What Makes a Dissertation?

ScienceWoman has a post about plans and publications that opens with a comment about what makes a dissertation that struck me as odd:

Three papers, an introductory chapter and some broad conclusions. Those are the ingredients of a Ph.D. dissertation in it's simplest form.

[...]My first PhD paper was published in 2006, shortly after I defended. The second paper came out earlier this year. The third paper goes back to the editors on Monday, at the end of what hopefully is its last ever set of revisions. If all goes well, the editors give it their blessing and we move on to proofs and publication.

The odd thing about this is not the content-- that's about right. The odd thing is the timing-- her first paper from her Ph.D. work wasn't published until after she defended.

That's a big difference from my experience. Five of the six papers from my grad school experiments were published before I defended, and the sixth was on a completely different topic. In fact, the five papers are included as appendices in the final copies of my dissertation.

I don't think I know of anybody in my field who has gotten a Ph.D. without publishing first. If they did, they definitely didn't have my committee-- the copies of the dissertation that I gave to the committee members didn't include the published papers, and through a gross oversight on my part, they didn't cite the papers, either. One of the committee members held the defense up for ten minutes because he thought I hadn't published, and found it absurd that we would even try to hold a defense under those conditions.

I suspect this is a disciplinary difference, but I wonder how general it is. If you happen to be reading this (unlikely, given the date, but I can hope), and have some knowledge of Ph.D. requirements in different fields, drop me a comment. Is my experience in physics anomalous? Is "defense first, then publication" the usual rule in other fields? Which ones?


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I had published all my papers before writing my dissertation (although I didn't "cite" them per se, just listed them in the CV at the front of the book), but knew people who did the brunt of their publishing post-dissertation. In my field (materials engineering) it seemed to be a function of whether your work had incremental success throughout your grad schol career or was a long struggle with a big payoff at the end, as it was for some of my colleagues.

I'm in high-energy physics (theory) and my dissertation was essentially five published papers stapled together.

I don't think the "publish first" is anomalous, per se, but it's also not something that is applied absolutely.

I defended before my first publication. (Our department's guideline, IIRC, was a prepared/submitted paper, at the very least, but not publication.) In my circumstance, I was the first PhD student for my advisor, so there was no real opportunity to publish along the way, as would be the case in an established lab with several students of varying seniority. We were building the lab up, and hadn't done anything publishable for the first several years of work. The lab-mates that followed, of course, had multiple publications when it came time for them to defend, since they were co-authors on my paper.

I'm currently working on a dissertation in philosophy (ethics of warfare). I don't know if I'm typical, but I'm only presenting parts of my dissertation at conferences. There has been no discussion of an expectation that I publish parts of it before I defend.

By PhilosopherP (not verified) on 30 Dec 2008 #permalink

My dissertation was 2 first-author papers and 1 second-author paper. My second-author paper was published and the first-author papers were ready for submission. And I'm in physics.

Not everybody in my group defended before publishing, but most people defended and published around the same time.

To quote the University of Chicago physics department PhD requirements:

"II. Requirements for the Ph.D. Dissertation:
The Ph.D. thesis consists of a paper that must be submitted to a research journal of high quality and must be judged by the full Thesis Committee to be suitable for publication in such a journal. In the case of a sole authored paper, the thesis is the manuscript submitted for publication, plus any supplementary appendices augmenting the presentation which might not be appropriate in a
published paper. In the case of a multiple authored paper that has been or will be submitted for publication, the thesis must be an extended version, written solely by the student and describing in
detail his or her contributions to the published work."

but uchicago is a special place.

My dissertation was 2 first-author papers and 1 second-author paper. My second-author paper was published and the first-author papers were ready for submission. And I'm in physics.

I should note that three of the five papers published from my thesis work had somebody else as the first author. You can see all of them if you click the link in the post above-- I wrote them up for ResearchBlogging, and included "making of" posts explaining what I did for each.

Publish or perish in it's yearling form :) How else would we learn of the pressure of being a full-fledged RO1-writing scientist? What if your work yielded no publishable results because it all came back negative.... Duhn Duhn DUHN! Most these days would say you must not be a good scientist... but the work could have been very enlightening for any who might follow it further... Is there more to science than publications? pedagogy?

By Marguerite McDonald (not verified) on 30 Dec 2008 #permalink

I don't know about formal requirements, but in my grad school group, you were expected to have submitted everything by the time you defended and to have something actually published. You also couldn't include second-author papers in your thesis.

Mine was basically 8 papers stapled together between an intro and a conclusion. 6 of the papers had been published, the other two had been submitted.

I'm not entirely sure how typical that is for chemistry.

Of the 7 research articles comprising my PhD (biochemistry): 3 were published, 1 accepted, 1 submitted and 2 being written when I defended. Most of my fellow grad students had at least one published by the time they defended. The minimum required was at least one submitted by the time of defense. Usually that option was for those who needed to move on quickly and were not staying in science per se. Those planning on staying the sciences were required to have at least one already published and ideally one more on its way (if not more).

Neuroscience: my thesis was explicitly five papers as the central sections (of which two were published, one in press) plus an intro, conclusions, and a long appendix on minutiae of brain glucose dynamics and their link to cognitive demand.

I don't think that anyone was considered to be at the defense stage until they had at least a couple of (first-author) papers. My guess is that I'll use a similar standard for my own now-nascent grad students.

I don't recall what the official rules were, but my advisor (physics, condensed matter theory) wouldn't have let a student with no publications defend in the first place. Heck, if you took too long producing the first paper he'd have asked you if the research was too hard and if you needed to find a new advisor.

I believe in the Social Sciences and the Humanities that it's common to publish nothing from one's dissertation during grad school (maybe publish some unrelated stuff from advisors' research projects) and to spend the first year or two writing up the dissertation into article-style publications or turning the whole thing into a book.

My thesis was two first-author articles and one additional-author paper. Both first-author papers were published before I defended.

By Bruce Elrick (not verified) on 30 Dec 2008 #permalink

My dissertation was essentially an intro chapter, a second chapter describing methods in detail, and three chapters on research results (two experimental studies and one field study.) The methods chapter was condensed into a publication for Molecular Ecology Notes that was published right around the time I defended, but the remaining three chapters weren't published until later (two first-authored papers; the research in the third chapter was expanded considerably by my advisor after I finished, so I was second author on that one.)

Like a lot of people whose research-subject availability is seasonally constrained, I had to spend a lot of time breeding, rearing, freezing, and preparing specimens before I could actually do the bulk of the molecular work, and some of it was delayed until our department acquired some new instrumentation. I don't think my experience was all that unusual for my field, but in many other areas of biology, it's a lot more common to have major publications in press before the defense.

By Julie Stahlhut (not verified) on 30 Dec 2008 #permalink

A thesis is an original contribution to human knowledge. A dissertation is the university squeezing the last possible dollar out of the grad student. The child must be eased from its comfortable cocoon of education into the unforgiving reality of supplying others' productivity - manager bonuses or university overhead.

My biology Ph.D. had one paper (of four ultimately generated from the work) in press when I defended. This is the first time I've heard of being required to have publications before defense.

Ph.D. in Microbiology

In my department we had to have two first authored, peer-reviewed, publications in order to defend. At least one of those two had to be accepted, the other just had to be ready for submission. I'll eventually wind up with five papers out of my Ph.D. days, four of which will pertain directly to my dissertation, but they're definitely spaced apart in terms of years. As a matter of fact, I just received an email telling me of acceptance of paper #3 today, and #4 is being sent out for review next week (hopefully!).

I just finished my Ph.D. in anatomical sciences (essentially, vertebrate paleontology), with my dissertation comprising an intro chapter, three "meaty" chapters, and a concluding chapter. The first "real" chapter was in revision from reviewers' comments for publication at the time of my defense, but the other two weren't (one was submitted shortly thereafter, and the third is awaiting word on the second before I submit). Of course, I did have a few other papers on related topics already out there, so it's not like I was slacking. My feeling is that this is relatively common practice in paleo. I.e., get papers out there, but they don't necessarily have to be on dissertation chapters.

In English, it's hard to imagine anything co-authored counting as dissertation research; we just don't tend to co-author much (except for a few folks who are already well along in their careers).

It's fairly typical to have a paper or two out that are also parts of chapters, but not required at all.

Chemistry here. I had three papers before my defense (at least two actually published by then; the third may have been in press), and the work they covered made up the bulk of my thesis. This sort of pattern was the norm in my group and in the department generally. I don't think publication was absolutely required before a defense, but if the thesis work was publishable in some form (it normally was), it did get published as soon as possible.

By ColoRambler (not verified) on 30 Dec 2008 #permalink

It can be dangerous to have published too much before your thesis defense.

First, it makes you seem timid, which just encourages the dissertation committee to haze you.

Second, because something you've published may annoy someone on the committee, or at least a friend of someone on the committee.

The story of how the committee made the much-published Isaac Asimov sweat during his Biochemistry PhD oral defense is legendary... and true.

Cell biology: at least in my department, not uncommon to defend with something out for review or about to be submitted. Especially if it's a big 17 supplemental figure mouse paper that your PI wants to get into Cell.

I think it is more common in the biological sciences to have papers published after your defense. Nearly everyone I know published a majority of their papers after defending.

By Jasont@genetic… (not verified) on 30 Dec 2008 #permalink

In the Materials Science department where I got my PhD, most successful students published throughout their graduate career, or at least the second half of it, and it seemed typical to have five papers published or submitted by the defense. I'm not sure if there were strict rules, but I think it was seriously frowned upon to try to give one's preliminary exam (1-2 years before defending) without having at the very least a submitted paper. I was pretty shocked, during my postdoc in another department, to discover that it was the norm for PhD to students to publish a single paper right at the end of their graduate careers.

I think the publication timeline is unique to the field of study one was in. I trained in a department within an engineering college that was primarily funded by industrial sponsors. As a result, reports to them were my primary responsibility and peer-reviewed publications were placed on the back burner. Moving into the biomedical sciences, it was something I had to explain on more than one occasion.

PhD in molecular physics. Although I had one first author PRL by the time I defended, and two second author ones, most of my work came out after defending. Unfortunately, my adviser submitted my work slowly on purpose - looking back, I see that his goal was not to get papers out quickly, but to get them out in such a metered way that he could do the minimum required to extend his grants, and spend most of his time on other pursuits. As much as I like him, I left grad school woefully unprepared for what research is really like. I understand metering to an extent, but not his extent.

End result of his metering approach? I had one of my first author PRLs submitted and published 5 years after defending - a fact that indicates the niche-level of the work. I once had three papers - from three different institutions - get published in the same month. Since I am no longer in that PhD field I don't really care that much anymore, but I still have two papers for him to submit - more than 10 years after defending.

Behavioural ecology: in my department, three papers which are at least submitted for publication are required to defend the thesis...

Pharmacology here. Gotta be at least two first author publications and one lower author publication (I guess to prove that you play well with others). The first author publications must be submitted to journals. But it's far more important to the people on my committee that my work tell a complete story: a phenomenon or drug effect, the general and specific effects, and the mechanisms of the effects. So the actual numbers of papers is very flexible. I've seen people graduate with as little as one first author, and as many as 6. They also highly recommend that your introduction be composed of a review of the backgrounf literature providing the basis for your dissertation, which is then also submitted.

Yikes, this makes me realized just how much I still have to do...

I think I had one paper published, on which I was the nth author out of about ten or so, when I defended. And it was on an experiment that wasn't even part of my thesis work. It's just how it goes in my particular subfield (experimental cosmology) where the experiments take a lot of time and most of the work leading up to fielding the experiment is more engineering-type work rather than actual science. I just happened to be working on my thesis experiment at the earlier phase of the project (the engineering phase) rather than the operation/data analysis/results/paper-producing phase.

I think this is all very discipline specific and, like citedness-scores, can't be fairly judged from school to school and certainly not between fields. A Ph.D. in Geological Sciences from the University of Texas has no publication requirement at all (many of the students go into an industry which doesn't care about such things.) The peer-review criteria is expected to be met at exam and defense time by grilling from the committee itself - several of whose members must be from other Universities.

Of course accepted publications don't hurt...

Ph.D., Behavioral Entomology. In my department, I don't recall any requirement for publication before defense, although most students had some. I had three pubs at the time of my defense, but this fact was actually a demerit: I had a long argument (near fistfight) with one member of my committee, who demanded revisions to a chapter that was a verbatim copy of one of them.

From a different perspective, I think publishing before graduating is a good idea. After graduating, you move on to different stuff; the past is past. I recently looked at my thesis and discovered several chapters that deserve publication... but I don't even remember writing them....

And: as advice to all: ensure that you are 'non'-first author' on a few papers. Of mine, I was first author on all but one; apparently, this was a demerit when 'evaluation time' came, and was a contributing factor to my exit from my field.

Ph.D. in condensed matter physics (theory). My dissertation was mostly two first-author papers, with some related side results for filler. One paper been published in the Physical Review; another had been "published" in a conference proceedings and was being reworked into a journal submission. Three published (or at least submitted) papers was more normal in my department, although some of my friends had fewer. I think my committee took pity on me because my first advisor left the department partway through my time there, and for various reasons I had to start over from scratch with a new advisor in a new field (I wasn't originally in condensed matter).

By Ambitwistor (not verified) on 31 Dec 2008 #permalink


"And: as advice to all: ensure that you are 'non'-first author' on a few papers."

Why? To show you're a team player or something? Maybe that's more relevant if you work in a big lab. I've never heard of too many first-author publications being a demerit for a grad student before.

By Ambitwistor (not verified) on 31 Dec 2008 #permalink


No publications before defense. One paper eventually published based on dissertation.

By Michael I (not verified) on 31 Dec 2008 #permalink

I make this comment partly because of its last sentence, which addresses something about the SAT and sports thread. Originally I'd intended to hotlink to a reposting of my comment on Feynman's deadly questions in PhD Oral Defenses, or on who wrote the shortest PhD dissertation (hint: it was boiler plate plus one page summarizing his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and a photograph of the apparatus which with Parity Conservation had been disproved). Now THAT's prior publication!

At some universities, if one has been there as aundergrad, and stayed for the PhD, then one has had practcie with the dissertation style, via the senior thesis, which (for example) has been a requirement of all students at Princeton University since 1926. The Mudd Manuscript Library houses 57,000 (as of 2007) theses.

The longest thesis is 756 pages. [Jeanne Faust '76, English, "Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald '17: A Collection of Short Stories"]

The shortest thesis is three pages. [Gianluca Tempesti '89, Electrical Engineering, "Overview Opto-Electronic Integrated Circuits"]

The departments with the most theses archived are: History (7,663), English (6,421), Politics (6,158), Economics (6,082), and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (3,550).

A look at some thesis titles can provide a preview of students' future careers.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Princeton professor John McPhee '53 : "Skimmer Burns" (a novel).

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito '72 : "An Introduction to the Italian Constitutional Court."

Editor of The New Yorker David Remnick '81 : "The Sympathetic Thread: 'Leaves of Grass' 1855-1865."

Health and community affairs executive Michelle Robinson Obama '85 : "Princeton Educated Blacks and the Black Community."

Political blogger and Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall '91 : "Virginia During the Nullification Crisis."

Executive director of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Angela Ramirez '97 : "Acceptance of Differences in the National Origin and Race in Public Policy: Passage of the 1965 Immigration Act."

San Diego Padres pitcher Chris Young '02 : "The Integration of Professional Baseball and Racial Attitudes in America: A Study in Stereotype Change."

Magnetospheric physics.

Five first-author papers from my Ph.D. thesis. Two were published, and a third accepted for publication, prior to the date of my defense. A fourth was submitted and under review. The last one took a couple of years to get out. There was no departmental requirement for grad students to have published before defending, but some professors including my advisor encouraged it. I had also been second of two authors on a paper with my advisor; this paper was not part of my thesis.

My office bookshelf holds a couple of Ph.D. theses from Sweden. There, a Ph.D. thesis consists of a chapter of introductory material followed by 4-8 papers, all of which must be submitted prior to the thesis defense (typically at least half will have been published), and several of which must be first-author papers (the thesis can also include related papers where the candidate is lower on the author list).

Most places do not take it to the extremes that Sweden does, but in my field most students (at least the successful ones) have at least one published paper by the time they defend.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 01 Jan 2009 #permalink

This is definitely a disciplinary thing. In the humanities it is wise to publish simply because the job markets in, say, history or English are wretched. The idea really is to turn seminar papers into something publishable, though this can be hard to do. But the dissertation in and of itself, independent of what may or may not have been done with constituent parts, is the thing in a defense. Indeed, in some disciplines you may well want to keep your powder dry to a degree -- a publisher might be reluctant to publish a book that is s revised version of a bunch of articles. Oftentimes in history an article will stem from work originally done for the dissertation but that does not fit for whatever reason. In this, as in so many areas, there seems to be a divide between the sciences and the humanities, with the social sciences straddling the line between the two.


I don't know of any instance where someone got a PhD in physics at my grad institution without having published a paper of some sort, whether directly from the dissertation or from related work. IIRC, the nearby chemistry department (nuclear chemists) actually required that the dissertation contain a published paper with the student as first author.

Other departments I have been involved in followed a similar plan. One wanted/expected to see you be a coauthor before you started your own project.

However, no university rule ever applied here. Other fields have wildly different expectations, particularly when publishing a book is the norm (and minimum standard for tenure).

It may be worth pointing out an extreme example of someone for whom the PhD dissertation was particularly important in overcoming an historical injustice.

With Weierstrass's support Sofia Kovalevskaya pursued a degree in mathematics, and her work earned her a doctorate sum cumma laude from the University of Göttingen in 1874. Her doctoral dissertation on partial differential equations is today called the Cauchy-Kovelevskaya Theorem. It so impressed the faculty that they awarded Kovalevskaya the doctorate without examination and without her having attended any classes at the university.

This led to the amazing woman's becoming:
* first woman to hold a university chair in modern Europe
* first woman on the editorial staff of a mathematical journal

She was not only a groundbreaking woman mathematician, but also a noted feminist, playwright, and novelist.

Her dissertation actually contained three papers, each worthy of a PhD, but she didn't want to take any chances, after having to leave Russia even to get into a PhD program. Most universities still waved their rules and pointed out that they applied to MEN with various prerequisites, and thus by definition a woman could not earn a PhD. Her 3 papers in the dissertation were, I believe, about partial differential equations, Abelian integrals, and Saturn's rings.

I'm still waiting to hear back from a certain Science Fiction editor about my novella: "Sex, Savagery, and Semiprimes" which was triggered by the anecdote that when Sofia was 11 years old, the walls of her nursery were papered with pages of Ostrogradski's lecture notes on differential and integral analysis. She noticed that certain things on the sheets she had heard mentioned by her uncle. Studying the wallpaper was Sofia's introduction to calculus.

She only published ten papers before her death from influenza in 1891, after a trip to Paris to see Maxim Kovalensky, a relative of her late husband with whom she was having a love affair.


Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya

"... By the spring of 1874, Kovalevskaya had completed three papers. Weierstrass deemed each of these worthy of a doctorate. The three papers were on Partial differential equations, Abelian integrals and Saturn's Rings. The first of these is a remarkable contribution which was published in Crelle's Journal in 1875. The paper on the reduction of abelian integrals to simpler elliptic integrals is of less importance but it consisted of a skilled series of manipulations which showed her complete command of Weierstrass's theory."

"In 1874 Kovalevskaya was granted her doctorate, summa cum laude, from Göttingen University. Despite this doctorate and letters of strong recommendation from Weierstrass, Kovalevskaya was unable to obtain an academic position. This was for a combination of reasons, but her sex was a major handicap. Her rejections resulted in a six year period during which time she neither undertook research nor replied to Weierstrass's letters. She was bitter to discover that the best job she was offered was teaching arithmetic to elementary classes of school girls..."

In most fields of biology, a grad student may faithfully and diligently work for years and not get publishable results. When one's research depends on generating a transgenic organism, that can be quite long and difficult. Furthermore, there are so many confounding factors that may be involved...e.g. some other group stole your idea and got published first, the protein you're looking at functions as a monomer AND in a tetramer, a hurricane destroys the strip of beach your organism lives on. In my department, it's expected that one have at least one first-author paper before defending, but most committees take these confounding factors into account if a student has worked hard but had bad luck.

mine is in computer science and engg. But the work is extremely inter disciplinary. I dont have any publication. I have submitted my thesis. Yet to defend. I am really tense I may fail. The work is extremely unconventional. I am happy with my work although its not complete. But no suitable examiners in my country who will understand it in totality.

By shangaheen (not verified) on 01 Oct 2009 #permalink

mine is in computer science and engg. But the work is extremely inter disciplinary. I dont have any publication. I have submitted my thesis. Yet to defend. I am really tense I may fail. The work is extremely unconventional. I am happy with my work although its not complete. But no suitable examiners in my country who will understand it in totality.

By shangaheen (not verified) on 01 Oct 2009 #permalink

Some University departments don't accept already published material as original work. My advisor told me to hold off on publication till after defense. Some departments in the same University REQUIRE accepted journal publications.

Protocol differences exist in different fields, departments, universities. Not to mention individual personalities and preferences of the interview panel committee members.
Publishing timing is not such a big deal; not shaking too much during the oral defense is.