should you publish during your PhD?

So you are not doing PhD by publication. You’re not in a country and/or discipline which expects you to publish during your PhD – yes really, some do. And you hear conflicting advice about whether publishing during your PhD is a good idea or not. Some people say that writing a paper for publication (or a book chapter), while you are doing your PhD, means you won’t complete your PhD on time. Or that you don’t yet have anything worth saying. They hold one or both of these reasons for not publishing during the doctorate as a blanket rule which covers all situations, and all people, and all kinds of research.

So why even think about during-doctorate publication? I have a different view. I think that there are reasons why it can be a good idea to write during the PhD – yes, even at the same time as you are writing the thesis.

Before I start, it is important to say that not all PhD research projects lend themselves to pre-thesis and pre-examination paper writing. Sometimes you just can’t pull a paper out prior to completing your entire analysis and subsequent results chapters. And for some people, saving the material for the book of the PhD may be more important than writing a paper or two midway.

That said, here are six possible reasons for writing a paper during the PhD. The first five focus on what writing a paper can do for you, and your PhD.

  1. Writing a paper can help you to test out a theoretical or analytical approach. It can be very instructive to take a piece of “stuff” and see how it plays out when you take a particular approach to it. It can even accelerate your meaning making process. Once you’ve test driven an approach you can decide whether it is a good line to pursue or not. If it is, then you take on the rest of the analysis and/or writing with a greater sense of security about what you are doing. You’ve tried out a strategy and you know how it goes.
  2. Writing a paper can help consolidate your sense of your “self” as a scholar. Putting something out into the world means you not only see yourself, but also are seen as someone who has something of importance to contribute. You are knowledgeable. You have expertise. So writing a paper can do important identity work. Seeing your work and your scholarly self in print can be a pretty helpful confidence boost. I’m real. I’ve done it. I can do it. This in turn can help you write the thesis text with a greater sense of authority.
  3. Writing a paper helps you to sort out your scholarly “persona”, the way you present yourself in textual form. As you make authorial choices about composition – your choice of words, syntax, sentence length, use of metaphors, narratives, examples, figures, who you do and don’t build on, challenge and/or cite, and so on – you make yourself into a particular kind of writer/scholar. Beginning to create the scholarly you in writing, prior to completing the thesis, focuses you on the decisions you need to make about your thesis text. (This is also text work/identity work, like number 2 above.)
  4. Writing a paper means that you start to get your stuff out into the world. Scholarly work is about communication, about linking into scholarly conversations and connecting with various professional/policy communities. Taking on the activities associated with writing a paper – using print, audio and social media to let people know it has been published for example – is integral to locating other people who are interested in your work. Going public adds to the sense that you have of yourself as a scholar, not just as a “student”.
  5. Writing a paper means that you open yourself up to peer review and to scholarly exchange. This is the most risky aspect of writing during the PhD and, let’s be honest, it can be a bruising experience. Thoughtless or cruel feedback can put you off for a long time – and in these situations writing a paper can turn out to be a bad idea. So you need to take steps to minimise the risks. Maybe you want to co-write the paper, or enlist the support of a mentor during the writing. You may also want more experienced help to decode the feedback you receive. You’ll want to choose the journal carefully too, going for one which is “good enough” and therefore “quick enough” – finding out the results of submission can drag on. Some journals are better at being constructively critical than others – ask around so you lessen the chance of encountering mean-hearted Reviewer 2s. The up side of being reviewed, yes there is an up side, is that when your paper is accepted you’ll not only feel great. You’ll also have some experience of critique outside supervision. Getting a taste of what it means to have your writing subject to critical examination – and considering how to revise in light of comments, where to defend and where to do more work – is useful for you in writing the thesis as well as dealing with the viva.

There is of course a much more instrumental reason for publishing during the PhD. It is a reason that I have left to last as I have less positive feelings about it.

6. If you are looking for a postdoctoral position then, in some locations and in some disciplines, the more you have already published the more likely you are to be in the race. You may well be competing with people who have done PhDs by publication and who already have three or four papers published. So getting a start while you are doing the big book PhD can be a help. Publishing signals to funders/employers that you know you have to get your stuff into print. But this cutthroat postdoc and job situation is pretty grim and inequitable. I don’t condone it, there’s no “level playing field”, people are variously able to publish. However, it would be remiss of me to omit reason 6, as it is something that you need to make a decision about.

My six reasons don’t add up to saying you must publish during your PhD. Not at all. It is something to discuss with your supervisor. The six reasons are however worth considering when you are making your decision whether to do this additional writing, or not.

Photo by Matt Ridley on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, publishing, text work/identity work, thesis, writing for publication and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to should you publish during your PhD?

  1. I pulled out & reworked the two main themes of my (education) thesis into journal papers in the gap between submission and viva. A productive way to see my work from a different angle that was very helpful viva prep.

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  2. leohavemann says:

    Another reason, and it’s a shame this is a reason, is to get your ideas and your work out there (with your name on it) in ‘the public domain’ (using the term loosely here). Someone I know was advised not to publish anything during her PhD for vague/blanket reasons as mentioned in Pat’s post, only to find elements of her work surfacing in other people’s publications. If writing an article or chapter is not possible, I would suggest it can at least be worth getting your ideas out there in a conference presentation but in this case do upload the slides and/or recording of our presentation to your institutional repository and/or academic networking sites and/or an open repository platform that will give your work a DOI such as Zenodo or OSF. I don’t mean to be just a harbinger of doom here – this isn’t just to avoid being plagiarised – putting your work out as a citeable object means people will see it and even cite it sometimes.

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    • Jane S says:

      Personally, I don’t think it’s safe to publish during a PhD; in the light of my later research I’m horrified by my premature efforts! But “Elements of … work surfacing in other people’s publications”? Yep – been there. In early journo years, an established writer once advised me to keep everything I did very close to my chest. (I didn’t. …)
      But can plagiarism really be prevented? These days, the ‘Net’s made intellectual property ownership problems worse, but rip-offs happened in the ancient world, BC, and it’s the same today. Copyrighting an idea is no more possible than copyrighting a book title is, and rewriting, swapping sentences or clauses, changing vocab, and the rest, can be defended as mere ‘coincidence.’ Even if you see your theory, concept or hypothesis staring you in the face.
      Academia is supposedly a realm where discourse and exchange is free and open – although, in my limited experience, only within the higher echelons, the generous scholarly ‘names’ of my own topic field.

      The academic world is aggressively competitive in pursuit of careers, and it seems there’s an invidious conflict of interests. There are now more postdocs looking for employment than there are positions available. Whilst the intellectually principled do not steal, maybe the temptations of piracy are too much for some, especially if they can ‘publish’ first. It’s dishonest, and cannot support genuine scholarship, but it happens.

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      • pat thomson says:

        Just to say in my field some of the most interesting research comes out of doctoral study. Many PhDers do have something significant to say, but are not yet experienced in how to say it.

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      • Ana says:

        “in the light of my later research I’m horrified by my premature efforts!” — I can totally relate with this. I’m a bit over half my doctoral journey and I already feel a bit embarrassed with the first paper I published. But hey! — I try to think it was my first, I had to start somehow! I am proud of my subsequent papers, and I am now writing 2 papers at the same time to submit soon. For me it feels like the more you write, the easier it is to do it. It really makes you think about reviewers, and give your best to make your ideas as clear as possible, and your writing enjoyable to read. And while at first I was worried with potential bad reviews, now I’m looking forward to hear from strangers about my project, because even disagreements make me think about my research in a different light.

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  3. Marie says:

    Working full or part-time throughout my PhD and fulfilling family obligations were enough for me.I wrote a methods paper for the reasons Pat gives above, but the long, long backlog in reviewing at the publishers meant it hasn’t progressed. If you have the privilege of time, funding and supervisors who support you to do so while doing your PhD, then great, publish! You need all these supports and good head space to do a good job of publishing your work.

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  4. I published a paper about halfway through, which related to my thesis research, but would never have been a significant part of it. It was a great way to break up 4 years of work and get into some early writing that was heading towards being final rather than endless drafts. And it definitely put me in touch with other scholars working in the same area. Was great when one of them messaged me to say that they’d used it in teaching and encouraged me to feel like I was on the right track!

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