European Ph.D on Social Representations and Communication
The ‘three papers’ PhD thesis

1. Introduction

This short guide introduces the idea of a PhD thesis consisting of ‘three papers’ as an alternative format for writing-up the results of three years’ PhD research. It compares and contrasts the conventional PhD thesis with the ‘three papers’ model, highlighting the main differences between them. It then suggests a rough timetable for producing a ‘three papers’ thesis in three years. Finally, it provides answers to some frequently asked questions.

 

2. The conventional PhD thesis

The conventional PhD thesis has (typically) the following elements.

1. Introduction and outline of the problem
2. Literature review of subject area
3. Background to study population or area
4. Methodological chapter(s)
5-7. Results chapters (usually 2 or 3)
8. Conclusion and implications for policy and/or further research

 

The total number of chapters is usually about eight, and the total length approaches 300 pages of A4 (at roughly 250 words per page, double spaced, this comes to 75,000 words. This total does not include appendices, which can be added and which can be of unlimited length.

 

3. The ‘three papers’ model

Under the ‘three papers’ model, a PhD thesis consists of three separate, publishable, papers. The papers should be of normal journal article length (say, between 5,000 and 10,000 words), depending on the editorial norms of the journal chosen jointly with the project leader (who is also the main supervisor). The three papers are each free standing (in the sense that each can be read and understood independently) but should be on related themes. The three papers are normally preceded in the thesis by a short introduction to the overall topic, which may contain essential background information. There may also be a general literature review.

Therefore, the ‘three papers’ PhD thesis looks like this:

  1. Introduction and background to the general topic area.
  2. First paper.
  3. Second paper.
  4. Third paper.
  5. Conclusion and implications for policy and/or further research
The total number of chapters is thus usually five, and the total length approaches 150 pages of A4 (a maximum of about 35,000 words). As with the conventional PhD thesis, appendices of unlimited length may be added, but these appendices are commonly appendices to each paper, rather than appendices to the thesis as a whole. This means that the typical ‘three papers’ thesis is only about half the length of the conventional thesis.