Should a PhD student publish articles during candidature?

I had few conversation with some first and second years PhD students recently. Coincidentally, all of them ask me the same question: should a PhD publish articles in a peer-reviewed journal before completing the degree. I was once a PhD candidate. Indeed, I understand their concerns.

However, as a person who have had a similar struggle before, I advised them not to do so. Most of them disappointed about my answer, but also understood where I was coming from.

For common goods, I think is good to share my thoughts regarding PhD students doing publishing during their candidature.

A disclaimer here. I was educated and have taught in several Australian Higher Education institutes for more than ten years, major in political science and international relations, or more broadly, social sciences. I am also an associate editor of a high-ranked journal. However, my experience is likely to be different from you. In fact, every discipline, every field, every education system, every research journey is different. So please only take my advices as a reference only, but hopefully they are useful for you.

Why do students want to publish?

As an early career researcher, I struggle with the ‘Publish or Perish’ dilemma. In fact, from day one of my candidature, I am obsessed with the long to-do list before completing my PhD: teaching, side projects, conferences, seminars, coursework, fieldwork, networking, and, of course, publication.

PhD students want to publish is mainly due to their concern about their future career. Pursuing PhD is a heavy gamble. Many of them have tried very hard to enter into the program. They cannot bear with cost of not getting a job straight after their completion. Naively believe that publication would offer them a golden ticket into academia, they have put a lot of pressure into getting publication.

Some students are also influenced by the publishing atmosphere in Americas and East Asia, where departments force their researchers to go to conference, publish papers, and get recognised. However, this is not the case in Australian social science departments – at least at the three universities that I have stayed. Most supervisors would ask to relax and enjoy the research journey.

Australian PhDs are in great ‘disadvantages’

We sometimes read stories from the internet about the success of those fresh PhD graduates in the US. How people become assistant professors the day after their thesis defence. I often find these stories a miracle. However, many of us, even employers, have neglected the differences between the higher degree research program in America and Australia.

A six-year PhD program in the US has put Australian-based PhD candidates into disadvantages. They have more time to research, establish network, and publish than us. We, on the other hand, have to complete the to-do list that I suggested above within four years.

Not to mention, due to budget and size of the departments, most social science PhDs do not receive adequate supports from their universities after their completion.

My observation can go endlessly, and the blog will become criticism of the Australian higher degree research structure. Here, I am not blaming anyone, nor the system. Instead, I am grateful that I study in Australia, and that my supervisors do not treat me as an academic ‘publishing machine’. Simply speaking, Australian PhDs are just less competitive in the global job market.

Not simply a yes/no question

It is even more realistic if we talk about how to get published during your candidatures. There are more difficulties that you need to encounter.

First, you need to have something good enough to publish, which is often your thesis. I often tell first year PhD students to treat their theses as their job market papers, a term that people use in the economics field. It should be the best material that demonstrate your skills, training and research. Therefore, never waste it and choose to publish it in low-ranked journals.

This comes to the debate of quantity verses quality in publishing. If you want to simply get a job, quantity does matter. However, it is not all about your research, but more about your teaching profile. Conversely, if you want to pursue a good academic career, choose to publish in leading journals. As such, speaking from an editor’s perspective, only high quality research would be accepted, which is less likely to happen if you are junior researchers.

Second, you may have a chance publish your master theses (if it has high quality) or side projects. However, bear in mind that you need to have time to polish and revise it. This will occupy your time in additional to teaching loads and freelance research assistant jobs. Hopefully, this will not affect research of your theses.

Third, you may also choose to co-author with your supervisors. Unfortunately, unless the supervisor have a close research interest with their supervisees, this is unlikely to happen. I understand that this is quite common in universities in Hong Kong and Singapore, but Australian scholars tend to hand off their students’ research projects, so that they can have a single authored publication in peer-reviewed journals after completing their theses.

So, should a PhD publish articles?

Yes – of course. If you are pursuing an academic career, you will need to get published eventually.

What I was trying to point out here is not about discouraging students to publish in peer-reviewed journals, but to suggest how difficult to do it if you are under the Australian higher education system. I do know many people in Australia and also in my field who have published before they get their PhDs. They are brilliant. However, this article is written for ordinary PhD candidates, who are not super smart people like me.

Welcome to academia, one of the most brutal, competitive job markets in the world.

Leave a Reply