Reflections on a PhD by Published Work

image of diploma, cap and books

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-ND

In June, I successfully defended my PhD on the Basis of Published Work, ‘Teachable moments in the promotion of healthy eating habits in pregnancy and early childhood.’ My dissertation focuses on how nutritional exposures during pregnancy, infancy and early childhood can impact on both the short-term and long-term health outcomes of children, drawing together eight previously published articles. In this blog, I want to share some insights on the increasingly common, if still atypical, option of pursuing a PhD by publication. But first, a quick snapshot of my dissertation!

Pregnancy has often been described as a ‘teachable moment’, where women may have increased motivation to change their dietary and other health behaviours. Other teachable moments exist whenever families make choices around nutrition, such as breast or formula feeding, the introduction of solid foods and what to eat at home or at school. The thesis considers whether the promotion of healthy eating habits and adherence to dietary guidelines during these teachable moments have the potential to improve the health outcomes of women and children. The thesis was comprised of eight papers: article one was a service evaluation of a midwife-led intervention to prevent excessive gestational weight gain, articles two and three explored women’s feelings about their weight, diet, nutrition, and physical activity (PA) during pregnancy; four and five were systematic reviews and found some limited evidence that very early introduction of solid foods (≤ 4 months) and high intakes of protein in infancy may contribute to overweight and obesity risk later in childhood. Articles six and seven (in press) explored baby-led weaning (BLW) and found understanding of and adherence to the characteristics of BLW varied considerably amongst parents reporting using the method. A final paper explored why some families choose not to take universal infant free school meals. Overall, the research highlights that health promotion activity should focus on the long-term healthy eating habits of women as the gatekeepers of the family diet, whilst recognising the challenges that women face during and following pregnancy.

Following my PhD viva, my examiners asked me to add a section reflecting on the published works route and why I had chosen to complete my PhD in this way. I know why I had chosen this route, but as I looked for some references to support the reflection, I found there was surprisingly little written in the academic literature. Apparently, PhD by published works is becoming increasing popular, but neither the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) nor the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE) publish statistics about the number of registered candidates, percentage of candidates or completions in the UK. Moreover, each institution publishes its own guidelines, which vary in the level detail provided to prospective candidates.

The major criteria of any PhD are appropriate methods, coherence, contribution of knowledge, critical appreciation, independence, and intellectual merit. As Powell notes, PhD candidates should also be ‘capable of continuing to undertake research in an independent and original way’  So, what does this mean for the published works route?

Well, for me, it meant completing and publishing between four and eight (N.B. this may vary, depending on institution) journal articles or book chapters. Each work needed to represent an original contribution to knowledge. Publications had to be first-authored by me, or I had to contribute substantially to one or more aspect of the research (study design, collecting data, analysis and writing up). Additionally, I wrote an overarching narrative comprising a literature review, a critical evaluation of the methodologies used within the publications from the perspective of my research philosophy and a discussion of the theme uniting the publications. Taking this route to PhD also meant that I worked independently. My advisor co-authored six of my publications and was very supportive but in terms of preparing the thesis, they just provided some guidance on which publications were suitable to use, the structure of the final report and some feedback on each completed section. My total thesis, including publications and a critical narrative had to adhere to one theme and total 70,000-100,000 words (again, this varies with considerably by institution).

I chose to complete my PhD via the published works route when I found myself in the position of being a university lecturer, but without a PhD. I could have opted for a traditional PhD, completed part time over six or more years. But given the amount of research I had already been involved with, and my existing academic and research experience, I opted for PhD by published works. A key advantage for me was being able to continue to research and publish alongside my teaching role. I could also complete the PhD without further reducing my part time hours.

Nevertheless, there are disadvantages of the published works route. First and foremost: it is not a quicker journey! It is still time consuming and competed with other demands of my job. There is also the added burden of accountability and self-motivation. Getting articles finished and published can be challenging and not all your publications will fit your theme, the time frame or eligibility criteria (for example, being published whilst in a previous job role).

This aside, the published works route should be an option all university staff are aware of—whether they are advising prospective PhD candidates, or (especially) if they are considering how to juggle a PhD alongside juggling part- or full-time work with family life. My advice would be to study your University’s specific guidance and find others at your institution who have completed their PhD work in this way, to decide if this is an option for you. Also, it helps to plan research-led teaching, for example, supervision of student projects, which will support you to complete publications in a timely manner. To quote Badley, in one of the few relevant articles I managed to find, a PhD by published works can ‘represent a formidable level of doctorateness’  but it is definitely not an easy option!


Jo Pearce completed her PhD at the University of Nottingham. She currently works as a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. Jo’s current research interests include complementary feeding, baby-led weaning, and school food.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Diet and health, research