Getting papers from my PhD across the line

Dr Jen Roberts, Strathclyde University

I recently wrote a blog post about the fact that I did some work and I forgot to tell anyone about it. The paper I was referring to was one from my PhD thesis, and which I finally published in 2017, 5 years after getting my thesis, and 6 years after writing the first draft of the paper. In the process of preparing that article I dug up some internal grapplings around particular struggles around getting articles from your PhD across the line. Since I know I am not the only one who experienced chunky delays in publishing my PhD work, I thought I would share some of my grapplings, and also reflect on what you and your supervisors or co-authors might do to help. I’d like this to be a bit of a conversation starter around emotional blocks, and so invite you to share your own grapplings in the comments beneath this post.

I published the last paper from my PhD in 2019; 7 years after completing my thesis. The feeling is pretty monumental, I have to say. Like many of you, I still have other papers waiting to publish, years late, guiltily lurking around. But getting the ones that I wanted to publish from my PhD over the finish line felt like I had actually properly finished my PhD. Finally. There was an element of feeling like I had cleared my debts. An element of feeling a bit knackered. An element of shame for taking so long. And an element of pride for finally getting there. I guess you might say that I had mixed feelings.

Still got papers from your PhD to publish? Or any ageing near-final drafts of articles from many moons ago? Is this article touching on a soft or guilty nerve? I am not surprised. But hopefully this article might help you on the straight and narrow with those bleedin’ publications. I also want to say first up that I was lucky enough to be researching in an area where I could get 4 papers from my PhD thesis. Not everyone is in that situation. I also had 7 years of postdocs following my PhD to encourage me to get those papers over the line. Not everyone is in that career path. So this isn’t meant to be a brag-and-compare type article. Not at all. Think more ‘sharing is caring’ for those who are struggling to shift that PhD paper, or just any old ageing paper, from their personal publication pipeline.

My PhD publication “Journey”

My first ever paper was published in the high impact journal PNAS. It garnered wide reaching coverage easily enough including local and international radio interviews and news articles, and getting your work in the Metro is a bit of a coup – being 4th highest circulation paper in the UK, and available free at all reputable train and bus stations (for international readers). So far so good, and blimey was I lucky. But it took several years and a right old slog before I published the other three papers in my thesis (2014, 2017, 2019)* in and amongst my postdoctoral work. And I recently realised that I put next to no effort into gaining tractable impact from any of these works (so, not just the one that I mention in my other blog post). Why is that?

When completing my thesis, I had assumed that publication of these additional papers from my PhD would not be far off; I had submitted at least two of them to different journals before I had my PhD viva. But I came to realise that I had a relatively easy ride with my first paper: it was accepted and turned around relatively quickly, and gathered interest immediately with the help of the University of Edinburgh press office and the attention of my well-respected supervisors.

My other papers were a right old slog in comparison. The world of publication can be soupily slow. Those dreamy experiences where it feels like a paper simply whizzes through to publication are rare (or only limited to dreams) in many publication portfolios. Getting these PhD papers to publication was particularly slow for a number of reasons which I am sure many readers will be able to identify with, such as aiming for far, far too high impact journals (remember also that much of this effort was in the early days of open publishing and the decline of importance of impact factors, which I like to believe in…).

I had started a series of postdoctoral positions. I was delivering zesty new projects, was pivoting my focus towards policy-facing work, and had new deliverables and new papers in sight. My PhD papers were left to age. Don’t get me wrong; I revisited them from time to time, reaching out to co-authors to help revive them, trying not to let them get usurped (some did) and outdated (all did). I was also supported by my new institutions, (ClimateXChange and University of Strathclyde) to publish the PhD papers, so in theory I didn’t need to squeeze working on them into evenings and weekends like many others that I know.

But by 2017 I was in a system of short-term post-doc contracts, trying to secure funding and research posts, and trying to output as many papers as I could to help with this endeavour. Paper published? Great. Move on. Next one. The PhD papers, being slightly wizened and stale, were harder to bend down, pick up, and then delve into than other more recent papers. They didn’t seem to have the same inertia, and seemed to be heavier than other papers, even though I really liked the work and really wanted it to get out there – and felt a duty for it to be out there.

As lead author you can be left on your own with a paper for some time. It can feel like you are simply sitting on the work for no clear reason. I should have raised this with my co-authors as I think it would have helped to overcome the invisible blockade. As I touch on in the other blog post, PhD papers can be quite unlike other works; the PhD student is supported by co-authors to drive the bulk of the work. When you are new to writing for publication, this level of support can be very hefty. The supervisors may be fundamental to the writing and submission of the paper but it may feel more behind the scenes.

In contrast, for the majority of papers from my postdoctoral work, co-authors have tended to pitch in in a more obviously distributed way, both in preparing and submitting the paper. I have prepared letters to editors or submitted papers for co-authors who are swamped; you are a team. This can really help to raise a paper up the list when prioritising work load.

Further, it is important to bear in mind that feelings of teamwork amongst co-authors will understandably fade over the years between completing the research behind a paper and getting it published. And while my co-authors were understanding (they are nice people and excellent academics), they were probably also frustrated. As I said, I was sort of sitting on the work for seemingly no reason (though as this post shows, there were obviously reasons, beyond ‘busy’, just not all reasons are tangible nor easy to articulate).

There was definitely some shame in there, too. I was a bit ashamed that it had taken me so long, and felt bad for my co-authors and supervisors. And guilt and shame are awful awful motivators, let’s not forget.

So, what advice can I share?

So, still got papers from your PhD to publish? I was going to say “don’t do as I did”, but I realised that’s not fair on myself or on you. No one really chooses to get stuck. Plus I have learnt a lot from this entire process in a way that will benefit my writing, my supervision, and work with collaborators.

Remember, you are human. So be human. Some things drop, it’s okay. But I do encourage you to pick it up. This feeling of completion is really pretty good.

Before I give some key bits of advice on tackling these inertia issues, I want to first point out that while you were once students and supervisors, you are now co-authors and collaborators. Since getting that Doctorate, the titles have shifted; recognising this can be helpful to both parties. I will now refer to the ex-student as an Early Career Researcher (ECR). Incidentally this also means these nuggets of advice are relevant to anyone who is struggling with co-authors apparently sitting on a paper as it goes cold.

My key bits of advice to ECRs or any struggling co-author:

  1. Persevere. When I tweeted about publishing the last paper from my thesis and the immense feeling of relief it brought, the response from the twitter community was heart-warming. Some people still want to get that paper out 25 years after the fact…
  2. Be self-aware, and share. Recognise your blockages and talk about it with relevant audiences, be it twitter, your colleagues, your co-authors. I wish I had raised some of these things much sooner, if only to feel less frustrated by myself and by the process, or to better recognise my role in it all.
  3. Feel pretty alone with the paper? Pretty done with the paper? First: Remember not all papers are a grind. Some are fast and fun and collaborative. Once you get this one out of the way you can move onto the fun one (and I hope that all your papers are the fun type). Perhaps invite a ‘fresh face’ or ‘new pair of eyes’ that you respect to give their tuppence worth on the paper. Doing so, and their insightful input, will probably serve to give fresh oomph again to get over the inertia.
  4. Do what you reasonably can to get the paper off the desk – and to the right journal – sooner rather than later. While I do wish I had moved earlier on my PhD papers, I have learnt a lot along the way. Be very aware that your new projects will always be shinier and zestier and may feel more collaborative. The longer you leave it, the more likely the work is to age, get usurped, and for any feeling of togetherness between co-authors may fade. I also want to brave stating something else here: sometimes to “get it out” can mean not going for super high spheres of journals. You are entirely within your right to ignore the pleas from other authors that “with just a bit of…” it could be a Nature paper. Submit it to where it will be read and it’ll get way more citations than waiting years to polish it up and off and into the Nature equivalent.  
  5. Once it is done, in your intense relief, don’t forget to promote the paper! Prepare some sort of press release type content when you are submitting the paper revisions (and beware for their tendencies to get carried away with hyperbola!). This is when you are in the frame of mind around that paper, before you have forgotten everything that is in it, which makes it easier to rattle something out. And seek support from your co-authors in promoting the paper.

Key bits of advice to co-authors (perhaps an ex-supervisor) waiting for their colleague (perhaps an ECR) to stop sitting on their (PhD) papers:

  1. Be kind and understanding. And be careful of tone when asking about the progress of the paper. “What on earth is taking you so long” can be easily converted to “is there anything in particular that is delaying progress, and might we help with this?”. Likewise, think about what you say when the paper is finally published; when my supervisors wrote something like “well done for persevering with this” when they got notice of receipt of publication I was so very grateful.
  2. Offer to sit and work together through the final bits and bobs if you want to move things along. This is not only really helpful but it also nurtures team work. Plus if the ECR has moved research groups or institutions, it can be nice to spend time together, like old times…ha. If appropriate, you could also offer to take the paper off their hands and see through the final bit towards publication, particularly if the ECR no longer works in academia or is really struggling with workload (you might be struggling, too, but you have had years to finesse your skills in juggling work and also preparing papers, and so it will likely be easier for you). But beware your own workload: if you offer to take it off their hands, then fail to do anything on the paper, then everyone will be worse off and the can will be well and truly kicked down the road while also on your shoulders.
  3. When the paper is published, be mindful that many ECRs have limited budgets for research dissemination (or no budget if the ex-student no longer works in academia). Think of low-cost ways for them to get a wide reach. Also, being higher up the food chain, you might get traction more quickly if you promote the work amongst your network.
J. Roberts