Surviving PhD by publication

Guest blog: Credit where credit is due, making the case for PhD by publication by Dr Alison Baverstock and Dr Debora Wenger

Profession-orientated disciplines such as Journalism and Publishing combine professional practice at the highest level with academic enquiry.

They equip students with the tools they need to function in their industries of choice, but also to develop the thinking skills that will enable them to solve problems we don’t yet even know exist.

To that end, Journalism and Publishing programmes often hire faculty with significant professional experience to ensure that students are learning up-to-date methods and who can often help students get access to jobs, internships, and other forms of professional mentorship.

These lecturers often have a body of work that has been developed and published within the wider world, and which, in fact, is often the basis of their university teaching.  However, the work they do is not routinely validated within higher education. PhD by Publication may be part of the solution.

Dr Alison Baverstock

Dr Alison Baverstock

This method of earning a doctorate allows candidates to include work produced prior to enrolment. Institutions ask for a critical review of the candidate’s relevant publications, which summarises cohesiveness and overall contribution to knowledge within the discipline.

Evidence of peer review, citations and standing for each publication and the overall impact of the candidate’s contribution is also included.

Essentially a PhD by Publication provides the opportunity to confirm that work relevant to our professions – because others took responsibility for investing, publishing and disseminating – was well thought out and effectively delivered.

Within higher education this is particularly significant because it consolidates our contribution using a metric that the academic colleagues from more traditional disciplines understand.

Though the concept has been around for more than 50 years, in practice, PhD by Publication is more technically than actually available; there’s a tendency for it to be ‘on the menu’ but permanently ‘off’. So the first PhD by Publication within the Department of Journalism and Publishing at Kingston awarded in January 2017 was a significant development – for us and for our university.

It’s important to home in early on the associated ethics. Given that so many institutions have validated courses within profession-orientated disciplines, it’s fallen to university marketing departments to describe the benefits they offer to the student experience. Glossy brochures and websites promote access to key industry professionals who are up-to-date and well connected; at open days we often talk to students, their parents and supporters about how this impacts on subsequent employability.

But along with an eagerness to promote the availability of industry experience within our universities should arguably come a corresponding determination to engage with how esteem and reputation are established within the full range of disciplines on offer. As yet, the overlap is not complete.

In the UK a further disincentive may be whether or not such degrees are ‘REF-able’; in order for a PhD completion to count for the institutional submission, the primary research must have been undertaken at the university making the award. But even if the institutional research agenda is focussed solely on the REF, and hence non-REFable activity considered a less productive use of time, the availability of PhD by Publication remains highly relevant to the personal and professional development of colleagues whose competencies are actively promoted by their institutions.

As with any new gateway made available, those first through the portals tend to be at the forefront of achievement. The day Dr Debora Wenger received our first departmental PhD by Publication was also the day she was announced as one of the top educators in Journalism in the US.

The process also brings a series of wider institutional benefits. It involves modelling a range of concepts to which most universities are at least publicly committed: life-long learning; research-informed teaching; inter-disciplinarity (often gained through PhD management, as support may be accessed from other departments with relevant experience).

Apart from being part of the same department, and my own journalism practice (mostly within the Publishing press), my teaching of Journalism students has been limited to their dissertation. But I was perfectly able to help Dr Wenger craft the thesis through which she presented her published work to examiners.

Finally, even if you already have sufficient academic status for your immediate needs, undertaking a PhD by Publication within a profession-oriented field is an important act of disciplinary service. Taking a body of work that has been invested in by the sector you belong to – because they published it – and then having that material analysed and verified within a university, helps promote the discipline’s academic validity.

But while this demands altruism, and in particular time to create the accompanying short thesis, there are personal compensations. Revisiting your past contributions, and seeing how they both connect and shaped your current thinking, is a process I challenge you not to find enjoyable.  We are open for business at Kingston University.

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