By Kelly

Source: http://enlightenedwomen.org

And so I arrive in Hobart to collect data….again. If I wasn’t so exhausted I would probably be very excited. Hopefully I will gather enough to pen my first non-fiction story. This is not my first written work, I have conference proceedings and another paper on the go, but those papers discuss the tools and methods*  that I use to answer my research question, rather than addressing the question itself. Hopefully soon, I’ll be ready for the story of girl meets coral, coral tells girl about the secrets of the ocean, girl writes paper. I say ‘hopefully’ a lot as the instrument tends to work only some of the time (whose idea was it anyway to try to measure isotopes off individual amino acids?). Now depending on who you are you may say ‘about time too!’ considering not too long ago I was reeling over my imminent finish date. But for the record I should like to say ‘phooey’, and talk a little about the dangers of comparing apples with oranges when it comes to the PhD and publishing.

I’m prompted to write this after chatting to a student at a recent get-together. To protect the innocent let’s call the student Mary and the institute the Australian Nautical University. One of Mary’s advisors scoffed at the fact that although her finish date is also imminent, she didn’t have papers from her PhD already in press. He even muttered that he wouldn’t stand for that from one of his students. An interesting statement as many students don’t actually start writing papers until they hand in their thesis.

In academia the pressure to publish is enormous. As students we are all aware that papers  make you competitive for the all important post-doc. However, assuming that everyone can publish before they finish puts unnecessary and often unrealistic expectations on some one who is after all, still an apprentice. Some projects are easily dissected into discrete, well-bounded chapters that allow step wise write-up, or even submission by publication. In other instances robust interpretation requires the entire project to be completed, making submission by publication a little trickier (unless you feel comfortable writing 3-4 papers concurrently). Even if your project is well designed, then perhaps instrument time (or lack there of) dictates  a less cohesive course of action. OR we have the method development PhD where most of  candidature is spent refining  the necessary tools (then you answer any question you have time for once you realise three years have passed and the sum of your work is being able to reproduce the value of your in-house standard…once).

Some people are fortunate enough to be given the winning sample set by luck or good management, some have excellent supervision, or opportunity, or prior experience, or an army of technicians, and some students are just really gifted. Then of course there are people who prefer quantity over quality. My two favourite mentors only published one paper each out of there PhD’s. Okay one wrote a Science paper and the other a Nature paper, but either could have published two or three smaller papers were they so inclined. Is that better? I certainly don’t think so.

My point is that all projects differ, so do the people doing them, and so do the people driving them. And while it is almost impossible to avoid, comparisons often makes you feel defeated rather than inspired. The PhD can be full of self-doubt, and comments like those from Dr Negative Nelly of the Nautical Institute, are just not helpful, not to the apple or the orange.

* or lack there of if you saw me trying to sample my coral on the weekend