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I have started writing my thesis, to be finished in the next coming months. Basically, I am revisiting my early papers and reviewing the problems that I solved three years ago to put in my paper. However, I come across some of new ideas, which I did not have before, because my knowledge was very limited. For instance, I recently solved a problem that I had struggled with for a few weeks, back in my first year. Is it wise to make an attempt to publish these ideas, while I am writing my thesis or I should just stop everything and focus on the thesis first?

The reason that I am thinking too much about it, is a particular alumni of our school, who was working on lots of different ideas while writing the thesis and ended up with rescheduling his thesis submission several times.

To be pragmatic, it is very unlikely that I get these results to appear in my thesis, as the whole process of experimenting, writing and peer-review process might take a while.

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    In short, better finish the thesis first, then start with the new ideas and papers. Unless, you found some mistakes in your earlier work which need correcting – Yuriy S Mar 13 '17 at 10:15
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    In my experience supervisors mostly want almost exclusively published stuff in the thesis and it can often be enough load of work to manage get the manuscript ready with all the already done work right and not have to juggle with new stuff you are unsure if it works the way you think it does - not to speak of getting it accepted in a journal. Also even if you could you should not show off all your cards at once, it's usually rather untactical to do so (unless you are required to publish more to graduate). – mathreadler Mar 13 '17 at 12:51
  • Sounds like you have a good head start on the next stage of your career! – NeutronStar Mar 13 '17 at 18:50
  • In my experience, learning to rule off is one of the most important things to learn during the final phase of a PhD thesis. – FuzzyLeapfrog Mar 13 '17 at 21:24
9

The situation you are describing is very usual. As one's knowledge and understanding of the field grows, it is only natural that you start getting new research ideas. Also, the research approach keeps getting more evolved and sharper, so it is perfectly plausible that you

... recently solved a problem that I had struggled with for a few weeks, back in my first year.

As far as this much part goes, all that you need to say to yourself is - congratulations, you have progressed significantly along the learning curve, from a complete greenhorn researcher to a more polished, groomed researcher.

However,

Is it wise to make an attempt to publish these ideas?

I would advice against it, and would collect my arguments as follows:

  • If you have got to the thesis stage, invariably there must be a preliminary stamp of approval already for the work from your department or the "student-research-committee". While marginally field-specific, this is generally in the form of an open departmental presentation, where all critique and suggestions are completely welcome. So, even in the present form, the work must be PhD-worthy.

  • While it is great that you are getting good ideas, implementing those ideas would come at a time-cost. So you have to ask yourself, whether you can actually afford it? (Again, marginal field dependence here, in many places and fields, there are some stringent deadlines at play, e.g. you get only maximum N months between the preliminary-PhD presentation and the final thesis submission.)

  • There is no upper limit to perfection. After you have implemented the ideas you are getting on date, by the time you put it all together, there would be still more ideas, and the process can continue further too. Beyond a certain stage, the process will only drag on for longer and longer, it will frustrate you, and cause you to lose interest beyond a stage.

  • Please remember that there is life after PhD too. When you wrap up your thesis, you can move on to more independent research/other research projects which may or may not be related to your PhD work. The longer you drag your thesis, the longer it will take you to get there.

  • (My main point) All researchers are invariably familiar with something like a personal "Back-of-the-register-list". (More evolved form - something like a document entitled "Ideas" located somewhere in the research folder in the computer.) This is the holy place where all these subsequent ideas land up in some kind of list! Then, this list is revisited at various times in the future, and ideas are picked up, improved on and implemented. That's the way to go about it!

Please remember that PhD thesis submission requirement is merely a comma, not a full stop for research. Perhaps it is a full stop for guided research, but bracing oneself for the afterlife as an independent researcher, I would advise you to just get with the formal requirement of thesis, and there would be ample amount of excitement looking towards the horizon!


All this comes with one caveat, as I later realized, reading the comment by Yuri Y below the post: In case you have found some error somewhere in you earlier work, which is making up the thesis, revising everything and setting it right IS the right course of action. In that case, priorities reverse - you would want to fix this work before advancing further on, if not for anything more, also for preserving your research credentials!

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I would say based on my opinions and experience that no-one cares about the Thesis.

The Thesis is a set of publications that must be about the same topic. Your publications will be the ones cited, not the Thesis. The Thesis will be only found somewhere in the university archives, while the publications will the visible part of your work you are evaluated upon.

Thus I think that the Thesis should be pushed to the finish line.

EDIT: The form of Thesis may vary, so it is noteworthy that especially in arts and humanities, the Thesis may be a coherent piece of work. Then the Thesis can be evaluated as a whole.

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    What a thesis is can be very different based on the field and location, so I would not assume that every thesis is just a set of publications on the same topic. – skymningen Mar 13 '17 at 8:55
  • @skymningen, the OP was talking about papers, so I decided to leave that out, but it is noteworthy that especially in arts and humanities, the Thesis may be a coherent piece of work. The hard science does seldom work out nicely enough for this to be the case and because we want those PhD to graduate that condition is relaxed. – user3644640 Mar 13 '17 at 9:05
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    @user3644640 I wouldn't think of this as a condition being relaxed for STEM PhDs. STEM PhD candidates will usually have multiple distinct projects during their graduate career, which are published separately. This inherently allows them to address a variety of potentially-very-distinct questions in their research. It is rare for humanities graduate student to publish parts of their dissertation before completing it, so it's more of a deep-dive into question(s) that span the entire dissertation. I think it's a difference in program structure, not one group getting a break on the requirements. – NMJD Mar 13 '17 at 12:09
  • "no-one cares about the Thesis"? What? In my field, good theses are often read because they're excellent introductions to research topics. Many people upload their theses on their personal webpages, and they are cited. – Turion Mar 14 '17 at 11:21
  • @NMJD I think that because the objective of coherence is acknowledged in STEM, it is relaxed. It is thrived for but seldom achieved. – user3644640 Mar 16 '17 at 16:02
7

It depends:

  • What are your career plans after your PhD? Could you possibly work on these problems during the next stage, maybe as a post-doc? In your field, is there a time limit on how long one can be a post-doc? Would working on these problems be a time drain in your next position or nice continuation of your line of research?
  • What are the cons of delaying your PhD in your specific situation? Have you already accepted a position? When is your start date? Do you have to financially support dependents while you write your dissertation?
  • Could your new ideas be easily scooped? If yes, publishing on these should take priority over getting your PhD 3-6 months earlier.
  • Objectively, how novel are the new ideas? Would they possibly lead to a major publication? Or are we just talking about things you could have done slightly differently if you had your current level of expertise? Delaying your dissertation to pursue a major publication is easy to justify. Pursuing "perfection" in your dissertation just for the sake of it is futile.
  • In your field/country/institution, is there any chance of your dissertation not being accepted? If yes, there might be merit in strengthening for dissertation with new research. In my area/country (biomedical research in the US), once you have published and are given the green light by your thesis committee, the dissertation is a mere formality, nobody even reads it!
  • What does your thesis adviser think? He/She is likely more knowledgeable about the field than any of us here. Do you risk earning his/her ire if you do not take her advice? That would be a bad move early in one's career. This may come down to what your adviser recommends!
  • Good answer. I would just add, make sure you keep a physical or electronic notebook where you list Ideas for Future Work. And if you can minimize the risk of getting derailed, you might allow yourself a couple of hours per week to work on something unrelated to the thesis, as a small reward for your week of hard work. – aparente001 Mar 14 '17 at 14:17

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