Article-based PhD thesis or a monograph?


Even before we start our doctoral journey, many of us are presented with the dilemma: should I hand in a so-called cumulative dissertation, made of articles (or article manuscripts), or should I go for the good old book or a monograph?

Obviously, this will first of all depend on what is allowed or required by the formal regulations (be it of the country or university), on the kind of PhD contract you have, and sometimes it can even depend on the supervisor.

It can also be a matter of disciplinary conventions. For example, according to some studies, arts and humanities still tend to prefer monographs. Natural sciences, on the other hand, seem to be more keen on articles. Whether you are more oriented to international debates or to the national/local ones could also play a role.

There are at least two broader trends which affect where things are going. One, the world seems to be—for better or for worse—moving away from the book format as a “measure” of one’s academic accomplishment, and towards the article. Two, there is a general tendency in formal regulation to give more freedom to students and their supervisors (which is another word for giving away the responsibility).

And sometimes, it’s entirely up to the candidate.

When I was starting my PhD I had a strong preference for the article-based dissertation. I was lucky enough to be offered the choice and, looking back, I think having to do a monograph would have been an entirely different experience. Even today, two years after my defense, I am convinced my career would have gone into another direction had I opted for the monograph.

I surely missed out on something unique there, but, all taken into account and given what I was looking for, I think I made the right decision. So, here’s my (likely biased) take on the advantages of doing an article-based thesis.

The infamous “Who cares?” question

As many other people out there, I was confronted many times with this question during my PhD. I often wondered, what does this question even mean?

As far as half-way through the process I wasn’t entirely sure how to deal with this challenge. Of course, I had a topic and I (think I) knew what I was interested in, but I wasn’t sure whether that made much sense to others. And it seemed like no one could help me. Then, at one point, I came to a realization that the ubiquity of this question betrays an assumption shared by most people in academia: someone should care about your research.

Going for an article-based dissertation made me think about the scholarly context of my research very early on in the process. If I was going to write some stuff which was publishable or even published before the defense, I had to get out there and find out about what people (journal editors, reviewers, the world at large, if you will) cared about and then align my research agenda with that. How can I make my research interesting to the people whose research interests me?

This was by no means a smooth process. But I tend to believe that no true learning experience is. So, yeah, having a grasp of how your work fits scholarly debates out there is something which may not necessarily come if you are not asked to put your work to the test of rigorous peer feedback (beyond your supervisor or close colleagues or friends) or review until later in the process. Moreover, if you are not sure even which scholarly community you (aspire to) belong to, then things can be even more complicated.

Socializing yourself into academia and its tribes

You have probably come across the idea how academia is all about tribes and territories. Higher education community may be your tribe, but it’s not the only one out there, and it doesn’t have to be the only one you belong to. Especially if you want to say something to, say, policy studies folks, organizational scholarship, sociology of professions, studies of global processes, valuation studies, or pretty much anything which is not an exclusive territory of higher education researchers, you should probably get acquainted with their respective journals, vocabularies, tools, and so forth.

Figuring out boundaries of academic tribes and territories takes a lot of observing, paying attention, interacting, careful reading of what and especially how people write, which all translates to time (and no one has that anymore, it seems). Even if you ultimately do not want to subscribe to a single tribe, you probably should become acquainted with how they operate.

Your sense of belonging, in the higher education or any other specialized community, may be very different depending on whether you already have some disciplinary allegiances which you would like to maintain during and after your PhD. Many people identify themselves as, for example, political scientists and higher education scholars, or just political scientists doing (mostly or not exclusively) higher education research and publishing in both higher education and political science journals. You may want to use your PhD period to figure out where you belong (and don’t belong) academically.

A monograph can be a way of doing this, but “thinking in papers” will push you to conferences and journals sooner, which is where much of the conversation is taking place. All of these are typically organized in and around well-established boundaries of academic disciplines or thematic areas.

Doing a monograph could mean that it will take a little bit more time until you get to present your work at a conference, and PhD shouldn’t last forever. The downside of it is that throwing yourself in that world a little bit too soon may mean you are not prepared for it yet. Your work will likely be challenged and criticized. The criticism may even be unfair or besides the point. But, often, it will be also to the point. The world, academia included, is full of people who just don’t bother with thinking how what they say affects others and you may have some very unpleasant experiences.

Fair or not, this means that you will have to deal with and respond in such situations, be it in the privacy of your desk staring at a rejection letter or in a room full of people whose opinion you probably care about.

Planning & organizing your (PhD) life

There is also another thing which can make a big difference: how much you “own” your PhD project. In other words, will you be working within a team in which people work closely together, under close supervision or involving supervisor(s), are on the same or overlapping research projects, share databases, and such, or will your PhD be one-person show with maybe some involvement of some people here and there (if you feel like it)?

As my PhD was going to be mostly a one-woman show, I could not count on being pushed or pulled by colleagues working on the same stuff. My supervisor was giving me all the freedom I needed, so I realized very soon that if I was going to get that thing done on time, I better create some kind of a structure which would give me a sense of “how far” I was. Supervision is a vital component of the whole thing, but ultimately you may be completely on your own.

Either way, your sense of what you can do in three or four years, or in a month or two, may be put to challenge in this period. Even if you don’t depend on others and you are on your own, doing a PhD means a steep learning curve. You will end up learning a lot, sometimes in very short periods, both about your topic and about yourself. The latter is probably more important in the long run.

You may have very productive two weeks, in which you will write 15 pages of solid stuff (of the kind you will not be embarrassed to read or show to others a month later). But then, the following two months you will find yourself not able to produce a single meaningful paragraph although you’ve been busy reading, doing things, and trying. You can’t plan when to be creative or inspired. But, over time, you learn how to navigate that.

Choosing an article-based dissertation in my case meant the possibility to work simultaneously on several mini-projects while developing the overarching idea in the background. Very far into my PhD, in fact, I was “nowhere” really. I was juggling 2-3 article drafts which I was trying to fit together thematically or theoretically (it has to be a single PhD on a single topic, after all). This was a nightmare. And then, one day, towards the end of my second year, they slowly started to make sense together. Not perfect sense, but it was sufficient to take things to the next step, which was my first journal submission.

Probably the most important advantage of the article-based thesis is that you get to be trained in fitting your ideas into an article format. Each article has to be a finished piece, plus, they have to fit together somehow. Which is essentially how your work will look like most of the time once you get the PhD and maybe continue with the post-doc. Several “smaller” projects embedded in a larger research agenda. Even if you find your professional happiness outside academia, your ability to link smaller chunks of ideas and to work on them to fit larger ideas will be valuable in any working environment.

Where does this leave us?

There are some disadvantages, certainly. The most obvious one for me was the challenge to maintain focus on a single topic. Four years is a relatively long period and distractions amount: there are many interesting topics to study and many interesting ways to study them.

In the end, I submitted my dissertation within the four years. I had five papers in it, plus some forty pages of introduction and conclusion. I started my PhD thinking I knew what I was doing and then I got lost. I was wandering around and flirting with several different approaches, until I found a “home.” The end product was a manuscript with considerable thematic and conceptual disparity between the stand-alone articles. This I considered a major limitation in building and strengthening the overarching argument, but I somehow managed to bring it all together in the end.

It was not a perfect thesis, yet I never had those illusions. I am still very happy with the lessons I learned while writing, defending, presenting, dealing with criticism, and revising the ideas which both went into each article and especially those which came out of them.

PhD can be very hard and it will probably make you more aware of where your limits lie, what you can endure, your emotional make-up, what your self-confidence depends on, and what your overall well-being is about. It may put some of those to a serious test. Whichever choice you make, do not forget that some things in life do not have a price and if we do not take a good care of ourselves―emotionally and physically―no one else will do it for us.

If you are interested in other and more technical aspects of this dilemma, this web page could give you some answers.

Jelena Brankovic is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Sociology, Bielefeld University, Germany. Currently she is trying to figure out how to get as many people as possible to help make ECHER a more relevant organization for the community. She is also one of the lead editors of ECHER Blog. You can follow her on Twitter.

Image by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay

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