Publishing during or after the PhD: putting yourself out there now or later?

Publishing your work is tough. Putting yourself out there in terms of sharing your ideas with your colleagues and peers can be as scary as it is exciting. I think this is especially the case for PhD scholars and early career researchers who are still finding their research niche, their voice, confidence in their ideas and writing. In this post I’d like to try and tease out some of the issues that could be involved in deciding to publish during your PhD, or wait until your thesis is finished to start composing papers and sending them out to journals for consideration.

Let’s start with publishing during the PhD: first, let me say that if you are first-authoring or only-authoring a paper and sending it to a journal before your PhD is completed, I am in awe of you. I could not have done this – not least because I have no idea where I would have found the time. It was more a case of the Fear. Fear that my research had actually already been published in a paper I just had not found and read; Fear that my ideas were actually awful, or derivative, or boring, or just ridiculous. Fear that I would be rejected, and that the self-doubt this would create would spill over into my PhD and derail my progress. I am not sure the Fear will ever really leave me – critical self-doubt may well be part and parcel of being an academic writer keen on growing and developing their ‘crafts’ – but I do have a sense that putting my work out there will get easier, and be more exciting rather than scary on the whole.

If you are publishing during the PhD, there may be a limited range of papers you could write, depending on how far along in your research process you are. If, for example, you have not generated data yet, it would be difficult to write a more empirical paper, where you use your data, analysed, to support your case or claims. You could perhaps write a ‘critical literature review’ (for example, Robotham & Julian, ‘Stress and the higher education student: a critical review of the literature) which reviews the literature you have read that relates specifically to the research you are doing, but that takes a critical stance in terms of pointing to alternatives, gaps and spaces for other kinds of, new, or different research in this research area. You could write a paper exploring part of your own research process, from a methodological point of view, or in terms of critically reflecting on parts of the research process (not a personal narrative, but something that would be of use to other researchers in terms of helping them reflect on their own process too; for example Ortlipp, ‘Keeping and Using Reflective Journals in the Qualitative Research Process’). You could write these papers post-PhD, too, of course – but during the PhD you’d need to think quite carefully about where you are in the process, and what you would want to say to your professional or research community at that point.

If you are publishing post-PhD, the range of papers you could write widens, of course, because you now may well have a large data set you can draw on – either data that made it into the PhD, or data you had to put aside for reasons of focus and scope. You can write probably 2 or 3 empirical papers (for example, Coleman, ‘Incorporating the notion of recontextualisation in academic literacies research: the case of a South African vocational web design and development course’; Mckenna, ‘The intersection between academic literacies and student identities : research in higher education’). These papers would likely be more ‘traditional’ journal articles, in the sense that they will look and sound a lot like many of the papers you will have read and still be reading. Using the papers you are reading as ‘models’ or guides for the papers you want to write, fresh out of a PhD, can be really helpful. You can look at what your peers, colleagues and academic ‘heroes’ are writing about, and connect with their arguments, methodologies, conceptual issues, and join these conversations in a more deliberate and careful way. This is really highly recommended, because joining ongoing conversations in your field deliberately and with a fresh voice, perspective and argument, can increase your chances of eventually publishing your work.

I don’t have any definitive opinion on publishing during or after the PhD: I do wish I had published at least one paper about my PhD research towards the end of the process or just after I completed my thesis, as I think it would have got my post-PhD publishing off to a more confident start. However, I had more than enough to do holding down a job, completing my thesis and taking care of my family and my own health. I think this is probably the case for lots of part-time PhD students – writing for a thesis and writing for an article are different, and when you are consumed with one kind of writing, doing the other as well as this, and as well as everything else, can seem like just one thing too many to do. If, however, you do have an idea for a paper that you think could be fleshed out, and can see how writing the paper would help, rather than hinder, your PhD thinking and writing, I would say ‘go for it!’ Give it a try, ask for help from supervisors and critical friends, and be brave. If you just can’t, for whatever reason, publish until after your PhD is finished, don’t fret that you’re ‘behind’. The point of doing a PhD is to do a PhD, rather than to publish papers (unless your PhD is by or with publications, of course). There will be time, after, to write many papers, and do many revisions of these papers, and move your research into new areas of inquiry as your career grows and changes.

Putting yourself out there as often as possible, in polished and well thought-out papers and chapters, is tough, but I think I’m realising it’s also the only way I’m going to get braver, become a better, more educated thinker and writer, and find the exciting over the scary in publication. When and how you choose to do it is up to you, but whenever and however you do choose to do it, thinking in terms of ‘publish and flourish’ (to paraphrase a colleague) rather than ‘publish or perish’ is a more positive way to begin.

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