Q: Is it possible to write a thesis and obtain a doctoral degree without going to graduate school?

Detailed Question -

I quit my university (master course) 15 years ago, just before completion (graduation). I am presently working at a research institution (since about a year). I think getting a master or doctoral degree would be good for growth and promotion in my work. However, I am hesitating to go to school as I assume doing so while working would be difficult. In the meantime, I have come to know that there is a ‘doctoral degree by thesis only.’ Is it possible to write a thesis and get a degree without going to graduate school?

1 Answer to this question

It is commendable that you are considering getting a master’s or doctoral degree while working. You seem to have some concerns about this though, but your concerns are understandable.

However, before responding to your query and discussing your options, I would like to discuss two other points.

  • Completing your master’s: Before starting off on your PhD, it might help to go back and complete your master’s. This is for multiple reasons. As you have written, you were close to completing it. So, if your university allows, it might take you only a short while to do so. Completing your master’s would improve your credentials and confidence for pursuing a PhD. Additionally, it would help you assess if the PhD path, especially mid-career, would be suitable for you. Of course, you may also pursue your PhD without obtaining your master’s, but completing your master’s would really help. And don’t worry, there are others who have been in a similar situation. You may read of one such researcher here: It took me 7 years to earn my master's degree
  • Discussing with your present institution: You have been working with your present institution for about a year, in perhaps a research-based role, and now possibly see opportunities for growing here. It might then help to discuss with a supervisor or senior whether doing your master’s or PhD would help you grow here, and if so, how. Your supervisor or senior is likely to offer more practical advice, rooted in the realities of your present role and future possibilities. Additionally, they may be able to guide or even help you with the financial requirements of pursuing a higher education degree, along with offering options for leave necessary to complete the degree(s). Finally, they may also be able to suggest alternatives if needed.

Coming to your query, here are some options that might be available.

  • PhD by thesis only: It is possible nowadays to acquire a PhD by submitting only a thesis. You may research to find out which institutes offer such a program. While this might be more suited to your present circumstances, note that there may be some disadvantages to this compared with a PhD by coursework. A course-based PhD offers a better preparation ground for a life in research. Additionally, you gain from interactions with colleagues and supervisors. However, your present institution too could help address both these gaps.
  • Online/Distance PhD: This is an option for busy academics, those with limited access to PhD programs in their location, or those with special circumstances (such as yourself). Some of these require at least some physical attendance, whereas others are completely online. You may find out more about these through a web search.
  • PhD by publication: Through this, you need to publish papers in journals, which you then collate into a single thesis for your PhD. This is known as a paper-based thesis. Again, you can find out about such programs through an online search.
  • Master of Research (MRes): If, for some reason, you are not permitted to go back to your former university and completer your master’s, you may consider doing an MRes. This typically is a one-year program that leads into a PhD. This allows you to do the master’s more by yourself, going to university once in a while or so. Similar to a regular master’s, this allows you to assess if the research life is meant for you. However, for the same reasons, this requires you to take more of the initiative, which actually is the case with all the options discussed above.

A PhD of any kind can be fulfilling and rewarding, personally and professionally, but also requires a significant amount of commitment. Also, there are many stories of people taking a break to complete their PhD and also of obtaining their PhD later in life, while managing challenges of family life and work pressure. Here is one such story, shared through a webinar we organized some time ago: How I juggled a full-time profession and a PhD at 55

Here are some other resources that you may find helpful:

Hope this helps. Again, do consider discussing with someone at your present institution to determine what is the best way of proceeding.

    Wish you the very best for whatever you decide – and for the future!