I just finished my Ph.D. and, over the last few months, I’ve had time to reflect on what helped me the most during grad school. If I could give STEM graduate students one piece of advice, it would be to write up your work as journal manuscripts instead of thesis chapters.
For those who don’t know, there are two main ways to structure a STEM thesis or dissertation. The first way is the traditional way, where the thesis or dissertation is written as a long monograph that gives a complete overview of the student’s research, usually with separate chapters for the introduction, methods, results and discussion. The second way of writing a dissertation is manuscript-style, where each chapter of the thesis or dissertation represents a different experiment or article, written for publication in a journal.
What happens to your work after you defend your degree? For many in the STEM world, they make a vow to themselves and their advisers that they will write up their thesis/dissertation chapters into manuscripts to submit for publication. And then life happens -- they leave the university and continue onto new programs or postdocs or jobs and the projects they did as students fall by the wayside, not to be published until years later, if at all.
I think it’s a great idea to write up your projects as manuscripts and submit them as you go through your degree, rather than have them hanging for years afterward and possibly never getting published. This is your work, your scientific contribution, and it should be published where it can be seen and used by the scientific community.
Sure, your thesis will be published anyway by your university when you graduate, but this isn’t the same as having it published in a journal specific to your field. Since more people read journal articles than theses and dissertations, you have a better chance of your work reaching the people who need it and making an impact on your field.
In today’s world of publish or perish, those who plan to continue on to careers in research need to know how to write up their work for publication in peer-reviewed journals. Publishing your work is vital to your career as a researcher -- your publications mark your contributions to your field, and in the case of first authorships, it shows that you are capable of managing a research project from start to finish. Having your research already written up or published is valuable writing experience that you can put straight on your résumé or CV. And having this experience will make you more competitive for grants as well as jobs.
Having chapters submitted or published by the time you defend also makes the defense that much easier. Along with cutting down on the amount of revisions you have to do, knowing that you have chapters already submitted or published is a great source of self-confidence. The purpose of your defense is to prove to your committee that you are a capable researcher and scientist, and when you have your research submitted or published, you’ve already proven that you are.
I understand that it’s not always possible to write your thesis or dissertation chapters as manuscripts and publish them during grad school, especially if you are running long-term experiments or doing fieldwork. However, you can still write and publish any shorter projects that you do finish, as well as any literature reviews. While the bulk of my Ph.D. work was a multiyear project, I was still able to publish several shorter projects in the meantime, and the confidence boost from having each shorter project finished helped me keep going and making progress on my longer project.
Of course, before choosing how to structure your thesis, you should definitely talk to your adviser or thesis/dissertation committee and get their approval. Make sure that you’re all on the same page about how to divide your work into publishable chapters, or if it’s even possible for your project. Though I was able to publish portions of my Ph.D. as separate chapters, my master’s project was structured in such a way that it made the most sense to write it in the traditional thesis format.
During the five years of my Ph.D., I aimed to publish one manuscript (and thus, one research chapter) a year. I went into my defense with all but one chapter published, and since that last chapter was in manuscript format already, I was able to complete the revisions easily and submit the paper to a journal a few months after my defense. It’s been a relief to finish my Ph.D. and know that I am (with the except of that last chapter) completely done with my work. Even though I am not interested in continuing my research as a postdoc at this point, I am still proud of the publications I have and the contributions I've made to science.
Have you tried writing your dissertation as a series of manuscripts? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.