Publishing during your PhD: Who what when why how…help?!

So, having got to the halfway point in my PhD (welp) I have started to pay more attention to the best ways to maximise my chances of getting a job when I finish. In doing so I have attended a lot of workshops/sessions on getting a job post PhD, and, particularly for academic jobs, the overarching message seems to be: publish publish publish…preferably in Science and Nature.

Now, I wanted to get a broader perspective on this than that given to me by a small number of people on panels. So, of course, I reached out to the good people of Twitter.


Twitter polls are in no way scientific or reflective of a wider context. The ones I run are probably biased towards the UK and early career people, and a whole host of other stuff. 

I wanted to know about the publishing successes, during their PhD, of people on Twitter who had done a PhD in a field in or related to ecology and conservation. I asked 4 questions: How many papers they published (between the start and finish date of their PhD), how many were first author papers, how long they had to complete and whether they published in Science or Nature. In order to see if there were any differences I asked this of people who stayed in the field – whether this be in academia or elsewhere, and those that moved into a different field.

So *drum roll* what were peoples answers?

I have to say, I was a little disheartened by the results. For those that stayed in the field the most common number of papers published was >4, with 3-4 first author papers. Whilst my brain was tempted to put this down to ‘crazy Americans and their 7 year PhDs’, actually the most common time-frame was 3-4 years. Oh, and 11% published in Science and Nature. ARGHHHH. (Worth noting, that the initial question on papers published got over double the answers of the others though, so there’s a lot of potential for skew.)

As I anticipated beforehand it was much harder to reach people who had moved out of the field of conservation/ecology because of the make-up of my followers. These polls had a maximum of 58 participants so probably don’t say much. But, of those that did answer they had most commonly produced 1-2 papers, with an even split between 0 and >4 1st author papers. People seemed to have longer for their PhDs also. Only 3% of those that answered had published in Science and Nature.

So, what does this mean? Well, basically nothing – These polls are incredibly unscientific and basically carried out for my own curiosity – BUT I will summarise a couple of things I, personally, have taken from this and follow that up with a lot of the great advice that was passed onto me by a whole range of people throughout the process.

Publishing IS important, but it is not the be all and end all. Whilst it does help to get as many publications as possible early on (a we all know in the academic route having that publication number high can help with a lot of job applications) actually, there are many other very valuable skills to have. A number of people contacted me who have stayed in the field despite getting no publications during their PhD – it is doable. DO NOT PANIC PEOPLE!

giphy (1)

I wanted to know about what people thought with regards to a) focusing on publishing and b) the best publishing tips.

So, some advice on publishing and how to win at doing a PhD in general from those publishing machines that published >4 papers during their PhD:

  • Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate (and also collaborate).
  • Find new ways of using old data.
  • Methods papers are great. So are reviews.
  • Try and get some low-hanging fruit for your first publication – good practice going through the publication process for later.
  • Focus on one really high impact factor paper (>5), the rest just need to get published.
  • Keep your eye on the prize – make sure you keep focused on your PhD and don’t take on too many extras. Learn when to say no.
  • Delegate!
  • Balance what you are doing now with setting up your next publication.
  • Write early and write often, for a variety of audiences.
  • Be opportunistic.
  • Read new papers – this can inspire your own work.
  • Don’t neglect other PhD skills along the way.

And the advice from people who got less than 4 but didn’t let a little thing like that stop them:

  • Did someone mention collaboration? Do that.
  • It isn’t a numbers game – quality is more important than quantity.
  • Networking networking networking networking (and don’t rely on your supervisor to introduce you to people – get out there!).
  • Be on Twitter.
  • Promote your research online, at conferences and at events.
  • Learn a unique skill – especially if you have no publications, that one thing you can do that other people can’t can really set you apart.
  • When you take a job post PhD balance relevance and interest with how easy it will be to keep publishing.
  • You don’t need to focus on publications if you gain a broad skillset and good contacts.
  • Mix simple papers with high risk projects.

And finally, and in my opinion most importantly:

  • Keep going out and enjoying yourself



3 thoughts on “Publishing during your PhD: Who what when why how…help?!

  1. Great post.

    I know the twitter polls are low numbers and probably biased, but I’ve seen few (no) blog posts about the PhD experience that incorporate inputs from multiple people, usually it’s just one person’s experience, which can be great, but it’s useful to see advice from lots of people.

    If you write more posts about the PhD experience I will read them.

    Also, cannot stop watching that last gif.


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