I Voluntarily Gave Up Authorship On My Ph.D. Research Paper and I’ve Never Felt More Free

In industry, once you leave a workplace, you don’t spend months (or years) “wrapping up” work for them, unpaid. Your old coworkers and managers don’t keep contacting you to do more work.

You pass it along to them with proper documentation and make your exit.

So why do academics think it’s normal to keep working on papers, unpaid, after leaving their Ph.D. and postdoc labs? Especially if they move on to non-academic paths, where having that extra 1-2 publications isn’t going to make a significant difference in their career trajectory?

Is their work really that important to them? Is that extra paper (or two) going to really make a difference?

Or is it lingering social pressures from the conditioning we receive as naive grad students that makes us think that our research topics can bypass logical boundaries?

I’m happy to see people doing what they want to do, and I’m not saying that my way detailed below is the only way or the best way.

But this is my blog, so I’ll walk you through my experiences as usual.

Here’s why and how I gave up authorship on my Ph.D. research manuscript when I started my new industry job.

Ph.D. Graduation Requirement?

Now, I’m a bit of an oddball because I never really cared about publishing when I was doing my Ph.D.

Sure, I thought my topic was interesting, but my top priority and motivation was to get the degree. If my work got published, that would have been a fine achievement, but I personally didn’t place any more value on publishing.

I was in school for the degree, after all. I did novel research for the school (which takes all of that data as property anyway), and I got my degree from the school.

As for my Ph.D. program’s graduation requirements: there was a requirement to publish, but it wasn’t a hard requirement. A lot of students from my program defended with a paper submitted (but not accepted), or in preparation.

When I defended, my research manuscript was about 80% complete – it just needed some more elaboration, but it was pretty much written.

I passed with no corrections too, so clearly I did enough for the committee to let me graduate.

When I got my industry job and left the lab (which I had stayed in as a postdoc for about 5 months), my paper was about 95% done. It was almost within the word limit of the journal I was aiming for, it was almost formatted, and everything I wanted to write was written.

Yep, I still VOLUNTARILY withdrew authorship and consent to be on the paper. I’ll get to that in a later part of this post.

So, in terms of graduation requirements and officially getting my degree, I was in the clear.

Everything That’s Wrong With Academic Publishing

Ditching my unpublished Ph.D. research manuscript was pretty easy in the “personal values” department. I honestly never bought into the whole academic publishing thing.

Not getting paid to publish?

Paying hundreds, even thousands of dollars TO publish?

Having to use weird jargon that most of the public wouldn’t be able to understand, even if they could access the paper somehow?

For what? Papers that end up behind paywalls?

Don’t get me started on unpaid review work!

I never felt that desire to contribute to those billion-dollar publishing institutions, that in my mind, financially preyed on the desires of early-career academics that were doing everything they could do improve their CVs.

Combine that with the fact that I wasn’t interested in becoming a postdoc, professor, or staying in academia in any shape or form, I knew that the number of publications I had wasn’t super important to me.

Now, don’t get me wrong.

Basic research is important work. Basic research is how we get great candidates for drugs, how we understand the way our bodies work, and so much more. Plus, in healthy research environments, people can figure out what they want to do with their careers while gaining useful skills that go beyond the lab. There’s definitely a place for basic research in society.

I just don’t like the publishing side of things for the reasons above, and I think that the publishing industry can be improved in many ways. I don’t think it’s all that it’s cracked up to be.

Plus, I value true science communication and education over publishing, as I’ve always valued directly making a difference in the lives of those in my community.

It’s just personal preference.

So, in terms of my own personal values, I never really felt a strong desire to publish. Relinquishing authorship didn’t feel like a huge sacrifice to me.

Keeping My Toxic Former PI Happy for a Job Reference?

When I was wrapping up my Ph.D., I had simply resigned to the fate that I’d be working on “my paper” after I defended and long into whatever I did next.

I didn’t dare think about telling my toxic former PI I wasn’t going to work on it anymore after getting a job. I was worried about him not providing a good reference for my job search.

It turned out that I didn’t actually need him for anything when I was applying for non-ac/industry jobs. My job didn’t even require references. They never asked for any.

If I had moved forward with the other positions I was interviewing for, which probably would have required references, I was ready to provide a list of people I knew that weren’t my PI. I had in my arsenal:

  • 3 coworkers with Ph.D.s: Postdocs/scientists/lab techs I knew from the lab who I’d worked with for 2-5 years
  • 1 subordinate: My undergrad (I’ve had a few companies ask me for a subordinate recommendation!)
  • 1 client: My tutoring client, whose son I tutored Algebra to in-home and really raised his grades. It was cool too because she’s a doctor at a local hospital so bonus points for that maybe.
  • 2 former supervisors/managers: My old tutoring company’s manager and CEO, who I’ve been keeping in touch with and genuinely really like as people.

Tutoring on the side during grad school really provided me with so many opportunities, connections, skills, a super awesome side income of $50-55/hour, and genuinely made my life awesome during and after grad school! My managers at my current industry job were super impressed with my tutoring experience when I was applying, and even still rave about it over anything else that was on my resume. It was really relevant for the job I got!

Every industry job I’ve gotten to the reference stage for (aside from the one I got) has asked me for multiple references, so you’re going to want to have a collection of people to hit up, anyway. It’s best to establish solid connections ASAP.

So, in terms of appeasing my toxic former PI and making sure he’ll be a good reference for a job, I didn’t need him and didn’t tell him I got a job until everything was signed. I know this is hard because not everyone will be that lucky, but there are plenty of other great people who know you as a coworker, employee, or acquaintance who could be amazing references for you.

Plus, I’ve heard of people getting jobs without telling their current managers quite often, so it’s not like this is unheard of.

Here’s a great post about it on “From PhD to Life”: How PhDs can pick references for jobs outside academia

My Mental Health > Publishing 1 Paper

After I got my job and I was trying to figure out if I should, and how to, hand off my paper, what I did need was some advice. So I spoke about it with one of my good friends from grad school, as well as some acquaintances online.

It was really heartening that they all said pretty much the same thing, validating thoughts I had but was too scared to confront: It was totally a valid choice to “hand off” my paper and say that I wouldn’t be working on it anymore once I left the lab.

But even some of those folks I chatted with online told me that they were still being hounded by their former PIs. Some were even humoring their former PIs with responses, and hadn’t personally set that clear boundary of: “I will not work on this paper anymore.”

From what I read online, it was difficult for many to fully cut off their former PIs.

That’s why I decided after a little while (less than a week!) of thinking, that I honestly couldn’t care less if I was removed as an author altogether. It was just a project I did for my Ph.D., and I got my degree, learned valuable lessons, and got my job. I got everything I needed.

Plus, before leaving the lab, I had made sure all the data, methods, and records of my work were very well-organized and left for the authors and my toxic former PI to do with it as they wished. It was 95% written, they were totally free to publish it, and I communicated that clearly to them, along with facilitating the transfer of all project-related information!

I’ve talked about how things went down with my toxic former PI in my blog post about it, “Everything That Happened With My Toxic Former Advisor“. In a nutshell, I cut him off and gave up authorship because I simply didn’t want to associate with him anymore and didn’t need it anymore.

Freeing myself from the obligation of continuing to work on my Ph.D. paper did wonders for my mental health.

I had been dreading having to correspond about it and doing edits on it after moving onto a new workplace.

So, in terms of my mental health, I knew I made the right choice because it felt amazing to not have to work on the paper anymore.

I could finally fully move on and start my life.

You Really Think It’s a Waste of Funding?

Some people are going to moan about the financial “loss”, saying things like “your responsibility is to the funding agencies” or “that’s taxpayer money that you got paid”, and argue that I should “do my part” to finish the paper all the way to publication.

I feel like that’s where we simply diverge in terms of values. Do I understand the logic behind what you’re saying, if you’re one of those people? Absolutely. I was thinking that way myself until very recently!

But guess what. I did a lot of great work while getting “paid” meagerly by that funding for 6 years, despite having to constantly remind my department to pay me and having to front various costs, waiting months to be reimbursed.

I did such great work that went even beyond my own toxic former PI’s understanding of the material. I found mentorship in other faculty and postdocs, taught myself a new programming language, and discovered new pathways and responses related to my disease of interest.

I did great work, to the point where my committee of 5 faculty members relevant to my work didn’t even have any corrections for my dissertation!

I did what was proportional to my pay as I was receiving it, if not more.

And guess what: the 95% of the paper I had written, all the awesome data, code, protocols, and other experimental/project-related information I left behind in a super accessible manner, was all the university’s property, anyway, not mine.

If you think I shouldn’t be thinking so transactionally, and that I should do more work, having left that university setting and no longer even having an authorship association to the work, well, we can agree to disagree!

Conclusion

I totally understand that not everyone is in a position to be as bold as I was. I also totally understand that not all of you have had a bad experience with your PIs.

But regardless of how you were treated by your former PI, if you in any way feel that you don’t want to keep working on that manuscript, it’s totally fine to just stop and hand it off.

You never owe people unpaid labor. Value yourself more than that.

If you already have an industry job, and you don’t care to return to academia, you’re honestly golden. That’s the best position to be in. If you sit down and think about it, like actually think about it, you’ll realize how little of an impact one paper does for your overall career trajectory.

I didn’t even put any of the publications I was on in my industry job resumes!

PIs and advisors in academia don’t have nearly as much power as you think, when you look at the bigger picture of non-academic/industry companies and those you’ll get to know in your current and future jobs.

Plus, someone who gets mad at you for not wanting to do unpaid labor for them after leaving their workplace isn’t someone you’d want to keep in touch with and ask for a reference, anyway.

We all have our own situations, so I understand that my experiences aren’t going to perfectly align with others’.

But if any of this resonated with you, I hope that this post helped you consider your options in your own situation a bit more.

If you’re not feeling like your past research work is serving you anymore, like it’s not your passion, it’s really ok. You’re not a terrible person.

We get so conditioned in academia to consider our Ph.D. research as something super sacred, noble, and valuable. Sure, basic research itself is super important, as I’ve stated above.

But research is never more important than your mental health and ability to freely make decisions about your time and energy.

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