Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Crossing the Finish Line for the Dissertation

Well, it's done.

All of the chapters of my dissertation have been published as papers in peer-reviewed journals.

It's been two years and four months since I submitted the final draft of my dissertation to my university, and wow, is it ever nice to finally lay the thing to rest. As a bit of a celebration, I wanted to pontificate share some musings on the whole process, and offer some hope for those who might be working on their dissertation right now. So, how did this all come to fruition? What did I do right (in my opinion), and what might I have done differently?

Start Early
Basically, I knew from the get-go that I didn't want to write one of those perpetually unpublished dissertations. You all know the ones I'm talking about. That really ground-breaking, highly citable, novel piece of research that's been sitting around completely unpublished since the person got his or her Ph.D. back in 1976. I can't really blame them - maybe they dropped out of the field. Maybe they decided research wasn't their thing. Maybe bigger and better projects happened along. These are all legitimate reasons (life happens!), but it doesn't make an unpublished dissertation any less annoying. As anyone in the field knows, journals (and reviewers) sometimes look askance at a reference listed as "unpublished thesis" or "unpublished dissertation."

So, I made a mental commitment early on to strive to get my dissertation published as quickly as possible. This was key in achieving the eventual goal.

Get Your Committee On Board
My dissertation committee wanted to see my stuff published, too. In fact, they specifically requested that I frame each of my dissertation chapters as discrete, publishable units. This was good advice. The days of creating a book-length narrative, which is retroactively turned into publishable manuscripts, are over. If you have the dissertation chapters framed as discrete, submission-ready papers, you can save a lot of time! This is a much more common practice than it used to be, which is a good thing (in my opinion).

So, before I had even finished writing the dissertation chapters, I had decided what journals I was going to submit to. Then, I formatted all of the figures, text, and references appropriately. This saved a ton of time in the end!

Git 'er Done
Once the dissertation is written, the congratulations received, and the diploma framed, the real work begins. Get those chapters submitted for publication. Take a week to rest on your laurels, and then get back to work. Every day you procrastinate is another opportunity to completely forget about submitting the papers for peer review. In fact, maybe even consider submitting some chapters before you graduate, if you can.

In the end, though, the only way I managed to get this done as quickly as I did (not that two years is that quick!) was to guilt-trip myself into doing it. Maybe that's what will work for you, too. And as I tell many people - don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Your work will never be perfect. There are always more data. There's always another specimen to measure. But at some point, you just have to call it "good enough."

Submit that paper. Because chances are, there's someone else out there who wants--perhaps even needs--to cite you. And I'm sure they would much rather cite a peer-reviewed paper than an unpublished (if excellent) dissertation or thesis. And for every day delayed, there's just another little way in which you have to revise the manuscript before submission. Science marches on, with or without us.

Not many, on my part. All in all, I'm happy with how my dissertation chapters have turned out. I might have had a few more figures in the ceratopsian one. Maybe a slightly longer discussion in the goat head FEM one. Perhaps I might have pushed to get the ZJLS paper published a little sooner. Oh well. They're done, they're published, and I can clear my plate for new projects.

Speaking of clearing plates, isn't it about time to relaunch the Paleo Paper Challenge?


Anonymous said...

All good stuff Andy, and while things differ in Europe to North America pretty much all of this applies to any palaeo (or likely science) PhD.

And yes, PPC part II should certainly start gearing up soon....

Mike Taylor said...

Good stuff, Andy, many congratulations. I like the perspective that you're not really done with your dissertation until you've made it redundant :-)

Of my five chapters, one (Xenoposeidon) was published some time before I filed, and two more (Brachiosaurus and sauropod history) were in press -- the first of those was out last year, the second comes out in a book that supposedly comes out this month or next. Of the other two, one is in review right now, and the last was submitted to a jounral, rejected for what I think were spurious reasons, and is now 80% revised for going out to another journal. The upshot is that, with a trailing wind, I MIGHT be done by the end of this calendar year.

Er. Which leaves the Archbishop, which I said in the 2009 PPC would be submitted by the end of that year and which is still nowhere near done. Ah.

Nick said...

I know what you mean about unpublished theses. For a project I'm working on, there are two significant theses written in the 1970s (both by major players in vertebrate paleontology). One was published almost entirely but isn't of significant quality, the other could be extremely important and has never been published in any form.

Brian Lee Beatty said...

Yes! I would love to participate in PPC II, maybe I'll get mine done in time this time around....
You know I'd love to see many of those papers submitted to www.PalArch.nl but I don't want to go overboard soliciting, I know we all need to get our papers read and recognized too. Still, it would be fun to make a PPC II logo, and be able to include that as a symbol in the papers published because of it. Maybe PLoS would also do that? If we collectively solicited papers for the PPC II, maybe we could get a bigger turnout and support for it to happen in subsequent years. It was such a good idea, I think it has much potential for supporting student research as well.