Last week I graduated from Oxford Brookes University with a PhD. The photographs show an enhanced gown and a happy smile, but it’s interesting to reflect on what else emerges from the experience.
The official title of my new degree is ‘PhD by published work’ and my application was suggested by our dean, Professor Martin McQuillan. The degree offers those with a range of publications to their name the opportunity to submit them for consideration, supported by an overarching summary which isolates and explains a consistent theme, and is available through Oxford Brookes for those with a close connection to the university – where my work has been core reading material for many years. I chose as my supporting thesis ‘How books became less different’, an overview of changes within the publishing industry with a particular concentration on the role of the author – and the involvement, and later independence, this promoted.
This change is reflected in my work. My first published book, How to market books (1990 and four further versions since then) was written for those embarking on a career in the book business; it barely mentioned the author as a contributor to the marketing process. By the time of the fifth version in 2008, the book had become a set text on a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses in publishing throughout the world; publishing houses having delegated much of their educational role to universities. The final item in the submission package, an academic paper for the Journal of Scholarly Publishing on the changed role of the academic author, considers the key contribution now routinely made by the content provider, whose significance in accessing markets is so important that their connectedness on social media and willingness to participate in marketing are of fundamental importance to commissioning decisions.
Now one week on from graduation, and trying to analyse the process, four things stand out.
Firstly, the significance of looking back. The process of submission naturally involved reviewing my earlier writing, and reconnecting with my younger self was both a strange experience (reading things I had forgotten I had written) and a validating one (I found I agreed with myself, and was even sometimes quite impressed!). Certainly my comments in Are books different? (1993) on tensions within the supply chain seem curiously transportable to the current decline of the high street, and the changed significance of the content provider I charted leads inexorably to the new options provided by self-publishing.
Secondly, the opportunity allowed me the chance to show my workings. For books with an anticipated general sale, even if likely to be adopted within universities, the ‘here’s how I plan to do the research’ section tends to go in the proposal form before the title is commissioned rather than in the book itself; your methodology and qualifications for writing are assessed before you start work rather than afterwards. Similarly, what would be a literature review in an academic paper is more usually consigned to footnotes.
So for my various titles, the PhD by published work offered the opportunity to display my process. My submission included information on how I went about my research, presented a sample questionnaire and associated data from the responses, and offered more information on my body of publications over 30 years. Within universities, publishing is a relatively new discipline, and one contributed to by both professional practice and various academic fields (e.g. marketing and business, literature, information science, psychology, anthropology etc). It follows that the validation of my research methods, both at my viva and through acceptance of the final publication, and the opportunity to now make them available within an academic environment, is significant to both my current role and publishing as a university discipline.
Thirdly, I take away from the experience a renewed awareness of the role of the student. Delivery dates for coursework arrived at in meetings acquire a huge significance for those on the receiving end; official university processes can seem long-winded but clarity of process supports your academic journey – and the rules are there to fall back on. It felt good to be held by the system, and my particular thanks go to my three examiners and Jill Organ, Head of the Graduate Office at Brookes.
Finally, the experience had an immense personal weight. My first graduation was with my undergraduate university cohort. Together we had been through the process of leaving home, becoming independent, exploring our chosen subjects – and friendships were cemented in the final stresses of revision, exams and post-exam wait for results. After four years (we emerged with an MA) we sat together in the audience for graduation waiting for our moment. A PhD is different in that although you receive expert guidance from a supervisor (and many thanks to Dr. Jane Potter and Angus Phillips MBA of Oxford Brookes) you tend to work mostly on your own – the journey is principally about you. Given that there is a thirty year gap between my two graduations, it’s not surprising that my life circumstances had changed dramatically in the intervening period, and this graduation was conducted in very different company.
As a parent (of four) I am used to being in support mode; turning up and cheering on a variety of occasions – from sports days and parents’ evenings, to school concerts and prize-giving. But as I walked up to the dais to shake the hand of Oxford Brookes’ Vice-Chancellor, I could see my husband, our four children (a book deadline per head), along with their three surviving grandparents, and two close friends – all beaming. We all need encouragement in life, and this was a moment to treasure.