Publication-based PhD theses have become increasingly popular. Particularly in natural and life sciences they seem to gradually replace classic monographs. Presumably, this development resulted from the prevailing “publish or perish” culture, where graduating with publications will often give young scientists a head start for a career in academia – something that also curriculum commissions noticed lately. While some aspects of this culture can be criticised with good reason, I argue that a publication-based thesis may well reduce the pressure often experienced by PhD candidates. At the same time, publication-based theses allow for progress to be palpable as well as for future career perspectives to become transparent at an early career stage.
It is no secret that SMART  goals (i.e., specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based) foster motivation and goal-directed behaviours. While phrasing SMART goals is usually easy for daily or weekly goals, it becomes increasingly difficult with more distant, and thus more abstract goals. As “doing a PhD during the next three to four years” is indeed an abstract long-term goal, candidates are at risk of losing sight of the goal in the heat of daily duties. Not being able to measure one’s progress using adequately defined goals might give rise to the diffuse feeling of not performing and progressing adequately regarding the pursued long-term goal. This may eventually decrease experienced self-efficacy and cause stress. A publication-based PhD thesis splits this abstract long-term goal into smaller and more tangible milestones (i.e., each publication can be considered a milestone). With each of the steps leading to a publication (i.e., experimental design, data acquisition, data analysis, and writing) being well catchable, these milestones are specific, measurable, time-based and hopefully also realistic. A publication-based PhD might therefore help candidates as well as advisors to facilitate goal-directed behaviours as well as reduce candidates’ stress levels. Besides this, and in contrast to monographs, with a publication-based thesis, work will usually also be more equally distributed across the three to four years. In other words, it is not that major parts of the work, i.e. writing the monograph, is the final challenge waiting for them at the end. This may further contribute to lifting pressure off PhD candidates. Finally, having to publish already at a very early career stage will also teach candidates essential skills such as scientific writing and handling reviewer comments and editors’ rejections as well as the emotions they usually trigger. Importantly, at this stage young scientists still find themselves in a rather well-protected environment that includes advice and support from the advisor. Eventually, with these experiences, candidates already have access to key information about what a career in academia includes at a very early stage of their career. Knowing what you have to expect may eventually help shape career plans.
In conclusion, doing a publication-based PhD may benefit SMART goal-setting thereby improving guidance for PhD candidates along the way and decreasing the experienced stress. Finally, it may also provide candidates with knowledge they can use to decide about their future career.
1 Doran, G. T. Management review 70, 35-36 (1981).