Why do a PhD by Publication?

Why do a PhD at all?

I have considered this question many times since I completed my MA in 1997 when I was asked by the awarding University department to continue to do a PhD. I declined. My job at the time was demanding and the MA, despite having really enjoyed it, had been a strain on me and my family’s patience! But a PhD was always in the back of my mind. In 2010, I considered it again and rejected the idea once more . During these years, I continued to work as an independent researcher with a variety of colleagues, producing a number of papers. At the end of 2015 I didn’t have any more research projects planned, so my mind turned again to the possibility of doing a PhD. It seemed it was a niggle that just wouldn’t go away. My eldest son sent me an email saying, ‘For goodness sake Mum, you’ve been talking about it for years – just get on with it.’

Source of image 

(I didn’t discover this book until after I had submitted, but I wish I had discovered it earlier)

There are many reasons for doing a PhD. I have friends who have completed or are working on research PhDs, i.e. they research a topic of personal interest for three or more years, or taught PhDs, where six taught and assessed modules are completed over the first two years, before embarking on a shorter thesis which takes two years or more. Reasons seem to be a combination of personal interest in the chosen topic and career incentives/ambitions and from what I have seen the award of a PhD can lead to new career opportunities. My reasons did not relate to my career, but they did relate to changing personal circumstances.

I have recently reached my eighth decade (70 as of last November to be precise) so a PhD as a career move was not relevant for me. In fact, it might mark the end of my research career. I haven’t decided yet. I needed to do it for myself. Although I knew that it was possible to do a PhD by publication, I thought I probably wasn’t eligible. Many Universities will only take members of staff to do a PhD by Publication.   When I went to Lancaster University in January 2016 to enquire about doing a PhD, I went with the intention of starting a full research PhD. It was Professor Paul Ashwin, Head of Department, who ultimately became my supervisor, who asked me why I wasn’t considering a PhD by Publication. Interestingly the Educational Research Department at Lancaster University, which has awarded my PhD, has no mention of a PhD by Publication on its website , but Paul found out for me that I was eligible at Lancaster University to do this, since I am an alumna (my MA) and I worked for nine years for an associated institution.

I didn’t fully realise until well into my PhD that this was the perfect route for me. Not only was it a wonderful act of retrospective coherence, a pulling together of eight years’ work, but it also came at just the right time and only cost me £600, which now that I am rarely paid for work I do and am living off my pension, was an important consideration. On reflection, although this was not a consideration at the time, it was also important that it didn’t take as long (18 months in total); at my age time is short and I have a lot of things on my bucket list to fit in 🙂

So what did I have to do for this PhD?

PhDs by publication in the UK don’t seem to be very common – and I am not talking about the kind of PhD which is assessed by the papers that are written and published as part of the PhD study. That kind of PhD seems quite common in some countries in Europe and in Canada. My PhD by Publication was different. It involved drawing on existing published papers and making the case for a contribution to the body of knowledge in the field studied (in my case – learners’ experiences in connectivist MOOCs). This act of retrospective coherence was particularly apt for me, since a lot of my research has been into exploring how emergent learning occurs in complex adaptive systems – namely open online learning environments.

Different universities have different requirements both for entry and for the thesis submission, for a PhD by Publication. In my case the application was as much work as the thesis submission, although that was partly my own choice as I decided to try and do most of the work (i.e. the Literature Review and mapping analysis of papers) upfront, leaving me less to do after acceptance.

The application requirements for Lancaster University were as follows:

  • a list of the publications to be submitted: these may include refereed articles, authored chapters, authored books, and edited works. They may not include course readers, internally published material or unpublished seminar/conference papers, and 
  • a supporting paper: this should summarise each publication submitted, outline their interrelationship, give a critical review of the current state of knowledge and research in the applicant’s field and indicate how his or her work has contributed to the field.  It should also comment on the standing of any journals and the reception of the publications as indicated by citations and reviews

In relation to the length of the submission, there are no set word limits for the supporting paper which should accompany the submitted publications. The supporting paper must cover all the areas outlined in section 53(b) of the criteria (bullet points above) and the material submitted must be “sufficiently extensive as to provide convincing evidence that the research constitutes a substantial contribution to knowledge or scholarship.”  

If the application is successful, you would then work with an internal adviser to expand on the supporting paper, so this is not the final submission, basically it’s the starting point in order to ascertain if your work is at the appropriate level, i.e. PhD.

During the PhD I kept a comprehensive journal of all my thinking and progress on a private wiki which I only shared with Matthias Melcher, who was wonderfully critically supportive and encouraging throughout the whole process. What is so amazing about this is that we have never even met face-to-face. Matthias was there at the very start of my research into connectivist MOOCs. We ‘met’ in CCKO8 – the first ever MOOC.

Looking back at my wiki notes I see that I started to think about applying for a PhD in December 2015 and had my first meeting with Paul Ashwin at Lancaster University in January 2016. I submitted my application at the beginning of June 2016 and my thesis (supporting statement) at the beginning of December 2016. My viva was at the end of March 2017 and my final submission with minor revisions in May 2017. These were accepted June 2017. Through most of this time, I worked full time on the PhD.

Now that it is over, my family are proud but relieved that life can finally go back to normal. My eldest son’s response this time was, ‘Well who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!’

4 thoughts on “Why do a PhD by Publication?

  1. Carmen Tschofen June 19, 2017 / 6:29 pm

    Hi Jenny,

    A belated congratulations on your newly-minted PhD! I know that this is the result of decades of your work and experiential insights in education, as well as a ten-year deep dive into the collaborative world of connective learning. So—an immensely well-deserved recognition. In reading through your thesis, I was struck by how it both offers and models (through multiple collaborations) coherent perspectives on the complexity of connective environments. By identifying, exploring, exemplifying, and naming various aspects of connective learning, you’ve de-mystified processes and potential outcomes, without downplaying their inherently complex and sometimes unnerving nature. In this way, I think your work ultimately provides reassurance and encouragement for others traveling this path. Kudos for forging ahead through the mists :-), Dr. Mackness!
    -Carmen

  2. jennymackness June 20, 2017 / 7:59 am

    HI Carmen – thank you not only for this comment, but also for taking the time to read the thesis!

    ‘cMOOCs as mystifying’ is an interesting way to think about them. I hope cMOOCs, as originally conceived by Downes and Siemens, don’t die a death and that people continue to experiment with different pedagogical approaches, whilst at the same time being fully aware of the potential risks to all participants and the possible psychological dimensions of the individual learning experience 🙂

  3. Brynna Kaulback June 20, 2017 / 1:56 pm

    Jenny
    I found this interesting, although I don’t believe we have such a process in the US. I was intrigued by why do a PhD at the end of your career. As you know, I became a PhD at age 71 and sometimes ponder my motivations. Partly, like you, i kept coming back to the idea. Partly, I just wanted to do it to prove to myself that I could. Mostly, i yearned to be part of a community engaged in academic thinking and learning. But for you, that last one doesn’t hold, since you were already thriving in that world. Anyway, sometimes I think about why. Not sorry for a minute that I did it!

  4. jennymackness June 20, 2017 / 5:49 pm

    Brynna – thank you for your comment. Of course I thought about you as I wrote this post.

    As you say I think our motivations were similar. For me there was also an element of wanting to be “part of a community engaged in academic thinking and learning’.I had hoped to meet other PhD students, maybe attend some seminars, be introduced to ideas and thinking that maybe I had been missing by working so independently (albeit collaboratively), but in the event none of this happened. I didn’t meet any new people through this PhD (apart from my supervisor) and I worked in much the same way that I have always worked – discussing things with some of my collaborators – who were wonderful at providing me with feedback. Of course my supervisor, Paul Ashwin, did this too.

    Interestingly more than one person has referred to ‘entry to the club’ – either that I would gain entry to the club by doing the PhD, or that I am now a member of the club having got the PhD, which suggests that you can write all the papers you want without a PhD, but that for some people you only gain entry to the club by having a PhD.

    But my husband always reminds me that Professor Peter Checkland – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Checkland – who he and many others agree is an en exceptional thinker – does not have a PhD and yet he is definitely ‘in the club’.

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