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I'm a 4th year PhD student in Experimental Psychology who should be graduating sometime in May 2024. I'm graduating from an R2 in a rural area of Michigan that recently suspended admissions for their Clinical Psychology PhD program (this is officially public and confirmed. If someone knows what university I'm talking about, you can see it on the webpage itself). My experience hasn't been ideal for a multitude of reasons but this recent news in particular really exemplified how my experience was bottom of the barrel.

Anyway, it's looking like I'm going to graduate from the program with my only author appearance as a last author on a still unpublished (it's been rejected twice) manuscript. Apparently, many who graduate from this program often have 0-1 publications. Students were also discouraged from pursuing external funding because it was seen as hypercompetitive to the point it was a waste of time (yes, faculty said that). The reason for this complacency was the generous internal funding given to the department, which has now officially come around to bite them via this Clinical Psychology PhD first year student admission suspension.

After I spoke to some colleagues, I've heard that someone who has a PhD and no publications is seen as questionable on the job market for both academic and non-academic positions. Why is that? Does this also apply when someone doesn't secure external funding as well? I have a fellowship from the state of Michigan for what that's worth in addition to a visiting appointment at a small liberal arts college (that isn't going well so far, sadly).

I could spend time discussing how I wasn't allowed to work on other projects as I did my doctoral candidacy qualifier project on my cover letter and my recent diagnoses with executive functioning symptoms, but I don't know how that would be seen either. Hopefully, this question is finally in line with moderator expectations at last. If not, mods can take this question down.

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    This is very field dependent. The publication process is too long in some fields for publication prior to graduation to be feasible.
    – Buffy
    Dec 21, 2023 at 11:36
  • Do you plan to continue in academia or work as a clinician? I would think (but don't know) that a publication would be less important as a clinician,
    – mkennedy
    Dec 21, 2023 at 16:38
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    @mkennedy Neither. I'm in Experimental Psychology, not Clinical Psychology.
    – zzmondo1
    Dec 21, 2023 at 17:22
  • So many questions from students in Psychology in the last weeks here! I like
    – user111388
    Dec 22, 2023 at 20:45
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    For the non-academic job market, you asked a question in the Workplace Stack forum, where you go the answer that no one cares what papers you published.
    – user111388
    Dec 22, 2023 at 20:51

8 Answers 8

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A PhD is widely perceived as a sign that you're qualified to do research. Research generally leads to publications. It seems very unusual to graduate without publications, and casts doubt on the legitimacy of the program. What did you actually do in the course of your degree?

I've seen a program description that said that the student must publish at least one research article - and it must be a research article; review articles don't qualify - to meet the requirement to graduate.

Edit: about the presence or lack of publications in your CV when it comes to non-academic jobs, I am by no means an expert, but my impression is that although non-academics are not likely to care about your publications (unless they're in famous journals like Nature and Science that even they recognize), they would still like to see some publication. Any publication is better than none. No publication brings up questions like the above about what you did during your PhD. Notably this will remain the case even if it's common in your field for PhD students to graduate without any publications. If it comes to an interview, you might need to explain it.

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    @zzmondo1 yeah, but then you wouldn't graduate. The requirements are there because they carry the weight of the university's reputation: by issuing you a degree, they effectively certify that you have met their requirements for a PhD. Illness, death, etc., might be mitigating factors, but they still don't change the fact that you've not met the requirements for a PhD.
    – Allure
    Dec 21, 2023 at 7:43
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    @Allure - It seems very unusual to graduate without publications, and casts doubt on the legitimacy of the program. - Are you specifically talking about Experimental Psychology? In pure math, this is quite normal.
    – Kimball
    Dec 21, 2023 at 14:49
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    To support the comment of @Kimball, in pure math the dissertation committee decides for themselves whether the thesis is an acceptable thesis. Waiting another year for the paper to be submitted and refereed is quite often impractical. Yes, there is competitive pressure to get something published before graduation, but it is not at all unusual to not do so.
    – Lee Mosher
    Dec 21, 2023 at 14:57
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    @LeeMosher while it is not so uncommon for students in math to graduate without a peer-reviewed paper at the time of their defence, this is usually explained by the extremely long delay between submission of the thesis and eventual publication. My experience is that the results are at least publishable; whether or not the student and supervisor have enough stamina to see the process through is a different matter. Dec 21, 2023 at 16:26
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    @ZeroTheHero Its also pretty normal in molecular biology to not have any publications at the time of graduation. Often because projects in mol biol are almost always bigger than a single person, and often take longer than the length of a PhD to complete. The words in our PhD criteria are "work that is judged to publishable, as a whole, or as a part". Dec 21, 2023 at 17:31
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One of the reason is that PhD thesis of a candidate is sent (by University/institute where the candidate belongs to) for review to the referees who are already familiar to the candidate's supervisor, most of the times. So the review can have a little favour/bias. But if one publish article in a standard journal, it means the article passed more authentic peer review procedure. This is the reason.

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    Gotcha. What about external funding (grants, fellowships)?
    – zzmondo1
    Dec 21, 2023 at 5:51
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    @zzmondo1, what is 'Gotcha'? Grants and fellowship have nothing much to do with peer review decision. I am myself a PhD student in mathematics and i also enjoy research funding but we must publish at least one article in journal to write a PhD thesis. Though this rule is relaxed recently, but I belong to the previous regulation which requires at least one publish article in journal.
    – learner
    Dec 21, 2023 at 9:28
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    @learner 'gotcha' = 'I got you' which here means 'understood'
    – Kimball
    Dec 21, 2023 at 14:47
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    @Kimball, ok, I learned a new word. Thanks
    – learner
    Dec 21, 2023 at 15:19
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Your question is based on a false premise, but it’s a subtly different false premise from what other people here are saying. It’s not so much that “employers care about publications during your PhD” as you are saying or that “employers do not care about publications during your PhD” as others are saying in rebuttal. The more nuanced truth is that

employers want to hire job candidates who are impressive, and publications are one way in which a candidate can make themselves seem impressive.

The point is that there are many other ways to make yourself seem impressive and that will make you an attractive person to hire. Candidates come in all shapes and sizes and each one tells a unique story about what they have done and can do. (“Publications”, incidentally, also come in all shapes and sizes, and some will be worthless both in and outside of academia.)

If your CV has nothing to say about you other than that you got a PhD from a poorly regarded program, then you likely wont be attractive to employers, but it’s not because you don’t have publications, but rather because you haven’t revealed anything unique or distinctive about yourself that anyone is likely to be inpresssed by. Conversely, if you are an impressive person who did interesting things (within the PhD work and/or unrelated to it) but just happened not to publish anything, employers won’t care about the lack of publications per se.

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  • I appreciate this answer. I'm seriously hoping my fellowship (even though it sponsors those who have potential to be future faculty) and full time instructor position at this SLAC (which is teaching me the hard way why people don't work full time during their Ph.D) can be distinct achievements for sure.
    – zzmondo1
    Dec 24, 2023 at 12:44
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The premise of your question seems an overgeneralization to me. As far as I understand your comments on other answers, you're specifically looking for jobs outside academia. Academic postdoc employers care about publications (much less about pre-doc funding), because past pubs help them guesstimate which future output to expect from you. Non-academic employers try to estimate the output they can expect from you in their domain, for which papers may be largely irrelevant.

Try to think about how you're a good fit for the next job, rather than about metrics specific to your current one. Which skills is the employer looking for? What relevant achievements do you have? In my experience many employers outside academia don't even know the publication culture in a given field nor care. PhDs on the other hand tend to be aware of their technical skills (eg coding, data science), but much less of their more generic ones. Such generic skill often are deemed nothing special in the context of academia, but highly sought after elsewhere. Examples include skills in project management, supervision, presentation, budget responsibility or coordination of multi-team collaborations. All of these can be documented independently of pubs in an application.

Whatever you do, don't write applications in which you try to plant the idea that your current performance is a failure, but someone else or circumstances are to blame. If your institution has a career mentoring office I would highly recommend talking to them. If you can get hold of alumni who successfully applied for the types of jobs you're looking for, talk to them too.

Relevant experience and limitations: I'm in Exp Psych, have supervised PhDs successfully applying inside and outside academia, and seen many more doing so, because I'm based in a large department and network. However I'm based in Europe, so mileage may vary. Also, I haven't applied outside academia myself after graduating.

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    -1 Because papers are not irrelevant for future employers in the industry. If they are educated they know that the expected products from a PhD and postdoc are papers. If you didn't deliver any during 3/4 years then they know you are not productive. If I was hiring in the industry this would be a red flag for me.
    – The Doctor
    Dec 21, 2023 at 22:59
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    @zzmondo1 There are a huge range of federal jobs. If you're looking at jobs that expect applicants to have a PhD, they're almost certainly going to care about publication record.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 22, 2023 at 14:53
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    @zzmondo1: even for jobs that don't require a Ph.D., when you apply with a Ph.D. but no publications, if your interviewer knows how academia works, you need to have a good answer to the question of why that is so. After all, you just spent three years doing that Ph.D., and the typical outcome is a number of publications. Not having any is the equivalent of having worked three years in industry and not having a good answer to the question of "tell me about a successful project you were involved with", because publications, again, are how successful projects end in academia. Dec 23, 2023 at 20:09
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    @zzmondo1 please seek counsel beyond this forum. Most institutions offer this. You just let us know you were suicidal earlier in the year and very much sound like you need help now. Given your background, you know that poor mental health can have a distorting effect on your perspective on the past and future. And I hope you know you matter far more than your situation.
    – PBee
    Dec 24, 2023 at 8:45
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    @PBee My ideation was the case earlier this hear but thankfully it's not anymore. Lingering effects could have the distorting effect though (as you described) so I'm going to continue to seek counsel from my therapist.
    – zzmondo1
    Dec 24, 2023 at 12:16
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Because you're competing against people who have published papers

It is rare for anyone to be the only candidate for any position. In order to get the position you need to convince the person/people making the decision first that you're worth calling for interview, and then that you're the best of the candidates that were considered worth calling for interview.

The decision to invite or not is made without knowing who you are or anything about your work. They're looking at your CV for things that make you better or worse than the other candidates. That you've not published anything is an easy way to put you to the bottom of that pile, and pick someone else instead. This is made worse because with recent PhD graduates there isn't usually much to distinguish them, once people who don't have any required skills/techniques are screened out, since pretty much all PhDs for a position will have a strong academic background prior to the PhD and probably in handful of similar subjects.

But the first sentence of the paragraph above is why it's not always the case that you must have published. If you haven't, then it is even more important than usual to look for work through a network of connections. People who aware of your work and skills already may pick you ahead of other options. And, of course, there are also a few people who can get lucky and land a position despite not having any publications.

I'll also add the usual disclaimer about different subject areas having different expectations. I'm told, for example, that it is rare for Pure Maths PhDs to have published by graduation.

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  • For the non-academic job market, you are probably competing against people without a phd;-)
    – user111388
    Dec 22, 2023 at 20:49
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    For most non-academic jobs, I doubt they care at all about publications. But there are jobs out there that demand a PhD and those presumably do. Dec 22, 2023 at 20:51
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Aside from the replies about publications being a metric of productivity, I would add that your dissertation should be written in manuscript form. So it should be relatively straightforward for you to identify a relevant journal and publish a manuscript or two. It is incumbent on you as a graduate student to put in the work to make it happen.

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  • My program actually requires that my dissertation should be in manuscript form so I have that base covered already. I need to format it with a Table of Contents later down the road once I submit it to the graduate school.
    – zzmondo1
    Dec 24, 2023 at 12:40
  • Good. You have 6 months before graduation. Take some time to find a journal that you can publish your work in. Once you find one (or two), examine their author guidelines for formatting details and then format a chapter of your dissertation using those guidelines. Once you are down you should have a a good draft that you can send to your advisor, committee and co-authors for review and editing. Depending on how much of your dissertation is done this should not take more than 2 weeks. You can have a publication or two under review by March. Dec 24, 2023 at 17:42
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I'm not in your field so I can't speak about not having publications. For my field (biomedical) and many other science fields I have friends in, it wasn't uncommon to have 0-1 at defense but have 1-2 under review and another 1-2 in the barrel waiting to go. All in all I got 6 out of my PhD but only 1 was published when I defended.

The lack of external funding and the attitude is somewhat normal if you're not on the coasts. An application was a requirement of my program but year after year and student after student you saw the same thing; great work great prelim data then some problems about the environment or mentor.

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I disagree with people when they say no publications equals not productive. My PI has been stuck on a paper for 4 years that keeps getting rejected of a student who graduated 4 years ago. There are 4 students/postdocs in the que for their papers to be worked on until it's my turn. I won't even dream about getting a paper in 5 years time. Sometimes it's not the student/postdocs fault.

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  • Preprint servers help on that.
    – The Doctor
    Dec 22, 2023 at 7:55
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    Nobody wants to hear excuses. Either you make your way and work around obstacles (look for collaborators outside your lab, talk to your advisor that you need the paper, he should be able to have multiple papers in the pipe), or you are going to fail in a job you are hired for, too.
    – usr1234567
    Dec 22, 2023 at 8:37
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    A supervisor who doesn't ensure their PhD has at least one paper is a bad supervisor. You're right that it isn't always a reflection on the student, but unfortunately that doesn't mean it won't create a negative judgement towards the student. Dec 22, 2023 at 14:41
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    Sometimes it doesn't matter whose fault it is. Lets say you're hiring someone to do heart surgery: do you want to hire the person who had a good supervisor and got a lot of great mentorship in heart surgery, or do you want to hire the person who had a lot of potential to be a surgeon but was assigned to a mentor that never let them enter the OR? It doesn't have to be that persons fault for someone comparing them to see who is a better fit for doing the job that they need done.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 22, 2023 at 14:52

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