When intentions and behaviour collide – Reflections on doing an article-based PhD

By Lisa Hynes

In recent years, there has been a surge in interest in completing article-based PhDs. With the growing emphasis on impact, dissemination and translation in research, this growing preference for building dissemination into the PhD experience makes a lot of sense. And PhDs were getting a bit easy, let’s be honest….. 🙂

The guidelines and requirements for article-based PhDs are likely to vary between disciplines, universities and countries. But basically, we’re talking articles which are published in peer-reviewed journals in place of thesis chapters. The thesis must still begin and end with a comprehensive introduction to the topic, rationale for the overall study, and a general discussion of the findings and their implications. In addition, emphasis is placed on the flow between each article and the way in which the author brings the findings of the studies together in the discussion.

In September I submitted one of these article-based PhD’s. Somehow, its 6 chapters still amounted to a rather terrifying tome, but I am delighted to have published two of my studies, and have everything crossed for a positive response from the reviewers of the third and final study.

Lisa is a research associate in the School of Psychology in NUI, Galway. Lisa is currently working with a multi-disciplinary research team on a study to develop an intervention to improve outcomes for young adults with type 1 diabetes. For her PhD, Lisa conducted a mixed methods study to develop and test a theory of clinic attendance behaviour among young adults with type 1 diabetes. She is interested in the impact of the environment and inequality in determining health, health psychology across the lifespan, and health service delivery. Contact: lisa.hynes@nuigalway.ie

Lisa is a research associate in the School of Psychology in NUI, Galway. Lisa is currently working with a multi-disciplinary research team on a study to develop an intervention to improve outcomes for young adults with type 1 diabetes. For her PhD, Lisa conducted a mixed methods study to develop and test a theory of clinic attendance behaviour among young adults with type 1 diabetes. She is interested in the impact of the environment and inequality in determining health, health psychology across the lifespan, and health service delivery. Contact: lisa.hynes@nuigalway.ie

So why did we opt for this approach? The aim of my PhD was to develop a theory of clinic attendance behaviour among young adults with type 1 diabetes. Very little research had been done in this area so we knew we would need to take an exploratory approach. Ultimately we aimed to come up with findings which could inform the design of complex interventions (interventions with multiple components, in a setting like a hospital with lots of stakeholders and systems involved) targeting clinic attendance behaviour. The UK Medical Research Council produced a framework to guide the development of complex interventions (Craig, Dieppe, MacIntyre, Michie, Nazareth, Petticrew, 2008) so we focused in on the Development phase in this framework to achieve our aim. The three aims of this phase are to gather existing evidence related to your research topic, identify or develop a theory of the behaviour you’re interested in, and to model or interrogate the processes related to the behaviour. So, three aims, three studies, three articles. The neat, linear nature of this approach lent itself perfectly to an article-based PhD. With the enthusiastic backing of my PhD supervisor, our approach was decided and followed from very early in my PhD experience. (Note. I call the model for my PhD ‘neat’, naturally everything took longer than expected and the first 2 studies overlapped by an alarming amount… TMI??)

So that’s where the decision to pursue an article-based PhD came from. I would like to share a few tips based on my experience for anyone considering or undertaking a similar approach.

  • Plan: A plan is always a good idea, but when you have 4 years (3 for many of you poor souls!) to complete a few studies, write them, get them published, and you know, put together the thesis, a serious plan is needed. There are two planning tips in particular I will take from my PhD experience, and attribute 100% to my supervisor:
    • Write it down and it will happen! Almost from day 1 my supervisor had me draft a publication table. Once we had an idea of the topic and general title of each of my 3 studies, they were straight into a table with start dates and dates of completion, potential co-authors, and target journals. Planning in this kind of detail from the beginning gets you focused and keeps you there. There is always room for change but there will be fewer questions down the line by being extra detailed early on.
    • Count backwards. Also from day 1, we were counting backwards from future milestones and even from the thesis completion date to make sure we were on top of our timeline, or to readjust timelines. The latter was probably more common! This can seem mad, but when you are dealing with the uncertainties of peer-review and publication, it’s best to be a bit mad!

      Image courtesy of PHDCOMICS.COM

      Image courtesy of PHDCOMICS.COM

  • Identifying target journals: In health psychology we often straddle disciplines and many of your studies could be written up for a psychological, medical, or an in-between audience. This has big implications for the write-up of each study so it’s well worth spending time considering the most suitable journals for each study. Some considerations for medical as opposed to more psychological journals include the amount of background to a particular health condition required in the introduction and the types of implications of the research likely to be relevant to the readers of a particular journal. To identify relevant journals, looking through your references to see which journals you are citing most is one approach.
  • Once you have identified your target journal, start to draft your manuscript based on the submission requirements (you guessed it) from the beginning. Imagine how you will feel once the stats are FINALLY done and all you have to do is add them to a ship shape manuscript with reasonably complete introduction and method sections, all in APA format. I’m talking title, running head, page numbers, authors and affiliations people!

    Image courtesy of PHDCOMICS.COM

    Image courtesy of PHDCOMICS.COM

  • Submission time! Read the submission requirements carefully and give your cover letter time to ensure you are addressing all requirements and referring to the mission of the journal.
  • Review & resubmit! So this is a big win, your manuscript was sent out to review and now you have feedback from independent experts to engage with and make the manuscript (even!!) better. Obviously opening up that word document for each round of review is heartbreaking, but after a good rant on the injustice of it all and armed with a giant hot beverage of your choice you CAN make those changes, cut those words, or re-analyse that data!!
    • Deal with each reviewer comment in a polite and professional manner. You don’t have to make a change based on each comment but you must explain why.
    • Clearly refer to sections in which you make changes in response to each reviewer comment.
    • Comprehensive responses seem to help reduce the likelihood of the same points being made in future reviewer comments.
    • This process is GREAT viva prep!

      Image courtesy of PHDCOMICS.COM

      Image courtesy of PHDCOMICS.COM

  • Finding the right home: Somewhere around journal 4 or 5 on the road to getting my first study published, I was told a story about a PhD student who went through 17 journals before getting one of her studies published! The moral of the story was a positive one, believe or not, that sometimes the publication process is about finding the right home for a study. Persevere, be strategic, ask for guidance and persevere!

So those thoughts are only based on my experiences and maybe anyone who has completed an article-based PhD or is working on one could comment below with some of your own tips! It has been a challenging but hugely positive experience for me and if your proposed research maps onto the article-based PhD model, I would recommend pursuing it. Article-based PhDs are efficient and help you gain skills in writing and time management that will stand to you in life and work post-PhD. This approach also has you answering questions about your research all the way through and dealing with criticism, which I’m hoping will steel me for my upcoming viva. Or maybe it won’t and I’ll have to retract this blog….only time will tell! 🙂

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