Do you have to publish papers to obtain a PhD?

It is common for friction to arise between graduate students and their supervisors (PIs) over how many and what kind of papers the students need to publish before graduating. While on occasion the students’ complaint is that their PI keeps them from publishing [1], the much more common scenario is one where the PI wants the student to complete x papers in y journals while the student just wants to graduate and move on. When these conflicts come to a head, students usually start to inquire what the minimum requirements are before graduation.

Of course there is only one correct answer to this question:

As much as PIs may want to impose a publication requirement, because it benefits them [2], they cannot require the students to do something that is entirely outside of the control of both student and PI. A PhD is defined as an independent body of research, performed by the student and assessed by the PhD committee. If the student has done the research proposed during the proposal defense and has written up the resulting work in the form of a thesis, then the committee needs to evaluate that work and, if it is of sufficient quality, grant the degree.

There are multiple reasons why requiring published papers as a condition of graduation is wrong. First, as all working scientists know, the peer review process can drag out months or even years, and it may take multiple submissions to multiple different journals before a paper is accepted. Much of this process is out of the hands of the author. Even a perfectly well executed and written paper can be held up forever, for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the work. Thus, it is entirely unreasonable to ask a graduate student to wait until this process is over before being allowed to graduate.

Second, sometimes a reasonable effort at investigating a question simply doesn’t lead to important new insight. A student may have very carefully studied a system for many years, only to conclusively prove that the interesting results they saw in their first month in the lab were caused by temperature fluctuations in the incubator room. Such work would be appropriate for a PhD thesis but it would likely not be suitable for publication in a major research journal.

Third, by requiring a published article, the PhD committee is skirting its responsibility to evaluate the student’s work. The committee is saying, in effect, that they cannot judge whether the work is PhD-worthy unless an external body (the editors and reviewers of a scientific journal) has judged the work to be worthy of publication.

Now, having said all this, I am of course very much in favor of graduate students publishing their work. None of my past graduate students have graduated without at least one first-author paper, and I want all my graduate students to submit a paper as soon as possible, ideally in year one or two of their graduate career. Also, I generally expect a PhD thesis to consist of at least three distinct projects, which should have been developed to the point where they could be submitted as a journal article. But to the question of whether a publication is strictly required, the answer has to be “no.”

Notes

[1] There’s an inherent conflict of interest between students and PIs, in that minor, pedestrian papers will be of very little value to an established PI but can be of exceptional value to a graduate student who hasn’t published much and wants to apply for a fellowship or postdoc position. There’s a lesson here for prospective students or postdocs: If a lab publishes a steady stream of minor papers, it likely does so out of the PI’s sense of duty towards their mentees. A lab that only publishes in Nature, Science, and Cell will likely not be good for a significant chunk of its trainees, no matter how great it is for those that manage to be first author on one of the celebrated papers.

[2] What PIs will say is that any papers that haven’t been published by the time the student graduates will likely never be published. This statement is indeed true, in my experience. However, it also demonstrates that the paper is more important to the PI than to the student. In my opinion, any PI who cares so much about a given paper should just complete it themselves.