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Understanding and preparing a ‘PhD by Publication’

The importance of publication for the academic

The reality is that to “survive” academia, publications are a must. Employers and funding bodies will review your publication history to factor into their decision-making. To better prepare for this reality, an increasing number of institutions are beginning to allow PhD students to submit their body of published literature that they have created during their PhD programme as the thesis that they would need to produce for earning their degree.

‘PhD by publication’ explained

A PhD by publication (also known as a paper-based thesis) does what it says on the tin: it’s a mode of submission that allows the candidate to submit their body of published work created during their PhD as a thesis. The idea is to help graduates hit the ground running with a publication history that will help them on their next steps as researchers. While not universally accepted at the time of writing/publishing this article, it is an emerging model that has become more popular in certain disciplines and institutions.

Note: PhDs don’t typically focus on publications

During your PhD, while you are encouraged to actively engage with the publication process, it isn’t usually the focus. There will be a long and arduous learning curve, most likely for the first half of your PhD, where you improve your skills to take on the bulk of the PhD work. In fact, many PhD students report that the bulk of the content for their thesis was created in the final year of their degree.

Getting started with a PhD by publication

That said, if you are considering or have been advised to do a PhD by publication, then the best time to translate this into action is as early as possible. Here’s what you’ll need to think about:

  • Find out if your institution allows PhD by publication (if it’s something you’ve thought of rather than something you were advised to do).
  • Identify the stage a publication needs to be at to qualify as submission for examination for your doctoral qualification. For example, some institutions do not require that the PhD candidates have actually had their papers accepted and published, but just that the papers are prepared to a sufficient standard that is ready for submission.

Considerations and challenges in preparing a PhD by publication

a. Deciding on the number of papers

While there is no set number of publications you’ll need to publish, you’ll want to think about how many papers you’ll need to prepare to adequately communicate the full extent of your research to your examiners, and think about timing accordingly. If you are in a STEM discipline, you’ll also want to factor in time for extra experimentation, if required.

b. Considering co-authorship

Make sure you also consider co-authorship as a reflection of your contribution to the research. Don’t feel the need to publish by yourself and do all of the work alone. It is not uncommon to co-author papers, particularly if you are doing your PhD as part of a larger research project and group, and so these collaboratively written papers may still be accepted as part of your submission. However, consider the contribution you made to the piece, and consult with your institution to make sure that whatever you plan to produce would be acceptable.

c. Undergoing peer review

Finally, a common thought to this mode of submission will likely be:

What if I don’t pass peer review?

While a valid concern, it’s important to remember that rejection is a part of the publication process, and does not necessarily reflect the quality of your work. Also bear in mind that you don’t usually need to decide on whether you would prefer to opt for a ‘PhD by publication’ at the commencement of your PhD programme. So, you will still be able to submit a more traditional thesis should your publication plans not pan out.


A thesis by publication can be a worthy undertaking to add additional challenge to your PhD journey. It will teach you to go through the motions of what researchers rely on for their next project: publications. So, if you feel up for the challenge and your institution allows it, then go for it! Just remember the key points discussed in this article and ensure that you prepare your submission according to the specific requirements of your institution.


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