when is it too late to write from the PhD?

Do theses, and the research they report, have a ‘use by’ date? is there a time when, like old carrots at the back of the veggie crisper, a thesis and its research are just past it?  Do we then just junk the elderly Big Book, forget it, mentally consign it to the rubbish heap along with those disgustingly flaccid carrots?

I was recently asked about the out of date thesis – well not quite, I was actually asked if it is too late for someone to publish (to produce academic publications) from a PhD completed in 2013.

Greg Wagoner, Flickr Commons

Greg Wagoner, Flickr Commons

My first response was that this was an impossible question, since I would really need to know the topic and the field in order to say anything sensible, or maybe say anything at all. But then I realised that I did have a few questions up my sleeve, questions that could perhaps help PhD2013 make the decision for herself.

  1. Can you bear to think about going back to the thesis? Sometimes there is so much emotion around the PhD project that it is just too difficult to return to it. See this post by Mark Carrigan where he explains why this was the case for him. But it does  seem like a ‘waste’ not to turn a long term research project into something that more people than your examiners and a few digital thesis surfers might read. On the other hand, the thesis did get the title Dr, and presumably that’s worth something. The thesis did do its job there. Do you absolutely need it to do more? If you are one of those people who really just can’t bring themselves to go back to the text then you have a pretty clear choice… you can either keep feeling bad about not writing from the PhD, or you can stop feeling guilty and just get on with other things. Or of course, take a very deep breath and write.
  1. Is the research actually out of date – do the results speak to something that was important at the time but isn’t now? If so, is there a way that you can economically update the data and analysis so that the overall research is more current? Or can you treat your results as a piece of recent history that helps make a contemporary situation more understandable? What is there in the thesis that might not be time sensitive – the methodology or methods for instance? Of course, if any of these apply you will have to update your literatures to make sure that you connect your old work with what is now available.
  1. Has someone now published something along the same lines? Horror. The worst. How dare they? But…. Is there any way that you can build on what they have said in order to modify or elaborate on it? Is there a new angle you can bring to your research that wasn’t in the actual thesis, but still makes sense of the analysis – a different theorisation for instance? If the answer is really absolutely a no, then you need to curse long and loudly, and then move on. But I do doubt that nothing at all could be rescued (read on).
  1. Do you now have time that you didn’t have before? Has not writing from the thesis been because you haven’t had  time or space to do work?  Sometimes if you have been doing a lot of short term research contracts, and perhaps writing out of them as well, or you have been in a hefty teaching-only position or a series of them, it is really hard to get the head space to work out how to separate out individual papers from the big text. Its not the writing so much as the thinking that is the issue… The Big Book took a long time to put together, so it’s not surprising that you need thinking time to work out how to break it apart again, or to re-present it. A good way to start that rethinking process (but not the only way) is to work on a publishing plan, write a Tiny Text abstract for the paper that you are most drawn to and then sort out a regular time each day when you can tackle the paper in bite-sized chunks.
  1. Do you need to write from the thesis in order to establish track record for a bid, or to show that you have expertise in a particular area? if so, your priority is to sort out what paper needs to come first and where it needs to be published in order to do the required ‘profile’ work. After working out what paper is most strategic, you can then sort out the order of other papers to follow. Again a publishing plan might be a helpful strategy.
  1. Are you getting pressured by your line manager to write from the thesis? Is this pressure such that it might be avoided by writing something else? Or is it that you must do post-thesis writing in order to get clear of various kinds of performance management processes? If the latter is the case, it may just be a question of getting a paper, any paper, the one you can write most quickly, out ASAP, so you need to choose the thing that is the most obviously retrievable.

It is almost always helpful to have a conversation about what to write with one or two trusted mentors, people who will be a sounding board for you to talk about all things academic. I don’t think the case of an ‘old PhD’ will stretch an experienced and trusted academic.  So, PhD2013, it might be very good to find someone you can rely on and chat over what can be extracted from a research project that may well not be past its use-by date. The six questions above might inform such a conversation.

Now, when I got the old thesis question I did also reflect on my own experience. I have recently re-used – recycled perhaps is a better word – a particular argument  which I first developed in my PhD (quite a long time ago now). I also re-used some of the analysis from the PhD because it was at a level of abstraction that still spoke to contemporary events. This re-use was for a methods book (Place-based methods for researching schools) and the old material, as well as being the point of the book, did actually show that I had been working in this particular way for a long period of time. And I am just this minute reworking a piece of content analysis I did in 2014 about leadership training – the analysis is still OK, but things have changed. Accordingly, the argument is now that the analysis helps me/us to better understand the current situation.

As a principle, I guess I’m always drawn to the notion of recycling. I am pretty sure that it’s always possible to retrieve something from a PhD, if you have the energy and head space. But don’t just take my personal experience as the way to go PhD2013. Asking other people besides me about their experiences of using ‘old data’ could be helpful to you.

To that end, and because I don’t want to perpetuate a situation of “I did this therefore you can too”, do any other patter readers have experiences of using, or recycling, ‘old’ research? I’m sure that PhD2013 will be keen to hear what you have to say.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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9 Responses to when is it too late to write from the PhD?

  1. Linda Baines says:

    Pat, A very interesting post. I wonder if there’s a related post on how and where to start writing from your PhD. This is less about developing a publication strategy, and more about how to identify topics, material and arguments and how to capture them into journal articles

    Liked by 1 person

    • pat thomson says:

      Yes Im sure there really is a lot to say. Im a bit afraid to write something like this because of disciplinary specificities but I will think about it some more.


    • Elaine says:

      It’s not exactly an answer to your question, Linda, but in my case I had a fairly substantial reworking to do of two chapters in order to pass my original thesis. The material wasn’t “wrong”, it just didn’t fit the eventual thesis. I was able to publish one of these chapters as an article (with a bit of help from Pat’s book!) and I do have a mind to work the second into an article one day. So that’s where I started if it’s any help?


  2. Business academic says:

    Just had something published from mine, accepted in 2004. Applied a different theory than in the PhD and a different focus, but the empirical data were very old. It’s never too late 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. davidtevans says:

    Oh, Professor, thank you so much for this article: truely inspirational and timely, especially as this is what I have been thinking about recently, in relation to my own EdD research. Since completing it, I have spoken at a lot of national and international conferences, and ‘synthesised layers of intensity’ (Burgess, Seiminski and Arthur, 2006) in relation to checking out the findings in relation to on-going experience of various stakeolder of insider perspectives. Best wishes. David


  4. Franchetta Beckford says:

    Dr. Thomson:

    Thank you for this post. I’m encouraged to see if I can write and publish at least one article from my thesis. I am reading the comments.



  5. mikeaztec says:

    Pat, My PhD was completed in early 2013…so I understand the pressure of needing get the old battle-horse ready for the next fight. No matter how much you want to put the old nag out of her misery, time is indeed ticking. I think I naively wrote my first proposal after a couple of drinks a few months after the finishing. I was turned down by the first publisher in mid-2013, but they gave me a constructive rejection letter that gave me the courage to write articles based both on material from the dissertation and pieces that my examiners told me should have been in the original. Writing these articles helped me to keep up with the new literature and I would add little bits here and there to the old beast. It took two years, before I found the gumption to prepare another proposal for a publisher that was now familiar with some of the articles I had published. Medievalist.net had also picked up my dissertation in 2014, which gave me further confidence, balanced by a chill of cold horror! Truthfully, I wanted to cull most of the original dissertation and start from scratch, but I resisted the urge since I needed to publish before my toddlers went college. Instead, I focused on the 3 new chapters….before returning to give 4 of the original chapters a revamp. In all honesty I have not enjoyed this process nearly as much as my new research, but I suspect that when the monograph is finally in my hand this September it will have been worth it. Will it be perfect, no….but I will never need to read or update one word of the old dissertation ever again!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What an interesting post. Having just submitted a book chapter on the use of video data in narrative inquiry, this is very pertinent. I still have the raw data. In my field things don’t change much (classical singing training as we still know it today is several hundred years old and still using much of the same pedagogical strategies of old). I’m now mining the raw video data for more material. The things I might now change include methodology, literature (update), even analysing data using a different theoretical framework. And I still intend to write my monograph, too. But I’m one of the lucky ones, I guess, because the rate of change is so slow. Nothing is old yet!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for this post, the advice is heartening. My own thesis has become an albatross around my neck. I spent all of 2015 and up to now in 2016 trying to write a couple of articles based on it without any real success. This has taken up lots of time and energy I might otherwise have invested in other projects.


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