PhD by Prospective Publication in Australian Business Schools: Provocations from a Collaborative Autoethnography

Jon Billsberry, Corinne Cortese
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 18  •  2023  •  pp. 119-136

The goal of this essay is to critically reflect on the emerging trend for PhDs by Prospective Publication (PbPP) in Australian Business Schools and to explore its appropriateness for fledgling academics.

The PbPP is a relatively new and increasingly popular alternative to traditional PhD by monograph (PbM). It is the idea that a doctorate can be completed by writing a series of papers that are published, or close to being published, as journal articles or book chapters. For students, it offers the chance to get a head-start on their publishing careers and helps them find their first academic jobs. For supervisors working in an academic environment increasingly characterized by ‘publish or perish’ dynamics, it guarantees meaningful rewards from doctoral supervision. However, despite the attractiveness of publishing during candidature, it is a very different way to complete a doctorate with many challenges for students, supervisors, and institutions.

We adopted critical collaborative autoethnography. Through this method, we reflect on our experience supervising and administrating PbPP students and integrate our reflections with the literature on PbPPs to highlight policy concerns and our position on them.

We argue that the primary goal of the PbPP is to produce students who can conduct research collaboratively after graduation, as opposed to people who can conduct independent research, although the two outcomes are not mutually exclusive. We also argue that assessment of PbPP should be significantly enhanced to determine the nature of the student’s contribution to the thesis, their understanding of research design, and their broader understanding of their subject. Finally, we argue that despite the attractiveness of PbPP, it can only be successfully attempted by students with elite levels of intellect, dedication, critical analytical skills, language skills, resilience, and patience and supervisors with expertise in the field of study, experience of publishing different types of paper, familiarity with the working of the journal publication process, and workload capacity.

PbPP theses should be examined by viva voce. Viva voce examinations of PbPP theses should determine (1) the nature of the doctoral candidates’ contribution to the thesis, (2) whether it is sufficient for the award of a doctorate, (3) the contributions of the papers to advancing the field of research, and (4) the students’ understanding of the theory in their field. Viva voce examinations of PbPP theses should seek to discover the student’s ability to contribute to collaborative efforts of research teams. PbPP students should also sit an examination of their understanding of research philosophy, design, methodologies, and related topics. It should be externally set, administered, and marked by an independent examination board. PbPP candidates need to demonstrate excellent ‘research English’ language skills before commencing.

PbPP candidates need excellent intellectual skills – as a rough guide, probably in the top quartile of doctoral candidates. PbPP candidates need to be resilient and able to cope with failure, criticism, and rejection. PbPP candidates need high levels of patience. PbPP candidates should be encouraged to produce their first manuscript early in their candidature. PbPP supervision requires supervisors with advanced levels of subject knowledge, research skills, and publishing outputs. PbPP supervision requires expertise across various forms of research and types of output. Due to the wide range of skills and experience, PbPP supervision is likely to require a team approach.

As the PbPP grows in popularity, it challenges educational researchers to explore this emerging phenomenon. Does it take a particular type of person to thrive through this process? Does it need supervisors with particular characteristics? How does the experience of PbPP supervisors differ to the experience of PbM supervisors? Do PbPP graduates differ in their abilities to PbM graduates?

People graduating with PhDs typically enter influential and important jobs in society. It is vital that they have the knowledge, skills, and abilities that the qualification confers. In Australia, the PbPP challenges this credibility due to issues of co-authorship, selective study, and shallow assessment. These matters need to be understood and rectified to prevent a loss of credibility in Australia’s Higher Education institutions and its graduates.

Are there any differences in the knowledge, skills, and abilities of PbPP and PbM graduates? Studies are needed of the characteristics prospective PbPP students need to be successful taking this doctoral route. How does the nature of supervision differ between PbPP and PbM? What is the impact on the skills and abilities supervisors need and the implications for workload? What jobs do PbPP graduates go into and does this differ to PbM graduates? What resistance will the proposals made in this essay meet?

PhD by Publication, PhD by Prospective Publication, PhD by Monograph, doctorate, PhD, doctoral education, doctoral supervision, co-authorship
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