Optimizing publications for a Ph.D. student

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgNew blogger Mrs. Comet Hunter is in the latter stages of her Ph.D., and she's at the stage of trying to figure out how to break her work out into discrete publishable chunks. She recently wrote a post about the topic, and she sent me an email to ask some related questions. With her permission, here's the bulk of the email:

Dear ScienceWoman,

I've been reading the Sciencewomen blog for a couple of months now (I know, I'm new to the blog thing) - and find it very interesting! I especially like your shoe posts, and "Ask ScienceWoman". I have a suggestion for an Ask ScienceWoman topic: how to decide whether something is publishable or not?

I'm a PhD student in the last few months of my degree, and I don't really know how one decides whether to publish results, when to publish or what to publish. Some people seem to publish everything they do, even if it doesn't add to the knowledge of the topic. I know some people break up their project into 20 different papers, while others write one giant monolith that includes everything. What is the best way of going about this? Is it better to have many papers than just a few?
Mrs. Comet Hunter

Dear Mrs. CH,

Thanks for your letter, although I fear you may be slightly confusing me with the shoe-loving goddess of science. My shoe posts are less prolific, but much more practical.

In any case, let's get to the heart of the matter: How do you optimize your publication bang for the buck from your PhD work? Do you go for multiple smaller, lower impact* pubs or do you go for one or two really impressive papers? Quantity or quality?

My first and best advice is to talk to your advisor. S/he'll have the best insight into how your work breaks down into publishable units and the relative impact of those units (or a combination thereof). Hopefully, as a late stage Ph.D. student, you also have a pretty good sense of this, but since your advisor has been in the field a lot longer, his/her sense will probably be more finely honed. Plus, since s/he'll likely be a co-author on the pubs, you'll want him on board with your publishing strategy. If it were me, I'd go in with a plan saying something like "I think datasets A and B should go into a paper targeted at Journal X with authors 1, 2, 3. Dataset C should go ..." Then refine your plan with the help of your advisor**

Before I offer any more advice, let me caveat my answers. First, I'm not in your field, and protocols and norms between fields may vary. Second, I'm only on my first search committee, so I haven't got a particularly good sense of how committees weigh things; I only know how it's worked out for me and for peers in a small subfield. Third, the optimal balance between weight and number may vary depending on what sort of job you want after your Ph.D.

In an ideal world, if your aspirations are a tenure-track position at a research intensive university, you'd get several high impact first-author publications out of your Ph.D. work. You'd also rack up a couple of middling author pubs from collaborations with other students in your lab. (Note: this may be very field specific.) When you were done with your Ph.D., you'd go on to a prestigious post-doc and get another couple of high impact publications. Then you'd have no problem waltzing into your tenure track position.

But let's say you and your data don't live in an ideal world. What's the trade-off between quantity and quality. Here I'd say shoot for 1-2 relatively higher impact papers in very good journals in your field. With the rest of your data, assemble what you can into publishable units and publish it in appropriate journals. Then with any time and energy remaining, score as many co-authorships as you can, but don't take on so many side projects as to derail progress on your first author material.

I think a reasonable goal for your Ph.D. publications is to have one or more publications say something significantly new about your field. After all, that's the point of a Ph.D. Once that's accomplished, you want to show people that you aren't a one trick pony and that you also know how to build incrementally on existing knowledge. (Actually, what you are really showing potential university employers is that you know the value of a publication in the academic accounting system.) The co-authorships show that your contributions are valued in multiple research avenues and that you play well with others.

Now, as to whether a particular dataset comprises a least publishable unit or whether it needs to be bulked up before publication, getting to know the papers in a variety of journals (from high impact to low) is the only way you'll figure out where your dataset belongs and whether you can spiff it up to make it shiny enough for a higher tier journal. Again, your advisor should be able to help you with this.

The great thing is, you're to the point of your Ph.D. where you're not worried about generating data for one paper, you're trying to strategize how to the maximize your effectiveness. So before you go meet with your advisor and discuss your publication strategy, take a moment to pat yourself on the back for getting to where you are now.

Good luck, Mrs. Comet Hunter. Let us know how you fare. And now I myself will go back to spiffing up a project for publication.

* By impact, I don't mean strictly impact factor but the way a journal or a particular paper is perceived in your field.

**Oh, those people in my session at ScienceOnline would be so proud that I just told you to talk to your advisor...

More like this

"protocols and norms between fields may vary"

Agreed. Besides your advisor, you may want to talk to some postdocs and/or other faculty, but make sure that they're in your field and as close as possible to your subfield.

E.g., pure mathematics (my field) has alphabetical order publication, the advisor normally doesn't sign the student's thesis paper(s), and depending on the subfield a "reasonable" number of papers from a thesis varies between 4+ and 1-2.

The "what kind of job" is also an important issue. In my SUBfield, if you aim at teaching-focused institutions several medium level papers might be the best bet. If you want to try the big research career, one impressive paper beats any number of standard ones. It doesn't have to seem impressive to you :-).

Thanks for posting this, SW.

I have three distinct projects, although all are related, and so I plan to write three papers. I have submitted one, working on another right now and will do the last one after I defend my thesis (that's the plan anyway). The problem with the last one is that one of the two data sets isn't great - so I need to figure out how to handle that paper (i.e., if I should just publish the good data in a higher tier journal or publish it all in a lower one).

To all: are co-authorships very important at this stage? There is no one else in my department working on anything similar (even my supervisor works in a different area).

... are co-authorships very important at this stage?

First authored papers should be your first priority. Co-authored papers look nice as long as they aren't at the expense of your own papers. During my PhD, I was also in a dept where I was the sole person working in my area so I worked my tail off to get my own work done and came out with 6 first author papers and 2 where I was a co-author as a result of helping other students - it was the first author papers that got me noticed.

In my field, at least, single-authored papers stand out (in a good way). Experienced co-authors can be very helpful in writing that first paper (or second, or...), but if you're the only author, you'll be the one who gets credit for the work. (Officially, and in the minds of anyone who reads it. Nobody can say: "oh, that was really Famous Advisor's work.")

If you're working on something very different from your advisor, you might ask other people who do whatever you want to do when you're done for advice, as well.

(From a liberal arts college standpoint, more papers is probably better, because the people judging you won't be in your subfield, and it's easier to recognize quantity than quality.)

Frankly, I'm a little suprised if it's all up to you - in my world, the PI pretty much decides what goes where. I think the best plan (again, field-specific) is to look at all of your data, & determine where the juiciest story is, send that to your higher impact publication. It might come from combining different 'projects' that address a question using different techniques or angles. After you've skimmed the cream, send the rest to next-tier pubs. Don't dilute the hot with the less compelling - BUT, that doesn't mean shuffling inconvenient results under the rug (is that "one of two datasets .. not great" because it's incomplete, noisy, etc. or because it doesn't fit your hypothesis?).

As for co-authorships, I'm at a loss, because I've gotten virtually nothing from collaborative efforts except where I've been the lead, so I have virtually all first-authorships. I wonder if that marks me as a 'non-collaborative' type? sigh.

By neurowoman (not verified) on 22 Jan 2009 #permalink

neurowoman: I also find it surprising that I've basically had to force the paper topic on my supervisor. He never really said anything about publishing until I brought it up and told him that I wanted to get papers out before my defense. I think he has a different view of things, because he only did one paper on his Phd, and he wrote it a couple years after he defended. Suffice to say, I'm not getting a ton of guidance on the subject.

The second data set isn't great because it is incomplete and makes the reduction/analysis process full of holes that reviewers would jump all over. But the data is still usable, and it will be in my thesis.

A comment on the papers-as-a-function-of-career idea: This doesn't make sense to me, and a similar conversation took place yesterday on FSP's blog. I don't know what I want to do after I'm done. I'm pretty sure I don't want to do the TT route. If I even stay in academia, it will be either in JUST teaching or JUST research (as an RA, not as a PI). There's a good chance that I won't even do that and will go on to something completely different. However, that doesn't mean that I'm going to slack off and not publish my results (or publish less papers) because I don't know what I'll want to be doing 5, 10 or 20 years from now. I feel like "I'm here now and we need to finish, so let's do the best job we can" - that way more doors will be left open for me if I do decide I want to continue/go back to academia.

I think he has a different view of things, because he only did one paper on his Phd, and he wrote it a couple years after he defended.

Sounds like he is from a different generation. I think it used to be the norm in most fields--certainly in mine--that you got a job and then started publishing. Now if you don't publish you don't get the job in the first place. There's been an acceleration of expectation across the board.

I'll second what Prof in Training said about the value of first-authored papers. In my experience, solo-authored and first-authored papers both count a LOT. And people remember them. I still get the occasional complement on that paper I published "a couple of years ago" that was really six years ago now.

Being in the et al. of someone else's paper is nice IF the amount of work is commensurate with the reward. Right now I am helping out with a couple of collaborative projects, and it is very satisfying to do my bit and push it back to the first author. I know that even when I'm having an off day working on my own first-authored stuff, a paper with my name on it (somewhere) is inching closer to publication. But the most important thing is that these side projects are not distracting me from that first-authored work.

My advice is to be ruthless about establishing protected time for your own first-authored work. Everything else can wait. Turning off the wireless router helps. :-)

When I was finishing I found Steven Pressfield's The War of Art very inspiring and motivating; it reminded me of the value of my work.

By n00b prof (not verified) on 22 Jan 2009 #permalink

n00b - you may be interested to know that my supervisor wrote his PhD thesis in the mid 90's, so he is still fairly young.

After reading all the comments and freaking out a bit about how much work/papers others are suggesting, I realize that our department doesn't focus on papers at ALL. It's quite unheard of for a PhD student to publish more than once, and even the professors don't have that many papers/year (many of them have been told to publish more at their annual reviews). I wonder if it's the department, or if things are just different in Canada where it doesn't seem to be so cut-throat?

n00b - you may be interested to know that my supervisor wrote his PhD thesis in the mid 90's, so he is still fairly young.

Wow. My assumptions were all way off, then. I hope it doesn't sound condescending if I say that I wish my field was a little less obsessive/compulsive about publishingasoftenashumanlypossible.

I wonder if there are any differences in the frequency of people leaving the field, having nervous breakdowns, getting divorced, getting addicted, etc., between publish-like-crazy fields and those that are a little more sane. One of my former advisors had a great decade-long run of publishing more than six first-authored papers a year and then suffered a nervous breakdown and published almost nothing for the following six years. Fortunately by that time he had tenure and a lot of supportive people around, both in and out of the department, but...damn. Not something I'd wish on anyone.

By n00b prof (not verified) on 23 Jan 2009 #permalink

An Emeritus Professor colleague, a 1966 PhD, is still pubishing papers based on his dissertation work. While visiting, he complained about my computer keyboard which has most of the letters worn off. Turns out he is a hunt and peck typist. We had a good laugh about this being the reason he has been so slow to get his dissertation out. Actually, he got into something open ended, and is still following trails.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 25 Jan 2009 #permalink