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.