I am a very enthusiastic person academically and I love to gather new (sometimes irrelevant but useful) knowledge about my field in my free time. I am now at the point where I would like to start writing a paper on something in my field of interest and based on my own research.

If my paper is credible, contributes to my field and fulfills the standards that apply to any PhD thesis, would I be awarded a doctorate if I applied for the degree and publish the paper?

As an undergraduate, I don't know much about a PhD program. From what I know, it's simply you and your research that counts. I understand that, in the last analysis, it is the contribution to your field that counts. Am I missing anything?

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    A doctoral program requires more than just a thesis. Take a look at the graduation requirements for various programs in your field to get a sense of what is required.
    – Zach H
    May 31, 2015 at 22:35
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    I voted to leave this question open because the question linked did not specify a written thesis while this one does. But, I must admit I dislike this question because there is some ego in it.
    – Nobody
    Jun 1, 2015 at 6:51
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    In the second paragraph you call your intended work both a paper and a thesis. In many fields, those two types of documents differ considerably in size (although that's not generally true). Have you considered publishing your findings in a journal or at a conference instead of submitting it as a thesis?
    – Thomas
    Jun 1, 2015 at 7:18
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    Maybe, but why would you do that? Doing research that can lead to a PhD is usually a paid work; its (comparatively) not that hard to get funding for it. What would be the benefits of doing basically the same work, but without salary, supervision, access to a groups of academic peers, and other benefits a PhD program typically offers?
    – kfx
    Jun 1, 2015 at 10:05
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    Doing research that can lead to a PhD is usually a paid work — That really depends on your discipline, and your country.
    – JeffE
    Jun 1, 2015 at 20:27

7 Answers 7


Just write your paper, as long as the writing does not distract you from your undergrad studies. If the paper has merit, you may be able to present it at a colloquium of your university, at a workshop, or even at a conference. If you put some more work into it and are lucky, you might eventually be able to publish it in a journal. Certainly, your paper will open up more questions than it answers. Now you have a research trajectory that you can follow up and that may lead to a PhD thesis, based on but surely not limited to your first paper.

In other words: There is no reason why you should not start to work on your PhD topic already as an undergraduate, but it seems to me that you underestimate the time and work it takes to finish the PhD. And since PhDs require a lot of work, there are PhD programs, which facilitate the process and in which most PhDs are actually produced. In that sense, writing your PhD outside of the designated framework is a bit like digging a well with a spoon. It can be done, but it is not too efficient. On top of that (as others have said already), at many institutions, the written thesis is only one requirement among others to be awarded a title.

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    PhD seen as digging a well - so true.
    – marsei
    Jun 1, 2015 at 23:12
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    @macduf, actually, even in a PhD program, it is all digging with a spoon and no water. Jun 1, 2015 at 23:17

If my paper is credible, fruitful to my field and otherwise fulfilling the standards that any PhD thesis should

A research paper is not a thesis. Theses are usually expositions upon some field that the author has contributed to, and frequently contain extensive background that is typically omitted in academic literature. Indeed, many of my colleagues in industry have published research papers without having PhDs.

... would I be awarded a doctorate if I'd publish and wish for it?

In addition, you would need to find a university to endorse your work, which often requires collaborating with faculty.

Although, if your work is truly groundbreaking and you spend a lot of time hanging out at a particular campus, you might qualify for an honorary degree!

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    The latter is of course so exceptional that it is not a reasonable strategy to pursue. Jun 1, 2015 at 9:12
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    @henning hence the exclamation mark!
    – Mikhail
    Jun 1, 2015 at 9:34
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    To say nothing of the fact that an honorary doctorate is effectively worthless in academia. That's why the ads say, "earned doctorate." That honorary degree might carry some prestige outside academia, but not among those who know.
    – Bob Brown
    Jan 7, 2017 at 18:16

All this depends on the field, the country, etc. but in theory, if you already have a master's degree, it is possible to get a PhD based on previous (published) research. But typically not on a single paper. (Over)generalizing and assuming your research is genuinely interesting and meets all the (sometimes arbitrary) requirements of your field, a rough guideline is that you need material corresponding to at least three papers.

You would also need to write some intro/conclusion putting the research in context, make revisions based on your advisors' comments, find a jury and satisfy them. You cannot just show up with a paper and “wish” for a PhD, at least not from a real, reputable university. That's assuming you really manage to make your research publication-worthy (which means not only rigorous but also connected to recent literature and current problems in your field) and find a faculty willing to accommodate you as it's not the “normal” way to get a PhD.

Don't overlook the bit about finding an advisor: It's incredibly important. The PhD is really an apprenticeship under the supervision of a full professor. You don't ask a university or department for a doctorate, there is no process to submit a thesis and have it evaluated on your own, it's all driven by faculty members and you won't even be allowed to defend a thesis if it's not endorsed by one (he or she would also typically help you recruit a jury).

Realistically, a mediocre thesis can be validated if a professor puts his or her mind to it, asks friends to sit in the jury, etc. but even brilliant work is nothing if you don't find an interested academic to move the process along.

Beyond that, others have mentioned extra requirements but the thesis is really the most important thing. In my experience, in Europe (I got my PhD in the Netherlands but I know a little bit about France, Germany, or the UK), it's increasingly common to organise some mandatory courses for PhD candidates but the load is very light, a few short courses about soft skills or methodology with no exam, only pass/fail based on attendance. And there are ways around that if you have a good reason.

But to be perfectly honest, your question suggests you are not very familiar with academia so it seems highly unlikely you would succeed in getting a PhD without proper support. I am not sure why you want one but if it's important to you, it might be a better idea to simply enroll in a PhD program.

  • This is the right information! You are missing something, an advisor! Sep 27, 2015 at 3:47

An example of someone who did just this was Ludwig Wittgenstein. So yes you could, especially if you are a genius.

Wittgenstein wrote the Tractatus during his free time and it was used as his thesis for his Cambridge PhD.

Wittgenstein came to feel that he could not get to the heart of his most fundamental questions while surrounded by other academics, and so in 1913 he retreated to the village of Skjolden in Norway, where he rented the second floor of a house for the winter. He later saw this as one of the most productive periods of his life, writing Logik (Notes on Logic), the predecessor of much of the Tractatus.


In the summer of 1918 Wittgenstein took military leave and went to stay in one of his family's Vienna summer houses, Neuwaldegg. It was there in August 1918 that he completed the Tractatus


he could not initially work at Cambridge as he did not have a degree, so he applied as an advanced undergraduate. Russell noted that his previous residency was sufficient for a PhD, and urged him to offer the Tractatus as his thesis. It was examined in 1929 by Russell and Moore; at the end of the thesis defence, Wittgenstein clapped the two examiners on the shoulder and said, "Don't worry, I know you'll never understand it." Moore wrote in the examiner's report: "I myself consider that this is a work of genius; but, even if I am completely mistaken and it is nothing of the sort, it is well above the standard required for the Ph.D. degree." Wittgenstein was appointed as a lecturer and was made a fellow of Trinity College. (Wikipedia)

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    It was also convenient that Wittgenstein came from a very wealthy family. Jun 1, 2015 at 20:26
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    @TobiasKildetoft: If you spent your free time in a Norwegian winter house and an Austrian summer house and produced a work similar in quality to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, I am pretty sure you'd be awarded a PhD too, even in 2015.
    – user10885
    Jun 2, 2015 at 14:39
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    It did also take him 16 years from the start of that to getting the PhD so it's not efficient
    – Stephanie
    Jun 4, 2015 at 23:27
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    @Stephanie: I think it safe to say that in writing the Tractatus, Wittgenstein was not motivated by the possibility of getting a PhD degree. And also, he didn't spend all of those 16 years working on his "dissertation".
    – user10885
    Jun 7, 2015 at 15:34
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    Wittgenstein's example is indeed the one that comes to mind but it's interesting to note that he didn't get a PhD upon writing the book or submit it to be evaluated as an unknown genius (that is what the OP seems to have in mind). He got a PhD a decade after writing the book, with the help of Bertrand Russell, for administrative reasons. In other words, even for someone universally acknowledged as a genius, you need an advisor.
    – Relaxed
    Apr 29, 2019 at 20:12

No, as commenter Zach H points out, doctoral programs also have other requirements, such as courses and sometimes exams.

UPDATE: As commenters have shown, my answer was US-centric and thus incorrect. I'd delete it, but that would delete the helpful comments below.

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    It depends on discipline, country and university. Some asian universities have no course requirements for a PhD in literature for instance.
    – Ketan
    May 31, 2015 at 22:40
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    It's normal in the UK for the thesis to be the only mandatory requirement for a PhD (but this is not to say that anyone with a thesis-esque document could walk in and be awarded a degree).
    – dbmag9
    May 31, 2015 at 22:52
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    How unfortunate you'd be if you had to do coursework during your PhD. That's what undergrad is for! Jun 1, 2015 at 5:49
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    The classical German doctorate as well requires you just to write, defend, and publish a book-length PhD thesis. There are no course requirements. Jun 1, 2015 at 9:11
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    @Mikhail The coursework years of US PhD programs are more or less what the two Master studies years are for in the EU (post-Bologna reforms). You can't go straight from BA to PhD grad school in most EU countries. Jun 1, 2015 at 9:38

PhD programs provide funding for, typically, no more than four years. Given that the average time to completion is well in excess of that (it was ten years in the UC Berkeley English department last time I checked), the reality is that the majority of PhD theses are completed during time not spent doing remunerated work, which is another name for "free time". So yes, not only can you do a PhD thesis in your free time, in most cases that's what you'll end up doing even if you enroll in a formal PhD program. Hope that helps...

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    Could you provide a reference for this? 4 years is definitely lower than average for the programs I am familiar with. Jun 2, 2015 at 11:15

The front page of every PhD thesis states "Submit as Partial Fulfillment of the Degree". So, a thesis is a must but not all for a PhD degree. The degree requires years of academic training, not as simple as just one thesis, or several published research papers.

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    "The front page of every PhD thesis states "Submit as Partial Fulfillment of the Degree"." No, they don't (mine didn't for example). Jun 2, 2015 at 11:15

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