Academic publishing: four conundrums starting out

This is one areas we hear a lot about from graduate students taking part in career coaching. Publishing is vital for an academic career and, increasingly, PhDs keep it up even when they move into other fields.

Here are some tips for thinking about how to start your publishing career. And if you think coaching might help you plan your next move, contact us today for a quick exploratory session.

1. Call For Papers vs journal submission

Lots of journals pitched towards graduate students and early-career researchers issue calls for papers (CFPs) in the winter and spring. Meanwhile, more established or prestigious journals operate rolling submissions, usually accompanied by somewhat opaque or unpredictable assessment processes and timelines.

CFPs can be very attractive. They often require only a 500 word pitch, not a complete, polished manuscript. For time-strapped grad students, this has a real allure. It keeps the up-front time investment low while you dip a toe into academic publishing.

The difficulty, however, is the risk that the short-term gain is a long-term loss. 

It takes real insight and experience with academic work to know what level to pitch a particular piece at. On balance, most people advise waiting and publishing something of excellent quality in as prestigious a publication as possible. But that seems based on an old-fashioned view of academia where institutions protect academics until they achieve this. So, if your field seems to prioritise publishing in volume, you should be brave and give it a go. If you can maintain quality to your own standards, and the submission contributes to the story of your research agenda.

2. Fresh work vs developed coursework

Whether you’re developing a 500-word abstract to pitch a book chapter or preparing a polished manuscript for submission, it’s difficult to know whether to build on existing work or produce something bespoke. Again, this is about up-front investment.

Developing excellent work you’ve done during the course of your studies seems like the easier option. You’ve done all that thinking already, right? However, there are challenges in trying to force old work into a new hole, such as a specific CFP. And, of course, many polished grad-school pieces/thesis chapters are longer than your average article. Trimming a piece down is a skill in itself, and not one that everyone develops while producing academic work. Trying to customise grad-school work could lead to something less publishable than starting anew in a fresh field of research. Be honest with yourself about whether trying to save time is the best approach.

3. Thesis vs ‘old’ work

A subset of the academic publishing conundrum above, but this poses an additional dilemma.

Most graduate students will have produced good research while completing previous degrees. Is it best to use our newest research or to refresh older pieces? Work on a PhD thesis is likely the highest quality academic work that any graduate student will have produced. That means it’s automatically ripe(r) for publication than, for example, Masters research. However, there is an increasing tendency for PhD students to draft their thesis as a prospective monograph. Taking chunks out of it might, therefore, risk the publishability of the whole, or at least present additional copyright difficulties.

Masters work may, therefore, seem like a better bet. But you should be realistic about the extra work needed to make Masters work publishable, even if it achieved a glowing mark. The Masters degree is a staging post as you prepare for a research career, and the critieria for excellence differ. If approached well, however, developing Masters work for publication can be a learning experience. You have a chance to come to a subject fresh, but with a hell of a lot of background knowledge!

4. Submission articles vs thesis

As mentioned, there is an increasing tendency for PhD theses to be written as prospective monographs, cutting down the time from degree to publication. This affects the sort of theses that are being written (an issue worthy of a whole other list of conundrums!), but also means students have to juggle time spent on their thesis with time spent on side-publications.

Graduate school can be a great time to begin building experience with academic publishing, and ideally a publication profile. Protected time with an academic affiliation (access to journals, seminars, supervisors, etc.) is a safety net. The increasing adjunctisation of higher education means it’s not always open to ECRs. However, anxiety about being seen to ‘dally’ in grad school is a real pressure. And let’s be frank: the summer is just not long enough for side projects.

With ‘publish early and often’ becoming the guiding force for grad students, there is probably no decision to be made. Both articles and thesis seem to be ‘top priority’!

Scandalous though it may sound, the thesis should take second place for grad students aiming for a research career. Attaining the degree requires a lot of hard work, but no thesis is immediately publishable without revision. Developing the skills to produce publishable work—and deal with journals and publishers—will stand you in good stead for your whole career. Why not develop them while you have the support of supervisors and can work on side projects that are shorter and more contained? Once you have those skills, they’re yours. You can use them to produce more publishable articles, or a monograph from the thesis that earned you your degree.

If you’ve found this useful, you might like to follow us on Twitter, where we tweet often as part of the #AcademicChatter and #PhDchat hashtags.