By Dmitry Abbakumov, PhD KU Leuven in Educational Sciences, Head of HSE Centre for Computational Educational Sciences

Five years ago, I stepped on my doctoral route, which led me to the title of Doctor of Educational Sciences from KU Leuven four years later, in September 2019. When I moved to Belgium, I planned to write a monograph — a typical type of dissertation in Russia, also called “the brick.” However, my wise supervisor suggested that I should consider another type — a collection of articles, which was becoming very popular. Almost all his students opt for this type to obtain a degree.

Typically, a doctoral degree can be awarded on the basis of at least three articles, each of which should be already published or accepted for publication in international journals. This has already been the golden standard in natural and medical sciences for some time. In social sciences, a doctoral student can seize this opportunity, too. To do this, it seems to be a good practice to make a collection of papers look like a monograph in tribute to the tradition. The doctoral student writes a research proposal first, receives approval from the supervisor, and then works on the doctoral project itself.

In this blog post, I’d like to share my experience of defending a dissertation based on published papers and offer some advice on how to do it in five steps.

Preparatory stage

The first step of a doctoral journey is to prepare a research proposal. The proposal is a 10–15-page document consisting of a general motivation part and a brief description of several studies (three or four), which you plan to conduct. Later on, these studies are expected to become articles in your collection. Although each study may be described in a similar way (e.g., the rationale and a research question, the method and data, expected results), it is worth making an explicit description of the overall design of the whole doctoral project in a few sentences and put it right after the general motivation (before the studies description). You need to show the principle of how those independent papers are connected and complement each other.

For instance,

“The doctoral project is designed as three separate studies. The first one is a structured literature review aimed at … The second and third papers are empirical research showing the effect … under conditions of …” or “The doctoral project consists of three independent empirical studies. In the first and the second studies, we measure A for two different conditions, Y and Z. In the third one, we measure B using the same methodology.”

You can see that the overall design description is a good way to prepare the reader to perceive the doctoral project as a whole piece even if the studies are or seem to be completely independent.

While planning which articles to include in the collection, you need to ask yourself a question: What may unify the studies? Even if the articles in the doctoral project are partially or completely independent, there is a way to bind them substantively. For instance, a doctoral student can use different research methods (qualitative and/or quantitative) but apply them to one content area. In this case, the magic binder can be the content. On the other hand, one can use a single method (e.g. multilevel logistic regression) to discover different phenomena. Here the method can unite those studies. Another example is a specific application of different methods; for instance, a doctoral student is interested in tracking the growth of learners’ knowledge and s/he is using different methods for detecting it in different learning environments. In this case, it is the application which makes the dissertation whole. There are possible different combinations of these magic binders. It is important to find the right combination and then to describe it explicitly in the doctoral project proposal.

For example,

“In the four empirical studies, we have used the same psychometric framework of cross-classification multilevel logistic models proposed by Van den Noortgate, De Boeck, and Meulders (2003). This flexible framework allowed extending the Rasch model without running into computational issues of model identification. Another common feature for the four studies is the data. We have used real datasets from the Coursera platform (the access has been granted by National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia).”

Polishing the dissertation

When the doctoral project has been completed, the articles are published (or accepted), it is time to make the collection look like a monograph. The first thing one can do is to prepare an integrative introduction to the dissertation. To do it, a doctoral student should first review her/his doctoral project proposal and check whether the planned studies are complete, changed or replaced. After this review, the doctoral student should revise this document accordingly. Do not forget to update the design and the magic binder descriptions. Finally, the doctoral student has to guide the reader through the text.

For instance,

“The dissertation consists of five stand-alone articles following this introductory chapter — four empirical and one conceptual. In the four empirical chapters, we have proposed extensions for the most common IRT model, the Rasch model (Rasch, 1960), aimed at solving the following problems. In Article 1, we have improved the proficiency measures by modeling the effect of attempts and by involving non-assessment data such as learners’ interaction with video lectures and practical tasks. In Article 2, we have modeled individual growth in proficiency through the MOOC as an effect of the cumulative sum of video lectures a learner has watched before responding on a summative assessment item. In Article 3, we have established a more nuanced insight on the role of proficiency on the learners’ performance by involving one extra latent effect, the effect of learners’ interest. In Article 4, we have proposed a way to measure learners’ activity (e.g., watching videos, reading texts) as influenced by a latent learner characteristic and a latent content characteristic. In the final, reflective and conceptual Article 5, we have summarized a connection between psychometrics, as a scientific discipline, and MOOCs, as an industry, and have sketched the future development of psychometrics of MOOCs.”

One more way of making the collection look like a monograph is writing a comprehensive general discussion — this is the final part of the doctoral dissertation. There are at least three questions which can help the doctoral student to write a great general discussion:

  • How do your results contribute to the field?

For instance, s/he can discuss whether the findings support or refute the existing knowledge in the field. It may be also appropriate to describe new challenges found during research.

  • What are the general limitations of the project?

Answering this question, the doctoral student should avoid repeating particular limitations described in her/his articles. It is critically important to concentrate on discussing limitations on a higher (meta-) level so that researchers could take the limitations into consideration in further research.

  • What are possible research avenues in the future?

Covering this question might be a good starting point for new research, which might boost citations.

Finally, a doctoral candidate is advised to call the articles as chapters. This is the easiest recommendation to cover :).

To sum up, preparing a doctoral thesis as a collection of articles has a key benefit — it is easier to maintain concentration and motivation while working on a smaller piece — one study at a time. Consider this benefit while choosing your way.

Good luck!

*The examples are taken from the author’s dissertation.

Useful References

Gustavii, B. (2012). How to Prepare a Scientific Doctoral Dissertation Based on Research Articles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139151252

The Academic Writing Center at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, provides writing support to everyone involved in research.

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