What are the Odds to Publish During a PhD?

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Do you ask yourself: Why the hell have I been so unlucky in my PhD? Maybe you look at your colleagues and see some people that have worked less and got more recognition due to some scholarship, award or published paper. And you know that you could have accomplished all of that, too, if you had been a little bit more lucky, if you had published the major piece you focused on, or finished the central survey you prepared so long or got that important scholarship you spend so much time applying for. The PhD can be very unfair sometimes, I know. You may have experienced many unfortunate and frustrating moments, now let me try to take this weight from you. Let me try to explain why you shouldn't worry about luck and misfortune and what you can do to beat your odds, win the game and to get your momentum going.

Let's start your PhD momentum. Now.

First of all, I need to be clear and we need to accept that luck is a central part of a PhD. Now, I may go as far as to say that the things you can control may have the same influence on your PhD as the things you cannot control. This is why having a clear mind about the things you cannot control is as important as being aware about the things you can control. Unfortunately, there is only little advice out there about how to deal with the things you cannot control during your PhD and that's what this post shall be all about.

You may often feel not being in full control of your PhD and that's because you are not.

You have no control over who is going to review your content, what they are going to say and how they are going to decide. You have no control over your data, the result of your data and if it's of any use. You have no control over what your mentor wants, what your co-authors write or what the editors want.

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So being lucky in a PhD means to beat the odds without the necessary tries. For instance, you may call yourself lucky if you finish a central chapter or paper during the first year of your PhD. You can call yourself lucky if you forge strong collaborations from the start, if you have a great study idea in the beginning, or if you already have some data before even starting your PhD.

So ask yourself: have you been lucky during your PhD? 

In a PhD, there are many goals with low odds, you may be able to challenge. Let me tell you about these odds, where they are, how low they are, and how to challenge them. Rule of Thumb: Don't go for the lowest odds, because if you do, you might loose time and resources to challenge the odds that matter.

The board game name Mensch Ärgere Dich Nicht can be translated as "Come on, don't get angry." 

The board game name Mensch Ärgere Dich Nicht can be translated as "Come on, don't get angry." 

Let's assume the PhD was a game like the German board game Mensch Ärgere Dich Nicht. Basically, you have four figures that you try to get into a safe house by moving them around the board. These figures can get kicked out if the enemy figure meets them on their way. If so, the kicked-out figure has to start all over again. Imagine each figure is a paper or a major study of your PhD. It can get kicked out by co-authors, mentors, reviewers, or by yourself. But if you keep on trying to challenge your odds. You will get to the safe house. That's for sure. This game is simple, easy to play and repetitive. That's what a PhD can be, too. Long weeks writing and re-writing. Long weeks of coding your data, of transcripting your interviews, formatting your references, and of course reading, reading, reading.

That's the main reason why you need to be passionate about your topic. You need to have the necessary devotion to accept that there are various things you cannot control and you need to have sufficient motivation to hang in there because to become lucky you need to consistently challenge your odds.

To force your luck you need to challenge your odds.  

Another emotion that may help you keep going in this PhD game is thrill. I think that thrill can be a motivating component that you may have to embrace since luck is definitely a major part of the PhD game, if not of the entire research game. However, thrill also dangerous. It can become very addicting to search for the next thrill, to challenge the lowest odds out there and to accomplish something very difficult that is not necessary for your PhD. You should first focus on the odds that will win your PhD Game and then you can focus on the odds that have a higher risk, but also higher return. So what are the odds of publishing your research during your PhD, you might ask. It's hard to tell and it depends on many factors, but here is a very simple case:

Let's start with the odds of writing: what are the odds that you hit a great sequence of sentences? What are the odds, you get into a flow where you don't care or fear finishing your sentences? A journal article in social science has roughly 10.000 words, actually depending on the journal between 5.000-15.000. Ask yourself how many times do you re-write a sentence, a word to get it right? Three times? A good introduction is re-written more than 10 times if not more. Let's assume you manage to write 500 words a day (that's a lot). So you need 20 days to finish a draft (quite fast but possible). You may need another 40 days to re-write it. So, you spend a total of 1/6 of your year writing. You shouldn't care about having a writing blockade or something else. Just sit down and write and re-write, there is no magic to it. Challenge the odds over this time, maybe you are lucky and finish the draft in 55 days, but actually who cares?

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Let's assume you need the same time for data gathering and analysis. So you may be able to finish 3 studies a year. That's your maximum output as a hard worker. If we assume on top that you need the first year for courses and orientation. You may be able to write some 6 papers within three years. You shouldn't care about having had an unproductive year and just finished one paper. Because if you consistently challenged the odds, you have nothing to worry, the next year is going to be yours. For instance, you may have managed to gather additional or better data that will help you out next year. The important thing is that you keep on going and don't care too much of what is now, knowing that your success is going to come.

What are the odds of publishing within your PhD time?

What are the odds you see some of your papers in print? The acceptance rate varies from 20% for a good journal to 5% for a top-tier journal. If you need two publications in a good journal to get a PhD by publication and if we assume that your content is as new and good as everyone else submitting to these journals (why wouldn't it be?), you may assume that the 20% acceptance rate is the basis of your odds. Therefore, it's not very likely that you may be able to manage to publish after your first submission, but maybe you get some good feedback which increases your odds for the next submission. Following this thinking on average it may take you around three submissions to get something published. So you should submit at least 6 times to beat the odds of your PhD by publication. Since more papers are steadily being added to the game, you may be confident that within three or four years you may have sufficient submissions and re-submissions to have challenged your odds sufficiently and to finally get published. 

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Going for a top-tier journal at the beginning, which is what many mentors like to do may obviously lower your odds and increases the necessary time of your PhD. If this is what your mentor wants, I would recommend to try to focus on one big project with multiple studies and then submit this one big project to a top-tier journal. Indeed your mentor's ability to correctly judge the best target journal, to support you in your research design and to provide you with great co-authors can be a major influence factor.

More ahead, you may think of: What are the odds of networking, meeting other people that will understand and help you? What are the chances that others make a leap of faith and decide to collaborate with you on this draft? What are the odds of getting a research grant that supports your project? What are the odds that you get the conference proposal accepted? The point is, the PhD is not about having luck. It's about challenging the odds. There is nothing else you can do and should care about. If you find your peace with that, you may consider luck or misluck as a statistical deviation from the average that will be corrected with your steady devotion.

Luck doesn't matter. Understanding this is key to win the PhD game. 

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Related articles: 

 How to Get Out of the PhD Prison

Publish & Perish? Better Publish & Party! 

6 Tips to Improve Your PhD Outcome