Monday, 11 July 2011

why you should publish before you finish your degree: a cautionary tale

When I completed writing my PhD thesis two years ago I boarded the plane the very next day to head off to my first post-doctoral position. Somehow, while I made a few attempts to write a paper based on that research during the 1.5 years of that post-doc contract, I didn't actually finish writing it—the first couple of drafts were still attempting to include too much information.

It will come as no surprise to anyone to hear that I continued to not work on that paper during the six months I was in Scandinavia on a visitor's visa living with my new-found love. Now that I have returned to Australia to submit my application for a permanent resident visa so that he and I may continue living together I have begun again, at long last, to working on that paper. One advantage to waiting until now is that instead of discussing the paper and the proper aims and scope thereof with my erstwhile adviser over email I can stop into his office and get real time interaction and feedback.

Today we had our first face-to-face meeting in two years, and he cautioned me that he expected that, given how long it has been since I have worked on this project, that it would probably take a good three days just to re-familiarize myself with what I was doing so that I could move forward on the project. How I wish that he weren't correct in that.

I recall having, on more than one occasion, cursed previous researchers who studied these rocks for the information that they left out of their theses or publications. Today I am cursing myself for what, now, appears to be a fairly random organizational system which has made it difficult to find the spreadsheets I need.

An additional complication I have encountered is my computer upgrade. I purchased a much-need new computer last October, and while I was able to replace most of the programs on it, it was not possible to replace my copy of ArcMap. This is the program in which I recorded the positions of each and every analysis point from every microprobe session I ever did during my PhD research. It is a wonderful program which permits one to accurately align photographs with x-y coordinates such that one can see at a glance where on each crystal each analysis point is located.

In the course of my research I exported the images for many of the samples to CorelDraw in order to create figures to be used in the thesis. I now wish to create a new figure for the paper I am working on, but the exported version contains the location of the analysis points for three out of four of the minerals used in the calculations. This means that I need to open the ArcMap files. I should be able to do this when next I am at the university, by using one of their computers, but it will require a bit of effort to explain to the program the new location of all of the files required.

So now the researcher who I find myself cursing for incomplete information is none other than my past self! There is no one to blame but me, each time I chose to do something other than writing this paper while the information was all still fresh in my mind I was also choosing to make the eventual writing of the paper just that little bit more difficult. I freely admit that, at the time I made those choices, it seemed like a reasonable price to pay, but now the time is nigh, and, indeed, it looks like it just may be a good three days to get back up to speed on this project so that I can finish it.

Wish me luck—as one of my colleagues pointed out to me today "research which is not published is wasted effort", and I do not wish all of that effort to have been wasted.


Anthea said...

Thank you! This is a good cautionary tale especially when it seems that many doctoral students are publishing articles as part and parcel of their PhD programme. So, once they've defended they can say that have publications on their cv as they apply for postdocs and the rest.

Anonymous said...

This sounds familiar...

The method when I did my PhD was to get all part-time students through as quickly as possible, but make sure they published at least one paper. Part of the viva involved the question, "Is this work worth publishing?", which could then be answered by waving the published paper at the examiner. Furthermore, full-timers were encouraged to publish throughout, so if a part-timer hadn't started by submission they were at a disadvantage later on.

But the emphasis on part-timers was to publish the rest after PhD submission, not before, because sadly the drop-out rate of part-time PhDs was so high they just wanted you through. To try to publish before submission wasn't going to happen: there weren't enough hours in the day to both publish and write-up. A submitted PhD could be published from later, but an unsubmitted PhD with no simultaneous or follow-up publications was the saddest waste of all!

Years down the line there was still scrambling for notes, especially after house-moves, but as the PhD write-up and publishing stages overlapped the deciphering was a little easier.


b0lly said...

this was very insightful. i'm currently an undergrad double majoring in cognitive science and philosophy and have been doing research and independent study for both majors in hopes of preparing myself for grad school. you have a great blog. i wish you all the best :)