How Many Papers Should you Publish During a PhD?

academic skills grad school journal articles Nov 12, 2023

Are you a graduate student and wondering about the best number of papers to publish during your doctoral degree? In this guide I suggest a specific number as a starting point, while also discussing the complexities around publication goals, and offering practical insights for a successfully publishing your research.

The Short Answer:

If you want a quick a dirty answer, then I would saw aim for 3 first-author or sole-author publications as a starting point. The size and scope of a PhD dissertation in many fields and at many universities can be considered to roughly equate to about 3 original research articles.

But, please consider all the factors I discuss below. You might want to publish less than this, or more. And some of these papers may only be published after your PhD is finished.

And importantly some PhD programs have specific requirements that you need to abide by in order to earn your degree.

And while the quantity of papers you publish is often used as a metric when considering future academic positions – post-docs, and faculty positions – it’s not the only thing that people consider.

Publishing early and often is good, but publishing purposefully is better.

Are you working toward publishing your research? Check out my How to Publish a Journal Article: First 7 Steps Checklist.

Bird's eye view of typing on laptop.How many papers should you publish? About three publications is a good and reasonable goal to set for your PhD research. But remember that there are loads of factors at play. You may publish more or less than this, and that is perfectly okay too.


Important: Check Publishing Requirements for your PhD

Some PhD programs have official requirements for publications.

Some may mandate a set number of publications for degree completion. This is especially true in cases where you are doing “PhD by Publication” type program. Even in cases where you are completing a dissertation, there may be a requirement to publish at least one journal article.

Make sure you are familiar these program-specific details so you can ensure you are aligning with your degree program’s requirements.

Currently, many programs provide considerable flexibility on publications. There might be expectations outlined by the department or supervisor, and it is important to consider these when planning your publications. But, make sure you differentiate between suggestions and requirements, to ensure clarity on which applies to your specific situation.

The Myth of Quantity Over Quality

In academia, the "publish or perish" mantra emphasizes the need for research output in career advancement. This notion suggests that publishing often leads to a successful academic career. But the truth is that while having publications is helpful, publishing while obtaining a doctorate, is a great way to boost your academic CV and increase your profile, and it's not just about quantity over quality. The quantity of papers isn't the most important determinant of your post-PhD trajectory.

A robust publication record is beneficial, especially one where you are often first author, but it's not the only factor influencing your career post-PhD thesis.

Many who complete their PhD with zero published papers on their CV still earn degrees and build fulfilling careers, both in academia and beyond.

Conversely, those with many papers during their postgrad program may face challenges in securing their dream job afterwards.

The myth that quantity alone guarantees success is totally debunked by the varied paths and challenges faced by postgrads, PhDs, and early career researchers.

Women reading in libraryIt’s good to publish and share your awesome PhD research with the world. But, you will not “perish” if you don’t publish.


The Impact of Your Publications Matters More

A few impactful, first author papers can leave a lasting imprint on your field, opening doors to collaboration, recognition, and opportunities. It's not just about how many publications; it's about how far your work resonates and with who.

Rushing publications risks can sometimes comprimise the quality of your work; sometimes research has to mature a bit for more impactful contributions. Taking time for thoughtful exploration enhances the credibility and lasting impact of your scholarly output.

A deliberate and purposeful approach to each article, and to your overall publishing trajectory, can yield more substantial contributions and foster a lasting impact.

You should publish when you have an original idea or original perspective to share in your niche. While the aim isn't Nobel Prize-worthy research with every paper, the goal remains to make meaningful contributions that resonate within your field. Not HUGE contributions - they can be smaller and still be meaningful (see this post).

In navigating your scholarly journey, prioritize thoughtful contributions over sheer volume.

The Fear of Not Publishing Enough

In academia, the anxiety about falling behind is real.

It's crucial to remember that your journey is distinctive. While others might be racking up publications faster or slower than you, in the long run you will benefit the most by focusing on the value of your research.

Quality and personal growth should be your yardsticks, not a random count.

Each PhD path is unique, and the richness of your research speaks louder than any metric comparison.

Embrace the Unpredictable when It comes to Publishing Papers

In research and publishing, unpredictability is the name of the game.

Experiments might go awry, unexpected results can surface, and that paper you were confident about might be rejected.

Life in general, and PhDs specifically, have a knack for throwing curveballs that can cause delays.

While planning is essential, acknowledging the unpredictable nature of academia is equally crucial.

Be adaptable. Be ready to pivot when needed. Remember, flexibility is as valuable as a well-laid plan.

Several printed graphs on table with multiple individuals pointing at themOne of the most important scholarly skills a PhD candidate can have is adaptability. Things happen, things get delayed, things don’t work. Be ready to pivot when you need to. This applies to your research in general, and your publication plans more specifically, too.


Set Realistic Goals for your PhD Publications

Earning a PhD requires a thoughtful approach to goal-setting, particularly when it comes to the number of publications.

Realism is key in this process, recognizing that the intricate nature of research, unforeseen challenges, and unexpected turns can influence publication timelines and output.

Plus, the publication process after submission can take a long time – about 3-12 months, in general. In my experience, it’s more often closer to the 12-month mark.

Would it awesome if you could publish 15 first-author papers during your 4-year PhD program? Yes. Is it a realistic goal? Most of the time, no.

Mentorship Magic: Reach Out to Others About Your Publication Questions and Goals

Guidance from experienced mentors is super valuable. Discuss your publication milestones openly with those who have experience and let their insights guide you practically.

Sometimes your supervisor is your main mentor and that’s the probably best-case scenario. But often you get the most valuable mentorship elsewhere – from other faculty, or other researchers. You may connect with other mentors at conferences, during field work, or online.

Mentorship is a key part of shaping a resilient and well-rounded academic journey so keep an eye out for opportunities to ask for advice and be open to connecting with new people.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the typical number of papers a PhD student should publish?

The typical number of papers a PhD student should publish varies depending on the field and university requirements. However, a common benchmark is about 3 papers published or accepted for publication in reputable journals during the course of their PhD program. It's crucial to consider program requirements and individual factors.

Are there specific requirements for publications in PhD programs?

Some programs have official requirements, such as a set number of publications for degree completion. It's essential to be aware of and adhere to your program's guidelines.

Is the number of papers the most important factor in academic success?

Nope, the number of papers is not the most important factor. Quality and impact play a more significant role in shaping academic success.

How do I find mentorship opportunities?

Explore various avenues, including reaching out to faculty, attending conferences, joining research groups, and using online platforms.

Can I succeed in academia with zero publications during my PhD?

Yes, individuals with zero publications can earn degrees and have successful careers. Success is not solely decided by the number of papers.

How do I strike a balance between quality and quantity in publications?

Prioritize quality and personal growth over arbitrary counts. Set realistic goals, considering the uniqueness of your research and your overall well-being.

Additional Resources

Publish with Purpose: An online course and coaching program designed to help you start writing and publishing journal articles productively and purposefully by ditching the “publish or perish” pressure 

Is it really "publish or perish" for PhD students? 

When should I publish my first paper? 

How long does it take to publish a journal article?

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Hi! I'm Dr Jayne Wilkins.

I'm a research scientist and academic publishing coach. I've been writing, reviewing, and editing academic publications for 12+ years.

In 2021, I achieved my long-time ambition to publish in Nature (woot woot 🎉).

Want to publish your research?

I can help you finish and submit that manuscript.

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How to Publish a Journal Article

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