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The applications often ask for a publication list. If the only publication on the list is a thesis in preparation/preprint, would the candidate's application be rejected because of that? Is it necessary to have more than a thesis to be competitive/considered?

I ask this because one mathematician told me that he doesn't care about the number of publications, but about the quality of the work. Then again, 5 high-quality publications is better than 4...

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[The following answer is from the point of view of a tenured professor of theoretical mathematics at an American university. I believe that most of what I say applies in many places outside of the United States, but not everywhere, and I will not try to say exactly where I think it applies.]

A generation ago the publication culture within mathematics was quite different from other STEM fields. Students leaving their PhDs were not expected to have any publications at all, and I believe the majority of them did not. This phenomenon was pretty extreme, to the extent that for many eminent mathematicians you can see that their first publication is work done at an REU when they were an undergraduate, often followed by a gap of about five years, then their "real" publications begin only after their thesis. A postdoctoral job was awarded mostly based on the relatively brief description of the thesis work provided by the student and (more importantly, I think) the student's thesis advisor.

[In my case, I graduated with a math PhD from Harvard in 2003 and my first paper wasn't until 2005. To make sure I wasn't overextrapolating from my own experience, I went back to look at my classmates at Harvard. I found a few cases in which a paper from their thesis appeared slightly before they graduated, but in most cases their first paper appears 1-2 years after graduation.]

Nowadays, a few graduating PhDs can still function on the above model, but only under really ideal conditions: top program, advisor with enormous pull who says great things about you in the letter. To get personal again:

1) I am about to graduate my fifth PhD student at UGA. All of these students had at least a submitted paper by the time they graduate; in most cases they had one or more accepted papers.

2) Part of the application for postdoc positions at UGA [of which there are several kinds, but this is a common feature] is a publication list. I have been responsible for making offers to postdocs for a while now, and I am struggling to remember making an offer to someone who didn't at least have a publicly available submitted preprint. Sometimes we have had candidates who were otherwise of interest but it's hard to pull the trigger based on seeing none of their work when there are so many other applicants who have multiple papers.

And to get less personal:

3) Whereas 15 years ago good students from top departments didn't need and most often didn't have any preprints, nowadays it is more common for good students from top departments to exit with several papers.

I do however want to add an important caveat: more mathematics done is better than less mathematics done. [As is not so surprising!] However, more papers are not better than fewer papers if the more papers don't create the impression of having done more work of significance. In particular, the cultural of theoretical mathematics very much works against the LPU model espoused in another answer: writing too many papers on the same topic "without new ideas" creates a poor impression. If two mathematical journals differ by one tier, than having one paper in the better journal is better than having at least two papers in the worse journal. If the journals differ by more than one tier, having one paper in the better journal is probably better than having any number of papers in the worse journal. The top journals in mathematics want to publish important, substantial, difficult, breakthrough work: if you split one such 40 page paper up into four ten page papers, then you have four papers that each do very partial things and are not going to be published in nearly as good venues. Moreover you will get the reputation as having "more papers than theorems," which is not good.

I would say that the following is a good publication model for a new math PhD: have a portion of your thesis already submitted to a good journal and have one other reasonable paper [possibly on a different topic] published elsewhere. More papers than that is not necessarily helpful: the quality of your thesis work still matters more.

  • Do you have advice/ an algorithm on how to increase my chances at having more substantial papers? I wonder if the higher standards are due to increases in training. A century ago it was considered impossible to play Tchaikovsky's violin concerto. Nowadays being able to play the same piece is considered less impressive. – user74089 Jan 31 at 21:26
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    Regarding increase in standards: Over the longer term, I think this is due to an increase in competition, not training. A hundred years ago, with very few exceptions, only men from well-off families had the chance to study mathematics (or music). Nowadays, while not everyone has an equal chance, more people have a chance to study mathematics, and the number of mathematics positions (much less the number of pages in top journals) has not increased in proportion. – Alexander Woo Jan 31 at 22:24
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    I'm a extremely dismayed by how much stock you put in publication venue, which has been shown to correspond only poorly with work quality, and in which many factors other than quality (connections, luck) play a predominant role. – Konrad Rudolph Feb 1 at 9:10
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    @Konrad: I don't really disagree with your comment, and what I wrote above is not really my opinion so much as my take on the standard opinion within my field. However, if pressed I would have to admit that I think it is difficult to give a meaning to "work quality" in theoretical mathematics that is not largely sociological. Otherwise put: we are primarily evaluating work by trying to figure out what the community thinks of it. Is this fair? No, it is not. – Pete L. Clark Feb 1 at 15:13
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    @Anonymous: Yes, I agree. I do not have anything superior in mind and I am not personally unhappy with the current system, but I think it is not healthy to pretend that it is better than it is. – Pete L. Clark Feb 3 at 21:08
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You frame the question incorrectly. With the great number of applicants per position, rejections do not need a reason. It is the acceptances that need a reason.

What will make your application stand out and convince the reviewers that you are going to do great work? Great past work is one such evidence, very supportive letters from people who know you is another, as is (positive) personal knowledge of you.

To take the example of thesis-only publication: If the thesis solves a big problem, and experts are already convinced by the outline of the argument that you presented to them, then great! If, as is more common, the thesis is not written yet, and the only people who know anything about the problem and its solution are you and your advisor, the available evidence is much less convincing.

As most of us do not make a single field-changing advance in our doctoral work, we must rely on several lesser signals to convey our potential. That is why completing several papers and having them accepted by journals with harsh standards, and also having good letters of support is the most common way of convincing that you are going to do great work in the future.

  • Even for a pure math postdoc? It is easier to publish in combinatorics or analytic number theory than in other fields... – Mehta Jun 13 at 23:13
  • @Mehta Well, if that is true, that means only that the applicants in those areas need to produce even more evidence to convince the hiring committees. (BTW, I think that this statement is not entirely true, as good publications are equally hard in every area of science. Otherwise, how did all the smart people in those areas failed to publish before whatever you are publishing now?) – Boris Bukh Jun 14 at 1:29
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Publications will always be important. There is no way around this. A strong publication record (or even any publication record at all) is never going to disqualify someone.

However, one of the main purposes of a post-doc is to build one's publication record. This is why a post-doc is often done as a preface to a tenure-track professorship.

In my case, I had no publications when I completed my PhD. My advisor had run off to North Carolina (my school was in Illinois) and pretty much cut off all contact before I defended. I still was able to get a very good post-doc that led to a "tenure-track" job. (I place "tenure-track" in quotes, since my institution does not give tenure, but they have equivalent promotions and positions).

Your letters of recommendation will matter, as will statements of purpose and research statements. Post-docs can often be hired based on potential. An applicant who can speak and write articulately will always be strong candidate if they have good letters of recommendation.

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    In my situation a lot of time was spent just trying to learn the prerequisite material and finding errors in papers that I was reading and getting thrown off by that. So much context is missing when you just look at the publication list... I've learned that a lot of it depends on how easy it is to learn the content I need to learn, not just platitudes like "hard work" and "willpower." – user74089 Jan 31 at 19:37
  • These are great concepts to speak to in a statement of purpose. When I look at post-docs, I look at the publication record, but I also look very strongly at how the candidate views research and learning as a process. – Vladhagen Jan 31 at 19:48
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Around here (Finland, to some extent other Nordic countries), a mathematics PhD thesis often consists of three or so papers, possibly one of which should be single-authored (this is more common in proof-based and rarer in more numerical fields, as far as I understand).

Based on this, someone with no publications would often be a disadvantage. A good thesis might make up for it; monograph theses are still written around here. People also understand that academia differs; for example, I understand that PhD theses in US tend to be systematically less impressive than local ones (due to a shorter time of PhD studies), which is known to at least some faculty.

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I think it is extremely important. At a minimum, try to figure out how the thesis can be broken into LPUs* and published.

People want production. Papers are production. Don't let anyone bleating about the purity of science tell you otherwise. I'm here to give you the sitting-in-the-bar truth. People who pat you on the shoulder and say "it's fine" are not doing you a favor by being nicey-nice and not sharing the real skinny.

Note, LPUs are not as sleazy as they sound. People very rarely read/cite Ph.D. theses. You need to get your work into journals so that people can benefit from it. A tree falling in the forest, not getting heard, does nobody any benefit. Even if the work is imperfect or incomplete, figure out how to wrap it up into publishable units. LPUs are easy to read, process, review, etc.

The same thing will apply in the work world (especially in industry or government, but also academia) if you lose funding on an initiative. PUBLISH your work. Of course, you want perfection. But there is a chronic issue of partial or even completed work never being written up (much of it funded by tax dollars). That the work is not complete or perfect is immaterial (although I admire the drive for perfection). At a certain point, you just have to wrap up. So figure it out, how to do so. There is a famous line in The Hot Zone where a scientist criticizes someone for not publishing a single medical case (i.e. sample size 1!) of airborne ebola in a monkey.

Ideally you will BOTH do good work AND publish it. But if you do good work and don't publish, you are useless. If I say a record with no journal publications, I assume either you didn't accomplish anything OR you are bad at writing things up. Of course the latter is "less bad". But it's still bad. Postdocs should be producers. And you demonstrate this during your Ph.D., especially towards the end. You show that you are a producer; get things done; stand on your own; etc. It's one of the reasons why you are ready to leave.

You can, right now, at least chop your thesis, into a few separate computer files (of planned papers), put a title on each paper. Now you have some "in preparation" papers. Ideally, I would get some of them out the door, so you can put "submitted, J. Subspec. Math," on your pub list. But at least several "in preps".

*Least Publishable Unit

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    Often times it is not that a PhD student is unmotivated to publish. Rather it is overcoming the administrative barriers inherent in being amenable to an advisor's whims. – Vladhagen Jan 31 at 19:26
  • Push, push. Figure out how you want to cut it up. Where to send it. how to chop it up. Then just write it and dump on the old man's desk. Sure it is POSSIBLE that you still get blocked. But much rarer. There are a lot of people waiting for direction or asking for permission or guidance. A Ph.D. in the second half of his degree should be taking initiative. If you still get blocked, fine. But this guy did NOT say "my advisor is sitting on my completely written and ready to be mailed out papers". For one thing, if he had those, he could at least put "in prep" on the pub list. – guest Jan 31 at 19:30
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    Is the answer based on being a or hiring math postdocs? There are differences between fields in how much one is expected to publish in general and at particular point of career developmen. – Tommi Brander Jan 31 at 20:01
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    I explained in my answer why I think this LPU business is a bad model for theoretical mathematics. – Pete L. Clark Jan 31 at 20:53
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    Pete, stellar answer with lots of very specific subject experience. Kudos. – guest Jan 31 at 21:30

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