? Because publishing by the traditional thesis makes it very hard (but not impossible) to set realistic and timely goals, monitor and evaluate progress, until…it is far too late. And the stress, panic and (perhaps) insanity begin.

Writing papers and submitting them to journals throughout PhD candidature allows progress to be monitored and evaluated as you go. I presented two published articles in my PhD thesis, and three other submitted articles (two of which have been re-submitted), all as individual chapters.

My research area is in science, and more specifically glaciology (the study of glaciers). I’m not sure whether a thesis fully by publications is the intended approach of many science theses or theses across different faculties for that matter. But it should be. The publication of articles in journals is one of the most important aspects to any application for scholarships, funding, and jobs, especially in academia or other areas of research.

Undoubtedly, one of the toughest parts of doing a thesis by publications is that the research is critiqued/criticised/torn-to-shreds immediately. I submitted my first article six months into my thesis. When I received the notification email from the editor that the review was complete, I was absolutely petrified. Stomach churning. I could hardly breathe. I even asked my supervisor to read them for me to which he responded “just read them yourself you coward”.

Fair enough.

Major changes were required, but that was ok. I resubmitted it and not long after it was published. I’ve also had three rejected papers. No worries. I carried out the changes and re-submitted the papers elsewhere. I quickly learnt that having my work reviewed early on had some major benefits. It allowed specialists outside of my supervision team to review the research and provide helpful feedback before thesis submission, rather than writing and editing furiously in the hope nothing will go wrong.

If several articles are published, accepted or even had a round of reviews, there is a much greater chance of success with the review of the thesis. The best part is that there’s no stress in the final few weeks before submission. The biggest stress is choosing a cloth colour or deciding whether to use Arial or Times New Roman font. I mean, sure. Those decisions have an element of stress associated with them, but that’s something I can deal with!

As I sat in my supervisor’s office for the last time, we discussed the possible scenarios from the examiners review of the thesis. They could reject it. It’s possible. Major changes, there’s a chance. Minor changes, wouldn’t that be nice? But regardless of the outcome, we both agreed that a thesis by publications was the best approach, both for enhancing the quantity and quality of research, preparing myself for a potential career in academia and most importantly for me, thoroughly enjoying my time as a PhD student.

Author Bio:Dr David Alexander has recently been awarded his PhD at the University of Queensland. He is currently taking a well-deserved break and pursuing some non-academic endeavours, including motivational speaking, trivia hosting and professional calligraphy writing.