At the University of Cambridge, PhD students are not required to publish papers in order to be able to defend a thesis. One consequence of this is that some supervisors, especially in more experimental areas (e.g., some fields of biology), adopt a policy of deferring all publications until after the end of the PhD, to suck up as much of their students' time as possible for lab work.

This has a detrimental effect on the PhD's career: at the end of the PhD, he/she cannot apply to most positions since virtually all of them require publications. So the student must convince the supervisor to leave extra time for publishing during the thesis, and some supervisors are clearly against it.

In such situations, what can the PhD student do? In theory, if there was postdoc funding available for the student immediately after the thesis, this could be allocated for publishing the accumulated results, but this is not the case.

Is there a way to pressure the university to require such publications, to minimize the amount of "paying technician"1 work? How can PhD students change this perverse incentive system?

1At Cambridge, PhD students in such fields end up paying to work (as technicians), instead of being paid to work, which is a huge incentive for supervisors to keep the status quo.

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    Don't go to Cambridge? Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 21:02
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    Requiring publications for all students, in order to fix things for some students, seems like a bad idea. (Students in some fields may be able to get academic jobs without any publications; some students may be interested in other kinds of jobs that don't require publications; etc.) Why not try to pressure the department/individual advisors instead?
    – ff524
    Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 21:02
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    Surely the name Cambridge, your supervisor(s)' good name, and their recommendation letters give you more mileage than someone from a lesser known or lower ranking university with publication(s). Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 21:43
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    "he/she cannot apply to most positions since virtually all of them require publications": This isn't necessarily a true statement.
    – aeismail
    Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 21:48
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    "Surely the name Cambridge, your supervisor(s)' good name": maybe the name isn't all that good if they follow this kind of practice. Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 0:04

2 Answers 2


Programs do get reputations.

And a program that produces good students who don’t have publications, especially if they are a well known school, will still have good placement rates.

Faculty too can get reputations, positive and negative.

Post-doc and hiring committees take these reputations into account when evaluating applications. If we know a school or a particular faculty member produces (otherwise stellar) students who don’t have publications, we’ll use other criteria to evaluate them.

The same thing goes for faculty who are known to write over the top recommendations and those who write acerbic ones. They all get calibrated in the end.

Where it does hurt you is with industry positions as there, reputations aren’t as well known.

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    More and more people actually care about the quality of research rather than the name of the PI, school or journal. With no published results you cannot display the quality of your work and one might wonder why there are no publications.
    – user64845
    Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 17:11

I don't know how you can change institutional norms, but with regard to your own career, I imagine that proving you can publish might be worth fighting for. That is, you may not be able to publish multiple papers as a student of this advisor, but is there some way to get a single paper out the door?

It sounds like it's worth having a difficult conversation about. Something like "Advisor, I really appreciate the training I'm getting in your lab. I feel confident that I'll be able to [stain my own cells, kill my own rats, etc.] on my own, when I have my own lab. But I want to learn how to get through the peer review process, too. Can we work on publishing a paper together, so I can see how you work through the process? I want to learn from your experience while I have the opportunity." That's one angle.

Another angle (and I am aware that this is a sort of a "pull yourself up by your bootstraps," "work harder" kind of answer, and you're probably already trying to fit 25 hours into a day), is there some way to minimize the amount of time spent doing technical work? Even another hour a day might allow you to have a paper (at some stage in the review process) on your CV by the time you are applying for jobs. A paper under review would show that you can publish, and that, with your letters and institution's reputation, might get you where you want to be.

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