PhD by Published Work: is it time to clarify and tighten-up the ground rules?

National Teaching Fellows, Sue Smith (pictured left) and Sally Brown, of Leeds Beckett University make the case…..

The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) by Published Work (PhD by PW) is gaining impetus as a format of doctoral output both nationally and abroad (Smith, 2015). Indeed, doing a PhD by PW makes perfect sense, particularly for many staff who have come into Higher Education to teach from other professions where “having a doctorate” has not traditionally been part of their professional culture, e.g. in nursing, social work, law or teaching. Frick (2019) is also optimistic about its popularity and expansion, and has recently explored whether this PhD route can act as a real panacea to the ills of high traditional doctoral dropout rates and slow doctoral completions.

The PhD by PW is a great route for people who might have atypical career pathways into academia; or who have struggled with the financial and work/life juggling act of committing to the traditional PhD, including many NTFs.  It is an inclusive route, enabling candidates to build incrementally on existing achievements – thus benefitting and giving opportunities to those who have taken a career break or for those with caring responsibilities (Lee, 2010; Smith, 2015).

It made sense to us both to write peer reviewed papers over an extended period of time around a coherent subject area, and get them published progressively in the public domain. This proved good for our curiosity and the development of active research and writing skills. Many NTFs have done this by including publications about professional practices as teachers, which can then be critically reflected upon by exploring in depth the body of work’s originality, coherence, impact and methodologies in a narrative (or synthesis) after a substantial body of work has been generated. As argued in Sally’s previous blog (Brown, 2018), “a significant advantage of the PhD by PW approach is that many working in HE are likely already to be publishing, and therefore this can be an incremental way by which to kill two birds with one stone”.

We advocate an approach which focusses on the pedagogically sound and intellectually rigorous. Write coherently around what excites and motivates you, be rigorous, and get it published. We have both written like this – about approaches to driving change in HE (Brown, 2011 – a paper included in SB’s PhD by publication) and interdisciplinary education design (Karban & Smith, 2009; Smith & Karban, 2008). Candidates following this route can think as they go, write in bursts or steadily, publish incrementally and take time to make a strong case. And it is cheaper…. you only pay for your final year as you write up your synthesis which argues that your selected body of work is equivalent in size and stature to that of a traditional doctorate.

Of course, theoretical rigour and sector academic standards are central to this.  Some PhD by PW candidates have a body of high quality, peer reviewed outputs which can be submitted swiftly with a synthesis. However, for those starting from scratch and wanting to research and publish, it is important that they are supported by mentors and/or research groups, HE sector research training and collegiate colleagues who might initially co-write with them.

Well then…after all this good stuff.…what’s not to like about doing a PhD by Published Work? It turns out, quite a lot. Some of us who have completed this route find ourselves subject to carping and sniping by defenders of the conventional approach. We have heard, too, about a number of disasters which makes you wonder if what we have heard (and witnessed ourselves) is just the tip of the iceberg. Many colleagues in the sector have reported a lack of clarity, and conflicting advice about what is the required number and type of papers, and/or artefacts to submit. There is also confusion over the extent to which co-authored works can be included. There seems to be huge variability in the written award guidance offered by universities, especially around the type and number of outputs within the UK, and even more so internationally.

We have heard stories of examiners who have taken it upon themselves to examine the quality of the published papers, which should be a given since they have already been peer-reviewed, rather than use the viva to explore the coherence, originality and significance of the contribution of a candidate’s oeuvre. We have also heard that many traditional PhD route supervisors are not appropriately briefed about the format of the PhD by PW and viva, and often have had no experience of supervising this route before they are called upon to examine a PW candidate. Some internal supervisors ask candidates to undertake inappropriate work such as rewriting papers or changing the methodologies of studies already published. Others just haven’t read their own university’s regulations about PhDs by PW! Furthermore, we know of a candidate’s portfolio of outputs being approved at a confirmation of registration meeting, but for them then to be regarded as “unsuitable” further down the line (often at an initial viva).  This generates an aura of cultural unprofessionalism, shoddy examining and candidates who naturally feel let down and disappointed by the system, often through no fault of their own.

So, while we still strongly advocate this route for NTFs and others, we would argue for more cross-sector clarity, consistency and better supervisor training for this increasingly popular route; with a plea to those who successfully achieve their PhD by Published Work to then mentor, advise and support those just starting out – on this powerfully enabling but sometimes challenging pathway.



Brown, S. (2011). Bringing about positive change in higher education; a case study, Quality Assurance in Education Vol 19 No 3 p195-207.

Brown, S. (2018). PhD by Published Works, April 2018.

Frick, L. (2019). PhD by Publication – Panacea or Paralysis?, Africa Education Review, DOI:  10.1080/18146627.2017.1340802

Karban. K., and Smith, S.V. (2009). Developing critical reflection within an interprofessional learning programme. Beyond Reflective Practice: New approaches to Professional Lifelong Learning. Chapter 13. Routledge Education.

Lee, A. (2010). When the article is the dissertation- Pedagogies for a PhD by publication. In C. Aitchison, K. B, & A. Lee (Eds.), Publishing Pedagogies for the Doctorate and Beyond (pp. 12–29). Hoboken, New Jersey: Routledge.

Smith, S. (2015). PhD by published work: a practical guide for success. Palgrave Macmillan.

Smith, S. (2017). Supervising on a PhD by Published Work route: an exploration of the supervisory role, ZFHE (Journal for Higher Education Development), Vol. 12, Issue 2, pp. 19-43.

Smith S.V., and Karban, K. (2008). Tutor experiences of developing an interprofessional learning (IPL) programme in Higher Education: recognising a parallel process. RESPONSE. University of Derby’s online e-journal. Issue 4. Part 1, 1-13. ISSN 1752-0991.

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