By Gillian Saunders
For a very long time, writing a single book-length manuscript was the only way to complete a PhD. In the past few decades, however, the traditional manuscript-style dissertation has been recognized as somewhat of a “strange” and “ungeneralizable” genre: its audience is limited, and dissertation-writing skills are minimally transferable to the real world (Duke & Beck, 1999). The possibilities for variation in dissertation structures and genres has quietly expanded, and other options are becoming more acceptable and even preferred (see, for example, Anderson et al., 2020; Anderson & Okuda, 2021; Anderson et al., 2021; Dong, 1998; Paltridge, 2002; Paltridge and Starfield, 2020; Paltridge et al., 2012; Paré, 2019; Thomas et al., 2016).
You have options! One of those is the “article-based” dissertation, also known as the “manuscript-style” dissertation, or “dissertation by publication.” In the sciences, a lot of dissertations are now completed by publication—as many as 40%—and in the field of education, around 10–15% of dissertations might contain at least some published or publishable work.
Here, I’ll weigh some pros and cons of writing your dissertation in this genre and attempt to answer some questions you may have if you’re considering this structure. As always, you should consider which format best suits your research questions, methodology, and discipline, and consult with your supervisor about how to proceed.
What is an article-based dissertation?
An article-based dissertation consists of several articles (usually three or four, but I’ve heard of there being as many as nine) that either have already been published during the course of a student’s PhD studies, or are ready to publish. The PhD candidate should be the first author or first co-author, if co-authorship is permitted (but this varies across disciplines, so check with your supervisor first if you’re considering co-writing any parts of your dissertation). Each article should be a stand-alone document that can be understood independently from the rest of the dissertation, with its own introduction, literature review, methodology, results, and discussion sections, as applicable. In order for the final product to be a cohesive “dissertation,” though, it might also need sections or chapters that introduce the overarching research questions, topic, and methods, as well as “bridging” sections to link the articles.
Reasons to write one:
- You want to continue on in academia, and having publications will help you get a job.
- Your supervisor wrote one and will be good at helping you navigate writing your own.
- Your topic and/or discipline lend themselves well to this type of structure.
- It’s super cool to see your name in print and get notifications that your work has been cited by others in your field! Publishing is a great way to assess the impact of your work and to see your research grow and be appreciated by others.
Reasons not to:
- Your supervisor did not write one, or isn’t very familiar with that genre, and would therefore not be comfortable guiding you through the process.
- You want to finish. A single manuscript is the shortest route to completion. It’s familiar and will encounter minimal pushback from the faculty of graduate studies or committee members.
- Your topic, research questions, methodology, etc. are better suited to another format.
- You’re not planning to continue in academia, and publishing won’t benefit your career.
- Your discipline and/or the intended audience or end user of the work doesn’t value publishing in academic journals as highly as sharing your work in other ways.
Additional resources and references:
McGill University’s guidelines for manuscript-based theses: https://www.mcgill.ca/gps/thesis/thesis-guidelines/preparation/manuscript-based-article-based-theses
The APA’s advice on writing a manuscript-based dissertation or theses, and for converting an already-written traditional-style manuscript into publishable parts: https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/research-publication/dissertation-thesis
Anderson, T., Alexander, I., & Saunders, G. (2020). An examination of education-based dissertation macrostructures. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 45, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jeap.2020.100845
Anderson, T. & Okuda, T. (2021). Temporal change in dissertation macrostructures. English for Specific Purposes 64. 1–12. . https://doi.org/10.1016/j.esp.2021.06.001
Anderson, T., Saunders, G., & Alexander, I. (2021). Alternative dissertation formats in education-based doctorates. Higher Education Research and Development, 41(3). 593–612. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2020.1867513
Dong, Y. R. (1998). Non-native speaker graduate students’ thesis/dissertation writing in science: Self-reports by students and their advisors from two U.S. institutions. English for Specific Purposes, 17(4), 369–390. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0889-4906(97)00054-9
Paltridge, B. (2002). Thesis and dissertation writing: An examination of published advice and actual practice. English for Specific Purposes, 21(2). 125–143, https://doi.org/10.1016/s0889-4906(00)00025-9
Paltridge, B., & Starfield., S. (2020). Change and continuity in thesis and dissertation writing: The evolution of an academic genre. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 48. 1–16, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jeap.2020.100910
Paltridge, B., Starfield, S., Ravelli, L. J., & Tuckwell, K. (2012). Change and stability: Examining the macrostructures of doctoral theses in the visual and performing arts. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 11(4), 332e344. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jeap.2012.08.003.
Paré, A. (2019). Re-writing the doctorate: New contexts, identities, and genres. Journal of Second Language Writing, 43. 80–84. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jslw.2018.08.004
Thomas, R. A., West, R. E., & Rich, P. (2016). Benefits, challenges, and perceptions of the multiple article dissertation format in instructional technology. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 32(2), 82–99. https://doi.org/10.14742/ajet.2573
I’ve been working at UVic as an English as an Additional Language Specialist in the Centre for Academic Communication since 2014, where I’ve helped hundreds of students in first-year academic writing and literature courses to become more skilled and confident writers. I have also taught English for academic purposes, English literature, business English, and TESOL in various contexts in Canada and abroad for many years.
I’m currently a PhD candidate in Curriculum and Instruction at UVic, writing an article-based dissertation, and my research focuses on the experiences of undergraduate students accessing and using different forms of academic writing support.