What should a PhD thesis look like?

Fascinating feature piece in the THE on the PhD thesis as a written document.The basic contrast being made is between the traditional 80 thousand word dissertation and a thesis which is a bundle of peer-reviewed and published papers. The latter is not at all far from the PhD by published work, and as it happens only last week I was part of the examination of just such a PhD.

There are a handful of practical issues here. How long does it take to write up a thesis (time which, it is assumed perhaps wrongly, is not spent in the lab doing real work). If the bundle comprises a set of multi-authored papers, how will the examiners discern the candidate’s contribution? Are examiners able to give as much attention to a long traditional thesis, as distinguished from six or eight papers? Given the lead time in publishing papers, might such an approach result in a delay in a candidate obtaining their doctorate? In some subjects where book publication is valued, the traditional thesis is the obvious practical choice for a young, would-be academic.

But these practical issues are, frankly, technicalities which well-written guidance for both students and supervisors would solve. Tougher are the big issues. First of all, is the writing of papers — and especially of shorter pieces that can be published quickly, and get out there having an impact — profoundly more relevant in the contemporary research environment? That is to say, all other things aside, is a traditional PhD deeply misaligned with how science works?

On the other hand, a PhD is and always has been about a large-scale project — conceiving of it, planning it, and executing it, and doing so with independence and resilience — so how does the set of individual papers demonstrate these important skills?

[Update, May 30th: This report confirms what has been anecdotally known for a while: that most PhDs will not not get permanent academic posts. This means that preparation for work in a research environment outside academia is all the more important, and thus also making the shape of a PhD thesis suitable.]

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