Starting PhD students often face a difficult choice. They have to decide whether they want to write their dissertation in the form of a monograph, or as a collection of journal articles. Some universities have strict requirements, not leaving a choice. But most offer both options. The decision is left to students and their supervisors and requires careful consideration.
- Writing a thesis as a monograph
- Writing a thesis as a collection of articles (cumulative dissertation)
- Checklist before deciding on a monograph or an article-based PhD
Writing a thesis as a monograph
A monograph is a detailed study in one piece. Think of a book.
A monograph resembles an academic book. It typically has an introductory chapter, a methodology chapter, and a literature review chapter. Then, the empirical results of the PhD study are presented in several chapters of analysis. The final discussion and conclusion chapter wraps up the study.
A monograph is generally the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about a PhD thesis.
In some countries, monographs are still the norm. In others, theses based on academic articles are becoming increasingly popular.
Advantages of writing a monograph
- Writing a coherent thesis is easier: You can edit all chapters of your thesis until your submission deadline.
- You can write very detailed empirical analyses. In contrast, many journals have word limits for their articles.
- You gain valuable skills in writing and editing long (academic) texts. When you finish your PhD, you can even try to publish your monograph as a book.
Disadvantages of writing a monograph
- You are never done. If you change something in Chapter 5, you might have to adjust Chapter 2 as well.
- A PhD as a monograph does not automatically lead to journal publications. Journal publications are key indicators for academic careers.
- Writing good, publishable articles for high-ranking academic journals is a skill. You are not developing these skills as part of your thesis writing process.
Writing a thesis as a collection of articles (cumulative dissertation)
A thesis based on a collection of articles is based on individual journal publications. Universities tend to require 3-5 academic articles, published or submitted to academic journals.
The specific regulations differ from university to university, so make sure that you check what applies to you!
Combined, the individual articles form the body of the thesis. Nonetheless, a PhD thesis in the form of articles begins with an introduction. Some also have an extra chapter here and there, which is not published as a journal article.
Then, the journal articles are packed together, and followed by a general conclusion that rounds up the thesis.
Advantages of a cumulative dissertation
- The overwhelming task of writing a PhD is divided into concrete parts. Many PhD students write one article every 9 to 12 months.
- Once an article is published, you cannot edit it anymore. This saves you from obsessive perfectionism, editing your work over and over again.
- You will have a head start in terms of publications. Publishing is a lengthy process. 3-5 completed articles at the end of your PhD is a big advantage.
Disadvantages of a cumulative dissertation
- Cumulative PhD theses are often less coherent than monographs. It is difficult to integrate independent journal articles into a coherent whole.
- For each journal article, you need to develop a distinct theoretical framework. If the theory is not your forte, you might struggle with this.
- In some countries, PhD theses based on articles are considered worth less than monographs, and are looked down upon.
Checklist before deciding on a monograph or an article-based PhD
There is no right or wrong. Both monographs and theses based on a collection of articles have advantages and disadvantages.
One is also not easier than the other. But one might be more suited to your specific situation.
When making a decision, ask yourself the following questions:
- What are your university’s regulations when it comes to thesis types?
- What is the reputation of both thesis types in your (national) context? And in the context in which you aspire to work in?
- What is your strength? (conducting detailed empirical analyses vs abstract theoretical thinking)
- What is your end goal? (a non-academic career vs. an academic career requiring high numbers of journal publications)
- Which thesis type fits best with your research topic?