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Doing a PhD: Why it's important to publish

Every university is unique and all have something different to offer their PhD students, but they all have one thing in common, if you want to continue in the world of academia they all believe that it's important to publish. However, institutions do also appreciate that every student is different and they will always do their utmost to get the best out of their students and support each individual with their work throughout their PhD.

PhD students usually begin their course intoxicated by the idea of becoming a ‘Dr’, but they soon realise that getting the title is not actually the big deal. In reality, it’s all about publishing. Although it’s generally well known that publishing in academia is important, understanding the importance of publishing during PhD studies is somewhat unclear. Publishing is mostly important if you want to remain in academia after your postgraduate course has finished. It doesn’t particularly help if you want to find a professional job once you have completed your PhD, so for those not interested in academic positions prioritising publishing may not be as important.

Here we answer some of the most frequently asked questions concerning PhDs and publishing your work to provide you with some essential information.

#1: What to publish and HOW?

As a PhD student, you will usually publish the results of your PhD research. Although your research will be described in your PhD thesis, publishing requires writing up your research findings in the form of a journal article and submitting it to one of the specialised journals within your field. It’s only when your article has been accepted by a specialised journal that you can really celebrate because that means you have successfully been published!

You may be offered to work on some external projects that could result in some publications, however be aware that accepting to work on anything that can’t be included in your PhD thesis needs careful consideration because it may distract you from earning your postgraduate degree.

#2: Why is it important to publish?

Competition for academic positions is fierce, and publishing is used to select those students who stand out and separate them from the rest. Because the publishing process is highly competitive, and to publish in a high quality journal requires you to compete against researchers who may be more experienced than you, being able to publish shows that you actually know what you are doing and that you have the potential of advancing your field. 

#3: What is ‘PhD by publication’?

In some countries, it is possible to get a PhD by collecting a few published journal articles and submitting them as a PhD thesis. This method is known as ‘PhD by publication’, and although it is more common in countries, for example Australia, many universities in the UK also encourage their students to compose their PhD thesis out of a series of journal articles. After all, writing up your research findings in the form of a thesis and then again rewriting them as journal articles may be a waste of time.

#4: How many journal articles is it possible to publish during a PhD?

The number of articles you will publish during your PhD depends on two factors: the success of your research and the reputation of academic journals to which you will submit your articles. If your research has been entirely successful and everything went according to plan, it is likely that you will be able to write a few articles. However, sometimes things don’t go according to plan and you will barely be able to write up even one article.

Top journals are highly competitive, and it can take months before they actually give you their feedback regarding the articles you have submitted.  It almost never happens that an article will be accepted without any revisions, and the chance of getting refusal is high, therefore publishing in top journals can actually take years and happen well beyond the duration of your PhD course. This is something to take into consideration when deciding what is more profitable for your future academic career. If you want to have a few publications before you are done with your PhD to enhance the chance of getting a post-doctoral position, publishing in moderate quality journals may be a better option. 

#5: How will I learn what it takes to write a high quality journal article?

Learning how to write a high quality journal article is a process that requires a lot of trial and error. You will usually model the first draft of your article after other publications you have read so far, and then spend months crafting it together with your supervisor. This interaction with your supervisor when making steps towards your first publication is extremely important, Make sure you choose a supervisor that has the time and energy to help you.

#6: Quality or quantity?

Many PhD students wonder whether it is better to publish one article in a high quality journal or a few articles in moderate quality journals. Well, for those who know little about your field seeing a bigger number will definitely be more impressive, but the rest will be more impressed by one publication in a high quality journal. WHY? Because there are many academics who have a large number of publications but still never manage to publish in a top journal. Being able to do so speaks volumes about your quality and potential!

#7: Will my publications make an impact?

Inexperienced researchers often assume that as soon as they are published their research will make an impact, but sadly this is not always the case. Specialist academic journals are usually only read by a limited audience, and it is not likely that someone outside this small world will hear about your research unless it is so interesting or controversial that it attracts the attention of popular media. In fact, these days many researchers try to make their research appealing to the media to gain more attention. But even becoming a famous academic won’t necessarily make you influential. A much more reliable indicator of your impact and the quality of your work is how many fellow researchers have cited your article.

However, if you truly want to make an impact on society through your work, you’ll need to ensure that it reaches the general public without being distorted by the media. One of the ways to do this is to write a book about your work that is understandable by everyday people as well as by fellow academics. So to become a truly influential scientist you’ll need to learn how to communicate your ideas with everyday language.

Read our article on the Dos and Don'ts of Academic Writing.

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