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Are students allowed to complete a large portion of their research independently, then enroll in a PhD program, apply for a defense panel within the first semester, and quickly finish the thesis? Has this been done before?

Update: Question trimmed. I'm looking for an answer whether students can be admitted with much prior work on the thesis already complete, to finish in a short time (perhaps one year fix and improve the work), and whether there are real examples of people who did this. I not asking whether I myself am personally capable of completing this prior work to sufficient quality.

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Naturally, rules will vary between institutions. As a data point, where I did my PhD, students couldn't submit their thesis until they had been enrolled for 8 terms. My guess is that such rules are pretty common. Off-topic: aside from any question of humour, I find "PhD Comics" completely unrepresentative of my experience as a student. Others may disagree. –  Artie Prendergast-Smith Jun 5 at 10:51
I'm confused: you seem to equate "did a lot of research" with "read everything in the topic and wrote a 200 page literature review". These are very different things: the latter is not research as much as it is review. –  Suresh Jun 5 at 12:28
Reader Dilbert.com, and then you won't want to work in the private sector either. Xkcd might want to make you work at NASA, YMMV. Also, depending on your field, literature reviews are often only sufficient to start independent research, rather than being 90% of a thesis...but I do suppose fields vary widely on this, I can't say for sure. –  BrianDHall Jun 5 at 13:21
@avid: here in the UK it's called a "PhD by publication", which requires that you have published work considered (by a mess of citeria) equivalent to a thesis. This can be applied for after the work was done, as you say it's intended for people who have done research outside academia. But probably doesn't help the questioner since even if that 200 page review is publishable, actually getting it published is one hurdle, and getting it accepted equivalent to a thesis is another! –  Steve Jessop Jun 5 at 15:26
What do you wish to do with the PhD once you have it? –  Ian Jun 6 at 22:36
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11 Answers 11

I can't speak to whether this is possible, but I can advise as to why I think it's a bad idea.

Firstly, PhD Comics is a largely satirical and humourous representation of life in academia. Some of those comics can be scarily true, but you can probably find a comic that parodies any job you care to imagine. It doesn't mean they all suck.

Even if you could do this, for most people and disciplines it's not a good way to get a PhD. You really should find an advisor to help you guide your research. Colleagues are great to bounce ideas off of. Having an office to work in and access to a good library is a huge advantage. You will have access to high-performance computing and lab facilities, if needed. If you're lucky, you'll find someone to pay you to do your research.

At the end, you will graduate being well-absorbed into academic life. You'll have networking skills, have been to and presented at conferences, your research will be of a higher quality, and you will overall be a much more well-rounded and knowledgeable researcher than had you stuck at it alone. The skills you learn as a PhD student are essential if you wish to have a career in academia. If you wish to go on into an industry job, they're still pretty darn useful.

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"The skills you learn as a PhD student are essential if you wish to have a career in academia." You can also add the publications that would greatly help if academia is the target. –  PatW Jun 5 at 10:28
@PatW In most cases you should have an advisor or collaborators to help co-author the paper, but being affiliated with a university is not a requirement to publish. Though you're much more likely to publish more and better papers if you have an advisor and/or collaborators. –  Moriarty Jun 5 at 10:36
What I meant was that if OP is going for an academic career, publishing during his PhD would be very profitable. The situation OP wants to get in does not give him much time to do so and will probably hurt his chances in getting a position in academia. –  PatW Jun 5 at 11:33
-1 It does not answer the question. Plus, it contains a lot of wishful thinking. –  Piotr Migdal Jun 8 at 18:34
@PiotrMigdal The question has been edited somewhat in the meantime. But be that as it may, I still stand by my answer. In questions like this, I think an evaluation of the pros and cons is extremely useful - not every yes/no question warrants a yes/no response as the singular answer. What component of my answer do you think constitutes "wishful thinking"? –  Moriarty Jun 8 at 19:53
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In principle, this may be possible at some universities, but not in all. My current employer, for instance, requires students to be inscribed as PhD students for a certain minimum number of semesters before handing in their thesis.

However, I would assume it an almost impossible task to find an advisor that would roll with this model. Doing a doctoral study is as much about the process as it is about the end result, and finding an advisor that would just accept your final thesis without having seen you doing the research (and without being able to provide input on the general direction) will be difficult. From a practical point of view, I would honestly also be surprised if you would be able to actually produce an acceptable dissertation from scratch without any input from senior researchers, or at least other PhD students.

Finally, and I am aware that this is field-dependent, but in many fields, doing your literature survey is really only the very first step to doing research (and really not the hard part). Hence, I would reckon that you are still far away from the 90% completed dissertation that you mentioned.

EDIT: to answer your concrete question:

I am sure somebody somewhere has already done this, but I am not aware of anybody, and, as I said, it would formally be entirely impossible in my current university. I would also assume that it would be very much frowned upon by the rest of the faculty should a professor agree to this model.

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You have no interest in becoming a PhD student just because you read some comics? It so, it just indicates that you didn’t do your research (about what being a PhD Student means) properly.

If you are doing independent research because you find it interesting, it might be beneficial for a PhD project. Find an academic who works in that area, contact them, present your research and see if they are willing to become your supervisor. They can advise you what the rules of their university are regarding the minimal period between enrolling in a PhD programme and submitting a thesis. This period might be different for full time and part time students. In one of the UK universities I used to work, part-time students (university employees) were required to be enrolled for at least 12 months.

If you want to do as much work as possible before enrolling into the programme, I would advise against writing the literature review (or at least against writing its full version), as it might turn out to be waste of time. Read “everything” in the topic, do some experiments or develop a prototype (or do whatever practical work can be done in your area), come with an idea about your research and speak with a potential supervisor. If you manage to persuade them that the idea is good, this is great, but the discussion might give you a different direction, you might want to modify the idea.

Another thing to consider – some universities (in UK) have 2-stagies process – the students are supposed to submit a transfer report after an year/an year and a half and have a viva, which usually leads to a MPhil degree, if it is successful they can proceed further to the final thesis. A transfer report typically consists of description of the problem, short literature and an overview of your ideas about the research/experiments/methodology, etc. with a schedule for conducting it. You can write in advance the bigger part of it but don’t do it before speaking with a potential supervisor.

If you are going for a full-time PhD, you might need funding. Check first what funding is available, the specific requirements of the funding bodies might mean that your idea has to me modified to fit them.

Last but not least – chose your supervisor carefully. The importance of having a good work relationship with them can’t be overestimated. Your overall experience as a PhD students hugely depends on it.

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I know it is a cartoon, but the cartoon taught me these things: (a) PhDs are very stressful for most students, (b) students must often focus on advisor's interests, not own interests, and (c) students must live on a shoe-string budget. Did I get those wrong? –  Village Jun 5 at 12:36
a) mine wasn't stressful. IMHO, most of the stress is due to lack of research experience. The students who I know were stressed (one actually left the programme), had this bad time due to not had done research before and lack of supervision. Their supervisor just threw them in the deep water - "find a topic for your thesis and persuade me that it is a good one", followed by numerous meetings when he simply rejected the ideas. (b) see the last paragraph of my answer, (c) it depends. Speak with the supervisor (I did and was offered a part-time job in the uni) Have you considered a part time PhD? –  greenfingers Jun 5 at 12:51
@village it's not stressful it's frustrating, I'd say that any situation where you hold responsibility but not freedom is frustrating. A PhD is a prime example. –  Trylks Jun 5 at 13:30
I'd actually add that it is mostly stressful not because of PhD experience itself, but because of a certain period in life it coincides with - all people in their mid-20's are starting things out and as soon as something goes wrong start questioning their choices and depressing over things. That concerns most of the people of this age and doesn't have much to do with academia in particular. –  sashkello Jun 6 at 5:42
Answers to a,b,c and d depends a lot on the supervisor. Good supervisors are friendly, helpful and make the PhD stress free, and they won't force their agenda to you, and have good funding source. I was lucky to have not one, but two very nice supervisors, and my PhD was my best experience in life. As counter example, I know quite a few Chinese students who normally look for Chinese professors for supervision due to language convenience, but Chinese professors are used to stealing student's research by putting themselves as first author (that's what they're used to do in China). –  Mobius Pizza Jun 6 at 14:12
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Most US and Canadian universities require four semesters worth of coursework, and passing candidacy and/or comprehensive exams before you can propose a thesis. Some of this is different in other places, e.g., in the UK, where you would typically come in with a MSc degree. Doing a PhD while working elsewhere is much more common there. One university there ("The Open University") specializes in distance learning. What you suggest is also more common at German universities, where you can find top-notch professors, and won't have to pay much in the way of tuition. But, be warned, it often takes a very long time, and you would first enroll and then work with your advisor on developing your thesis work. Plenty of people never graduate.

As someone has pointed out - doing a literature review is not research. It's the beginning of it, particularly in the sciences and engineering.

In my experience (I am tenure-track faculty at a US institution), people outside of academia call a lot of work "research", and beginning graduate students confuse programming, prototyping, reading with the contribution that is inherent in successful and publishable research.

Second, keep in mind that doing a PhD is about so much more than handing in a thesis. It is about laying the foundation for a career in research. A PhD involves going to conferences, meeting people, publishing, hearing guest speakers at your institution, critiquing your lab mates' work in lab meetings, writing a proposal or two with your supervisor, and so on.

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Short answer: life is short, reduce the risks of wasting your time.

Long answer:

You are free to do as much as you please before starting a PhD. There are usually requirements about some minimums, but the good thing is that you are likely to stay close to those minimums and not get to the maximums (sometimes infinite) if you start your PhD from scratch.

You may also enjoy some spare time if all you have to do during your PhD is waiting for the minimum time to pass.

However, you should be aware that if you do independent research this may be neglected by your supervisor or simply everyone in the world. That is potentially possible and for a number of reasons:

  • bad quality, e.g. being unscientific or ignoring an important part of the state of the art.
  • it's on an irrelevant topic about which nobody cares about.
  • it's not aligned with their interests
  • it's independent and they don't like people trying to bypass them (oligopolistic practices, they have the key to research, if you don't go through them, you are not doing research)
  • the fragment of your thesis that you do at the university is on a different topic and becomes a whole thesis on its own
  • it's already done
  • whatever

The point is, all the time that you invest before starting the PhD may be wasted, actually a large chunk of the time that you invest during the PhD (at some university) will most probably be wasted as well. This is what happens with investments.

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"it's independent and they don't like people trying to bypass them (oligopolistic practices, they have the key to research, if you don't go through them, you are not doing research)" This. Biggest problem for independent researchers. So much processing is based solely on affiliation. (Sufficiently many academics do not read work itself, don't judge based on it. They look at conclusions, if they like those they look at where the work was done.) I'm talking about published work in known journals. Of unpublished work, not done while at an institution may not be accepted for that reason alone. –  Guido Jorg Jun 7 at 1:01
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To give you examples of short PhDs, there are instances for some prodigies in mathematics that they got their PhDs in about two years, e.g., Noam Elkies. Elkies also published in (one of the) top math journals in the world when he graduated, so it made sense for them to graduate him. There are some one-year PhDs in the history of mathematics, though these are typically nominal PhDs given to Russian mathematicians that needed one to leave Russia, to come to the US, and to find a new academic position.

Clearly, these are exceptions to the typical rules and these were only done at top tier universities for top tier talents. I believe the intent for these short PhDs seems a lot different from what your intent is.

FWIW: The five years I spent in grad school are the best five years of my life. You may be not allowing yourself to have the experience of a lifetime.

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Since you've changed the question, my comment transforms to an answer. There are many people far more qualified than I am to talk about this, but none of them have answered in this way, so here goes:

In some UK universities (I happen to be in the UK) and also elsewhere in the world, there is an alternative route to a PhD called a "PhD by publication", which you can find out about under that name in the UK and presumably other names in other countries / languages. There's also a rarer "PhD by practice", which I believe is intended to cover work that isn't as such "published" at all, such as fine arts, architecture, theatre and whatnot.

I sort of doubt that a paper that "should" be peer-review published but that you haven't published, or in general work that you keep entirely to yourself prior to submitting for the PhD, would qualify even for "by practice". But it's largely down to the regulations of the individual institution, so if you're interested then you should contact specific institutions for further information. The general theme, though, is that you don't get a PhD just for working in a field. Your work should have enhanced the field, in the same way that a traditional PhD is an original contribution to the progress of its field.

Either route requires that you have already produced work that is deemed worthy to contribute to a PhD. You will demonstrate this work as part of the application. Of course there's quite a lot of detail and judgement as to what's deemed worthy. It may also be deemed necessary to submit new written work to bring together multiple separate publications into a coherent thesis. There is no guarantee at all that work you think is good, will be considered good by the institution when you apply. That, after all, is one of the roles of a PhD supervisor, to assess the academic value of your work before you do it as well as afterwards.

This is the way to quickly be awarded a PhD based on past work. It is intended for a professional in some field that does research outside academia, or someone within academia but who for some reason has not been enrolled in a PhD program while publishing. It's suitable for example for research scientists in industry, or authors whose work contributes to some field even though they aren't employed as academics. It is not construed as a means to avoid the main part of a PhD program, and indeed it doesn't work by enrolling you in the program and immediately examining you. It's a distinct, designed route to a PhD.

In the same way that people might weigh the value of your PhD based on where you got it from, people might weigh the value of your PhD based on the route you got it. Which is a diplomatic way of saying that a PhD by publication is not universally accepted to be as good as a conventional PhD. In particular it makes no attempt to prepare you for professional academia, and academics will know this.

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In many places (e.g., here in Finland) the following two things are largely independent from each other:

  1. Doctoral student status (i.e., being enrolled as a doctoral student). You have got the right to take courses, there is a professor who is willing to advise you, etc. There are of course high expectations but very few formal obligations — you are your own boss and you can do whatever you want, at your own pace.

  2. A job as a doctoral student or a similar position (i.e., having a working contract with the university). You receive salary, and you are also expected to do something in return. Formally, your advisor is your boss and tells you what to do during your working hours.

Of course 2 usually implies 1. However, it is perfectly well possible to take 1 without 2. In that case you can get your salary from whatever source you want. Typical examples include:

  • working part time elsewhere and doing your studies part time
  • working full time elsewhere and doing your studies part time (and having no free time or holidays)
  • working full time in a job that somehow also supports your PhD studies
  • getting a personal research grant and doing your studies full time.

I do not recommend this for a typical student, but in atypical cases all of these are possible. And yes, you can certainly defend your thesis as soon as you, your advisor, your university, and the external reviewers are happy with it (whether you finished it 6 monts or 6 years after formally starting your studies).

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The main part of a thesis is publishable and published research

There are "PhD by publication" options that others have mentioned. If you have a number of solid peer reviewed publications, then that is an option that you can take to get a degree quicker. If you don't have such publications, then your thesis can't be mostly completed, it has all of the nontrivial work yet to be done.

Unpublishable things can't be "much of a PhD thesis"

No matter how much work you've put into 'research'-as-in-reading-and-reviewing, data gathering, etc, all of that is just preliminary background work, even if you have put it in a nicely structured 200-page document and label it a "thesis". The main and time consuming part of a PhD is obtaining novel, relevant and thus publishable results; if you don't have them, then that's not a PhD thesis, and not even a half-done thesis.

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In general, it is not a good idea to do a whole lot of work on a PhD thesis before taking the PhD program. The reason is because your earlier research/exposition will likely not be up to the PhD standards that you will learn by taking the required courses.

That said, there are some topics that are very data intensive, and if you do a lot of the data gathering before taking the PhD program, and most of the data "processing" and interpretation after you're in the program, that's a different story. Here, the ratio might be 50-50, not the 90-10 that you hypothesized in your question.

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I don't agree that gathering (useful) data requires less skill/training than other aspects of research. –  ff524 Jun 5 at 21:29
@ff524: There are people who left corporations to take PhD programs in say, marketing, and their best source of day came from their former companies and day jobs.My former economics professor, for one. –  Tom Au Jun 5 at 21:48
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PhD student who never completed here (so take what I'm saying with a grain of salt). I would advise against what you're describing because I do not believe it is in the spirit of the system and it raises issues for all who know what you are trying to do.

Like life itself you can choose to shortcut the system but if people find out what you've done they can punish you for it.

If you completed a significant amount of your research before doing your PhD then published it as part of your PhD thesis what on earth was your supervisor doing? What would your PhD examiner(s) say if they found out - do another year of new research then submit again? What are the ethics involved of what you have done? How does that look for those who are involved in what you did? What does it look like for the University and what will academics in other departments say?

A further issue crops up if the University is funding you. If I give you funding for three years and you said you were done in less than two as your supervisor/funder I would simply turn round and say do additional research for another year so you have a greater body of work published.

Another wrinkle is that in certain Universities it is not possible to submit a final dissertation for a PhD before two years ("thems the rules").

It is possible for people to finish PhDs early compared to the average of that university/country (I knew a talented faculty member who did this) but I do not personally know of anyone who managed to do this in under two years.

To answer your questions directly:

Are you allowed to do your research before your PhD enrolment and be viva'd after one year?

Theoretically you can do anything so long as you will find people who will agree to it. Practically it's very unlikely you would find a well regarded department who would want to this in anything but the most exceptional circumstances (proposed PhD student is already held in high esteem by the department and the entire field of academics in the field they wish to publish in (because your external will come from there)). If you withhold the fact that the work was done prior to the PhD you step into ethical issues.

Has this been done before?

I don't personally know of it happening in field I was researching. You can finish faster than average (three and a half years where I was) without prior work and I know part time students who have done so (but...).

One extra note: you had better make sure that your work is novel and hasn't been published anywhere else before before you submit it or there's another can of worms waiting for you...

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