Publish or Perish: PhD Edition


Oh yes, it’s everyone’s favourite phrase. Not. Publish or perish is the unofficial slogan for academia. It describes quite accurately all you need to do to succeed, or else… It gets rammed into you from day one of the PhD, or potentially even earlier, once it has become clear that you are going to do a PhD, or are entering academia via a different route. Your value is in your publications. No publication = no value. Are you motivated yet?


Everything you do as an academic only has value if it can lead to a publication. Research matters. Easy to publish research matters most. Collaborations with other institutions that will end in fruitful research and publications matter. Anything else is a distraction from that. So there goes teaching I suppose. Publish or perish is clearly a very toxic message. It devalues your work, if that work doesn’t directly lead to publications, but also devalues you as a person. Just because you have one publication more than someone else, you are perceived as different, often better. This does to some extent depend on the quality of the journals, but most people are aiming for 4 and 4* anyway, so we’re discarding this for the sake of keeping this article under 1000 words. Within the PhD, PhD supervisors (can) actively discourage their students from teach. Often teaching (TA’ing) one course is seen as the necessary work experience, but going beyond that is deemed unnecessary and a waste of time that should have been put towards research. This is of course not always the case. Plenty of supervisors take on their own supervisees to help them teach each year, so they go beyond the “one course recommendation.” On a personal note, both my supervisors are supportive of both this blog and me co-hosting the Questioning Behaviour podcast, so it’s not all bad. But if I were to fall behind on my research, we both know that I’d have to cut down on “hobbies” and put my ass back to work.


Beyond devaluing work that isn’t directly related to publishing, Publish or Perish also steers research into a direction which can be argued to be unsustainable, but also halting progress. In a PhD, messy, complicated or longitudinal research is often not encouraged, as it’s difficult to conduct, but even more difficult to publish. It is possible that one of these chapters might never get published, but will form the foundation of other work. This can be a true nightmare. Within the PhD you have limited time to publish. You have a limited time to do anything: there is a clear deadline up ahead. To come out of the PhD, you can’t do research freely, it needs to be very structured. It needs to be relatively simple, or complex but impressive enough to make a quick “sell”. A lot of what you can/can’t do also depends on your supervisors, field, topic and structure of the PhD. But muddling about is definitely not encouraged… Beyond the PhD this very much persists. Post-docs are often half the duration, sometimes even less, than that of the PhD. This means you now have two-ish years to get your research from the PhD published, in addition to conducting new research and also trying to publish it, to make you be able to apply to associate professorships. In these APs you will be doing the same, as you are aiming for tenure. Your competitive edge is going to be the quantity (but also quality) of your publications. This is not a model that leads to the conducting of complicated, thoughtful or longitudinal research. No, it needs to be short, easy to interpret and easy to sell. It needs to be snappy (in an academic way). This sounds more like production at the Ford factory during the industrial revolution than it sounds like the promotion of knowledge and deeper understanding of, well, anything. This has become a knowledge factory. Or rather, a publication factory. This is the rat race of academia.


So what can you do as an early career researcher? Especially the PhD students feel the pain here, as often, the research you have done during your PhD will be published afterwards. So you might hold the title, but you have nothing to show for it. Great. I have written a previous article on “doing just the PhD not being enough.” I meant it. And kept the lack of publications in mind when writing it. Your work isn’t out yet, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be out. As I suggested in that article, which you can read here to get more details, you should go to conferences, present your research as often as possible and network yourself to filth. Having other means of notoriety, in the form of a blog, podcast, YouTube channel, start-up, previous and continued work experience (side hustle) also massively help. So keep this all in mind. The battle isn’t lost yet, the war is just a bit more difficult without weaponry (publications). Another thing to keep in mind: there’s more to life than academia, research, or the PhD in general. No one is going to die because you haven’t published anything, not even you. So try to keep a bit of perspective. Also, if it’s becoming clear that the rat race is working much more against you than for you, and it’s effecting your mental health, maybe it’s time to have an introspection session on whether this is a system you want to partake in. There is a reason a lot of PhDs go into industry, and it’s not because they aren’t bright enough to “keep up” with academia. It’s because they’re bright enough to know that there’s more to life, and that their life might be better for it. Both are valid decisions to make. To each their own!

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