One of the most popular posts on FP2P has been ‘How to get a PhD in a year (without giving up the day job)’. It discussed my ‘PhD by published work’, completed in 2011 at Oxford Brookes University, and what a great fit it was for someone well on in their career, or who has grown-up bills to pay.
Fast forward 12 years and I must talk to one or two people every month who want to know how to do the same thing, but it remains a relatively unknown option. Why is that?
A quick recap of my version, from that original post:
‘If you have amassed a ‘significant body of work’ in the shape of books, chapters, papers etc (sorry emails and tweets don’t count), you submit these as the body of your PhD and then (the interesting bit) write a supervised 15,000 word ‘critical review’ of your own work, comparing it to the academic literature on the relevant issues. If your writing wanders all over the place, as mine has, then you identify a theme within it – in my case the interaction between citizens and states.’
Other options include doing the writing and PhDing simultaneously – e.g. get 3 academic papers accepted for publication, and write the accompanying critical review alongside them.
In hindsight, it was an incredibly good thing to do, both in itself – a couple of months reading the ‘canon’ in the British Library really helped me consolidate my thinking around some big issues in development – and in career terms, opening doors to working at the LSE and elsewhere.
I am obviously completely biased, but I also think this kind of PhD often makes more sense in human terms than the conventional kind – you take some time out to reflect after 20 or 30 years accumulating knowledge, experience and publications, rather than starting one before you’ve actually done much in the world outside, spending the first year desperately trying to come up with a research question. I hear a lot of stories about loneliness and anxiety from PhD students (though I’m sure some have a great time), and it feels like a design flaw in the whole enterprise.
A quick websearch shows how much things have moved on since 2011, at least in the UK. Dozens of universities now offer them, they no longer insist on you being an alum or a staff member to be eligible and (unsurprisingly) the fees have gone up a bit – typically around £5,000, compared to the £1,400 I coughed up to Oxford Brookes. Examples include Westminster, Portsmouth and Warwick.
I was surprised and pleased, because there has been so little fanfare about this shift. But some of the more prestigious universities seem reluctant to join in – Cambridge restricts them to its alums, and I couldn’t even work out what Oxford does from its website. LSE doesn’t seem to offer them, although it has lots of good advice on its Impact blog, e.g. here and here.
I discussed the low profile, and elite reluctance, with a friend, John Twigg, who has supervised his fair share of PhDs. He reckons it could stem from it being simply less interesting to academics – instead of shaping young minds, they merely help a more senior person ‘tick the box’. I certainly did not find supervision by people younger and less experienced than me very helpful (and I don’t think my supervisors, both younger than me, enjoyed it too much either). Is this about power, then?
Maybe rather than try to create a slimmed down replica of a traditional PhD and the supervisor-student relationship, these new PhDs should adapt themselves more to the realities of the student. As well as submitting their prior publications and critical reviews, students could be required to give one or more assessed lectures on their topic, lead some seminars or write a policy brief on their findings. After all, one of the likely impacts of AI is that academic assessment is going to have to move to more oral, in-person formats.
Any other suggestions for how such a mid/late career qualification could diverge from the standard version?
More general advice on finding the right PhD here.