There’s more than one way to get a PhD: enhancing women’s career opportunities in HE


Ginny Brunton. 

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that women in academic careers earn on average some 16% less than men. The Times Higher Education reported that 30 institutions had mean average pay gaps in excess of 20 per cent per hour, noting that  more men than women occupy higher-paying senior roles. While the gap has gradually been decreasing, there substantial questions about career advancement for female research staff remain.

Many of these challenges are well-known: women take breaks to have children, and often return part time. When women do pursue higher education to advance their career, they report doing it later in life, for intrinsic satisfaction, and not usually as part of a research group. So women’s trajectories and motivations for undertaking a PhD may not fit in with the standard paths currently on offer at higher education institutions. This situation is not helping to narrow the gap.

Since researchers without a PhD lack the necessary qualifications to apply for more advanced faculty positions, one question we should be asking is: what can be done to improve women’s opportunities to study for a Doctorate?

One way to support experienced academic researchers is by offering a route to PhD by publication. This allows academics to develop a thesis, and published papers, from their previous research. The thesis is developed from the examination of specific issues of interest that build new knowledge. Researchers either publish as they conduct sequential research projects and develop a thesis, or develop a thesis directly from several published research papers linked by a common theme (e.g. methodology, topic area, or concept).

Used widely in Europe, Australia and in several UK universities, a PhD by publication helps researchers  develop their thinking and writing skills; make connections with other researchers, decision-makers and funders, and provide the foundation for developing the researcher’s unique line of future inquiry.

For a number of years, The UCL Institute of Education funded a one-year PhD by publication option for academic research staff, and within the IOE’s Department of Social Science, six women researchers recently progressed their careers through this route. Each had several years of research experience and multiple academic research publications but little opportunity, time or practical support to progress their careers through the traditional route of a four-year funded PhD. As one of these researchers, I grew in several ways. Apart from the refinement of project and time management skills, I developed my ability to think critically and efficiently through a research problem. My writing skills improved and became more flexible, in that I became faster and could alter my writing style depending on the need and audience.

My professional relationships also grew, as I began to have more satisfying conversations with supervisors, focusing on ideas rather than tasks. Relationships with colleagues and external reviewers evolved to be more collaborative, exploring new avenues of research. By focusing in on my own area of interest, the PhD by publication paradoxically brought me out of a narrow focus on just ‘the current project’. I better appreciate where my work sits within our research team and what it contributes to the university and the wider academic community. This has encouraged me to consider my contributions to UCL as a “good institutional citizen”.

Providing PhD by publication as a means of career development also advanced the work of our department. It particularly benefits researchers whose past work has spanned an eclectic range of projects, developing and applying research skills to the questions asked by various funders. Since this type of career often develops their expertise in specific methodologies more than substantive topics, it opens up the chance for their PhD to focus on methodological questions. Consequently, in our department, colleagues wearing their doctoral student ‘hat’ have advanced research methods, specifically in research synthesis, use of secondary data sources, and interdisciplinary research close to practice. Their learning is enriching the methods for our future research – a win-win situation. Ultimately, academic career advancement requires individual, program and system-level actions, to support staff working toward their PhD. Supporting PhD development at a Departmental level was fostered by the provision of writing workshops. These supported PhD writing, journal manuscript preparation and funding proposal advancements.*

By providing a PhD by publication option, universities support career researchers to increase their publications. This means more REF submissions and a higher chance of HEFCE funding. While several of the six PhD candidates have previously secured funded research, the PhD designation will raise our potential future funding and increase UCL’s cadre of PhD supervisors, thus increasing research and teaching income*. Universities are also palpably meeting ATHENA Swan commitments, and by offering a PhD by publication to support academic career development universities remain competitive and demonstrate leadership on a global issue.


* Oliver S (2018) Impact report: Seeding funding to support Writing and Impact: Skills and Evidence (WISE). London: UCL impact statement, Dept. Social Science UCL Institute of Education. April 2018.

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Posted in Further higher and lifelong education, Research matters
3 comments on “There’s more than one way to get a PhD: enhancing women’s career opportunities in HE
  1. Sarah Seleznyov says:

    As a mother of three children who achieved Masters with distinction and has published several journal articles, this would be perfect for me! Impossible to manage a PhD whilst working full time, impossible to put three kids through university whilst working part-tine to get a PhD.

  2. We introduced a publication pathway to a doctorate while I was PVC for research at Stirling. It was broadly modelled on some Swedish patterns. We certainly saw it as widening career opportunities for ECRs, but I don’t remember our spotting the gender dimension (I now think we should have done). It’d be very interesting to know more about how this pathway has affected women’s careers in practice.

  3. Claire Stansfield says:

    Thanks for reflecting on your experiences and the range of benefits. I also think it is a potential route for those who are research-active, but combine this with other professional skills as part of their job role. For example, I’ve met male and female librarians and information specialists, who are undertaking PhDs by various routes, or would like to do so.

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