Publishing during or after the PhD: putting yourself out there now or later?

Publishing your work is tough. Putting yourself out there in terms of sharing your ideas with your colleagues and peers can be as scary as it is exciting. I think this is especially the case for PhD scholars and early career researchers who are still finding their research niche, their voice, confidence in their ideas and writing. In this post I’d like to try and tease out some of the issues that could be involved in deciding to publish during your PhD, or wait until your thesis is finished to start composing papers and sending them out to journals for consideration.

Let’s start with publishing during the PhD: first, let me say that if you are first-authoring or only-authoring a paper and sending it to a journal before your PhD is completed, I am in awe of you. I could not have done this – not least because I have no idea where I would have found the time. It was more a case of the Fear. Fear that my research had actually already been published in a paper I just had not found and read; Fear that my ideas were actually awful, or derivative, or boring, or just ridiculous. Fear that I would be rejected, and that the self-doubt this would create would spill over into my PhD and derail my progress. I am not sure the Fear will ever really leave me – critical self-doubt may well be part and parcel of being an academic writer keen on growing and developing their ‘crafts’ – but I do have a sense that putting my work out there will get easier, and be more exciting rather than scary on the whole.

If you are publishing during the PhD, there may be a limited range of papers you could write, depending on how far along in your research process you are. If, for example, you have not generated data yet, it would be difficult to write a more empirical paper, where you use your data, analysed, to support your case or claims. You could perhaps write a ‘critical literature review’ (for example, Robotham & Julian, ‘Stress and the higher education student: a critical review of the literature) which reviews the literature you have read that relates specifically to the research you are doing, but that takes a critical stance in terms of pointing to alternatives, gaps and spaces for other kinds of, new, or different research in this research area. You could write a paper exploring part of your own research process, from a methodological point of view, or in terms of critically reflecting on parts of the research process (not a personal narrative, but something that would be of use to other researchers in terms of helping them reflect on their own process too; for example Ortlipp, ‘Keeping and Using Reflective Journals in the Qualitative Research Process’). You could write these papers post-PhD, too, of course – but during the PhD you’d need to think quite carefully about where you are in the process, and what you would want to say to your professional or research community at that point.

If you are publishing post-PhD, the range of papers you could write widens, of course, because you now may well have a large data set you can draw on – either data that made it into the PhD, or data you had to put aside for reasons of focus and scope. You can write probably 2 or 3 empirical papers (for example, Coleman, ‘Incorporating the notion of recontextualisation in academic literacies research: the case of a South African vocational web design and development course’; Mckenna, ‘The intersection between academic literacies and student identities : research in higher education’). These papers would likely be more ‘traditional’ journal articles, in the sense that they will look and sound a lot like many of the papers you will have read and still be reading. Using the papers you are reading as ‘models’ or guides for the papers you want to write, fresh out of a PhD, can be really helpful. You can look at what your peers, colleagues and academic ‘heroes’ are writing about, and connect with their arguments, methodologies, conceptual issues, and join these conversations in a more deliberate and careful way. This is really highly recommended, because joining ongoing conversations in your field deliberately and with a fresh voice, perspective and argument, can increase your chances of eventually publishing your work.

I don’t have any definitive opinion on publishing during or after the PhD: I do wish I had published at least one paper about my PhD research towards the end of the process or just after I completed my thesis, as I think it would have got my post-PhD publishing off to a more confident start. However, I had more than enough to do holding down a job, completing my thesis and taking care of my family and my own health. I think this is probably the case for lots of part-time PhD students – writing for a thesis and writing for an article are different, and when you are consumed with one kind of writing, doing the other as well as this, and as well as everything else, can seem like just one thing too many to do. If, however, you do have an idea for a paper that you think could be fleshed out, and can see how writing the paper would help, rather than hinder, your PhD thinking and writing, I would say ‘go for it!’ Give it a try, ask for help from supervisors and critical friends, and be brave. If you just can’t, for whatever reason, publish until after your PhD is finished, don’t fret that you’re ‘behind’. The point of doing a PhD is to do a PhD, rather than to publish papers (unless your PhD is by or with publications, of course). There will be time, after, to write many papers, and do many revisions of these papers, and move your research into new areas of inquiry as your career grows and changes.

Putting yourself out there as often as possible, in polished and well thought-out papers and chapters, is tough, but I think I’m realising it’s also the only way I’m going to get braver, become a better, more educated thinker and writer, and find the exciting over the scary in publication. When and how you choose to do it is up to you, but whenever and however you do choose to do it, thinking in terms of ‘publish and flourish’ (to paraphrase a colleague) rather than ‘publish or perish’ is a more positive way to begin.

Plotting a paper out of the PhD

I am currently trying to write a second paper based on my PhD research. This is presenting me with two challenges: the first is that I don’t really want to write anything more about the PhD research, and the other is working out how to successfully slice one paper out of such a massive piece of thinking and writing.

To start with challenge one: being, by now, a bit ‘over’ the PhD. I have written elsewhere on this blog about how unproductive last year – post-PhD year 1 – was in terms of writing and sending off papers developed out of my PhD research. In the midst of the year full of work, kids, work, life and more work there seemed to be space to think, and scribble, but no space for the kind of sustained and focused thinking, reading and writing required to produce a solid journal article, or two. That is, I didn’t make any space, largely because that space was constrained in so many ways, and I just didn’t have emotional or mental reserves to draw on after a very intense three-year PhD period. So, the unproductiveness was a time and space thing, for sure. But now that I have time, and space, I am finding that part of the unproductiveness is that writing papers that slice up my big PhD argument into smaller pieces is somewhat unappealing to me. I have already written about all of that, in the thesis. I want to write about new things now – newer insights that have continued to emerge from that research, post-PhD. My supervisor said to me last year that I think I have actually told everyone about my research and its value, but I have not really done so because I have not written it up and sent it to journals, and that work is worth doing as a starting point for writing and thinking about the newer ideas, insights, research, and applications of the theory in my work. She is right about this. But it doesn’t make writing these papers feel more valuable, or more engaging. Do I just plod on and write the damn things, or do I choose a different path here?

This brings me to my second challenge: if I decide to plod on and write the damn things, what do I write about? There are sub-sets of data within the larger set that I can think about focusing in on, to make smaller, simpler arguments that can be made in 6000 words. The theory is now clear enough to me that I can see how to reshape it into just what I need to make one or two separate arguments with smaller sub-sets of data. I can see, basically, at least one or two more papers that I could write. But, in writing the first paper, which I did earlier this year, I found that while it started with my PhD data and theoretical framework, the argument I made was not one I made explicitly in my PhD. The argument was one I made in my feedback to one of the departments I worked with to generate the data – a smaller argument made to illustrate the usefulness of my approach to researching teaching and learning in relation to their departmental (and the university’s) teaching and learning priorities and goals. Thus, the paper was kind of drawn out of the PhD and kind of new. So, while I can see theory, data and even literature I drew on in the PhD as being helpful to me in writing papers, I can’t actually see myself slicing up my PhD argument as successfully: what feels more authentic and less forced is using the theory, methodology, data and some of the relevant literature to make re-tooled and updated arguments that more usefully illustrate to a wider audience the potential value of my research. Therefore, I plod on, but not to just write something, anything, from the PhD. I want to use it as a springboard to make different kinds of arguments that I couldn’t necessarily make in the PhD because, perhaps, they were too small and too focused in, and not ‘big’ enough.

Maybe I am not going about this the ‘right’ way if there even is a right way to publish out of your PhD thesis, particularly the ‘big-book’ kind I wrote. But I am finding that the logics that underpin writing a thesis, and the logics that underpin writing a journal article are quite different, particularly in terms of what counts as making an argument and why you do it. When we publish, we do so to share our research with our peers, to build on research already out there in our field, to challenge that research perhaps, and to offer new ideas, perspectives, methodologies and so on. The arguments we make need to be smaller and tend to develop over time, through several papers and research projects that may well be aligned or cumulative. When we write a PhD thesis we are not doing so with sharing the whole thesis with a large audience in mind. We are, really, writing a very big exam paper because the PhD thesis is something we write to gain a qualification, a title, different status in the academy. We write it to prove that we are capable of doing the kind of research we will then go on to write about in all the papers, chapters, books, articles and so on that we will write over the course of a fairly typical academic career. The argument we make is not big, but there is no sense that we will be writing more than one thesis, so the larger argument tends to be broader in nature than all the smaller sub-arguments that can be implied or subsumed within it. I am finding that it is these sub-arguments – some made in the thesis but several left unmade but hinted at – that I am more able to write about coming out of the PhD. They fit the logic of writing for publication more easily, and these papers, while still a slog not least because I have to add more reading to the already long PhD reading list, feel more authentic, less forced, and more like valuable contributions to my field.

A year on: my first year post-PhD

I have been trawling through my blog archives, reading what I was writing and thinking about a year ago. I have friends who are close to submitting their PhD theses for examination, and others who are not yet where they wanted to be by now, and this has all given me pause to reflect on where I was a year ago and where I am now. A year on: am I where I wanted to be by now? I am, and I am not. There were many plans – some more realistic than others – that have and have not come to fruition. Now feels like a good time to take stock, and perhaps learn a few more lessons to take into 2015.

It has been a hectic year on the work and home fronts, and I had such big plans for my writing out of the PhD. Such idealistically big plans. I did not really have a holiday when I finished my PhD. Yes, we had a small trip at the end of last year, once the thesis was being examined, but I could not fully relax. I thought about the examination process a great deal, worrying about whether my thesis reached my examiners, and whether they were reading it, and whether they liked it, or found it interesting, useful, persuasive… I am a worrier by nature. My husband has often said that if I didn’t have anything to worry about, I would be worried about that! So, I spent most of December, January and especially February, as the examination period went into overtime, worrying. It was not relaxing. So I was not in a good space for thinking about papers. I wrote a very vague list of papers I could write from the thesis around March, and stuck it up on my wall at work. I even pinpointed possible journals. And I scribbled, in my research journal in tentative pencil, some plans for abstracts and such. Waiting to get the reports and corrections back kind of consumed my headspace. I got physically ill too, for a fairly long period, as my body realised we weren’t doing the thesis anymore and kind of fell apart in a heap for a while. So, the early part of the year was not as productive as I had thought it might be talking to colleagues who seemed to churn out papers right after submitting. I just didn’t realise how emotionally and physically done-in I would be after I finished my PhD, so I could not make room for that in my plans.

Then I got the corrections and reports, and was able to complete them fairly quickly so that I could graduate. That was most certainly a high-point, and top of my ‘to-do’ list for the year. It was a glorious day, and week, and coming home I felt certain that I could focus on writing, now that the PhD was formally concluded. I did put in a successful abstract for a conference, and actually wrote a short paper for the conference that I was quite pleased with. I thought writing this paper would get the writing wheels turning, and that the papers would now come. But then there were tutor workshops and a staff development course, and external moderation and so many emails, and it was easier to just focus on all of that than to take the time to do more reading (more?) and thinking and restructuring and cutting and writing. I had time, and even headspace, but a new emotional struggle in the form of feelings of inadequacy. Far from feeling smart, and well-read and knowledgeable coming out of the PhD, I felt small, and ignorant of so many things I haven’t read about, and I really have battled to feel confident enough to put myself out there. So, more delays with the papers. More emotional blocks I was not expecting to have to overcome.

Now, sitting at the end of the year, I have mixed feelings. While I am proud of myself for finishing my thesis, and for writing a solid, well-argued piece of work, I am disappointed with the ‘meh-ness’ with which I have treated the writing coming out of the thesis. I have let the doubts and struggles hold me up (even though I am not too hard on myself for this because, to be fair, I didn’t know I would have to deal with those). I have made smaller things at work that could have been delegated or put aside way more important than my own writing, and this had fed, rather than assuaged, the feelings of inadequacy and not-knowing-anything-of-any-use that I have been battling with. I have realised that the thing that will make me feel more confident and more able to speak up about what I think I can contribute to conversations about teaching and learning in the disciplines is to write at least one paper (for now) and send it to a journal. I need feedback from my peers, and I need critique even. I need to see that my ideas need work, but they are not rubbish or silly or of-no-real-use. I think as I start publishing my work, and developing my ideas, and reading more (more!) I will grow in confidence, and the doubts, while they will never really go away because I suspect this is part of what it is to be a good researcher – critical doubt – will eventually become more manageable. They will have less power to block me and overwhelm me with anxiety. Well, this is my hope.

Next year I will be a postdoctoral fellow at the university where I undertook my PhD study. I am looking forward to having time to read, write and think. It feels like a largely blank space right now, stretching out before me. But I must be careful here, and learn from this past year: I must make room for emotional stumbling blocks – and make room in my plans for time to deal with these without feeling shame and anxiety because I am not making progress; make a flexible ‘to-do’ list for writing, but make the writing more important than emails and other things that can wait. I need to learn to give myself (and my work) permission to be important and worth a lot of my time (and therefore sometimes also my family’s time). Finally, I need to develop a new vision and an updated alter-ego – maybe I shall call her Postdoc Girl – that will focus and guide my time, so that I am standing in a firmer and more confident spot next December. I think we all need something to focus on and to have as a motivating tool. Life is too full and too busy to leave motivation and focus to chance when you are working on something like a PhD where finishing a thesis is key,  or a postdoc where publishing a book or papers or even both is so vital. Perhaps you could take a moment to take stock of your year, and what you planned for and what enabled you or got in your way. What could you learn from your year to make next year more successful or less fraught? What kinds of changes could you make for the coming year? Make notes, and keep them somewhere you can access them easily. Refer to them as the year goes on, maybe in regular check-ins, and let’s see if we can’t make 2015 a year that sees us reach more of our writing and research goals. Good luck!

Carving out and holding your research space

I went to a colloquium on Friday, and it was a thought-provoking and stimulating day. There were lots of opportunities to talk to colleagues, share ideas and listen to fascinating research being done in my field. I enjoy these kinds of academic events and I had been looking forward to this event for a while. But, I also find these kinds of events tough. Coming home on Friday night, I had some great ideas for a paper I have been trying to write for a while, but I also had loads of questions I don’t have any answers to, and that brought on a sense of being without a voice and a space to claim.

As a researcher at an early stage in my career, and very new, still, to the theoretical and conceptual tools and framework I am currently using, I am not always very confident within my research space. My voice is sometimes strong (usually when I am talking to people who are outside of my field) and sometimes quite hoarse or small, or even silent (usually when I am with much more experienced and immersed researchers in my field). I battle to be confident about my own research when I am asked tough questions or come up against perspectives and research that really challenges what I am working on, or even completely perturbs what I think I might know about my areas of research and practice. In some cases, I may have answers, and can debate the points raised by my colleagues, and those debates usually provoke the new ideas and thinking. But in more cases, I don’t have answers, and I feel the youngness of my thinking keenly, and the overwhelming weight of all of the reading and thinking and writing and thinking and reading and writing I still have to do to be able to find my way to those answers.

This is the business of being an academic; I get that. I really do. But, having just finished a huge, supposedly enlightening piece of research, I was kind of hoping to have more of the ‘I think I have something to say about this’ moments than the ‘?????’ moments I experienced on Friday. It knocks my confidence, and the self-doubt becomes harder to manage. I wonder if I should even try to finish the papers I’m writing, because the answers I do not have are tied to what I am trying to write about. It’s all a bit much, really, this academia business. The more you read, and write, and the more you engage in these collegial spaces and and put your ideas and self out there, the more you realise not how much you do know, but rather how much you do not yet know. And while I understand that this is just life, really, and can (on good days) feel really excited about all that future research, reading and learning, I also feel a bit squashed by this sense of not really knowing very much at all when 3 or more years of my life have been invested in a huge learning experience.

So, this is what I told myself on the way home, because I have to write these and many other papers, and I can’t be wallowing in the mud-pit of self-doubt:

1. Chill, and breathe. Yes, it is true that you were asked some tough questions that challenged the basis of your research questions in some ways, and that was scary. But, you are not trying to answer all of these questions that other academics will ask you on the basis of their own research and personal interests. That’s not your job. Your job is to ask and seek answers to your questions, while being aware that you are advancing a perspective or a problem-answer scenario rather than the anything.

2. Claim your space. Now that you have chilled out a bit, you can see that your research is valuable and valid. You can’t focus on everything, and just as you listen to and read other people’s work using your own gaze or lens or set of perspectives informed by your own situatedness, and your own research and practice interests, so do others when they listen to your work. There will always be questions, and there will never be enough answers. Each paper, each argument, will grow your thinking and strengthen your voice. You have something to say that people will want to hear.

3. Questions are a good thing. Scary as they can be, because they can unsettle us, questions provoke thinking, reflection (if you’re not just dismissing them) and on the basis of that reflection, growth. If no one pushes you, how will you grow? If no one disagrees with you, how will you refine and develop your thinking? Being challenged is uncomfortable, especially if you’re early on in your career and still finding your feet and your voice. But it’s also part of being an academic, and I am starting to realise that I would rather be challenged than have people just pass me over. At least if they are challenging my work, they are reading it, and it’s provoking their thinking in some way. That’s way better than being so blah that no one can find anything to say.

It can be difficult to claim and hold the research space you are carving out for yourself during and just post the PhD. But it’s important to remember that you don’t know nothing, and your work has not been for nought because you do not have all the answers yet. In some cases the questions are not actually for you – they are not yours to answer. In other cases, the questions people challenge you with can be opportunities for further thinking, more reading, productive scribbling and writing, and ultimately, your own intellectual, personal and professional growth. Taking this perspective is helping me to see, again, what these engagements and events offer me, and helps me to hold this space in spite of my misgivings. Onwards, and onwards…

Self-belief: essential PhD armour

John Mayer wrote a song a while back called ‘Belief’, and one line in this song stayed with me: ‘Belief is a beautiful armour’. I have been thinking about this notion of armour and belief in one’s self and research as an important piece of PhD (and post-PhD) armour a lot recently. This thinking is related to my last post on why I can’t seem to write the papers that need to be written. I need to go back a step or two to explain.

I spent quite a lot of time during my PhD feeling inadequate. I wondered, a lot, whether my research was important or worthwhile enough to entice others to read it. I believed (still do) in my research – I would be unable to keep doing it if I did not believe in what I was doing; but I when I listened to what my PhD colleagues were researching, and compared my research to theirs, I often found it wanting. My questions all felt smaller, less significant, less worthy of attention. This lack of self-belief was not constant. When things were going well and the ideas were flowing, I believed very strongly in the validity and importance of my research, and in myself as a writer. But not always.

I think that one of the reasons I am struggling to write now is that, even though I now have my degree, I still lack more constant self-belief – more specifically, I lack consistent belief in the importance, necessity or readability of my research. I seriously do wonder, sometimes, why anyone would want to read what I am thinking about, and I do fear the negative critique and rejection that in darker moments I feel sure will come when I put my work out there and send it to journals. I also seriously wonder if my research is important, or interesting to anyone other than me and a small group of people who have heard me speak about it and seem interested in it too. I’m not finding a cure for cancer or changing policy or developing a system for agrarian development that will change the way poor people access land, for example. I went to graduation last week and heard the citations for PhD candidates that were focused on research they had done that has the ability to change government policy, and to make a real difference in the lives of children, the poor and the politically disenfranchised. I felt inadequate all over again. I feel like my research is so small in comparison. And this lack of self-belief is now standing in my way and making it hard for me to write these papers and send them to journals for consideration.

I am sure I am not alone. I think self-doubt, worry, feelings of inadequacy and all the inner turmoil of that are part of a PhD journey. During my PhD and now, I find that some of what I read bolsters me and connects so well with my research that I know what I am writing will find an interested audience and contribute to my field; but some of what I read fills me with doubt – has what I am saying not already been said? Have I anything to add? Very few of us in the social sciences get to coin new concepts, or find a rare beetle we can name after ourselves. We are often extending, critiquing or updating the work and arguments of others. This is important research work, though, and it’s important to keep sight of that. Writing for publication is about conversations – connecting our research with the research of others, adding new perspectives, different data, alternative theoretical and analytical frameworks to extend, challenge and change the way we think about the fields in which we work. I tell myself this – what I am doing is joining the conversation, and my voice is strong, and should be heard. But I have to believe that.

We need armour when we take on big projects like a PhD – projects that will change us and challenge us; that are personal as well as professional. Our ideas will be questioned – this is an essential part of the process – and often we will have to reject some of our earlier thoughts, rethink things, make serious revisions. This writing and revising process can challenge our belief in ourselves and our ability to write. We need belief in ourselves and in our research and writing – this is essential armour for any PhD student. This self-belief is not always easy to come by; it can elude us when we most need it. I am not sure I can tell myself all the time that my research is valuable, and that my writing is good, and believe it. But I can try. I can work on being the positive voice in my head that tells myself to keep going and keep writing; I can seek out writing friends who will read my work and give me feedback that encourages me and also improves my writing; I can cover myself in self-belief as armour against the doubt and the worry, and write. Write on and know that, eventually, the words will come and the papers will be written.