To publish or not to publish during a Ph.D.

Recently, Jon Tennant (@Protohedgehog) tweeted during a professional development course:

Queue much bemused response on Twitter along the lines of this by @GeoHerod

This got me thinking about my experience of publishing during and after my Ph.D. and whether, looking back, it was  a good thing overall.  For the record, I never received the same dubious advice that Jon did and probably wouldn’t have considered it particularly useful if I had!

Most people start a Ph.D. because they enjoy doing, and not writing, about science.  They’d much prefer being in the lab than sat at a computer desk for three weeks configuring Endnote to correctly abbreviate journal titles.  Despite this, publishing is, or should be, a big part of any academic research career and if done properly is much more than just a necessary evil. Papers are the currency of academia, in terms of promotion and securing funding; but fundamentally they demonstrate the ability to undertake and complete a piece of research, then effectively communicate it to the wider world.

I’ve just submitted what may turn out to be my last ever academic research paper, although who knows what the future holds.  I like to think I have had a reasonably successful stab at a publication career with 13 papers over 5 years, ten of which came from my Ph.D.  I have never managed that stellar “Nature” paper, the Holy Grail for most in science, but hopefully what I have published has made a difference to the field.  Publishing during a Ph.D. is, I believe, a rewarding process- there was that personal sense of satisfaction I got from seeing my name in print but it also helped refine my writing style for later life, i.e. The Thesis.

I found one of the advantages of writing a paper was that it became a great way of reviewing my work.  It would highlight what was good, bad and missing in my research and force me to do that literature reading I’d been putting off.  Writing papers helped consolidate what I already knew and plan what to do in the future.

Why else should a Ph.D. student publish?  Firstly, you owe it to your supervisor, University and funder (for most research, the taxpayer).  Of course, in most cases the taxpayer can’t read the paper, although things are-a-changing, but at least its proof that the research money hasn’t been wasted.  Failure to publish might mean others get in their first- “if you don’t publish it, someone else will.”  Anyone who stays in academia is likely to have someone beat them to the punch eventually; I’ve been both the victim* and the perpetrator.**  It is one of most dispiriting things that can happen to know months of research have been wasted because someone else has published the same results before you did.

Of course, publishing isn’t all plane sailing.  There are several reasons why it might not be possible to publish during a Ph.D.- the timing of the project might mean papers aren’t forthcoming until the end, or the work is industrially sensitive.  When every experiment seems to be going wrong, it can be easy to think “I’ll never have anything worth publishing.”  However, it’s rare that a student will go through three years without at least some paper-worthy results being generated.  Bigger risks are from seeking perfection (“If only I did those experiments, then the work will be really good…”) or a habit of never completing one set of work before starting something new.  One of the biggest impediments to publication can come when that first draft gets stuck in someone’s inbox.  It might be your supervisor’s or a collaborator’s and sometimes it can take a bit of leverage to get it unstuck.  I always tried to make sure all the co-authors were “prepped” when a paper was on the way and I tried to do a good job on the first draft so they would find it worth reading.

I think I was lucky during my Ph.D. that I got to work in an environment which fostered a productive research ethic.  My supervisor was new and keen to publish and I had a number of co-workers that were similarly ambitious.  There was plenty of opportunity to collaborate and a number of my publications came from projects where I only contributed in a small (but important!) role, even if wasn’t necessarily my core research.  Of course, every Ph.D. is different and situations can vary even in a single research group. I’d be interested in hearing from others about their experiences.

*We planned a follow-up to this paper but were scuppered by a a group who’d published whilst we were still writing; to add insult to injury they failed to cite our original paper.

**I was confronted by an academic at a conference who, in a friendly manner, bemoaned they were almost ready to hit submit on their paper to discover we’d just published similar work.  “What a shame…” I thought.  (Sorry about the pay-walls)

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3 Responses to To publish or not to publish during a Ph.D.

  1. I just had a discussion with my supervisor a few weeks back about publishing a paper sometime during my PhD. Thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge on the subject!

  2. alvinpastore says:

    Great suggestions. Thank you!!

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