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Why you should publish the shit out of your PhD as early as possible

I think the title for this one is pretty self-explanatory. I’ve now submitted my thesis and have a viva date set, which apparently means that I’m now self-entitled enough to feel like I can hand down advice as if I’ve been given a gift of incarnate knowledge and wisdom from the gods of academia.

Irrespective of what we want academia to look like, the reality of being a researcher is still this for the vast majority: If you aren’t publishing your work, you don’t exist. There will be exceptions, but this is the norm and the reality. Publish or perish is still the raison d’etre for many junior academics. If you’re not playing the game, you bet your ass your friends/colleagues/competitors are. So to not do so is a bit daft.

So my advice is simply this. If you have something that is publishable, or can be adapted into something publishable, or can forge collaborations early on that lead to publication, do it. Jump on it, commit to it, and finish it. My personal reason for publishing a lot during my PhD was to give a middle finger to ‘colleagues’ who said you cannot do open access things/science communication/high impact publications (whatever they are) etc. all at once during a PhD. Well, it is possible. You just have to work pretty damn hard, be focused, dedicated, and think strategically. Work hard, play harder, was my PhD ethos.

So what are some of the advantages of publishing early?

Shiny papers! Having a publication record of any sort as early as possible can only have advantages for you career. It looks good on paper. Your work can get cited, shared and re-used, people know what you do, and the quality of your work. You contribute to the published scientific record. You show that you can commit to do something that is pretty fucking difficult to get at first, but follow it through and complete the task. Trust me, it gets easier with time and experience. And you’ll never know what you’re capable of unless you jump into the ring and give it your best shot. Each one of these things screams ’employ me’, if your goal is to stay in research. I know this is different for different fields, but industry isn’t exactly crawling with jobs for palaeontologists these days..

One of the major advantages for me has been peer review. Of the more analytical papers I’ve published, peer review has helped by pointing out data issues, potential analytical steps that could be added, and different interpretations of the results. All of this has invariably influenced the direction of my research, the quality of the results and discussion, and the strength of my PhD research. Peer review can therefore be seen as simply having an extra few sets of extremely well-trained eyes giving your work quality assurance before you’ve even started your thesis. And that is truly invaluable. It’s not about pointing out holes in your work; it’s about making sure it’s as complete and well thought out as possible. And there’s nothing wrong with embracing that sort of constructive feedback.

What are some of the potential disadvantages?

You might think that if you’re publishing early on, you haven’t had enough time to let the research mature in your mind. To think about all the angles, what might be missing. Well, thankfully this is sort of what the peer review process is for. And co-authors. Publishing is rarely a solitary task these days. As a grad student, almost inevitably you will have at least your supervisor publishing along with you. It is highly unlikely they will let you attempt to publish under-cooked research, especially as there reputations will be at stake too.

There’s more important things to be doing than publishing. Like more research, or writing your thesis. Well, if you’re on track to publishing during your PhD, then your research is likely to be going rather well already. And you don’t have to dedicate all of your time to one thing. Got two screens? Awesome, science the shit out of some data while editing a paragraph of a paper. Code compiling? Sweet, draft the hell out of that figure. Use your time efficiently, and commit to kicking ass. But really, writing a paper can be nice to break the monotony of everyday research. You will get faster with time too, and it helps you to maintain a diversity of tasks to keep your mind occupied through the day.

And the thesis. Well, if you’ve written a paper, you can either just use that as a chapter/part of a chapter, or adapt it into one. Papers are supposed to be concise and succinct, but a thesis allows you to elaborate and get creative. Keep a notebook or something, and simply extend what you put into a paper and adapt it into a thesis chapter. Add any additional data, and bam, there you go. There is no ‘papers or thesis’ argument if you simply think through the process early on. Discuss it with your supervisor, point out potentially publishable items as early on as possible. Be strategic with your time, and your research and writing process.

So, as always, I want to hear from you! What were your experiences publishing during your PhD or not? What are some of the advantages or disadvantages? Do you like strawberries? Am I a rambling idiot? Answers in the comments!

14 thoughts on “Why you should publish the shit out of your PhD as early as possible

  1. +1 to publishing early! As a Ph.D. student, I was able to roll some of my pilot data into a paper, and also managed a few side projects that worked themselves into publications. All of this helped in landing a job (which I am still in today) and polishing my skills as a working scientist.

    On a related note, in my (not at all humble) opinion, every dissertation chapter should effectively be written in the form of a stand-alone manuscript. This doesn’t mean that the chapters have to be disconnected–just that the chapters can still follow a common theme as stand-alone units, without having to read like some giant scholarly book. An intro and concluding chapter can be a nice way to integrate all of them. I was lucky in that my committee basically said that it was my waste of time to do it any other way–and the end result was that one of my chapters was in review before my defense, and the others were out to review not long after.

  2. I recently enrolled in the PhD program at my university. Thus, I do not have the experience about publishing and cannot give any advantages or disadvantages about attempting to do this early. I do not think you are a rambling idiot. If anything, you are brilliant at being able to put your thoughts into words. I hope in the future I can produce enough meaningful data to write a paper early in my studies.

  3. Totally agree with all of this. I set up my dissertation chapters as publications and published or submitted half of them by the time I needed to get my dissertation together. It was *so* much easier to finish writing because I already had a bunch done, which made the task seem much more accomplishable.

  4. The only problem is if it compromises the originality of your overall findings and means you can’t get into the top journal in your field which only publishes absolutely original material! But, agreed, you need to have a publication strategy from the outset. Apart from anything else if you have planned it you don’t accidentally publish the wrong bit in the wrong place

    1. Good comment! Yes, don’t shoot yourself in the foot, that’s important. But again, this is why thinking about things strategically can work really well. I took a two-fold approach through my PhD. The first was to publish small, taxonomic papers about fossil crocodiles, that were related to about one half of my thesis. The other half comprised several chunks of the same story. I was able to publish a review paper highlighting the importance of this, and now two ‘high impact’ analytical papers (one earlier this year in Proc B, one now in press at Nature Comms) that built upon this foundation. If you can see the bigger picture from early on, it can really help guide the direction of your publications and research avenue.

  5. Thank you very much for sharing your experience! Unfortunately, this advise came a bit too late for me, but I am sure it will help many other PhD students.

    There are so many things which I wish I had known before I started my PhD. Of course, some mistakes and experiences are inevitable. But so many problems could be avoided, foreseen or simplified by passing on the experience and knowledge of the (almost) graduated PhDs, postdocs and professors to the newbies. In my opinion, this should be the task of the advisor but it seems that this is either not wanted or ignored or forgotten. I have stumbled upon so many good practice guidelines and advises after it was already too late to follow them, because before I was not aware of certain issues and problems.

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