Why I should have done a three-paper thesis

On Tuesday 24th January  2012 I received an e-mail from a Faculty-level administrator containing an attachment that detailed the guidance for PhD students wishing to write a three-paper thesis. A few weeks before this I had presented a talk at our Graduate School Seminar series in which I produced a single PowerPoint slide listing the pros and cons of completing a three-paper thesis versus a traditional thesis. Most recently, I have been getting to grips with the infuriating process of converting thesis chapters in to papers for publication, which I need if I want to get any kind of postdoctoral position.

But let’s start at the beginning. What is a three paper thesis and how does it differ from a traditional thesis? Well, a traditional thesis tends to have a chapter structure a bit like this:

  • 1.  Introduction and outline of the problem
  • 2.  Literature review of subject area
  • 3.  Background area
  • 4.  Methodological chapter(s)
  • 5-7. Results chapters (usually 2 or 3)
  • 8.  Conclusion and implications for policy and/or further research

A three-paper thesis does much the same job but is a bit slicker, with fewer chapters:

  • 1.  Introduction and background to the general topic area.
  • 2.  First paper.
  • 3.  Second paper.
  • 4.  Third paper.
  • 5.  Conclusion and implications and/or further research

So what is the principle difference and the reason for doing a three-paper thesis instead of a conventional thesis? Your work is already divided into nicely bundled modules of output, all complete with their own introduction, methods, results and discussion, which are then relatively easily converted in papers suitable for publication.

This is important because we’re living in an increasingly competitive environment for Post Docs where the number of publications you have holds significant sway. The pyramid of academia narrows alarmingly the further you go up, meaning you may very well apply to 30 odd positions before you secure a job. By having research papers you’re proving to potential Principal Investigators and funding bodies that you have a track-record of publishing, which is essential in a field obsessed with bibliometrics.

And what do you lose by not doing a traditional thesis? Not much, really. It is a challenge to write coherently and fluently to a sum of 75,000 words, and the three-paper thesis, with its disparate sections, offers no such challenge. But then who actually reads your thesis? You, your supervisor, your co-supervisor, the internal examiner and the external examiner. Maybe your Mum or Dad if they love you very much.  Five or six people. Then it gets put on a shelf in a dusty storage room, probably never to be looked at again.

But papers? They may be read by hundreds, and the kind of people you want to read them too – the experts in the field, your luminaries and colleagues. They can make a difference because they’re out there, they’re contemporary and they put a line in the sand that says “we’ve improved our understanding of this thing, in this way, and we can build upon that”.

So at least discuss doing a three-paper thesis with your supervisor. It might, ultimately, not be right for you, but at least talk it over; it could save you a lot of energy in the long run.

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