Bethan Jones, University of York
4 March 2022
In June 2021 I sat my viva. Not unusual for a PhD student, I hear you say. You’re right. But my PhD was done via published works and in the research I did to prepare for the viva I didn’t find much about this route.
A PhD by published works (https://www.postgrad.com/advice/phd/phd_by_publication/) isn’t a particularly common route in the UK, though the availability does seem to be growing. As the name suggests, it’s an option which allows you to submit a thesis comprising of a series of publications on a common theme (books, book chapters or journal articles) which when put together fulfil the requirements of a PhD – original work making a significant contribution to the field and demonstrating a rigorous approach.
I started my PhD journey via the standard thesis routes but for a variety of reasons ended up withdrawing and subsequently applying for a PhD by Published Works at Cardiff University (https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/study/postgraduate/research/types-of-degree/phd). Because this isn’t generally offered to students beginning a PhD there were some specific requirements. These will vary from institution to institution but at Cardiff you have to have:
- graduated from Cardiff University six or more years ago, or
- been a member of staff for six years, or
- been the holder of an honorary title from Cardiff University for six years
I received my MA from Cardiff in 2010 and was applying for the PhD by Published Works in 2019 so that checked the first box. I’d also published extensively on anti-fandom and had enough to demonstrate a coherent research direction. My submission was reviewed by an internal panel who approved my application for a February 2020 start. All I needed to do was produce a 5,000 – 10,000 word critical commentary evaluating the field (fan studies in my case) and indicating the original contribution to learning I’d made and submit within 12 months.
Then Covid happened.
Did I mention I was working full time in government communications? Cardiff granted extensions to all PhD students which meant that despite the pandemic I was able to submit in April 2021 and passed the viva in June. I was the first person who’d done a PhD by Published Work in Cardiff for some time, and while I was writing the critical commentary and preparing for the viva I found very few resources for completing this route (Agata Frymus’ IAMHIST blog – http://iamhist.net/2018/06/prepare-viva-8-tips/ – on viva preparation was really useful though!). So here’s what I did and how I did in, in the hopes it might help others undertaking this route.
Writing the Critical Commentary
The critical commentary that I had to produce needed to evaluate the field and indicate the original contribution to learning I’d made. What I did first was arrange a meeting with my supervisors to talk about what I felt the key themes were and how I was thinking of approaching the commentary, and then discussing what they thought the key themes were and how they suggested approaching it. The key things to keep in the back of my mind throughout the writing were originality, significance and rigour. I also had to not be too modest (this is underlined and followed by an exclamation mark in my notes).
We talked about pulling out themes and talking across them, as well as making nods to omission and things I didn’t have the time to do. I had thought about writing the commentary chronologically, but given the often arduous process of academic publishing (one of the chapters I wrote in 2013 was published in 2019) that didn’t really make sense. So I read through each of my articles, noted where there was overlap between the things I was discussing and ended up with four categories (textual anti-fandom and beyond; power structures and hierarchies; intra- and extra- fandom relationships; and ambivalence and unticipation for those who are interested). Each category discussed two of the chapters, and I also included a methodology section which discussed a journal paper I wrote about the ethics of researching anti-fans. My commentary ended up looking like this: introduction; methodology; discussion of submitted papers; absences and future work; conclusion; bibliography.
I wrote a paragraph introducing myself and my entry into fan studies as well as the things that led me to researching anti-fandom. From there I went straight into a mini lit review of the scholarship on anti-fandom, the different waves of fan studies as defined by Gray, Sandvoss and Lee Harrington (2007) and where my work intersects and builds upon this. I outlined three key areas which my work has focused on and pointed out where I had expanded previous work, including references to articles and chapters that I’d written as well as work by other scholars. I briefly outlined the later sections of the commentary, again pointing out where my key contributions were.
Fan studies borrows a lot of theoretical and methodological approaches from other disciplines and the ethics of research fans has long been a debate in the field. I felt it was important to engage with this not only to show the approaches I’d used across my work and my understanding of different methodologies, but to highlight the contribution I’d made in writing the first article of the ethics of researching anti-fans. A recent special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures (https://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/issue/view/59) discussed methodologies so I was able to cite that, as well as older work to demonstrate my depth of knowledge. I also brought these back to other papers I’d written, pointing out the methods I’d used in papers that I would be discussing in later sections. This section also allowed me to demonstrate rigour in terms of number of survey participants, how I approached public tweets, etc.
Although the paper discussions were divided into four sections each followed a similar pattern. I first gave a brief overview of a key text that had influenced my thinking (e.g. Gray’s 2003 article on anti-fandom), explained why that was important or how I was using it, and then talked about how I expanded on that text in the articles discussed. I highlighted where my original contribution was (there was a LOT of this throughout the commentary) and included pertinent quotes from my papers. I ended each subsection with a short summary of where the papers expanded current thinking and signposted to the next one.
I referred to existing literature throughout this section to demonstrate my understanding of work in the field and to situate my scholarship amongst it. It felt like a lot of blowing my own trumpet, and the consistent feedback from my supervisors was to talk more about my original contribution, to show what I’d done was significant. That was probably one of the hardest things to do but it made me think critically about the work and ultimately helped with the viva.
Absences and future work
I was keen to point of where there were weaknesses in my research and what I was thinking about doing next. 10,000 words isn’t a huge amount to play with, but with current discussions in the field about race and racism I felt it was important for me to address that lack in my work. I also wanted to point out where fan studies as a field was growing and how I was engaging with that, so I talked about a paper I had recently presented and a book chapter I’m writing that engage with the current climate. You’ve always got to show the significance of your work!
The conclusion was essentially a recap of what I’d been saying throughout the commentary: my work has developed as the field has developed and I’ve been able to influence that through the publications I discussed. I also touched on work I’d done elsewhere that I hadn’t included in the commentary, and lectures I’ve been asked to give. This was really the final place where I could underscore how my work has been significant and where my contribution to the field is original.
Preparing for, and Undertaking, the Viva
I submitted the PhD in April and had a few weeks off before thinking about the viva. That time was important not only to switch my brain off but because I’d become sick of reading and rereading my work! When I got the date for the viva I turned to Google to see how others had done their viva preparation. There wasn’t much on the PhD by published works route, so I turned to Reddit and was told it would be very similar to a regular viva except I’ve already got the benefit of having the work peer reviewed and published. The focus would be on showing I did the work and understand it. That was pretty reassuring so I returned to Google, read various blogs and articles about viva questions and jotted down some of the ones I thought I’d struggle with. This blog was particularly helpful with those: http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/ResearchEssentials/?p=156. After that I began reading through the publications I was including and making notes as to their key arguments and findings; the methodology and scholarship used; and their strengths and weaknesses (thanks to Agata’s blog piece).
I’d fairly recently read the work for the commentary so each article was pretty clear in my mind. This time though I read the articles on my laptop and made notes and highlighted sections I thought would be useful for answering questions. At the same time had a notebook next to me where I noted really top-line details using the headings Agata outlined in her blog. Once I’d done that I wrote down the theories used across all articles, the originality of the work as a whole, and its strengths and weaknesses.
That done, I arranged a mock viva with one of my supervisors. As much as I hate doing things like mock interviews it was really useful. My supervisor treated it as a real viva and covered questions from the methods I chose to use to what was significant about particular articles to what had gone wrong and what would I do differently. Some of the questions I could answer easily, others I had to really think about, but it gave me the chance to think through my work and articulate the things that were really important.
The weekend before the viva I read over my notes, then went to visit friends for a birthday party. I had thought about staying home and revising some more, but a lot of the blogs I’d read suggested that would only stress me out and wouldn’t do much good (remember, at this stage you know your work inside out). So I went and had a lovely time, and I’m really glad I did. The day before the viva I put my back out so spent most of that day on painkillers and not doing much reading either. 0/10, would not recommend.
The day of the viva I read through my notes a bit and, I think, played games on my phone. The viva was via Zoom so I made myself a cup of tea and put two bottles of water and some sweets by my computer. I had my submission up on one computer with the other ready to log into the meeting, and I had the notebook I’d been using to prepare with me as well. I took some painkillers because I still couldn’t move without being in pain and also hoped that my cat wouldn’t come in and start meowing at me (I love him, but the number of meetings he interrupts…)
I logged in at half three, met my examiners and the chair, then logged out until their pre-brief was done and they were ready for me. I’m not going to lie, I was as nervous as I’ve ever been! At this point everyone had been telling me I had nothing to worry about, but with a PhD by Published Works you don’t have the option of different types of corrections – the work is already published so you’re looking at a pass or fail. The first question I got asked – what’s significant about your research – totally threw me even though I’d been preparing for it and it’s one of the most common opening questions. I bumbled through somehow and as the viva went on it did become easier. I got asked about the duty of care we have to research participants (even if we completely disagree with their actions or the views they’re expressing) as well as ourselves as researchers, and the difficulty of undertaking surveys rather than face to face interviews. I got asked to expand upon something I’d mentioned in the commentary but hadn’t talked in detail about; I got a really interesting question after talking about Fifty Shades of Grey about whether you can be an anti-fan of domestic violence and if not, why not. By the time we’d been going for an hour I was really enjoying it. The chair asked if we wanted a break, my examiners said they were done and I got asked to leave while they deliberated. Deliberations took about five minutes but it felt much longer. I got told I’d passed, had a bit of a joke about how normally they’d ask what my publishing plans were but that kind of didn’t apply in this case, and one of my examiners suggested expanding upon one of the things I’d talked about and submitting it to a journal. Then it was over. I rang my family, texted my friends and celebrated with cake.
Dr Bethan Jones is a Research Associate in the Department of Theatre, Film, Television and Interactive Media at the University of York. Her work primarily focuses on gender, anti-fandom, and popular culture and she has been published in Sexualities, Intensities, and Transformative Works and Cultures, among others. She is coeditor of Crowdfunding the Future: Media Industries, Ethics and Digital Society published by Peter Lang and is a founding board member of the Fan Studies Network.
Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.