When I was quarantined in a South Korean hotel room in 2020, I was doing an unusual doctoral thesis. As with thousands of other students during the Covid-19 pandemic, the defense was done remotely over a video link. The twist was that I wasn’t being evaluated for a project I completed under my superiors; Instead, I was asked about my job before I even applied to university. This was a PhD through published work in which I wondered if I had completed a rigorous set of scientifically valid, original research that was substantial enough to be considered worthy of the highest academic qualification. And it is just one of more and more alternative ways of completing a doctorate.
While a “traditional” doctorate in the UK is often viewed as a three to four year course followed by a thesis, alternatives have long been around, says Robert Bowles of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s careers team. ‘There is always a need for competitive publications in the academic job market. If you can do your PhD and publish at the same time, it can be seen as an advantage, ”he says. “In the past, the numbers for alternative routes have always been very low, but an employer looking for a researcher won’t worry too much about how a PhD was achieved. They are looking for you to demonstrate the skills and knowledge that you have acquired no matter which path you have taken. Showing that you have the skills relevant to your role is more important than how you got your PhD. ‘
The way of writing
There are PhDs by publication to recognize work done by someone who did not directly enter their PhD after completing their Masters degree and still did a range of research. These are usually, though not always, carried out in-house by university staff or graduates rather than by any other institution. In my case, my supervisors were there to help me write a discussion document of around 15,000 words that explained the broader context of my work and showed that I understood the underlying principles of the subject. This meant that the doctoral process was much faster than normal; I got my PhD in six months, even though the work had taken several years.
However, this is not the only option. It is also possible to follow the “traditional” research path and still do a PhD through publication. This is the path Conrad Goodwin, now a postdoc at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US, took when he graduated from the University of Manchester in the UK. “I did a thorium project and it didn’t work,” explains Goodwin. “But I always had ideas and expanded things that we had already done. And the releases started rolling. ‘Rather than drafting an overarching thesis, Goodwin and his manager David Mills decided to use these publications as a compilation to demonstrate his candidacy.
“How you end up on a thesis always depends on the student and how they interact with the supervisor,” says Goodwin, appreciating Mills’ approach and the university’s clear guidelines on what to expect for a doctorate. “I know a lot of students who could have done their PhD by publishing, but not because their manager didn’t write their results down, because they just wanted something groundbreaking. This is a waste of public funds, student time and academic time. But my supervisor always helped me write things down and publish them. ‘
The decision to do a PhD by publication gave Goodwin valuable experience in compiling an academic paper and enhanced his ability to evaluate projects. “I could help others too, as it became easy to spot the pitfalls,” he recalls. “I could say” OK, but if we do this instead, make that connection, make a theory, then we have a publication! “That only comes with experience. ‘
Goodwin’s approach also gave it a very different vibrancy than most of the candidates. “It wasn’t a targeted thesis, but rather a demonstration of general knowledge,” he says. ‘All of my publications were combined with a brief introduction of 100 words as well as an explanation of what I contributed to each article. If you want to take a look at my thesis, it’s my first seven publications and an introduction! In my viva, I was mostly asked general undergraduate chemistry questions because the advanced things I had written about that had been verified by peer review. ‘
While Goodwin recommends the approach to anyone interested in doing further research to essentially give them a career edge, it is not for everyone. “I don’t like my PhD,” he admits. ‘Not because of the work in it, but because I don’t have a hardback copy. There is something sentimental about having that nice, crisp volume, a continuous thing. Yes, there are tremendous benefits in doing it my way. But you also lose something as your thesis defense becomes more of a box-checking exercise than a nice finale. ‘
For those considering leaving academia, there are also PhD students that include an industry-based internship. “A good example is the Cooperative Awards in Science and Technology (Case),” explains Bowles, “which offers a doctorate that is almost sponsored by an industry partner. This can be useful as you can gain both industrial and academic research experience. ‘
This is an option Ioannis Tsagakis chose when applying for the BBSRC doctoral education partnership The White Rose in Mechanistic Biology. Run by the Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York, UK, the program extends the student’s doctoral program from three to four years but includes a three month internship. “It was a slightly longer doctorate, but that didn’t stop me from applying,” recalls Tsagakis. “I thought the internship would play a big role in equipping me better with the tools I need for a future career.”
It is at the discretion of the students where they do their internship, usually in the second or third year of their doctorate. “You are encouraged to do something completely different from your PhD project,” says Tsagakis, who is currently in his senior year at the University of Leeds. “Mine was with a publisher, FEBS Press in Cambridge.” Although the Covid-19 pandemic meant that Tsagakis had to do his internship remotely, he still gained valuable experience. “It was really helpful because it gave me another tool – how to do more efficient literature reviews, which will happen later when I do a postdoc. I also wrote an article on how Covid-19 affected cancer research funding. It was something I had never done before, and while it cannot be cited as an academic publication, it was exciting to contact many experts in the field and understand the wider research. ‘
The possibilities are not limited to courses with established internships. Every year the Royal Institution (RI) offers between two and four internships for doctoral students who want to cut their teeth in science communication. This includes a three-month, fully funded, full-time internship, either in the RI’s digital team or at the annual Christmas lectures. “People like to have scientists explain their science to them,” says Daniel Glaser, RI’s Director of Science Engagement. “For us, the fact that people communicate and have active scientific knowledge means enormous added value for our production process.”
The move will also benefit the doctoral student, explains Glaser. “Whether you stay in research or not, being able to communicate is an essential part of a scientific career. This applies not only to children, the public or journalists, but also to other scientists. Almost all research today is interdisciplinary, and once you push the boundaries of your discipline, you need to get outside yourself. Whether you’re shooting for a Nobel Prize or you’re looking to quit science, an internship with communication is a really good idea for your personal development. If you can speak in a way that others outside can truly understand, it will benefit you. Science communication within science is often very poor and we can help. ‘
I would strongly encourage people to be loud and proud as an intern
Daniel Glaser, Royal Institution
While internships aren’t common, doctoral students shouldn’t be afraid to take advantage of these opportunities if they’re interested, says Glaser. “Doing an internship should be something to be proud of. It is an integral part of your career as a researcher, and your group, supervisor, and university should be proud that you applied in the first place. People should remember that [internships] as an expected and valued part of a research career. I really want to encourage people to be loud and proud as interns, because that’s what we expect from our scientists these days. ‘
According to Tsagakis, the disadvantage of taking time out to study to do something else is that it takes time to get back into your own research. “Of course, when you go for three months and come back, you feel like you don’t remember anything!” he laughs. “Fortunately, I had taken notes before I left, so it wasn’t that difficult. And your manager is also there to help you make the transition. For example, mine told me to start doing some literature research so I didn’t have to go back to the lab right away. ‘
Regardless of whether it is a publication or an internship course, anyone considering doing a PhD on an alternative route still has to ask the same questions they would ask about more traditional routes. “People from different backgrounds need different levels of support,” says Bowles. “So always make sure that you are aware of your course in the department you work in, that it will give you the support you need, and that your manager will have a clear plan for you when you start the program start.”
With a variety of PhD options, there is something for everyone that can help support a more vibrant and diverse chemistry community. And however you decide to complete your PhD, I know from personal experience that there are few more satisfying moments in life than when you are told that you passed and that you finally have the title “Dr” before your name can put.