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I am wondering how many papers does an average academia-bound PhD student in math try to get published? I want to eventually work in a research-oriented university rather than a teaching-oriented university. Obviously the more good mathematics one gets published the better, but what would be average for someone who goes on to work as a professor at a research university?

I am particularly interested in the field of combinatorics.

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    My guess is that for the majority of "academia-bound PhD students in math", their first publication is their Ph.D. thesis. – GEdgar Jul 7 '15 at 0:41
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    @GEdgar: That's certainly an oversimplification. In my case, for example, it would be more accurate to say that my Ph.D. thesis consisted of (an expansion of) my first three publications. – Mark Meckes Jul 7 '15 at 1:02
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    In an answer to this question, user Pete L. Clark states that "Many people get a PhD in mathematics before having a single accepted paper (I did), and if they have an eminent advisor who goes to bat for them, having no papers need not be much of a strike against them in the postdoctoral market." – Mad Jack Jul 7 '15 at 1:11
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    You really need to clarify whether you are pursuing applied or pure math and what subfield you're interested in. Applied math students publish a few papers as grad students on average; pure math students maybe publish none to three, depending on the field. In geometry, it isn't uncommon to go unpublished at the time of PhD conferral (but with a paper near completion) so one or two publications is really good; however, in analysis, being unpublished is really not good, one or two is pretty standard and three is considered really good. – Cameron Williams Jul 7 '15 at 1:49
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    You'll need to say more than "combinatorics". The graph theorists publish 2 or 3 times as much as people like me (let's make the category "Rota descendents", because "algebraic combinatorics" has two distinct meanings) tend to. Then again, the graph theorists probably consider me an algebraic geometer. – Alexander Woo Jul 7 '15 at 6:04
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I agree entirely with the answers of Mark and Brian. Since my name has been uttered three times and I've been summoned here already, let me add a few nuances.

1) Asking for a number is certainly the wrong question. What you want to show as a graduating PhD student seeking an academic career is substantial results and the promise of more (and better) such results to come. Multiplicity is not the point at this stage of the game. Better one very good result than five pretty good ones.

2) Zero is a very interesting number nowadays. It corresponds both to people who have not done any publishable work (note to academics in STEM fields other than mathematics: the standards for publication in a non-predatory math journal are quite high; the most common number of publications for a PhD in mathematics is certainly zero, and many PhDs are awarded for theses which could only be publishable with a significant amount of additional work which the PhD candidate is almost certainly not going to do) and future stars at elite places who do not need to show their partial work because their superstar advisors will tell the story for them. So zero publications is very common...but it's most commonly bad.

3) Publication quotas have been rising dramatically in mathematics, even in the last dozen years. I wrote elsewhere that I got my PhD in 2003, my first publication was in 2005, and I did well on the tenure-track job market in 2006 with five accepted papers. Well, it's true....but that story is so 12 years ago. Most postdocs we have hired at UGA in recent years have had some accepted papers or at least an arxiv preprint that the interested parties can look at and convince themselves is going to be accepted. Also at UGA we have numerous, highly systematized opportunities for graduate research, which results in a substantial number of publications co/authored by graduate students. We also give 2-3 graduate research awards per year, and these awards are usually given for preprints or publications, not just "promising thesis work". All three of my graduated / soon to graduate students have had arxiv preprints or publications by the time they went on the job market; two out of the three had more than one. In the limit, Princeton students will get five years of postdocs and be able to release their Annals paper while they're on the tenure track, and everyone else who's serious will have some tangible product upon graduation. Well, obviously that's an exaggeration, but there's some truth to it.

4) It is true that numbers of publications are sensitive to the subfield. They're sensitive to a lot of other things as well -- e.g. the length and quality of the publications -- but if we want to sling generalities: applied math people publish way more than pure math people (and they cite each other with enough frequency to make the stereotypical pure mathematician want to roll her eyes every time she hears "impact factor"); they may even publish some of their good papers in conferences, which is almost unheard of in pure math. In pure math, combinatorics is one of the highest publishing fields, and the papers tend to be shorter (and often lighter, but even a weighty breakthrough paper is probably going to be short compared to other fields). Algebra and number theory publish a bit more than average, generally. Analysis is a broad field and seems roughly in the middle. Geometry depends sensitively on the subfield: discrete geometers publish a lot; differential geometers less; algebraic geometers really less. Topologists seem to publish very few papers. Well, it was fun to play but I wouldn't take any of that very seriously (though argue if you want, that's part of the fun).

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    Deans with backgrounds in science and engineering also tend to roll their eyes whenever they hear mathematicians trying to defend their assistant professors who haven't published much... I think a lot of what is driving the change in expectations is normalization of expectations across fields. It's easy but incredibly naive to blindly use bibliometrics to compare faculty and departments without thinking about differences between the disciplines. – Brian Borchers Jul 7 '15 at 4:29
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    "...algebraic geometers really less." I should inscribe this pronouncement on a magical amulet, and use it to ward off university administrators. – potentially dense Jul 7 '15 at 10:13
  • Not just geometry, but I think (almost?) all areas depend quite a bit on the subfield, including applied math (which is a pretty broad, vague term). – Kimball Jul 7 '15 at 12:25
  • I agree. Although I'm not math, we just did a search, and the CV's we got were such that if we held our current faculty to the standards that are currently acceptable, we'd have a very empty department. These days, academia is a full contact sport. Publications aren't even enough -- young investigator awards are almost de rigueur. – Scott Seidman Jul 7 '15 at 14:04
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A short answer is that you should publish as much quality work as you can before going on the job market. Piling on junk publications in unknown journals isn't going to help much, but having at least one or two publications in reasonably high quality journals is important. In mathematics, expectations for what a PhD student should publish have grown in recent decades along with competition for post-doc and tenure track positions.

For example, when I completed my PhD and interviewed for my first (and current) tenure track position in 1992, I had two papers submitted, but neither had yet been accepted. I defended my PhD over the summer before starting my first job as a tenure track assistant professor. That would never happen today.

During a recent search for a tenure track assistant professor, I interviewed (by Skype and in person) 14 candidates. All of them had at least one year of employment post-PhD, and most had 3-4 years of experience and a dozen or more publications. I believe that all of them had coauthored at least one published paper before the PhD. I would expect any successful candidate for a tenure track position in my department to have a similar record of publications at similar stages in their career.

You can look up my affiliation in my profile, or just trust me when I say that you've probably never heard of the institution where I work. In my experience (based on serving on a search committee once every few years) expectations have risen dramatically in the last decade. This is the new reality at a broad range of institutions.

  • FWIW I'm an applied computational mathematician in a mainly applied department. My experience in hiring has been in analysis, applied mathematics and numerical analysis. YMMV. – Brian Borchers Jul 7 '15 at 4:31
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Since I was asked to clarify my comments, I'll respond by saying that you're not asking exactly the right question. Both Brian Borchers's answer here and Pete Clark's answer linked by Mad Jack give good advice, but if you read them carefully you'll see that they're talking mainly about what your application should look like when you apply for your first tenure-track position, which -- if you're aiming for a research-oriented job -- you will probably not do from grad school, but from a postdoctoral position.

As Pete points out, you don't need published papers to get a postdoc. (The difference between accepted and published is immaterial and I'm ignoring it.) Many, maybe most new math postdocs don't yet have any published papers. But to get a postdoc you do need results which will lead to published papers, and to get a tenure-track position, you should have published those papers and written newer papers that aren't derived from your thesis. There used to be the idea that the first year of a postdoc would be spent turning your thesis into one or more papers and submitting them; as Brian hints, these days that would have you rather behind the curve.

In any case, the bottom line is that as a Ph.D. student, your first priority is to write a really good thesis. How that work gets divided up into papers and when it gets published depends on too many factors to get into here --- and that's part of what you have an advisor for.

You seem to really want me to quote a numerical range, so I'll say that in my subfield it's pretty normal for the work in a Ph.D. thesis to correspond to anywhere from two to five eventually published papers, but I know of at least one person whose thesis consisted of nine papers. But as I said, these things can vary enormously by subfield. Talk to your advisor!

Final note: I just saw your edit stating that you're going into combinatorics. That's not my field so I don't know very specifically, but (certain parts of) combinatorics have a reputation for larger numbers of shorter papers than most other subfields. Again: talk to your advisor!

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