The alternative way to get a PhD - UciyAvadlInfo

The alternative way to get a PhD


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Could you get a doctorate based solely on a thesis written in your free time?

up vote
down vote



I am a very enthusiastic person academically and I love to gather new (sometimes irrelevant but useful) knowledge about my field in my free time. I am now at the point where I would like to start writing a paper on something in my field of interest and based on my own research.

If my paper is credible, contributes to my field and fulfills the standards that apply to any PhD thesis, would I be awarded a doctorate if I applied for the degree and publish the paper?

As an undergraduate, I don’t know much about a PhD program. From what I know, it’s simply you and your research that counts. I understand that, in the last analysis, it is the contribution to your field that counts. Am I missing anything?

phd research-process thesis research-undergraduate
share | improve this question

edited Jun 1 ’15 at 19:48



asked May 31 ’15 at 22:20



  • 20

    A doctoral program requires more than just a thesis. Take a look at the graduation requirements for various programs in your field to get a sense of what is required.
    –  Zach H
    May 31 ’15 at 22:35

  • 6

    I voted to leave this question open because the question linked did not specify a written thesis while this one does. But, I must admit I dislike this question because there is some ego in it.
    –  scaaahu
    Jun 1 ’15 at 6:51

  • 3

    In the second paragraph you call your intended work both a paper and a thesis. In many fields, those two types of documents differ considerably in size (although that’s not generally true). Have you considered publishing your findings in a journal or at a conference instead of submitting it as a thesis?
    –  Thomas
    Jun 1 ’15 at 7:18

  • 12

    Maybe, but why would you do that? Doing research that can lead to a PhD is usually a paid work; its (comparatively) not that hard to get funding for it. What would be the benefits of doing basically the same work, but without salary, supervision, access to a groups of academic peers, and other benefits a PhD program typically offers?
    –  kfx
    Jun 1 ’15 at 10:05

  • 7

    Doing research that can lead to a PhD is usually a paid work — That really depends on your discipline, and your country.
    –  JeffE
    Jun 1 ’15 at 20:27

show 10 more comments

7 Answers




up vote
down vote

Just write your paper, as long as the writing does not distract you from your undergrad studies. If the paper has merit, you may be able to present it at a colloquium of your university, at a workshop, or even at a conference. If you put some more work into it and are lucky, you might eventually be able to publish it in a journal. Certainly, your paper will open up more questions than it answers. Now you have a research trajectory that you can follow up and that may lead to a PhD thesis, based on but surely not limited to your first paper.

In other words: There is no reason why you should not start to work on your PhD topic already as an undergraduate, but it seems to me that you underestimate the time and work it takes to finish the PhD. And since PhDs require a lot of work, there are PhD programs, which facilitate the process and in which most PhDs are actually produced. In that sense, writing your PhD outside of the designated framework is a bit like digging a well with a spoon. It can be done, but it is not too efficient. On top of that (as others have said already), at many institutions, the written thesis is only one requirement among others to be awarded a title.

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edited Jun 1 ’15 at 13:06

answered Jun 1 ’15 at 9:19



  • 1

    PhD seen as digging a well – so true.
    –  marsei
    Jun 1 ’15 at 23:12

  • 2

    @macduf, actually, even in a PhD program, it is all digging with a spoon and no water.
    –  henning
    Jun 1 ’15 at 23:17

add a comment  | 

up vote
down vote

If my paper is credible, fruitful to my field and otherwise fulfilling the standards that any PhD thesis should

A research paper is not a thesis. Theses are usually expositions upon some field that the author has contributed to, and frequently contain extensive background that is typically omitted in academic literature. Indeed, many of my colleagues in industry have published research papers without having PhDs.

… would I be awarded a doctorate if I’d publish and wish for it?

In addition, you would need to find a university to endorse your work, which often requires collaborating with faculty.

Although, if your work is truly groundbreaking and you spend a lot of time hanging out at a particular campus, you might qualify for an honorary degree!

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edited Jun 1 ’15 at 3:30



answered May 31 ’15 at 22:45



  • 7

    The latter is of course so exceptional that it is not a reasonable strategy to pursue.
    –  henning
    Jun 1 ’15 at 9:12

  • 4

    @henning hence the exclamation mark!
    –  Mikhail
    Jun 1 ’15 at 9:34

  • 3

    To say nothing of the fact that an honorary doctorate is effectively worthless in academia. That’s why the ads say, "earned doctorate." That honorary degree might carry some prestige outside academia, but not among those who know.
    –  Bob Brown
    Jan 7 ’17 at 18:16

add a comment  | 

up vote
down vote

All this depends on the field, the country, etc. but in theory, if you already have a master’s degree, it is possible to get a PhD based on previous (published) research. But typically not on a single paper. (Over)generalizing and assuming your research is genuinely interesting and meets all the (sometimes arbitrary) requirements of your field, a rough guideline is that you need material corresponding to at least three papers.

You would also need to write some intro/conclusion putting the research in context, make revisions based on your advisors’ comments, find a jury and satisfy them. You cannot just show up with a paper and “wish” for a PhD, at least not from a real, reputable university. That’s assuming you really manage to make your research publication-worthy (which means not only rigorous but also connected to recent literature and current problems in your field) and find a faculty willing to accommodate you as it’s not the “normal” way to get a PhD.

Don’t overlook the bit about finding an advisor: It’s incredibly important. The PhD is really an apprenticeship under the supervision of a full professor. You don’t ask a university or department for a doctorate, there is no process to submit a thesis and have it evaluated on your own, it’s all driven by faculty members and you won’t even be allowed to defend a thesis if it’s not endorsed by one (he or she would also typically help you recruit a jury).

Realistically, a mediocre thesis can be validated if a professor puts his or her mind to it, asks friends to sit in the jury, etc. but even brilliant work is nothing if you don’t find an interested academic to move the process along.

Beyond that, others have mentioned extra requirements but the thesis is really the most important thing. In my experience, in Europe (I got my PhD in the Netherlands but I know a little bit about France, Germany, or the UK), it’s increasingly common to organise some mandatory courses for PhD candidates but the load is very light, a few short courses about soft skills or methodology with no exam, only pass/fail based on attendance. And there are ways around that if you have a good reason.

But to be perfectly honest, your question suggests you are not very familiar with academia so it seems highly unlikely you would succeed in getting a PhD without proper support. I am not sure why you want one but if it’s important to you, it might be a better idea to simply enroll in a PhD program.

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edited Jun 1 ’15 at 12:45

answered Jun 1 ’15 at 9:04



  • This is the right information! You are missing something, an advisor!
    –  Fábio Dias
    Sep 27 ’15 at 3:47

add a comment  | 

up vote
down vote

No, as commenter Zach H points out, doctoral programs also have other requirements, such as courses and sometimes exams.

UPDATE: As commenters have shown, my answer was US-centric and thus incorrect. I’d delete it, but that would delete the helpful comments below.

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edited Jun 1 ’15 at 16:53

answered May 31 ’15 at 22:37

Ellen Spertus


  • 13

    It depends on discipline, country and university. Some asian universities have no course requirements for a PhD in literature for instance.
    –  Ketan
    May 31 ’15 at 22:40

  • 15

    It’s normal in the UK for the thesis to be the only mandatory requirement for a PhD (but this is not to say that anyone with a thesis-esque document could walk in and be awarded a degree).
    –  dbmag9
    May 31 ’15 at 22:52

  • 6

    How unfortunate you’d be if you had to do coursework during your PhD. That’s what undergrad is for!
    –  curiousdannii
    Jun 1 ’15 at 5:49

  • 10

    The classical German doctorate as well requires you just to write, defend, and publish a book-length PhD thesis. There are no course requirements.
    –  henning
    Jun 1 ’15 at 9:11

  • 4

    @Mikhail The coursework years of US PhD programs are more or less what the two Master studies years are for in the EU (post-Bologna reforms). You can’t go straight from BA to PhD grad school in most EU countries.
    –  henning
    Jun 1 ’15 at 9:38

show 9 more comments

up vote
down vote

An example of someone who did just this was Ludwig Wittgenstein. So yes you could, especially if you are a genius.

Wittgenstein wrote the Tractatus during his free time and it was used as his thesis for his Cambridge PhD.

Wittgenstein came to feel that he could not get to the heart of his most fundamental questions while surrounded by other academics, and so in 1913 he retreated to the village of Skjolden in Norway, where he rented the second floor of a house for the winter. He later saw this as one of the most productive periods of his life, writing Logik (Notes on Logic), the predecessor of much of the Tractatus.

In the summer of 1918 Wittgenstein took military leave and went to stay in one of his family’s Vienna summer houses, Neuwaldegg. It was there in August 1918 that he completed the Tractatus

he could not initially work at Cambridge as he did not have a degree, so he applied as an advanced undergraduate. Russell noted that his previous residency was sufficient for a PhD, and urged him to offer the Tractatus as his thesis. It was examined in 1929 by Russell and Moore; at the end of the thesis defence, Wittgenstein clapped the two examiners on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand it.” Moore wrote in the examiner’s report: “I myself consider that this is a work of genius; but, even if I am completely mistaken and it is nothing of the sort, it is well above the standard required for the Ph.D. degree.” Wittgenstein was appointed as a lecturer and was made a fellow of Trinity College. ( Wikipedia )

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answered Jun 1 ’15 at 20:18

Kenny LJ


  • 3

    It was also convenient that Wittgenstein came from a very wealthy family.
    –  paul garrett
    Jun 1 ’15 at 20:26

  • I am not sure how relevant an example that is more than 80 years old is.
    –  Tobias Kildetoft
    Jun 2 ’15 at 11:13

  • 2

    @TobiasKildetoft: If you spent your free time in a Norwegian winter house and an Austrian summer house and produced a work similar in quality to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, I am pretty sure you’d be awarded a PhD too, even in 2015.
    –  Kenny LJ
    Jun 2 ’15 at 14:39

  • 1

    It did also take him 16 years from the start of that to getting the PhD so it’s not efficient
    –  Stephanie
    Jun 4 ’15 at 23:27

  • 1

    @Stephanie: I think it safe to say that in writing the Tractatus, Wittgenstein was not motivated by the possibility of getting a PhD degree. And also, he didn’t spend all of those 16 years working on his "dissertation".
    –  Kenny LJ
    Jun 7 ’15 at 15:34

add a comment  | 

up vote
down vote

PhD programs provide funding for, typically, no more than four years. Given that the average time to completion is well in excess of that (it was ten years in the UC Berkeley English department last time I checked), the reality is that the majority of PhD theses are completed during time not spent doing remunerated work, which is another name for “free time”. So yes, not only can you do a PhD thesis in your free time, in most cases that’s what you’ll end up doing even if you enroll in a formal PhD program. Hope that helps…

share | improve this answer

answered Jun 1 ’15 at 23:45

Theodore Sternberg


  • Could you provide a reference for this? 4 years is definitely lower than average for the programs I am familiar with.
    –  Tobias Kildetoft
    Jun 2 ’15 at 11:15

add a comment  | 

up vote
down vote

The front page of every PhD thesis states “Submit as Partial Fulfillment of the Degree”. So, a thesis is a must but not all for a PhD degree. The degree requires years of academic training, not as simple as just one thesis, or several published research papers.

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edited Jun 2 ’15 at 8:29



answered Jun 2 ’15 at 8:05



  • 3

    "The front page of every PhD thesis states "Submit as Partial Fulfillment of the Degree"." No, they don’t (mine didn’t for example).
    –  Tobias Kildetoft
    Jun 2 ’15 at 11:15

add a comment  | 

protected by ff524 Jan 7 ’17 at 23:22

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After submission of doctoral thesis – PhD

Detaljer Skriv ut
Målgruppe: Medarbeidere Tema: Doktorgrad
Tagger: phd trial lecture evaluation committee dissertation defence doctoral degree doctoral thesis errata doctoral defence doctoral dinner assessment committee printing thesis errata list

Norsk versjon: Etter innlevering

Looking for something else? Submitting your doctoral thesis | Topic page about PhD planning | Pages labeled with PhD

Table of Contents  [-]

  1. Assessment Committee 
    1. The assessment committee’s work
    2. Errata list
  2. Approved thesis
    1. Printing your thesis
  3. Trial Lecture and Disputation  
    1. Trial lecture
      1. Required for dr.philos. 
    2. Defence
  4. After the defence
    1. Doctoral dinner
    2. PhD ring
    3. Electronic publishing
    4. Doctoral Awards Ceremony
  5. Appeals

The process once you have handed in your doctoral thesis will depend on your faculty even though the rules and regulations are similar. For specific information on what to do and expect, look at your faculty’s web page. There is some general information below.

Faculty of Architecture and Design
Faculty of Engineering 
Faculty of Humanities
Faculty of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering
Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences
Faculty of Natural Science 
Faculty of Social and Educational Sciences
Faculty of Economics and Management

Assessment Committee  #

Once you have submitted your thesis, the Faculty will appoint an assessment committee based on a suggestion by the Department.

Within one week of being notified of the composition of the committee, you may submit written comments to the composition. 

The assessment committee’s work #

The thesis is sent to the committee with a deadline of approx. three months for them to evaluate the thesis. The committee’s job is to evaluate the thesis against the requirements of the PhD-regulations . The Guidelines for the assessment of Norwegian doctoral degrees may also aid the committees in their work.

The committee can make the following recommendations:

  • The thesis is worthy of public defence
  • Minor revisions
  • Not worthy of defence

The Faculty makes the final decision on whether the thesis is worthy of being defended for the doctoral degree, but the Faculty will generally follow the committee’s recommendations. If the committee’s decision is non-unanimous, the Faculty will usually follow the majority decision. For more information about the Faculty’s options, see Section 16 of the PhD-regulations. As the candidate, you may submit written comments to the committee’s report within 10 working days of receiving the report.

If the committee and the Faculty allows minor revisions of the thesis, you will be given a deadline normally not exceeding three months to revise the thesis in accordance with the recommendations. The thesis must be resubmitted by the deadline and the evaluation completed by the same committee. This counts as one assessment in total. The committee should not recommend minor revisions if it finds that extensive changes related to the theory, hypothesis, material or methods used in the thesis are needed in order to deem the thesis worthy of a public defence.

If the Faculty decides that the thesis is not worthy of public defence, you will still be given the opportunity to resubmit the thesis after a waiting period of six months. The decision letter will specify when you are allowed to hand in a revised thesis. A doctoral thesis may only be reassessed once. If your thesis is found not worthy a second time, you will not be able to resubmit the work for the doctoral degree again.

Errata list #

An errata list is a list of formal errors that are corrected in the thesis between submission and the final version. You are not allowed to make any changes or correct anything of a substantial nature. The errata list should be submitted to the faculty no later than four weeks before the committee is scheduled to submit their report. Correction of formal errors may only take place once.

Approved thesis #

Once your thesis has been approved, it is time to prepare the defence. The doctoral defence should take place within two months of the Faculty approving the thesis.

Printing your thesis #

The Faculty or Department determines the number of copies to be printed. The thesis should be publically available no later than three weeks before the defence takes place.

Before submitting the thesis for the final printing, you must order an ISBN number . You should not order the ISBN number before the thesis has been found worthy of defence.

Trial Lecture and Disputation   #

The trial lecture and the defence usually takes place on the same day.

The trial lecture must be approved before the defence takes place. 

Trial lecture #

You will be given the topic of the trial lecture 10 working days before it is scheduled to take place. The assessment committee specifies the topic for the trial lecture and the topic must not have a direct connection to the topic of the thesis.

The purpose of the trial lecture is to test your ability to acquire knowledge beyond the topic of the thesis and to impart this knowledge in a lecture setting. As a general rule, the trial lecture should be structured as to be accessible to an audience with knowledge of the subject that can be expected among advanced students (with at least one year of study in the academic field).

The trial lecture should usually be held in the same language as the doctoral thesis, unless the Faculty approves the use of another language.

Required for dr.philos.  #

Dr.philos. has two trial lectures:

  • One on the given topic – as described above.
  • One self-chosen topic.

The candidate states the title of the self-chosen trial lecture to the faculty four (4) weeks ahead of the disputation.

Both trial lectures must be approved before the defence takes place.

Defence #

The defence is chaired by the Dean or by a person authorized by the faculty. The chair opens the defence usually followed by the candidate explaining the purpose and results of the doctoral work. This is then followed by the opposition.

There are usually two opponents, both members of the assessment committee. The first opponent opens the discussion and the second opponent concludes it. Members of the audience may participate in the discussion ex auditorio. They have to notify the chair of the defence within the time limit specified at the beginning of the defence.

The defence should be an academic discussion between you and the opponents concerning the research questions raised, the methodological, empirical and theoretical sources, documentation and form of presentation.

After the defence, the committee reports to the Faculty and concludes as to whether or not you have passed your trial lecture and defence.

After the defence #

The Department or research group sometimes hold a small gathering after the defence, but this varies and is completely up to the department itself.

Doctoral dinner #

Most people want to celebrate the defence with a doctoral dinner. This is a private event so it is completely up to you whether to have a doctoral dinner at all, and where and how it takes place. If you have a doctoral dinner, it is customary to invite the chair of the defence, your supervisor and, the assessment committee. You can get tax deductions for some of the expenses related to the doctoral dinner.

PhD ring #

Once you have completed your doctoral degree and you are interested, you may order and purchase a PhD ring . Only people with a doctorate from NTNU may purchase these rings.

Electronic publishing #

Once you have successfully defended your thesis you can make your dissertation openly available at NTNU University Library through NTNU Open . NTNU Open is NTNU’s archive and publishing service for scientific publications.

Doctoral Awards Ceremony #

Some time after the defence, you will be invited to the Doctoral Awards Ceremony where you receive your diploma from the Rector at NTNU. The Doctoral Awards Ceremony generally takes place twice a year. The ceremony in the spring are for the doctors who completed their degree last autumn and the ceremony in the autumn are for those who completed their degree that spring. If you are unable to participate, you will receive the diploma by mail.

Appeals #

Appeals related to handing in doctoral theses, trial lecture and defence is regulated by Section 23-3 of the PhD-regulations . Details for the grounds of appeal should be sent to the Faculty within in three weeks of being notified of the decision. If the Faculty dismisses the appeal, the appeal is forwarded to the University Appeals Committee at NTNU for a ruling.

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