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My engineering university offers a relatively new option to do an article-based dissertation, where the primary research is submitted (and hopefully published) in several scientific journals (at my university it's 3). The dissertation is then shorter than a typical PhD, because it describes how the articles fit together to form the thesis, etc.

It's a relatively new idea (for engineering PhDs and for me), which I find interesting as an advisor because it engages PhD students more in the research experience (publishing). Also, it is theoretically more efficient for the advisor and student (as a co-author), since time and energy spent on revising could be more focused on getting publications, and not only on a big PhD dissertation that few people will ever read.

There are other advantages described here (not my university).

My question is not about whether it's good or bad, but how the role of an advisor on co-authored papers might change in such cases.

For example, when students write a traditional dissertation (masters or otherwise), they often struggle with communicating. Students grow and improve written communication and contents of the dissertation in an iterative and incremental process (draft revisions after feedback from the advisor).

In traditional grad-student co-authorship setting, I would take a more active role as an editor (as my advisor did when I was a PhD student) on a paper, mostly because of experience and to increase chances of getting an article published. Sometimes that role is minimal, if only a workshop or conference is targeted, since it might be easier to publish there.

But with an article-based PhD, it seems that the active approach in editing co-authored journal papers is essential, and in effect writing a big part of the dissertation for the student. I realize every case is different.

I'd be happy to know from experienced advisors in this setting to know if and how an advisor's role must change in article-based PhDs.

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    This is commonly referred to as a “staple thesis”. – F'x Mar 24 '13 at 20:36
  • "staple thesis" -- makes it sound not as good, somehow. Is this true, or are these considered just as good as traditional theses? – James Mar 25 '13 at 2:03
  • @James I thought a staple thesis was a traditional thesis? It doesn't mean staple as in "basic" but rather that you staple 3 publications together. – Austin Henley Mar 25 '13 at 2:22
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    @James I've also heard them called a "sandwich thesis". At least in my field, they're not only considered just as good, but the traditional "book" thesis is regarded as "Why would you do that?" – Fomite Mar 25 '13 at 2:23
  • Another term used is "compilation thesis". – mhwombat Dec 3 '15 at 14:53
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The system of article-based theses has been the norm in my field and university for as long as we have been in existence, although monographs are also accepted. We therefore lack experience with monographs, although I wrote my thesis as a monograph in the US system once upon a time.

The main differences, as I see it, between monograph and article writing is that with articles, you must reach a high level very early during your PhD study. With a monograph you can work on all of it until the very last moment. With an article-based thesis, articles must be planned and written up early on. I would say that it is both common and useful to have the first paper being mainly written by the advisor so that the student can learn from scratch in every part of the article write-up. Since the goal is to make independent researchers out of the PhD students it follows that the advisor involvement should gradually decrease over time. This is of course good in theory but difficult in practise. The point is, however, that it is important to get an early start with the writing and the structure of the work has to be such that it is clear that publishable results can emerge after the first or second year.

Article-based these need to be thought through so that papers can be produced. We let the advisor and student write up a time plan for the PhD work which also outlines the basic research work and the resulting papers. The plan is filed by the subject responsible. This plan is followed up annually so that changes can be discussed between advisor, student and subject responsible. This is useful since everyone needs to think things through on a regular basis.

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    +1 for "I would say that it is both common and useful to have the first paper being mainly written by the advisor so that the student can learn from scratch in every part of the article writeup". For me (a grad student), this has been one of the most valuable experiences so far. I wrote the first draft and then could compare it, sentence by sentence, to the massively corrected version. The goal, my advisor said, is to get less and less corrections as the PhD progresses. And indeed, I am now much closer to putting together something satisfactory for a journal publication on the first try. – Ana Mar 23 '13 at 17:04
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    putting together something satisfactory for a journal publication on the first try — If you ever figure out how to do that, please let me know; I've been trying to get to that point for 20+ years. – JeffE Mar 24 '13 at 19:32
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    @JeffE - Well, something that would only require major revisions :) Or rather, something my supervisor would find mostly satisfactory. I don't even think of the alternative (a paper accepted with only minor comments) as a realistic option. I don't know anyone who manages to pull that off. – Ana Mar 24 '13 at 19:59
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    I'm not sure I agreed that one requires more advanced timing than the other - in many places, the papers are only required to have been submitted, or as ready for submission. Subjecting a student to the vagaries of the submission process seems contrived - are students who are "done" simply expected to cool their heals for 6 months to a year while journals ponder? – Fomite Mar 25 '13 at 2:24
  • @EpiGrad at my uni the articles need only be submitted. On the other hand, it's bad advertising if a prof lets students send immature journal submissions (especially when they're co-authored). My limited experience as a jury member in one article-based PhD showed that unresolved issues in the research (that probably prevented journal approval of the first draft) turned up in the defense. Another reason for advanced timing, IMO. – Fuhrmanator Mar 25 '13 at 14:56
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This topic is near and dear to my heart, as the number of days until I finish exactly such a thesis is measured in a single digit number.

If you field is dominated by journal, rather than book, publications, I think its a vastly superior system, leaves you better prepared for what you'll actually have to do in the future, and leaves your CV in hopefully a stronger place.

But with an article-based PhD, it seems that the active approach in editing co-authored journal papers is essential, and in effect writing a big part of the dissertation for the student. I realize every case is different.

This has not been my experience - even the most active members of my committee who are co-authors on papers can't really be said to have written a significant portion of my work. Generally speaking, I would send them a fully fleshed out draft paper for their comments (which is exactly what I tend to do as first-author on a non-thesis paper), and then we'd iterate through the draft several times as they tinkered with language, added their own pet sentences, asked for additional analysis, etc. But the paper, in its final form, is very much dominated by my work and my writing.

One of the keys may be to not wait until the end of someone's graduate career to work on their writing. If someone needs you to fundamentally rewrite massive parts of their dissertation papers, in my mind they're not ready to defend. They should be at a stage of maturity where they can produce largely independent writing, in need of only the usual modifications a co-author would provide to a manuscript.

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I am about to finish a thesis composed of papers published in peer-reviewed journals. I am the only author to half of the papers, and the others are coauthored with my advisor.

The process is as you describe, we do research together, discussing ideas, proofs (I am in mathematics), computer experiments, etc. and I usually write most if not all of the text, any my advisor makes suggestions on improvements.

I really think this process is superior to writing a monograph, since you get experience in the submission/review process, and being published really counts for something. Also, being the single author on some articles is usually a requirement for getting the phd, so people will know that you did some research yourself (of course, you discuss the progress with your advisor).

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