PhD by Published Works: The Mindful Route?
Dr Jill Dickinson and Dr James Marson
It is trite comment that academic staff have faced increasing pressures given the changes to working practices following the outbreak of the pandemic. Among these have been the intensification in workload and increased expectations as to staff availability and changes to pedagogy (features which had existed prior to the pandemic with the increased commercialisation of the sector). Even before 2020, many academic staff were also, frequently, being expected to obtain the degree of PhD. Some found this to be a requirement for continued employment at their university, others wished to undertake this study for their own personal and professional development.
Traditionally, the member of staff would register for a PhD on a part-time basis and complete and submit a monograph thesis. Some staff would be given university support through work planned hours, but it was not uncommon for universities to provide payment of the student’s fees, and no further assistance. This can compound concerns about attrition rates as the requirements of work may simply mean the possibility of sustained progress on the PhD is lost and with it the desire and motivation to complete.
More recently, universities have diversified the routes to a PhD. Academic staff may embark on a PhD through (prospectively) publishing academic articles along with the submission of a substantial thesis (accounting for about 30,000 of the 80,000-word total submission). Alternatively, those staff who have an existing body of academic publications may choose to select published papers (a retrospective route) accounting for approximately 70,000 words along with a 10,000-word narrative account explaining the philosophical and thematic links between the papers and their contribution to knowledge. These routes, which we are cumulatively referring to as PhD by published works, are increasingly being recommended by universities for staff seeking to pursue PhDs. This appears sensible for several reasons.
Completion of a PhD by published works may include a more easily identifiable and certain demonstration of the student’s progress towards completion; potentially REF returnable outputs regardless of the completion of the degree; and the host university’s ability to claim such outputs during the tenure of the academic. However, we believe that the wellbeing of staff who take this route are paramount. The monograph PhD is a largely lonely exercise, replete with the highs and lows of feedback, feelings of imposter syndrome, difficulties in obtaining and analysing research material, and a dedicated period of immersion in the topic and literature. Whilst several of these obstacles can be exacerbated for members of academic staff as PhD students, the PhD by published works can ease them. As joint papers can be submitted (with the requisite assertions of contribution percentage), the fear of rejection and the loneliness of writing can be alleviated. The production and publication of papers throughout the PhD journey establish markers and discernible evidence of progress and success. The student does not have to wait until the viva for confirmation that their work is of the appropriate academic standard. On-going publications assure the candidate of the originality of their contribution (given that no academic paper should be published if it fails to make a convincing claim of originality). The PhD by published works allows a supervisor to help the student to formulate a plan either for retrospectively establishing linkages across existing publications to justify a coherent body of work, or for prospectively producing publications which demonstrate research across a range of methods and target journals which justify the quality, scrutiny, and originality of the outputs.
Ultimately, these established routes provide valuable options for academic members of staff to undertake a PhD. This may be because of institutional requirements to possess the qualification, and/or, much more preferably (because of the potential positivity of the experience), because the member of staff wishes to challenge themselves and obtain one of the highest academic qualifications. The PhD by published works fosters an environment for: incremental ‘wins’ through published articles: increased confidence and motivation for preparing the next paper; and perceiving doctoral studies as a series of manageable hurdles (rather than the production of an 80,000-word tome which can often appear insurmountable in the September of a(nother) busy year of teaching and administration). Thankfully, mindfulness and mental wellbeing are increasingly important aspects of academic life, and these routes to a PhD may ensure staff can achieve this qualification and in a way which emboldens their belief in their academic abilities rather than being one which often hampers it.
Dr Jill Dickinson is a Senior Lecturer in Law, currently on secondment with the Student Engagement, Evaluation and Research team at Sheffield Hallam University. Jill’s research interests encompass law, place and space, and higher education, and she sits on the England Committee for the International Professional Development Association.
Dr James Marson is Reader in Law and Postgraduate Research Tutor at Sheffield Hallam University. He has published widely on topics including legal pedagogy and holds editorial board positions at a number of journals.
Feeling connected, supported and valued
Review of 2021 publication ‘Protective factors and sources of support in the workplace as experienced by UK foundation and junior doctors: a qualitative study’.
I have chosen this paper to review because of the potential it has to provide some suggestions to support junior lawyers experiencing stress or burnout in the workplace. It also caught my eye because the project examined “the wider systemic, organisational and cultural sources of distress” rather than individual risk factors and interventions.
There are some parallels between the position of junior doctors and junior lawyers such as a culture of long working hours, a potential mismatch between demands of the job and the individual’s level of experience, and perceived stigma in relation to declaring mental health issues. One source of stress is the fear of making a mistake and this can be exacerbated by tiredness brought on by long hours of work.
The professions have significant differences that must also be considered when making suggestions arising from this research. There are considerable differences between harm resulting from medical and legal error and the legal profession is more disparate in types of legal practice where, for example, a high street practitioner is less likely to be working in a team compared to a city practitioner.
The paper reports on the results of a qualitative analysis of 21 interviews with junior doctors. It is part of a larger research project that also examines sources of work-related psychological distress. Potential sources of work-related psychological distress identified by this project team were:
workload and working conditions;
toxic work cultures – abuse and bullying, sexism and racism, culture of blaming and shaming; lack of support;
and stigma and a perceived need to appear invulnerable.
The study that I am reviewing professes to be the first qualitative study of working conditions, work cultures and factors that may protect junior doctors from psychological distress. I need to check if anything has been done with junior lawyers and if not – we are the team to take this on!
The conclusion summarises the findings and this review will unpack these ideas and seek to apply them to the legal profession. Here is our list:
peer support and access to appropriate professional support (outside the NHS)
effective management practices,
These factors were selected because they “can help mitigate the negative impact of working conditions and cultures experienced by junior doctors. Feeling connected, supported and valued by colleagues and consultants acts as an important buffer against emotional distress despite working under challenging working conditions.”
Stress has found to be higher in junior doctors than in consultants by a number of research studies and this is attributed, in part, to lack of support or mentoring and “working beyond one’s perceived abilities”. It we were to apply Self-Determination Theory, the experience of competence is a key ingredient for the promotion of wellbeing. This factor is also important in relation to junior lawyers as is evidenced from the JLD survey results 2017, 2018 and 2019. Doctors who were being investigated as a result of possible error experienced higher rates of stress.
These three main themes can be used to develop our thinking about support for junior lawyers. The first factor that protected junior doctors from stress and burnout is support from work colleagues, including help with workloads and emotional support. These doctors work in teams, unlike some junior lawyers, and the best working environment for these doctors resulted from a sharing of responsibility for workload. Furthermore, emotional support from within the team was considered to be an important factor in ensuring an ability to cope with the demands of the job. They were ‘in it together’. The opposite of a supportive work culture was described to be one of a ‘blame culture’.
The second theme identified was supportive leadership strategies where junior doctors felt valued, where there was trust and communication and a supportive learning environment and where vulnerability was normalised. Errors were viewed as opportunities for learning. Senior members of staff destigmatised experiences of mental ill health by sharing their own stories. The 2018 High Court cases where solicitors had been struck off for dishonesty based upon failing to disclose mistakes immediately comes to mind. Fear engendered by the lack of a supportive working environment contributes to this response to error and there are potential learning points for legal practitioners from this research into the experiences of junior doctors.
The medical profession has adopted a duty of candour. According to the General Medical Council every healthcare professional “must be open and honest with patients when something that goes wrong with their treatment or care causes, or has the potential to cause, harm or distress.” The medical profession is committed to learning from mistakes following the Francis Review into the Mid Staffordshire scandal. NHS Resolution has as one of its four main objectives: Safety and Learning: supporting the NHS to better understand and learn from claims, concerns and disputes; to target safety activity while sharing learning across the NHS.
As for the legal profession, according to paragraphs 6.4 and 14.1 of The Administrative Court: Judicial Review Guide 2020, the duty of candour is a special one affecting parties to judicial review. The impact of legal mistake is different especially with compulsory insurance. Nonetheless there is sense in adopting a mindset of learning from error.
The third theme indicated the importance of access to professional support including specialist support services for doctors, accessing private therapy or medical treatment from one’s GP. Few junior doctors sought help within the workplace although some suggested a potential benefit of regular group sessions to create a safe space to share the emotional impact of the job. Few participants had confided in their superior or line manager. This indication of stigma is reflected in the surveys published in the legal profession.
The paper concludes with highlighting the value and importance of social relationships at work in “buffering the demands of the job” particularly where there have been adverse events, something unlikely to occur within legal practice thank goodness. It also emphasizes the value of working in “supportive, cohesive and connected teams”. A supportive work culture was engendered by good leadership “consultants with proactive leadership and management styles that allow staff to feel supported by being valued, involved, heard and respected.” The authors warn of the dangers of relying upon individual leaders and recommend “a whole systems approach” – not so easy for legal practice. Finally, access to confidential support was important especially where provided externally.
Limitations of the project included a notable disparity in gender amongst the participants with more females coming forward. Recruitment criteria included experience within the last 4 years of stress, distress, mental illness, self-harm, suicidal thoughts feelings and intent. Very few participants reported having suicidal thoughts or self-harm attempts.
There are clear differences in terms of working conditions between junior doctors and junior lawyers with the obvious contrast in the impact of harm resulting from error. However, I suggest that there are sufficient factors identified in the parallel research into sources of distress (workload and working conditions; toxic work cultures – abuse and bullying, sexism and racism, culture of blaming and shaming; lack of support; and stigma and a perceived need to appear invulnerable) that make this a very useful starting point to consider support in the legal profession.
 Riley, R., Kokab, F., Buszewicz, M., Gopfert, A., Van Hove, M., Taylor, A. K., … & Chew-Graham, C. (2021). Protective factors and sources of support in the workplace as experienced by UK foundation and junior doctors: a qualitative study. BMJ open, 11(6), e045588.
 Riley, R., Buszewicz, M., Kokab, F., Teoh, K., Gopfert, A., Taylor, A. K., … & Chew-Graham, C. (2021). Sources of work-related psychological distress experienced by UK-wide foundation and junior doctors: a qualitative study. BMJ open, 11(6), e043521.