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January 26, 2011

How to get a PhD in a year (without giving up the day job)

January 26, 2011
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I recently got a ‘PhD by published work’ from Oxfam’s local university, Oxford Brookes. Here’s how it works: if you have amassed a ‘significant body of work’ in the shape of books, chapters, papers etc (sorry emails and tweets don’t count), you submit these as the body of your PhD and then (the interesting bit) write a supervised 15,000 word ‘critical review’ of your own work, comparing it to the academic literature on the relevant issues. If your writing wanders all over the place, as mine has, then you identify a theme within it – in my case the interaction between citizens and states.

It's an ivory tower, stupid

It’s an ivory tower, stupid

It took a year – evenings, weekends, holidays and a bit of Oxfam time and combined elements of narcissism (going back, reading and summarizing your own work over the last 20 years) and masochism (critiquing it both by comparing it to the real experts, and finally acknowledging all your own doubts about your arguments, previously suppressed). Narco-masochism?

Here’s the abstract:

“This critical review explores a central thread in the ideas and publications generated by 25 years of writing and activism – the nature of and interaction between citizens and states in development.

It explores the evolution of these arguments in the works in question, and reviews the literature in separate sections on the validity of the state-citizen framework, the nature of citizenship, the role of the state in development, and state-citizen interaction.

The discussion identifies strengths in the works under review. Despite their overlaps and blurred boundaries, the basic framework of ‘active citizens and effective states’ has withstood scrutiny and the framework’s endogeneity has helped in understanding the internal dynamics and evolution of political, social and economic development.

The review highlights some apparent gaps and weaknesses in the literature, notably the reliance of much of the work on the history of citizenship on the particular experiences of Western Europe and North America; the flimsiness of the discussion of the ‘democratic developmental state’ and the lack of analysis of ‘peacetime’ active citizenship in non-democratic contexts, for example rural protest movements in China and Vietnam, or women’s rights movements in Islamic societies.

The review also identifies a number of weaknesses in the works under review that need to be addressed in my future research. These include the importance of economic power and structures, the internal structure and dynamics of citizens’ movements, the negative roles of some citizens’ movements in excluding or attacking other groups of poor people, and the interaction between national and global citizens’ movements.”

If you really want to read the full 40 page review, you can download it here (I recommend the bibliography, if nothing else).

I found the exercise incredibly useful – it’s hard for us old farts to find time to reflect and look back, but the exercise has given me a lot of ideas for future directions for research, especially on change models, which I intend to take forward both in Oxfam and with the Institute of Development Studies (where I became a visiting fellow this year).

At present PhDs by published work are usually confined to alumni and/or serving academics at the university in question. Brookes should be commended for opening that out to the rest of us late career development professionals (or whatever we call ourselves) – let’s hope more universities follow suit.

And of course, apologies to those friends and readers who are currently ploughing through real, 4 year+, existential-crisis type PhDs – my only defence is that I had previously suffered my fill of those in writing the books I submitted…….

By the way, I asked around PhD-carrying friends as to the benefits (other than personal enlightenment). So far I have had ‘being able to buy prescription drugs over the counter in Africa’ and ‘getting upgrades on flights, and hoping no-one gets sick’. Any other candidates?

phd cartoon


  1. Congratulations, Dr. Green….. It might not be the ‘original McCoy’ (i.e. from the university down the hill), but a lot of smart people have studied there! Best regards from another ex alumni of Oxford Brookes…..P.S. will it be of any practical use, you ask? For yourself, with your illustrious track record, that’s doubtful….but for many jobs these days, because of ‘qualification inflation’, it has become a prerequisite to even be able to opt for a post that involves thinking and analysis. The amount of extremely well qualified people you see applying for any kind of post these days is on the one hand gratifying, and on the other quite depressing!

  2. Well done Duncan! As someone about halfway through my own PhD, I have to admit when I read the title I was sceptical at first. But this sounds like a really good idea and an excellent exercise for you. One question – why were the doubts about your arguments previously suppressed? Was this because the previous publications were shorter and more policy-focused so there was less room for nuance?

    Duncan: Thanks Stephen, the reason for suppressing is simply that when you’re out there promoting a new book, you tend to focus more on rebutting the critiques and counterarguments, rather than really absorbing them. Not least because it’s too late to change the text by the time you’re launching the book!

  3. thanks duncan. it was enlightening to read ur views. i am more interested to know if i can get aphd based on my book published . if so sould u let me know the cost and procedure ….

    good day

  4. Duncan: Congratulations on your Ph.D. A big accomplishment! I’m thinking about taking the same route as I have a large body of material that has been published, etc. I live in the US and have no prior association with Oxford Brookes. Do you think their program is available to me?


    G. Dog

    1. unlikely George – I think at Brookes you have to attend sessions with supervisors etc. Overall, the PhDs by publication are becoming more flexible tho (they used to be restricted to alumni and staff at any given university), so worth shopping around

  5. Thx. for that Duncan. After spending some time now on the internet there are quite a few. But it’s difficult to sort out the right one. Cost vrs credibility/accreditation without signifiant residency is my criteria. I’ll keep looking. But you’re right. It appears more are offering the PhD by published works. I’ll keep looking until I find the right one. Let you know when I do.


    G. Dog

  6. 4th International Conference on Professional Doctorates

    Date: 10 & 11 April 2014

    The Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, UK International Conference on Professional Doctorates

    U.K. PhD by research, a partial list

    You can now earn a PhD from an Irish university — while sitting at home
    Hibernia College has announced that it will offer online doctoral studies in four areas of education research.

    Doctor of Philosophy in journalism & Mass Communication (PhD in journalism & Mass Communication)

    Indira Gandhi National Open University – IGNOU

    Minimum Duration: 2 Years
    Maximum Duration: 5 Years
    Course Fee: Rs. 14,000
    Minimum Age: No bar
    Maximum Age: No bar Programmes

    JAPAN – University of Tsukuba
    One-Year Doctoral Program for Working Individuals


    1. To ease the financial and time burdens for working individuals by giving them a chance to receive doctorates in the shortest possible period of time (1 year)
    2. To support excellent researchers and highly qualified professionals who are the lead to the next generation of the country
    3. To help improve the quality of research of working individuals by providing appropriate research guidance leading to the successful completion of their course work…

    Two-year distance learning Ph.D Programme – Geneva
    Geneva Graduate School of Governance
    Ph.D’s in international relations, governance, security and development cover such disciplinary angles as political science, history, sociology (societal trends), economics, law and management.
    They feature permanent, individualized guidance by two faculty advisers, supplemented by a written course on (general and operational) methodology. Beyond written documents supplied by faculty, formal classroom teaching is limited to annual seminars in the Geneva area. The student/adviser interaction takes place regularly through email and web meetings, or through face-to-face interviews in Geneva by appointment with faculty advisers. This means that permanent residence in Geneva is not required of students.
    Doctoral programmes are designed to last from two to five years. Two-year Ph.D’s are reserved for students who have already done a fair amount of work on their research subject, either at another institution or in a professional capacity. Public defence of a 300-350 page-long thesis before an international committee of prominent scholars specializing in the researched topic completes the cycle. Publication of the thesis is the norm whenever the committee awards it the highest distinction.

    Australian National University – Doctor of Diplomatic Studies

    A single two year graduate degree offered by the School of International Political & Strategic Studies…

    …ANU is Australia’s premier national research university and is located in Australia’s diplomatic capital. The College is therefore distinct in being able to incorporate opportunities for students to draw on this wide network of expertise whilst working towards a Doctor of Diplomatic Studies degree.

    IMF launching courses on online university
    The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is set to join an online university network and will run finance courses which will be available free to students around the world.

    International Organizations MBA

    University of Geneva

    Get an MBA, Save the World
    If you want to work in international development, go work for a big, bad multinational company.


    Charles Kenny is senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation, and author, most recently, of Getting Better.

    How I wrote a PhD thesis in 3 months

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