How Important Is Publishing Before Grad School?

 

This question comes up a million times when talking about graduate applications. After the GPA, recommendation letters, and GREs, the question of how important publishing before grad school is ranks high on the applicant preoccupation list. We’ve mentioned this in the context of students considering graduate school because an increasing number of undergraduates are being exposed to real scientific research earlier on in their bachelor’s. There’s been a steady push by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for STEM programs to engage younger scholars in research (or hands-on training) alongside classes. Programs like NSF’s REUs and school-specific programs have made undergraduate research a possibility for many more students, enabling them to “get their hands dirty” in the lab early on. And along with the experience, some students are able to contribute to peer-reviewed published research, sometimes as lead authors.

So does this mean an undergrad publishing record is becoming a main component of the application portfolio? Not necessarily. Although the research university model continues to develop across the US academic landscape, there is still a greater number of 4-year, undergrad-only institutions, or “liberal arts” colleges. Many of these institutions provide high quality instruction in their respective subject matter, even if they don’t have the sprawling lab space of their larger peers (with notable examples like Reed College and Drew University). Clearly students graduating from these institutions and pursuing graduate research degrees are on a firm academic footing and prepared to absorb and synthesize knowledge at the graduate level. Would their applications be at a disadvantage for not having been able to publish a paper before grad school?

 

Absolutely not. For the most part, admissions committees want to see potential for research excellence, not demonstrated performance. The underlying assumption is that if you have your subject matter down pat, they can train you on the research part. Publishing papers at the undergrad level is in many ways a bonus, a way of showing that you were able to squeeze out one more accomplishment in addition to your solid grades and extracurriculars. Having published can, however, tilt the balance in your favor when committees have to choose between two equally deserving candidates. But fret not! Having taken an industry job every summer, or worked at the family business which has nothing to do with your field, or having volunteered doing something else you care about other than your academic subject–these are all good reasons to not have papers, and highlighting these activities in your personal statement is a good way of answering that question.

One scenario in which you are likely to be asked why you don’t have any papers is if your CV lists a lot of research experience. Now, as we’ve said about other aspects of the application like low GPAs, it’s important to address why. If you engaged in several shorter research projects to get a feel for what research you liked, that’s great! Addressing in your statement that you’ve done the exploratory “finding yourself” part of research means you’ve gotten it out of the way, and are ready to pursue a PhD in something you like. It’s also possible you happened to choose one or two research experiences in complex projects that were really designed for graduate level work. Sometimes even a year or more on a project, as a part-time undergrad researcher, isn’t enough to produce meaningful, publishable results. That’s ok! Being able to explain how your research contributed to the overall project is just as important. It provides the admissions committee a sense for how you learned the way a large research project works.

Of course, you might have spent time between your undergrad and your PhD application working in industry, or maybe another field altogether. Not having papers, then, is a natural consequence of that decision. In this case, it’s really not necessary to even address the point. Instead, highlight your other achievements towards project fulfillment and completion. A paper isn’t an end in itself (despite what many academics seem to think)–it’s a proxy for your ability to complete a project. And that’s just what a PhD is: completing a difficult project that adds to the body of knowledge in your field.

 
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How Important Is Publishing Before Grad School?

March 25th, 2018
 

This question comes up a million times when talking about graduate applications. After the GPA, recommendation letters, and GREs, the question of how important publishing before grad school is ranks high on the applicant preoccupation list. We’ve mentioned this in the context of students considering graduate school because an increasing number of undergraduates are being exposed to real scientific research earlier on in their bachelor’s. There’s been a steady push by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for STEM programs to engage younger scholars in research (or hands-on training) alongside classes. Programs like NSF’s REUs and school-specific programs have made undergraduate research a possibility for many more students, enabling them to “get their hands dirty” in the lab early on. And along with the experience, some students are able to contribute to peer-reviewed published research, sometimes as lead authors.

So does this mean an undergrad publishing record is becoming a main component of the application portfolio? Not necessarily. Although the research university model continues to develop across the US academic landscape, there is still a greater number of 4-year, undergrad-only institutions, or “liberal arts” colleges. Many of these institutions provide high quality instruction in their respective subject matter, even if they don’t have the sprawling lab space of their larger peers (with notable examples like Reed College and Drew University). Clearly students graduating from these institutions and pursuing graduate research degrees are on a firm academic footing and prepared to absorb and synthesize knowledge at the graduate level. Would their applications be at a disadvantage for not having been able to publish a paper before grad school?

 

Absolutely not. For the most part, admissions committees want to see potential for research excellence, not demonstrated performance. The underlying assumption is that if you have your subject matter down pat, they can train you on the research part. Publishing papers at the undergrad level is in many ways a bonus, a way of showing that you were able to squeeze out one more accomplishment in addition to your solid grades and extracurriculars. Having published can, however, tilt the balance in your favor when committees have to choose between two equally deserving candidates. But fret not! Having taken an industry job every summer, or worked at the family business which has nothing to do with your field, or having volunteered doing something else you care about other than your academic subject–these are all good reasons to not have papers, and highlighting these activities in your personal statement is a good way of answering that question.

One scenario in which you are likely to be asked why you don’t have any papers is if your CV lists a lot of research experience. Now, as we’ve said about other aspects of the application like low GPAs, it’s important to address why. If you engaged in several shorter research projects to get a feel for what research you liked, that’s great! Addressing in your statement that you’ve done the exploratory “finding yourself” part of research means you’ve gotten it out of the way, and are ready to pursue a PhD in something you like. It’s also possible you happened to choose one or two research experiences in complex projects that were really designed for graduate level work. Sometimes even a year or more on a project, as a part-time undergrad researcher, isn’t enough to produce meaningful, publishable results. That’s ok! Being able to explain how your research contributed to the overall project is just as important. It provides the admissions committee a sense for how you learned the way a large research project works.

Of course, you might have spent time between your undergrad and your PhD application working in industry, or maybe another field altogether. Not having papers, then, is a natural consequence of that decision. In this case, it’s really not necessary to even address the point. Instead, highlight your other achievements towards project fulfillment and completion. A paper isn’t an end in itself (despite what many academics seem to think)–it’s a proxy for your ability to complete a project. And that’s just what a PhD is: completing a difficult project that adds to the body of knowledge in your field.

 
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