By Steven Day, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
“You’re joking, right? A part-time PhD – on top of everything else? Five to seven years? What use will that be?”
The words of my friend Andrew ricochet around my mind even now, long after I told him I was about to apply for a part-time doctorate at Cambridge. It wasn’t his ‘how-will-you-fit-it-all-in-alongside-family-and-work’ point that got me – we all know doctoral studies can be an arduous challenge. It was Andrew’s searing critique of the purpose of my doctoral ambition that struck.
“What is it for? It’s going to take you five to seven years to come up with a thesis that’ll do what exactly – get read by your supervisor, two examiners and a couple of mates, if you are lucky?”
Two things happened following this exchange. I successfully applied for the EdD, rather than the PhD, as I resolutely wanted my studies to be about furthering the practice of sustainability by graduates in the subject, not just understanding it. I work for a renewable energy company and want to help translate sustainability education into real-world action, to help organisations address some of society’s most pressing issues. (But this blog isn’t really about the merits of an EdD versus a PhD, so I’ll leave that here).
And, second, I resolved to do my EdD by publication. It means I can keep my output fresh and – hopefully – relevant over time. In my mind, that’s much more use, especially within the topic of sustainability education which is so fast-moving.
The Cambridge ‘by publication’ experience
I was surprised to learn that there has only been one doctorate from the Faculty of Education awarded through what is called ‘special regulations’ – in 2013. And only 115 are recorded on the whole of the University of Cambridge’s central database, CamSIS (between 2004-2016). Yes, that is just 115 out of more than 12,000 doctoral degrees awarded since the early Noughties.
Cambridge doesn’t enforce a minimum number of papers for a by publication doctorate – that’s up to you. They must form a body of related work, though, with an introductory paper for the overall submission which argues how your papers have advanced your cause. And, overall, your portfolio must stay within the regular word limit.
So why consider doing a doctorate by publication, rather than by the classical monograph which, at Cambridge at least, is by far the predominant and, arguably, safer choice?
In my case: it’s timing. I’m researching the outcomes of graduate sustainability education. How do graduates in sustainability education go on to change the world, what do they actually do? What works because of their learning? How can that be shared with others in practice to help accelerate progression?
It’s such a new, rapidly-emerging topic that, as a part-timer, I don’t want to wait until the end of my degree before I can make a meaningful contribution. If I wait seven years before thumping my 80,000 words down on my examiners’ desks, the best part of the coming decade will be history. The UN’s sustainable development goals will only have three more years to run!
Why ‘by publication’
- You’re publishing in relevant journals for real audiences – people who actually want to read and value the things you’re writing about.
- You can choose a variety of audience types by the publications you target. What’s to stop you shooting for the toppest of top top journals?
- You may even get to make a name for yourself within your chosen field, as well as for your department and your University.
- You’ll learn how to collaborate and co-author, perhaps – there is nothing in the rules to say that jointly-written works are not allowed but it would be probably be prudent to be the lead author.
- Importantly, you’ll get peer-reviewed along the way. Think of how valuable that is. It’ll teach you the discipline of writing to a particular journal’s house-style, of course, and imagine the benefit of having your work critiqued by among the best minds in your subject, before it gets published or, indeed, submitted for your degree.
- It’s what academics do. They write papers. Train for the job, if that’s your ambition?
- Best of all, you get to make an impact, to create change, to advance understanding and further knowledge as you go – in ‘real time’ – not just at the end.
Sure, it won’t be for everyone. I’m not arguing against the classical monograph; it is a worthy endeavour. I’m just highlighting that there is another way – with additional benefits.
Pitfalls with ‘by publication’
- What if your work is not accepted for publication – will your unpublished paper still count? Clearly, this a bigger concern for full-time doctoral students with ‘only’ three years to play with.
- What if you struggle with being peer reviewed? Doesn’t this journal know my paper is for my degree as much as it is for them? Come on, PUBLISH IT NOW! No, it won’t. And it might not. How do you balance that tension?
- Worse, what about our dear old friend, imposter syndrome? Getting your work into journals means adopting a fully-fledged academic persona from the off, at least in your writing. There’s no hiding behind: ‘I’m-only-a-first-year-part-time-doctoral-student-and-I’m-not-really-sure-what-I’m-doing-yet’.
So, all I ask, is that you think about it.
The adventure of pursuing your doctoral studies by publication is there for the taking. It may suit you, especially if you already have several published papers to your name. Or it may be appropriate for the work you’re doing – particularly if your area is fast-moving. It may help give your research wider relevance; or even help create timely, impactful change. Simply, it may be of some use. And I think, given it’s still rare, it’s an exciting alternative to the routine.
There are two great academics who have written blogs on ‘doing a doctorate by publication’. I took inspiration from both for this piece, and they helped give me the personal nudge to pursue my EdD by journaling. Thank you, Professors Pat Thomson and Jorgen Carling.
Oh, and thanks to my mate Andrew. We’re even better friends.
Steven Day is in his first year of a part-time EdD at the Faculty of Education and Robinson College, University of Cambridge. His doctoral research is focussed on advancing the real-world outcomes and practice of graduate sustainability education. Steven Day has 30 years’ experience in journalism, brand marketing, and management. He is a co-founder of PurePla.net, a renewable energy supplier, where he looks after marketing and sustainability. He’s also a trustee of UNICEF UK and a director of Smart Energy GB. He’s @steventimday on Twitter and Instagram.