Publish or Perish: Graduate Students' Guide to Publishing

In addition to endless piles of reading, demanding expectations in the classroom, student teaching responsibilities, and the always-looming awareness that they need to research, write, and edit a high-quality dissertation before graduating, today’s Ph.D. students also commonly feel stress about another topic: publishing. As more prospective employers expect degree seekers to get their names in academic journals and conferences while still in school, many learners feel overwhelmed by the prospects of making the grade. The following guide answers some of their most pressing questions, provides guidance on the ins and outs of publishing while still in school, and offers expert advice from a professor who knows better than most what it takes to publish rather than perish.

Understanding Publishing in Graduate School

Getting published as a grad student can feel overwhelming at first, because there’s so much to learn about the process and expectations surrounding it. With a bit of research, however, students can familiarize themselves with the specific language surrounding publishing and make in-roads towards getting their first paper published.

What Does it Mean to Get Published?

Within the context of graduate school, publishing refers to getting essays, papers, and research findings published in one of the academic journals or related forms seen as a leader in the field. As jobs in academia continue to become more competitive, it isn’t enough for learners to simply do well in their coursework. The degree seeker who hopes to land an important post-doctoral fellowship or find a teaching position at a college or university must make themselves stand out in other ways.

When Should a Ph.D. Candidate Get Published?

Getting a paper published takes a lot of time and effort, and those students who wait until the final year or two of a doctoral program may fail to actually have any published materials by the time they graduate. According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Graduate Connections program, getting a paper published – especially if it’s your first – can take up to three years. In addition to the fact that most journals publish quarterly, the panel review process typically takes a significant amount of time and those submitting for the first or second time usually need to make a large number of edits and complete rewrites in order to reach a publishable standard.

How to Get Published

In order to get published, students submit their work to the journal or conference of their choosing. They frequently also provide a cover letter outlining their research interests. Most journals put out generic calls for submissions once or twice a year, while some may ask for papers addressing specific topics that have a much shorter turnaround time. Grad students may find it intimidating to go up against more seasoned academics, but another option revolves around partnering with their dissertation supervisor or another professor with whom they work closely with to co-author a paper. This not only helps ensure the validity of their findings, but alerts the academic world know that this other, more recognized faculty member believes in the research the student is doing.

Who Should Get Published?

Learners most anxious to get published are those who see their future careers in teaching and research. Because the world of academia is relatively small when divided into individual subjects, it’s important for students who want to break into these ambitious arenas to make a name for themselves early on and create a curriculum vitae that captures the attention of hiring committees.

Where Should Students Get Published?

When deciding which publications to pursue, students should consider the research aims of each and their likelihood of getting published. Newer journals tend to take more submissions as they are still working on building up their roster of contributors. While less venerated than other publications, getting printed in these can help build up name recognition and make it easier to break into the top-tier publications over time.

In terms of where work is published, the majority of students look to academic journals when sending out cover letters and examples of their work. But other options exist as well. Presenting papers at conferences is a popular avenue, as are chapters in books. The following sections takes a more in-depth look at how and where to publish.

Realities & Challenges of Getting Published

Getting published, especially while still in grad school, takes tenacity, focus, and a thick skin. Those who continue working on their craft, presenting at conferences, collaborating with others, and not taking no for an answer, however, frequently find success. Some of the challenges students may encounter include:

Lack of time

It’s no secret that doctoral students have busy schedules that seldom allow for outside – or sometimes, even related – interests to take up much of their days. Because publishing is not a degree requirement, carving out the time needed to research, write, and edit the type of paper required for publishing can feel impossible. With this in mind, student should look for ways to multitask. If presenting at a conference, think about how that paper could be transformed into a journal article.

Lack of confidence

Studies have shown that mental stress and illness frequently increase in grad school as students feel intense pressure to stand out from their peers. These feelings are often intensified when considering publishing, as learners are going up against academics and researchers who have been working in the field far longer than them. It’s important to remember that each of those renowned individuals had to start somewhere.

Lack of funding

Completing the research needed for a competitive paper doesn’t only take time – it requires money. Whether traveling to archives or printing all the necessary documentation, funding for outside research can be scarce while in school. Some programs provide competitive grants for research travel to help offset these costs.

Intense competition

As discussed earlier, competition for publishing is fierce. Academic journals and conferences only have space for so many authors and trying to get noticed can feel like a losing battle. In addition to seeking out newer publications and co-authoring with more notable figures, consider taking part in symposiums at the school you attend to get your foot in the door. While research on the average number of rejections is lacking, don’t feel discouraged if it takes a long time to be chosen for publication.

Finding the right publisher

While getting your name in print within an academic journal you greatly admire is the ultimate goal, it may take some years for it to come to fruition. One of the biggest mistakes students make is applying to ill-suited publications. Look for journals with editorial board members whose names you recognize. If a professor knows one of them, don’t be afraid to ask if they can help get your paper in front of them.

Adequately addressing feedback

Getting a paper published often requires intense editing and even completely restructuring and rewriting what you conceived in the initial abstract. If an academic journal shows interest in your essay but suggests rewrites, pay close attention to their requests and try to work with an advisor to ensure you meet all the stated requirements.

What do Graduate Students Publish?

Academic journals may receive the lion’s share of discussion in the publishing world, but graduate students can actually choose from numerous outlets and paths for getting their work to a larger audience. Students should review the options listed below and think about which format might showcase their work best.

What & Where Description & Examples

Journal Articles

The most well-known form of publishing, journal articles are researched essays that seek to fill a research gap, address an enduring question from a new angle/with a new methodology, and shed light on topics that further the field of research.

The most well-known form of publishing, journal articles appear in peer-reviewed periodical scholarship publications often devoted to a specific academic discipline. Examples include the Journal of Biological Chemistry, American Political Science Review, and the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Conference Papers

These essays are written with the goal of being accepted to an academic conference where the writer can share their findings – most often through an oral presentation – and answer questions about the research through a Q&A session.

Conference papers don’t often appear in print initially, but they can frequently translate into journal articles. Individuals must submit abstracts or papers prior and a panel reviews them. Examples of academic conferences include those on intelligent medicine, intellectual history, and energy technologies.

Books

While some individuals decide to publish books themselves, the most common form of book publishing in grad school is the anthology. Editors call for chapter submissions on specific topics, with each being written by single or multiple authors.

Anthologies seek to bring together different ways of thinking about a specific question in the given discipline. Some contributors may approach from an intellectual standpoint, while others may look at the topic from a technical or cultural framework. Oxford University Press provides great examples of anthologies.

Dissertation

Dissertations, a requirement of all Ph.D. programs, require degree candidates to carry out the argument of their thesis using primary research that makes a compelling and unique case for their chosen topic.

Dissertations are a right of passage for any doctoral student and, in the vast majority of cases, the longest piece of writing they’ve done up until that point. Students interested in learning about dissertations should review the graduate departments of any schools they’re considering, as most provide lists of past and current dissertation topics. Cornell University’s Statistical Science department provides just one example. These can be published by university presses or reworked for academic journals or conferences.

Thesis

Theses function in many of the same ways as dissertations, but are mostly required of students at the master’s level. However, far fewer master’s programs require theses as compared to Ph.D. programs.

Theses often provide students their first real chance to do extended research and writing. They range from 20,000 to 60,000 words and are especially valuable for learners planning to do a Ph.D. or enter a research-intensive field. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology offers links to several completed theses for inspiration. Although less commonly published, some universities and journals may pick them up.

Research Findings

Less polished than an academic paper, research findings include the raw data collected from a study or investigation a student completed. These may include interviews, statistics, or other forms of primary research.

Research findings appeal to numerous audiences as they provide new information that can be analyzed using various lenses and perspectives. Many journals, think tanks, and research forums publish these findings to help provide readers a better sense of the data that informs academic papers.

Tips for Publishing

Despite the great amount of work required to publish, students who meet the challenges and persevere stand to position themselves favorably for future job opportunities. The following section addresses some of the most common questions about the process and alleviates general fears about how publishing (or not) reflects upon them.

From the Expert

Dr. Deniece Dortch is a scholar-practitioner known for her commitment to diversity, social justice and activism. Dr. Dortch holds a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an Ed.M. in Higher & Postsecondary Education from Columbia University, an M.A. in Intercultural Service, Diversity Leadership & Management from the School for International Training and a B.A. in Spanish from Eastern Michigan University. Hailed a graduate school expert by NPR, she has published numerous articles on the experiences of historically underrepresented undergraduate and graduate students. She is the creator of the African American Doctoral Scholars Initiative at the University of Utah and currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Higher Education at The George Washington University.

Publishing as a student can feel intimidating. Why is this process important for learners to go through?

Long gone are the days of getting a good job by just having a solid dissertation or an award-winning thesis. Publishing your work while in school demonstrates a commitment to answering and understanding our world’s most complex problems. Further, institutions want to know that you have the capacity to publish. Now, publishing doesn’t mean you have to be first author or that you must publish sole-authored pieces only. Collaboration is also sufficient and often encouraged. The publishing process is intimidating for folks because it involves critique and, most often, rejection.

Receiving and giving critical feedback is part of the learning process and students should not shy away from it because it will only serve them well in the end as they learn to cope with disappointment and reward. But more importantly, there is no point spending months and years conducting research if you are just going to keep your findings to yourself. What you learn is meant to be shared.

What are some common mistakes these learners make when preparing their first papers?

Common mistakes that individuals make include not adhering to the guidelines outlined in the submission process. Examples of this can include ignoring formatting requirements (e.g. APA, MLA, etc.), going over the stated word count, inadequately proofreading, and not submitting a cover letter. This is probably the most important one.

What specific advice do you have for them in terms of finding the right outlet, preparing their work, and submitting to journals?

Students should have multiple individuals read over their work before submission. Writing is a process and even after it is submitted, it will need to be revised many more times before you will read it in print. It is part of the process. To find a good outlet for your work, pay attention to where other scholars are submitting their work. If you’re subject is aligned with theirs, you have a shot. Make a list of at least three outlets that fit your article. Also look out for special calls. A special call for submissions usually goes a lot faster than the regular submission process, so if you’re a student who is about to go on the job market, submit to those first. Also, the more competitive the academic, the longer the process, so keep that in mind. If you are rejected, just re-submit to the the next journal on your list.

In addition to publishing in journals, how else might a student go about getting recognition in their field while still in school?

Apply for all fellowships, grants, and awards that are specific to you and what you do. People in the academy love an award winner and they especially love people whose work has been recognized and/or funded by outside groups. A great way to increase a student’s visibility is to publish outside academic journals and publish in other media outlets. Also attend conferences in your field. Try to get on the program as a presenter or facilitator so that people in your field will start to know who you are and your research interests.