The week the paper was published

“Dear Dr Ashcroft,

I am pleased to inform you that your paper has been accepted for publication.”

Huzzah! Is there any sweeter sentence in the scientific world?! Maybe “the results are significant at the 99.9% confidence level (p<0.01)”.  But the opening line from this email I recently received is definitely up there.

The accepted paper is the last publication to come directly out of my PhD thesis, an adaptation of the final chapter that brought together several datasets I developed and tried to answer a big question using my historical instrumental data: how has the El Niño–Southern Oscillation influence on southeastern Australian rainfall varied since European settlement?

Although the results are not overly strong, the paper does contribute something valuable to the world of Australian climate research, because it is the first time that southeastern Australian rainfall and ENSO variability have been examined in such detail using instrumental observations, rather than documentary records or palaeoclimate data. You can read my attempt to explain it for my mum here, or the paper is here.

The article was been almost three years in the making, from thesis chapter to paper draft, revised paper and final acceptance. Three jobs, two countries, many many emails and countless re-iterations. After I finished my thesis, I wasn’t quite ready to wrangle the chapter into a publishable form. By the time I was ready (after six months of what can only be described of post-PhD brain fade), a whole new set of ENSO reconstructions had been published, meaning that I had to repeat the analysis. Argh!

This post by Canadian conservation scientist Alex Bond sums up exactly how I felt, trying to raise a zombie project from the dead when I had forgotten how I calculated, drew and justified the analysis. There was a lot of fist-shaking at Past Me, cursing myself for not recording how I drew that graph, or which exact period what used to calculate that anomaly. The experience at least inspired me to read up on some tools for reproducible methods and finally get into version control, so that is a bonus for Future Me.

Preparing a paper from your thesis is a unique experience in the world of academic writing. You have to change tone, structure and style of argument. In my situation, the language needed to be tightened, the argument more focussed, and the case made that the work was strong enough to stand on its own, without the support of the preceding six chapters. I was worried about the quality of the work, which did not inspire motivation, and I was also working on the paper during weekends and stolen weeknights, desperately trying to raise the zombie from the dead and also KILL IT so I could move on with my life. This made things a bit harder, as often you really need some time to burrow into the analysis.

Eventually though, the paper was submitted, and returned to me two months later with major revisions. One reviewer loved it, another hated it, and the final reviewer was passionately against one small section. I read the reviews with a big, grateful sigh. As much as it stabbed my ego to have so many negative comments, the suggestions were really useful, and in the end I am much prouder of the finished product. Responding to the reviewers also made me remember why the work was important, which I think improved the paper even more.

Of course, there is more to be done with my PhD work. More things that can be calculated, more details of the dataset we’re looking into, more things to consider now that I am working outside of Australia. I do have a small sense of vertigo now though, with no thesis chapters to lean on as potential future papers. But I suppose it’s like that other (bitter)sweet academic sentence…”you never really finish your PhD”.


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