PhDs: should you publish while you study?

Study suggests there may be long-term benefits from publishing, but critics warn of ‘too much, too soon’

February 21, 2016
Man reading book on subway train, No Pants Subway Ride, Prague, 2015
Source: Reuters
Race ready: ‘heads of department are looking for PhDs to become new lecturers and hit the ground running’

In the “publish or perish” world of academia, getting that first paper accepted by a peer-reviewed journal can be a defining moment of an aspiring scholar’s career.

It can often take place months or even years after passing a PhD viva, allowing time for an academic to finesse their thesis into an opus worthy of publication.

But a study suggests that those who wait to publish their first work until they have their doctorate in hand may be missing out to those who publish while they are still a PhD student.

In the paper, published this month in the journal Research in Higher Education, the careers of about 4,000 PhD recipients in Portugal over almost 50 years were analysed to see whether publishing during their PhD had any impact on their long-term productivity.

Those who managed to publish while they were doctoral students produced about a third (36 per cent) more papers over the course of their careers than those who did not, according to the article, titled “The impact of publishing during PhD studies on career research publication, visibility, and collaborations”.

Those who published while they were PhD students were also far more likely to publish every year than those who did not, and they were also more likely to produce single authored papers and collaborate internationally – two indicators often correlated with higher citation rates and healthy career advancement.

The success enjoyed by these PhD students may be explained by the fact that they are honing their networking, collaboration and writing skills earlier, said Hugo Horta, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Hong Kong who co-authored the paper with João M. Santos, of ISCTE – the University Institute of Lisbon.

Publishing makes "socialisation during the PhD richer and prepares them better for a research-oriented career”, said Dr Horta, who added that those who publish were able to better understand the “process of peer review and what it entails”.

Dormant dissertations

Having publications under your belt was also crucial when applying for academic jobs, Dr Horta continued, saying that it was “a key signal to potential employers” that a candidate would do well.

“As the competition for scarce academic positions increases, it is important to provide the employers with evidence that one is able to do research and publish it after being scrutinised by peers,” he said.

Publishing during the PhD was also crucial as the work done on a PhD could sometimes simply “lie dormant in a dissertation that rests in a shelf of a single university library”, he added.

But David Bogle, pro-provost of University College London’s Doctoral School, said that there are “some dangers” for PhD students seeking to publish.

“Trying to publish results too early when they are not sufficiently well-evidenced, or all the consequences thought through, particularly in journals, can be discouraging to students when they receive too many rejections,” said Professor Bogle, who added that these knock-backs could be “pretty bruising”.

“They have to experience it and get used to it if they want to continue in this world, but trying to do it too early can be very damaging to morale,” he continued.

UCL encourages students to publish depending on their discipline, but presenting at conferences, the findings of which were often published in proceedings, could be a better way to communicate ideas to a wider audience, he added.

But Kevin O’Gorman, professor in management and business history at Heriot-Watt University, believed that it was “absolutely necessary” for PhD students to publish, particularly if they wanted to improve their chances in the academic job market.

 “Heads of department are looking for PhDs to become new lecturers and hit the ground running, and publications…are central to this,” said Professor O’Gorman.

“Every appointment made now is focused on the research excellence framework in 2020 or 2021, so if [applicants] already have a couple of papers in the bag they will be seen as a much safer bet."

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