Repost: Publish papers. Your thesis means nothing

Aug 27 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I've posted this before, both in 2009 and 2010, but it's been a while and the point remains valid. I see way too many people worry about the actual document of their thesis as their grad career drags on another semester. Get the papers out. Don't create a tome for a shelf.

Whether it's tradition or a lack of well communicated expectations, grad students seem to be enormously focused on The Thesis. Students fixate on this document for months before writing it and then for weeks to months of actually writing it. I have to say, I've never quite understood that, because if you had to put odds on the people who will read your whole thesis it would look something like this:

2:1 Advisor
3:1 Committee/Examiners
10:1 Over-eager new student who takes on aspects of your project when you leave
1,000:1 You, after it's done.
100,000:1 Your parents
1238947692092y47nc783et687:1 Everyone else

When I got my thesis back from the binders, I opened it up and read the first sentence. In that sentence, I had a typo that made the word "three" into "tree". Seeing that, I promptly shut the thing and that was that. Never opened again.

The one caveat to this is if you never publish the papers. In that case, the community might find it and someone might crack it open, but probably not. But that's the point. Uncommunicated science might as well never have been done in the first place. Get the papers out. Don't focus on an arcane document that will gather dust for the next 50 years until the departmental office needs space and throws the old ones out. Write the papers, or at least write the chapters as papers so you can get them out quickly after the thesis. If you publish before you graduate, writing your thesis should be about as simple as slapping together a half-assed intro and conclusion (complete with typos that no one catches) and be done with it.

38 responses so far

  • Lax says:

    Besides it will be easier to prove productivity for an immediate postdoc or other employment.

  • Geert Biermans says:

    Hmm.. I'm in the last month of my PhD and will defend in a month, so i'm slightly biased on the subject, but having made it this far, i feel that I do need to comment on this..

    While you make a good point in saying that it will not necessarily be read, i do not agree with the rest. At least not entirely. In a PhD, there is a conflict between what you (the student) wants as a first priority, and what the department (and the scientific community) want.

    As a PhD student, first of all you want your degree. That's the first aim, and the reason why you start the thing in the first place. It's a degree because it's an apprenticeship in becoming a researcher, studying one subject for 3 or 4 years, and in learning how to write it all down. So the first aim should be the thesis. It doesn't really matter if it's just a tome for a shelf.. for most of us it's the first and only time we are able to condense 4 years of our work and gathered knowledge into a single tome. And frankly, despite the occasional spelling mistake and funny graph, it feels good to see it on a coffee table.

    That said, this doesn't mean students shouldn't publish. In many universities (including mine), there's a written (or unwritten) rule that you need at least one published journal paper to obtain your degree. Because that is priority n°1 for the department: to publish. And obviously this is a logical priority. Grant money doesn't grow on trees, so you need your data out there to get recognition. And publishing your PhD results means that at least you get approval from the scientific community that your work is up to the required standard.

    In my case, i have written my chapters as (future) publications. For two reasons: First of all, each chapter is a short story within the framework of the thesis. You should be able to read each and get the message, without the need for the overarching structure of the dissertation. Secondly, after my graduation, i won't have that much time to spend on past research, so better have the data in the right format already.

    But really, a lousy intro and conclusion...? As an examiner, i wouldn't even consider approving that person's PhD. All the chapters together give a much wider scope than each chapter separately. The art (and the fun) in a PhD is to give that overarching story context, introduction, meaning.

    And I don't care whether someone reads my thesis 50 years from now. Because these past 4 years have been the most turbulent, exciting, stressful and tiresome years of apprenticeship and research in my life. Years where ideas formed, crumbled, re-emerged and crystallised.

    And one volume, a single book, holds the memories and remnants of all those things. I wouldn't trade that in for a publication in Nature.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    But really, a lousy intro and conclusion...? As an examiner, i wouldn't even consider approving that person's PhD. All the chapters together give a much wider scope than each chapter separately. The art (and the fun) in a PhD is to give that overarching story context, introduction, meaning.

    If you think the PhD is about an intro and conclusion in a book no one will read, you need to gain some perspective.

  • Angie says:

    I actually had a small mistake on the front cover of my thesis. I discovered it at the printers, getting copies made for my committee. I was kind of horrified, but I let it go because it was "just my dissertation". I couldn't have cared less about that thing - the papers were so much more important.

    However, my Introduction chapter really came in handy a few years later when I was asked to write a review paper.

    Yes, the Ph.D years are exciting and it might be nice to have something on your coffee table as a physical monument to all that. But... if you did it right (published the papers!!!!), the good times don't end there. Maybe I'll bring my tenure dossier binders home tonight and display them on the fireplace mantle.

  • anon says:

    Sorry, but I am more on the side of GB than you are proflike. I think a solid, synthetic introductory chapter is an important part of the thesis. I won't go into the details behind my thinking, but intellectual maturity comes from having to produce such a chapter.

  • GMP says:

    but intellectual maturity comes from having to produce such a chapter.

    I have each of my students write a review paper or a book chapter 1-1.5yrs before we anticipate they would defend in order to be forced to do this type of synthetic work and take a bird's view of the field. They get a small publication bullet on their CV out of this effort and, afterwards, they get to also use it as the intro in the dissertation.
    So yeah, doing this work is important, but not for the sole purpose of producing a chapter in the magical document.

    I am completely with PlS here. Publications first.
    If you have published well, writing the dissertation should be nearly trivial.
    If you haven't...

  • geert biermans says:

    Anon, that's exactly what i meant :).

    Angie, papers are important for your tenure track, but only if you want to go into tenure track. A PhD is a degree by which you prove that you are able to compile that into a text which reflects your intellectual voyage to expert in your tiny field of study. On which you did your PhD. I chose not to continue in academia, simply because fme it wasn't THE necessary choice

    I know very well where my scope lies, but it's larger than just academia...

  • Sure, a solid intro is an important part of a thesis. But the thesis ITSELF isn't important.

    As PLS explains, it doesn't matter. Nobody reads it. It's there to collect dust in a library, and as a digital file to never be opened. Time spent unnecessarily on a thesis to improve its quality is time squandered. A good committee members is one who knows that the thesis doesn't matter and merely needs to pass a quality sniff test.

    If you're a grad student telling yourself that the thesis matters, your argument will only be buffeted by finding someone who has finished one and is gainfully employed in the field, who agrees with you.

  • sciwo says:

    A good synthesis intro chapter can be an asset - or even become a review paper. And a PhD dissertation or MS thesis can be a place to more detail and more data than will ultimately make it into the neat stories we tell in publications. My PhD diss has been referenced for those reasons, even though I published all the meaty chapters.

    But that said I absolutely agree with you that publication is imperative. I think most PhD students get that. I wish MS students did as well, but their focus is even more laser-like on degree-->job, where nonpublication won't affect their career in the slightest.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Sure, a thesis is the degree gateway. I get that. But who is paying for your degree?

    Are you on a federal fellowship? Is your research funded by a federal agency? If so, thinking you don't need to publish the work is fundamentally flawed, IMHO.

  • LM says:

    PLS is almost completely right here. The thesis doesn't matter. If your plan is to publish things from your thesis after you graduate... you may be deluding yourself. The amount of time you have for this will drop incredibly, and this will shift a great deal more work onto your adviser and other students.

    If it's not published, the rest of the world does not know your cool science. In fact, in my tiny corner of my subfield, there has been a mini-renaissance that came about in part from looking at some results in a 1996 thesis that wasn't ever published. (The author went into financial services.)

    However, in some groups, the thesis is where they write down every last detail about how experiments were actually done - the wisdom that they pass on to future grad students. I can see the value of this - but of course it would be better if more information were public (i.e. published). Really, here the thesis is just the excuse professors use to force grad students to more fully document their work!

  • Kate Jeffery says:

    I couldn't disagree more with the thesis-is-pointless argument. Publications are important, yes, but a PhD is about about learning more than just how to churn out publications. Excessive focus on publications to the detriment of sound, thoughtful sometimes-leading-to-dead-ends science is one of the big blots on the science copybook right now.

    When you write a thesis you are forced to think about the big picture. You have to step back from your experiments and think *why* did I do this? You have to read the historical literature - maybe the first and last time you will ever really get to grips with the work of those giants on the shoulders of which your own puny contributions stand.

    A PhD also gives you space to pursue risky lines of enquiry that may not end up publishable, but that constituted genuine hypothesis-testing of the highest order: and including them in your tome is a way of revealing your scientific thinking and showing how you learned to frame and then tackle a question (even if it didn't work out).

    From the point of view of assessing a student, a thesis gives examiners an opportunity to see the student's own work, in isolation, rather than embedded in the team effort that constitutes a published paper.

    And finally, now that we put theses online, they provide a genuine and useful resource in their own right. More than once have I downloaded someone's PhD thesis in order to read the introduction and discussion, and familiarise myself with a field outside my own - probably the most thoughtful treatment of that field to be found anywhere.

    I hope students who are currently writing up (thinking of my own here!) won't be persuaded and disheartened by the argument that a thesis means nothing. It means everything. It is possibly the best piece of really integrated science you will ever do - really something to be proud of.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Kate, Are you suggesting that any publication does not require you to think about why you did what you did and get into the lit? On this I will have to disagree. I do agree that not everything ends up publishable and some leeway in that regard is a Good Thing, but most post-PhD careers will be enhanced by publications on your CV.

    Also, we still have that issue of who is paying for the work.

    You can be proud of your thesis and its layer of dust. I'm proud of my publication record.

  • philipj says:

    I think the arguments for and against are pretty clear, and the title of the blog post could be amended to "Publish papers, your thesis means nothing *to anybody else*". Wether it means something to you is highly personal, though I think there are a non-trivial number of positives that result in writing an excellent introduction and review of your work that you don't gain from simply writing papers, most of which relate to the clarity of your own understanding and gaining a more honest assessment of your field of research and how your own work fits within.

  • Joshua King says:

    Theses absolutely have value. Many are cited. Many have excruciating detail about methods, study sites, behavioral observations, contraptions, etc., that never make it into print. My own thesis has citations because of these kinds of details - I published every chapter but many of the details were culled out during peer review. Others found value in those details. So, yes they absolutely should be published and yes they absolutely have value above and beyond the "degree gateway."

  • Magma says:

    I am fully with PLS on this. Maybe in a field where the supervisor writes the publications, one could argue for a thesis. But if you write your own papers as you should, even when edited heavily by a supervisor, there is no point in a thesis.

  • pyrope says:

    So many layers of dust - doesn't anyone clean any more?

  • The bottom line is that theses are not read by others.

    If it isn't read, then it can't be useful to others.

    To disagree with this line of reasoning, then one would have to do one of three things:

    1 - make an argument that a document that isn't being read is useful to others because of its sheer existence.

    2 - make an argument that theses are being read. A couple commenters have asserted this, but I don't think it's the case.

    3 - make an argument that the experience of writing a thesis itself is important for training purposes for the student and that this training experience is somehow better than the kind of training experience that comes from writing real publications.

    Am I missing something here?

  • Jon Tennant says:

    So this debate has got quite polarised, based on the idea that to publish it needs to be through the typical peer-reviewed pathway. As a grad student, converting a chapter into a paper, or finding the time to do it after you've graduated, can be extremely consuming, and detracts from what you should be doing, which is primary research. The alternative, is to publish your thesis via new outlets such as PeerJ pre-prints, arXiv, biorXiv, or Figshare, particularly the latter so you can make ALL your data available too. My first MSc thesis is on there, and has had almost 500 views to date ( So yeah, while you need publications to get anywhere in higher level academia (papers = academic currency, and development of your 'academic-penis'), if a post-doc or whatever isn't your chosen path, you can avoid the sluggishness of formal publication, and still get your research out there.

    I wrote about this issue for Master's students recently too:

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I had a more or less free summer after finishing my PhD. I also had some time after defense to work a couple of things up. I got my dissertation into publishable shape that summer, and was commended for so doing by my major professor and committee members.

    I have ordered a couple of dissertations from University Microfilms, and know other people who have done the same.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Whether methods minutiae is so important is also field dependent. I'm sure Josh's Peruvian ant snare or squirrel tether ball set are innovations that requires very clear instructions.

  • anon says:

    Proflike, you are getting snarky. In academia publishing does matter, yes, quite a lot - I am tenured; I am a full professor who is often asked to apply for positions elsewhere; I am always funded; I have a high H-factor; I am sought after; I know the job. But one of the reasons that being an academic is fulfilling to people is because it isn't all about the money (or in this case, who funds what, who published what). Don't let your soul shrink so much. Writing a good intro chapter is not as wasteful an enterprise as you make it out to be. The 'bottom line' is not the bottom line to all of us. We have a personal bottom line that matters a great deal. I could be a very, very rich business person. I am instead an academic because we are allowed a rich and more personal bottom line.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I never claimed that self-fulfillment wasn't part of the deal. If it wasn't, none of us would work this hard for what we get paid. My point, from the very beginning, has been that you NEED to publish and what you do with her thesis is inconsequential. You need to publish for two reasons:

    1) No one will know or care what you did if it stays on a shelf.

    2) If you had any federal support during your degree, you owe the dissemination of your findings.

    If you want to quibble with these points, I'm all ears.

  • BBBShrewHarpy says:

    Impressing your committee is a non-trivial factor. These may be the people you ask for reference letters. Taking away the ones who are directly involved in your research, the thesis will be the document that tells them the most about your abilities. Hopefully they will also read your papers but the thesis will be the document they consult in order to find "grilling" points for your defense, should they so choose. Giving them a sense of your engagement and the depth of your research activities through the care you take with your thesis is surely beneficial. It also tells them what are truly your accomplishments and tribulations where the paper may not fully inform unless one is an expert in that field or sub-field.

    Aside from this, I also feel that the student's ownership and pride in their thesis is very important and should be encouraged.

    My personal experience is that two years after I graduated, I was contacted by two postdocs in my graduate research group who were inspired by one of my very technical methods chapters to develop a new analysis technique that the three of us published with very little extra work for me, an unexpected third publication from the thesis work. Of course this is field-dependent and I suspect that in PLS's field the new graduate students and postdocs are not as apt to consult the good PhD theses so much.

  • Matt says:

    Thesis-by-publication is fairly new here in South Africa, but I am going to go that route. I have been warned that local examiners might reject it (due to their being from the before-time, in the long-long-ago when SA was cut off from the world). Still, at the very least, I think they need exposure to this sort of thing. Plus, I want that academic job at the end of the day, and I doubt there is any data that contradicts the assertion that the likelihood of getting tenure is proportional to research output.

  • "Are you on a federal fellowship? Is your research funded by a federal agency? If so, thinking you don't need to publish the work is fundamentally flawed, IMHO."

    The rest I agree on but this is crazy. Your obligations are certainly met by making your work available publicly in the form of a dissertation. Now if you hide your work behind a paywall in a fancy journal, or worse behind a paywall in some crap Elsevier journal most libraries can't afford, then I'm pretty sure you have not met your obligations to disseminate your work.

  • M says:

    I will add a data point/opinion.

    Theses are important sources of continuity within a group. I have poured over previous students' dissertations. Lab notebooks as well - but the dissertations were more important as they were actually organized. There is a level of detail included in the dissertations that is NOT included in the published papers. This is one important distinction. The finer details of the experimental methods. The finer details of the mathematical treatment that takes ones months if not years to piece together from papers/textbooks because they just DON'T EXPLAIN all the details at a basic enough level. I have poured over students' introductions. It takes a new grad student a long time to understand their project, and in getting to this point they read and reread review papers, their advisor's grants written for the project perhaps, and definitely dissertations from students previously graduated. Intros to papers are not detailed enough to provide this perspective.

    Further - I read misc. dissertations all the time that I find on the Internet, especially when I'm digging into a new topic. I find that often, the good ones offer an incredibly useful source of detail, perspective, references, and explanations that is not often matched by other documents. Sure - it's written by a student and you have to take that with a grain of salt. But the beauty is that BECAUSE it's written by a student, it might actually make sense and be brought down to an understandable level.

    I also read dissertations written by people working in my exact area from other groups. Again, to look for the nitty gritty details that do not get included in papers. And physicists, I find, are more negligent regarding supporting information compared to, for example, chemists (I work as a physicist but am trained as a chemist). So to find the extra data plots or experimental details for physics-related work, it is definitely useful to dig in dissertations, because you typically wouldn't be able to find it otherwise.

    Ideally, one would work toward the goal of completing both the dissertation and publishing their work. Writing their chapters as papers, but with more details where relevant, possibly some additional methods sections, and then tacking on an intro and conclusion chapter. This is what I did and it worked out great. Ideally my intro would have doubled as a review article (it was good enough/creative enough), but unfortunately by advisor was crazy and is not organized enough to work with me to publish it (but would not allow me to publish it as a single author either, so my hands were tied).

    I like GMP's idea of having students write review articles or book chapters in lieu of the intro. The biggest problem I see here is that many students simply are not capable of this, at least many of those whom I have known at lesser institutions. They're lucky enough to write part of a paper, let alone a review article - they just do not have the writing ability/understanding/perspective/etc. Also the review article or book chapter may not necessarily be close enough to the students' own work to help them think through their own project, though it's still a useful exercise in understanding an area.

  • Genomic Repairman says:

    I am going about it with the mindset of the publications will be modified to make the thesis, not the other way around. Introductory chapter will be an expansion of my review article. All the other goodness will come from a paper that I am working on. My thesis will actually be incomplete but the data will live on in the papers that follow.

    The greater good is in publishing your ideas in manuscripts, not in some book that sits on a shelf and collects dust. Scientific articles are much more readily available than a thesis. And I understand that people cite someone's thesis, and I've even done it, but lets face it, 99% of our citations are articles. This is what I think PLS is trying to get at. I'm sure the thesis has intrinsic value to us all and is the last hurdle to clear for the PhD. But to think it is your legacy is deluded, your legacy is in your papers. They are the seeds of science that will carry farther in the wind and plant more ideas than any tome of graduate work.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    So, I'm sure everyone extolling the virtues of the perfectly written thesis gets e-alerts for these documents as they come out, right?

  • And here I thought that this post was just a milquetoast-point-out-the-obvious situation.

    It is odd when people write to disagree with something that you never said.

  • Klara says:

    I'm completely on PLS's side here. Due to a lot of limitations, I had the choice between either sitting at home writing my thesis, or trying to get the revisions done for two papers. Writing the thesis after dealing with the experiments was not an option.

    I performed the experiments and made sure the publications were solid with my thesis good enough to pass. And will be heading to Oxford for a post-doc soon. That wouldn't have been possible if I had prioritized the thesis over the papers. No one cares about my thesis, people care about my articles.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    It is odd when people write to disagree with something that you never said.

    I thought that was just called "a typical comment thread"

  • Busy says:

    Many are cited.

    I call BS on that. By far the vast majority of theses are not cited _ever_.

  • yawbawdy says:

    don't agree at all. papers do not make a doctor of philosophy.

    i always read the thesis of any potential postdoc candidate; if they cannot produce a coherent description of what they've done during their doctorate fat chance they'll ever be successful in science.

    would be surprised if your institution supported this POV.

  • Thiago Silva says:

    "I have each of my students write a review paper or a book chapter 1-1.5yrs before we anticipate they would defend in order to be forced to do this type of synthetic work and take a bird's view of the field. They get a small publication bullet on their CV out of this effort and, afterwards, they get to also use it as the intro in the dissertation"

    I did this during my PhD, but I wonder: if your lab follows a given line of research,how many reviews/chapters can you produce within the topic, before having to start sending them to SCIRP, Intech Open, OMICS group, etc.?

    Also, as a committee member: getting 300 page tomes to read do not put me in the best mood for the defense. I appreciate it took you four years to write it, but I'll only have a few days to read it. Get rid of the fluff.

  • qaz says:

    Both GB and KJ are absolutely correct. The thesis is learning how to pull together years of work to place yourself in the big picture. Over the years, I've noticed a big difference between students of advisors who insist on a thesis being a "magnum opus" that pulls together all the literature in a field (going all the way back to the beginning) and advisors who say that a thesis is a set of stapled papers. The stapled-papers students don't place themselves in the literature. And their future work suffers for it. (Hint: it makes grant writing easier if you know how to pull a literature together.)

    The fact that most theses are not cited and are not read does not mean that yours won't be. First, in many fields theses are turned into books which are cited extensively and have major impact. You cannot do this from a "bunch of stapled papers". Second, some theses contain the best in-depth literature reviews, and are cited extensively for years. Third, it may take you multiple years to get your paper published, especially if you find yourself fighting reviewers in a GlamourMag. You wouldn't want to hold your PhD up on those reviewers! And fourth, sometimes the papers never make it out and the thesis is all we have.

    Each of these four examples are people I know well. The first turned his thesis into a book which was the go-to starting point for every student entering that field for ten years. (He was in a field where this was not generally done. ) The second's thesis was the go-to-review in my field for almost six years until finally some decent reviews got written. The third person took two years to get his paper published (in a very fancy journal). And the fourth, unfortunately, was killed in an accident in his first year as a postdoc. I always insist that people cite his thesis because it's an important contribution to the literature. Sure these are the exceptional examples. But if grant funding is at 10% then we'd better all be exceptional examples.

    The thesis has to get through four peer reviewers who are very motivated to get it published. (And yes, technically all PhD theses are published and citeable.) This means that you can put the stuff in there that you couldn't get through whatever ugly journal filter you find yourself fighting with. Like the full in-depth literature review or the detailed methods or the dead-ends and negative results you passed through to get to the breakthrough.

    300 pages isn't the problem. Fluff is the problem. They're not the same thing.

  • […] Last week, @proflikesubstance wrote that you should Publish papers. Your thesis means nothing: […]

  • […] Unfortunately, as graduate students, we also have to consider a question that seems a little harsh but is one we’ve heard time and time again: who would actually want to read your thesis? […]

Leave a Reply