How undertaking a PhD by published work took me on my own career journey

Applying for a PhD by published work is the road less taken in academia. James Derounian shares his experience in obtaining one

For years I tested the water for undertaking a doctorate by research at annual staff appraisals. And up to a year or so back the answer was always the same: Bite the bullet and deliver 80,000 words, over a period of, say, four years’ hard labour.

But then – as a fringe benefit of 0.2 in a new department (Education) I was cleared to do a PhD by published work. Susan Smith defines this phenomenon as “awarded on the basis of a series of peer-reviewed academic papers, books, citations or other materials that have been published, accepted for publication, exhibited or performed…accompanied by a substantial commentary linking the published work and outlining its coherence and significance together with an oral examination.”

One of my children, a doctor via the traditional extended research-over-years route, snorted at my embarkation on a “poor person’s PhD”. But several years later, having survived, and actually enjoyed the slings and arrows of outrageous autoethnographic, retrospective research plus viva grilling, I see the entire process of undertaking and completing the research as incredibly life affirming.

A life lived forwards

In looking at nine publications, plus supporting documents, in forensic detail, I was able to pursue a “golden thread” titled A confluence of two rivers: A reflection on the meeting point between community development and higher education teaching and learning.

Somewhat reassuringly I gained insight that, as philosopher Soren Kierkegaard suggested, life may be understood backwards, although it is lived forwards. Living is a consuming day to day preoccupation in which change to self and surroundings is so gradual that it only clearly emerges with hindsight, if we are fortunate.

My forty-year career started in 1980, as a lone ranger/project officer, helping rural communities mainly in Devon, then Northumberland to retain vital services such as village schools and post offices, or set up community-run alternatives. In 1993 I moved to university teaching, around local governance and community action, at what became the University of Gloucestershire. I was drawn to the idea of being able to reach and enthuse many more people to get involved in community action, through university teaching rather than project work.

The luxury of being able to review my career and, by association, life, cannot be overstated. As academics we are so busy with the immediate that what and why we are doing can be lost in a maelstrom of emails, deadlines, student queries, teaching, writing for publication and hunting of the Snark that is consultancy funding.

By dissecting my publications produced over time I was able to see them in their historical context, and to reflect on how and whether, and to what extent they formed a coherent and significant body of original research. The gradually emerging research focus additionally enabled me to test connections and cross-fertilisation between community development and higher education teaching and learning.

Leaps and boundaries

The research process drew me into strange theoretical country, knitting together Bourdieu’s habitus (1990) that what and how we do things is influenced by our background and interactions with others. This in turn connected to Bakhtin’s idea of heteroglossia (1981) in which he argued that the way in which we speak, and what we say, are synthesised from diverse borrowed inputs from others.

Permission and time to investigate career concerns allowed me unearth the benefits of boundary spanning. By crossing disciplinary boundaries, I became conscious of different ways of seeing and doing things; and of theories from one field that could be used to inform the other. For example, Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (from education research) is the range within which an individual (and I extend this to community) can most effectively leap from existing to new knowledge, skills and actions. The PhD was itself an example of boundary-spanning to cover new ground, and thereby to generate original insights and lessons for praxis.

I moved from a focus on generalised hope, towards the specific and practical Hope Theory, as articulated by Snyder (2002). He argued that hope is both a process for development and progression, but also as a creator of pathways towards practical and constructive change. Hope Theory and Native American chieftain Plenty Coups’ Radical Hope combine to demonstrate how generalised expectation and positivism can nurture possibilities.

Furthermore, Wisker et al (2009) comment on the possibility of a learning leap. My own research through published works and in assembling the PhD point me to community development in tandem with higher education teaching and learning as practical means for making such a leap forward.

Additionally – and in particular – my published articles showed how graduate inputs to HE teaching can constitute a heightened Zone of Proximal Development, illustrating a more detailed level at which the bridge-crossing or obstacle circumnavigation can be facilitated (with the aid of a lecturer and/ or community development worker).

Some of my research was autoethnographic, a methodology in which, as Ellis, Adams and Bochner (2011) explain, a researcher “seeks to describe and systematically analyse personal experience in order to understand cultural experience.” In other words, by reflecting on my lived experience, as professional and citizen, over a forty-year period, I built a theory-informed picture of my career and contribution to knowledge that could benefit others. The self-reflection is of value as a form of personal stock-taking, and a means by which to develop a sense of your professional self.

The viva with two external examiners proved to be an absorbing conversation with peers, and a real opportunity to clarify and discuss what I had been about. Oh – and I passed with minor amendments. Is there a doctor in the house…?!

As a process of self-discovery, and purposeful pause to review what we are at, I thoroughly recommend the possibility of teaching and research academics investigating the possibilities of a PhD by published work.

2 responses to “How undertaking a PhD by published work took me on my own career journey

  1. Many congratulations Dr James! I am in the process of the same type of PhD route, alongside other part colleague / part student cohort mature learners who have a full time HE Lecturer role! I’ve published three papers and am working on 3 more, with an aim to progress to submitting / viva in the next calendar year….eeek! Any advice is welcomed! I really connected with two statements here, as they link to my own research focus (how students develop both employability and enterprise outcomes through HE, using a reflective narrative analysis from a model I’ve developed called AGILE): “how graduate inputs to HE teaching can constitute a heightened Zone of Proximal Development, illustrating a more detailed level at which the bridge-crossing or obstacle circumnavigation can be facilitated” – I see this as related to communities of practice (Etienne Wenger) and social capitals (Michael Tomlinson) which I encourage through work-integrated learning in my own teaching modules / assessments.

    and “self-reflection is of value as a form of personal stock-taking, and a means by which to develop a sense of your professional self.” which informs my reflective narrative teaching model -could I please quote you on this and also see your publications?

    So what are your next steps since passing???

  2. Thanks for sharing the insights from you journey through PhD by Published Work. I am travelling that road, at present, although it’s been a bit more of a bumpy ride for me. It is a great route for academics like ourselves, who entered university teaching before PhD became (pretty much) a requirement in most institutions in England. It shares some of the vagaries of a traditional PhD (the interpretation of examiners, etc.), but I’ve found my greatest challenge to be working out what was expected of me at the beginning of the process. I applied and was unsuccessful about a year ago, and it has taken me most of the intervening time to get my head around the hidden goal posts – that isn’t to say that my original submission could not have been much (and second time around will be) improved. The more that people, like yourself, write about the route the ‘easier’ it may be for those on the journey to take heart and see a way forward.

Leave a Reply