PhD Life

The importance of writing throughout your PhD.

The importance of writing throughout your PhD can pay you dividends in the long run. Not only can it help maximise your published research outputs, but it can also save you valuable writing time for your thesis.

The importance of writing throughout your PhD is probably one of the most useful and effective ways to maximise the PhD experience. Typically, one of the biggest hallmarks for success during a PhD is your research outputs. Of course, poster presentations, conferences, lectures are all valid research outputs, but nothing quite gives you bang for your buck like a published book chapter or a published peer-reviewed journal article.

The importance of writing throughout your PhD can really help solidify your own research outputs and is central for your long-term development (especially if you, for some reason, wish to remain in an academic setting). Writing and publishing throughout your PhD helps you to put the majority of your research into a manuscript which can then be published. In doing so, you are obtaining tangible evidence of how good your research is. This can then act as a springboard when working on future research projects, give you better visibility so you can network, post-doc applications, and providing evidence for your current skills. Certainly, this is relatively straight forward and most people are familiar with the ‘clout’ or credibility that comes from publishing. However, there is much more to be gained from writing throughout your PhD.

Firstly, by writing throughout your PhD you can maximise the amount of outputs you make. And yes, you should be writing things up from the very beginning of your PhD. Do not sit and wait for the final ‘study’ or research project to be complete before you think about putting together a manuscript. If you do wait this long, you’re likely to have one or possibly no publications – which isn’t bad, but it would be a significant opportunity lost. From the beginning of your PhD you’re likely to have a rough outline of what you plan to do in the coming years.

At this stage, you should conceptualise what these projects might be and how they can be stand-alone contributions to your research field. This will make it significantly easier to write about, as you’re not actually writing about a final project or research investigation, just a smaller piece of the pie. For most PhD students you’ll start with some sort of narrative review or review of your current evidence base – and although this might not seem like a lot or anything ‘novel’ it can be a really powerful contribution that can be published on its own. We’re always taught that systematic reviews or meta-analyses are the gold standard for research – so why not do one yourself? This is a great starting point and is a publication win you can achieve early on.

Success is the accumulation of small wins.

Another key tip to writing throughout your PhD is that you’ll be managing your time better. Instead of waiting to churn out one or several publications at the end you can do a little bit at a time. Every PhD student is familiar with those peaks and troughs of research. Sometimes you’re crazy busy, manic almost, operating at 100 miles (or kilometres if you’re not from the UK) per hour – other times it’s silent, you’re waiting for ethical approval, you’re waiting for equipment to arrive, or you’re waiting for something to happen. These ‘waiting moments’ are the perfect time to start putting things down on paper – here, you’re actively writing throughout your PhD, when projects are incomplete and underway. You could write the introduction, rationale, or even your methods section before you’ve finalised your results. It might sound obvious, but I’ve always been surprised that so many people avoid doing this.

They wait until it’s over to start writing. It’s also partly why people cram their thesis in last minute (we’ll come back to this don’t worry). The vast majority of PhD students start to take on other responsibilities that aren’t directly relevant to their PhD whilst their waiting, or they might help their supervisor do something that fundamentally isn’t really their concern. A lot of this is centred around poor time management, and if this is you, I recommend you check the time management post out as well. To have better time management, you should prioritise things that will pay you dividends in the long term, sometimes this is teaching, sometimes this is supporting others, but don’t forget that actually writing throughout your PhD is also a long-term payoff which will make your life easier later on – such as career prospects.

The second big advantage to writing throughout your PhD is that alongside having multiple, or several publications, it means you’ll have less to write for your thesis. More and more universities these days have two types of theses routes you can take. The traditional route is to write a unique and distinct research narrative of your PhD – from scratch. The new, and increasingly popular approach is to submit your thesis by incorporating publications. What this means essentially is that you’re able to include peer-reviewed publications of your work within your thesis. Put simply, you can sort of ‘replace’ traditional chapters with publications and then flesh out the rest of your thesis where appropriate. If this is news to you, I highly recommend exploring this with your institution.

You don’t necessarily have to do it or decide now but being informed about how you can complete your thesis is essential. By writing throughout your PhD not only do you produce more published research, but you’re also able to complete some of your thesis with no extra effort. Either way, you’ll have to write it – so you might as well write it now and get a publication out of it. The whole two birds one stone analogy. For argument sake, say you write a manuscript and for whatever reason you can’t publish it – just give it the ol’ copy and paste into your thesis when the time comes, tweak it around a little bit and hey ho you’ve got a full chapter complete with less effort and energy spent. To really hit this point home, understand that if you do write throughout your PhD it can all be used later on. Anything you write is valuable and nothing is ever wasted. Work smart not hard.

Nobody will know it’s a copy, I promise.

If you’re that small sub-group of people who literally say, ‘but I can’t write/publish anything’. Find something! Even if you don’t have the data yet, or maybe you’re part of a larger research project where the outputs are limited. Think about a review paper, think about a protocol paper, think about a theoretical development paper. Get creative. Here, we’ve outlined the importance and benefit of writing throughout your PhD. The only thing you need to do now is start. Even if it’s just 200-300 words, get something down on paper and build a good writing habit. Keep your end goal in site and maximise the most of your PhD.

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