To be honest, it was completely random that I ended up publishing papers while writing my dissertation. It started like this: I was taking a course through the excellent Nordic PhD school for candidates in archaeology called Dialogues with the Past. As a requirement, all doctoral candidates attending courses with this school prepare papers based on their on-going research.
I attended a course a few months into the PhD where incidentally, one of the convenors was an editor for a prestigious archaeological journal. My paper was in rough form – I had only been working with my PhD for four or five months – but it did contain a core of preliminary ideas that would grow into a main set of findings from my PhD.
I will never forget the moment when this particular professor took me aside, fished out her wallet and from it, a business card. While pulling out her card, she said something along the lines of: – ‘You know, I really enjoyed your paper, and I think you should think about publishing it as an article’.
Before that moment it hadn’t even struck me as possible to publish articles while writing a dissertation. However, I took the editor at her word, using the following summer months to flesh out a (to be honest, quite poor) first attempt at a journal article, which I promptly submitted after running it past my supervisor.
Naturally, it was an uphill battle from there. Probably, the editor hadn’t really expected an article quite so soon. I can imagine that the editorial board gave me some wiggle room knowing that I was a very early career researcher. In any case, the article did go through to peer review. I still cringe thinking about some of the comments from reviewers on that article. Yet, after much hard work and tough revisions, I was able to publish this particular piece in the second year of my PhD.
And in retrospect, that may have been the single most important thing I did during the PhD. Getting published provided a boost of confidence that can be sorely needed in the longwinded, lonely journey of thesis-writing. Not to mention the vast amounts I learned from the experience, and the incremental rewards.
Two years of saying ‘yes’
Really, the publications sprang out of the same principle that I applied to every other aspect of my PhD research: say yes to all opportunities.
Of course, this is profoundly dangerous advice. You need to know your own limits, and know where your strengths and weaknesses lie, to be able to take this advice. You also need to be able to distinguish between a genuine opportunity and a scam/exploitation.
However, for the first two years of my PhD, I tried saying yes to every genuine opportunity that arose. This means that I organised an international conference, wrote and submitted a book proposal based on the conference proceedings, was first editor of this book, went to a number of national and international conferences, organising sessions, participated in a TV series on archaeology, etc, etc….
… and one year of saying no
And of course, an important point of saying yes is also learning how to say no.
The final year, I cut anything non-essential to carve out time and space to finish writing. I consequently said ‘no’. And after completing the PhD, I have also been more picky about what I say yes to, because I have gained a base of experience and can afford not to jump on every passing train. I know more about what I am good at and what I stink at, what’s worth doing and not least, what I enjoy doing.
I really appreciated this recent blog post on establishing a ‘NO committee’, a set of trusted advisors that can help you decide which opportunities you should pursue and which you should decline.
Ultimately, I wrote five articles alongside the PhD, publishing three of them. (One is still in press almost three years after submission (!), and another is still in draft form in a drawer, waiting to be resuscitated).
Among the most important lessons I learned were these:
- How to deal with criticism
- How peer review works
- How to restructure text from scratch
- How to respond to referee reports
- How to be strategic about writing: I tried to plan ahead, writing only about topics that were significant to the PhD, where I would be able to reuse the texts as chapters, paragraphs or “chunks” of the dissertation.
And the incremental benefits were these:
- Visibility of my project
- New opportunities to publish
- Invitations to conferences and workshops (still ongoing!)
- Quality check of my research before submitting the PhD
- Learning how to present and enhance my arguments
- Ultimately, my publishing record made me eligible for post docs and grants
I will be the first to admit that this strategy will not be easy for everyone. There are a number of structural factors that made this possible: Coming from Scandinavia, there is significant privilege in PhD students being regarded not as students, but hired as part of the staff. This entails not only an on average, decent salary, but also other forms of material and immaterial support, e.g. administrative support, financial possibilities, and I argue, psychological benefits, knowing that you having been hired to do your doctoral research.
Additionally, my institution allows PhD candidates to reuse text from their publications in their theses. Different universities have different rules for this, so make sure you check if your university will allow you to self-plagiarise in this manner. (I once met a PhD student from a UK institution who was not allowed to publish anything related to the PhD, yet was expected to publish a few articles alongside the doctorate. She felt justly overwhelmed at the task at hand.)
However, privilege can also be a comfort cushion – a lack of incentive to work hard and set bold goals.
Ultimately doing a PhD is, to me anyway, about genuine enthusiasm and drive. I think it’s nearly impossible to undertake such a project without being profoundly interested in the topic as well as finding pleasure in what you do.
To say yes to all opportunities is to dare to move outside the comfort zone, to challenge yourself and to take chances.
Not everything will succeed. Your article may be rejected. Your conference paper may have been a bust. Yet, those who take no chances at all will surely not get anywhere.
After all, what have you got to lose?
Author Bio: Marianne Hem Eriksen is an archaeologist at the University of Oslo, Norway. She recently won a mobility grant from the Research Council of Norway/Marie Skłodowska–Curie Actions, and is excitedly planning her move to Cambridge, UK, for two years.