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It is exciting to start a new job, but getting those old publications finished can be difficult to manage. You might have a lot of new work to do, so finding time can be hard. Your new supervisor may also not be supportive of you spending time to finish publications from past projects.
We discussed this issue with the lab group today. It is topical for some, with Mischa Turschwell starting a new postdoc with us last week.
An important point raised was whether your new job was academic (where you are expected to write pubs) or in another area (where papers are not part of the job). But first we will deal general strategies.
The first theme that emerged in discussions was general strategies for keeping up your publication rate, which apply wherever you are in your career. Key amongst these is setting aside high-quality time each week (ideally every morning) for writing. This should be high quality writing time where you just write, no email, looking up references or chatting. You can’t finish papers without writing, but writing is hard so it is easy to put off.
Despite all the admin activities I have these days, I still set aside several hours 3 days a week for high quality writing time.
Prioritising projects can also help. If you have multiple old projects to finish, then try to just work on one at a time. Doing too many at once (trust me I make this mistake all the time) splits your attention and you end up making less progress.
Try these spreadsheet tools from iThinkwell to help you prioritise and stay focused. I used the team writing spreadsheet with papers I lead and those of my students.
I recently had to work through some tricky reviews that had me very unmotivated about finishing the paper. Seeing it at the top of my priority list helped me focus on getting it done and not being distracted by other more interesting projects.
If you have lots of old projects you might want to cull some altogether. Reflect on how complete those old projects are and how much time they need until completion. If it is a lot, it might be worth writing to the co-authors and telling them that you will no longer be leading that paper. Another way to tell if a project should be removed is check in with it 3 months after starting a new academic job. If your new papers are more progressed than this old one, it probably isn’t complete enough to be bothered with anymore.
Remove them from your priority list (you can always keep a backup list somewhere else). It is demoralising if you list is too long.
If you are aiming for academic success, finishing up those old pubs will be key to your success, despite what your new supervisor wants. As a rule of thumb, you should aim to have at least one paper in review at all times by the end of your PhD. I currently have 1-4 papers I’m leading in review at all times. Aim to increase your productivity into your postdoc years by getting more efficient at finishing up past projects (some tips for how are here).
If your new job doesn’t support publishing academic journals then you are really going to have to finish those past pubs in your spare time. Laura related a story of getting a job before she even finished her masters. Many weekends and late nights later she finished her masters, all while working in a full-time position.
As above you might have to let some things go if it is all too much to fit in. Or you might want to downgrade expectations for your paper.
For instance, you PhD supervisor might have been pushing for your to write up a data chapter for a high impact journal, but you would need to include a synthesis of other data-sets from across the globe. Perhaps you could instead focus on just publishing results from your own data and aim for a different more regional journal. Getting something finished is better than nothing.
Your situation here really depends on your supervisor. You are employed on a specific project so it is totally reasonable of them to expect you to spend all working hours working on your new project. Not all supervisors will have this expectation however, so it is worth discussing expectations up front.
My own opinion is that a new postdoc can spend some time finishing old projects, so long as they are progressing their new work. For Mischa we discussed he spend his writing time a few days a week getting a paper from his last postdoc finished. The rest of his time can be spent doing the easier tasks of reading and reviewing the datasets we need for his new projects.
He is sharing some writing time to work on outlines and concepts for this new paper. Writing is an important part of developing ideas, even if you don’t use those exact words in the final paper.
Hopefully by the time it comes to writing up the new project, the old one will be submitted.
It is broadly in a supervisor’s best interests for postdocs to publish their old papers - because it helps the postdoc be more successful in the long-run. Successful postdocs reflect well on their supervisors.
If you supervisor requires 100% commitment to the new project, or the new project just has you too busy during the days, then you will have to try the tactics above for jobs that don’t allow you to publish. Just remember, writing is hard and you only get so many good hours of it per day, so you will need to save some brain power for that in mornings (ideal), evenings or weekends.
This is the ideal situation because you have near total autonomy over your time. You can finish up your old papers while you build new collaborations and get to know your colleagues.
I’ve been lucky enough to jump from one fellowship to another. But saying that I certainly could have benefitted from some of the prioritisation tools described above. One meta-analysis I stared in my PhD was so out of date by the time I got around to submitting it that the reviews requested we update our literature review.
So I hope this helps get those old papers finished. The keys really are to plan your approach to finishing papers and to make sure you understand your new supervisor’s expectations.