How many and what makes it to the grade?

Over at ScienceWoman, Mrs. Comet Hunter had asked a question that all of us do/did face:

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?

As is her wont, the very first point that ScienceWoman makes is very practical and valid:

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.

She goes on to give further advice on least publishable units, co-authorships and other such important stuff. Some of the commentors on the post are also very insightful — like the second one by estraven who makes the most important observation, namely, that when we are talking about “impressive” publication, what we mean is how your peers and practitioners in your sub-field perceive your work and not how you yourself perceive it.

I too think that unless you have good reasons to suspect the attitudes and motives of your advisor, he/she will be the best judge; as one of the commentors suggest, it might also be a good idea to check with other senior students and post-docs; sometimes suggestions made based on such discussions might give some ideas to you and your advisor.

I think that the most important skill to learn from the publishing of your PhD work is to learn the art of deciding which works are publishable, in what units and where. Here again ScienceWoman’s advice is very perceptive. You have to read varying papers in several journals in your field, and based on that experience make up your mind as how your PhD work should be published. In fact, how you perceive, and how your (more experienced) advisor and peers perceive then forms an important and very educational feedback.

On the whole, a must-read post if you are in the business of PhD — either trying to earn one for yourself or helping others to earn theirs. Have fun!

One Response to “How many and what makes it to the grade?”

  1. vs Says:

    What do you mean “Have fun”? when you are trying to earn one!
    Your assistant proffersorship has irreversibly corrupted you.

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