That elusive yet essential first PhD journal publication

A PhD has not earned the moniker “Persistence, hard work and determination” for nothing.  In my experience as a part-time doctoral researcher at The University of Manchester, undertaking a PhD is less about having a brain the size of a planet and more about the ability to focus relentlessly on the research topic – as it morphs from a vague set of research ideas and a mass of background literature into a more tightly defined set of research questions and well designed research study.  This relentless focus requires persistence, hard work and determination – even on those days when you just don’t know what to do next and the whole PhD endeavour seems utterly overwhelming.

One vivid illustration of persistence in the PhD process is the task of publishing journal papers. At Manchester there is an expectation that all PhD students will publish 2 journal papers resulting from their research – a tall order one might say, but developing an early publication record is an essential stepping stone on the path to a career in academia.  And so in this blog post I want to share my experience of refusing to accept defeat in pursuit of that elusive first PhD journal publication.

So here, in no particular order are my tips for persisting:

1. Submit the right paper to the right journal.

It goes without saying that when submitting a paper, make sure that you write for the particular journal and get the draft reviewed internally by your supervisors or other colleagues before contemplating submitting the manuscript.  Others have written much more cogently than me on how to get your paper published – see for instance Say it once, say it right: Seven strategies to improve your academic writing , by @PJDunleavy and Seven reasons why journals reject papers , by @ThompsonPat.

2. Don’t take no for an answer

Assuming that you have followed step 1, then there is what seems like an interminable waiting time before the manuscript decision email lands in your inbox.  Now is the time to take a deep breath and open it.  My initial manuscript received a straight rejection from the journal in question.  At least the reviewer comments were constructive and after a period of soul searching and taking stock, I decided to totally rewrite the paper (which on reflection I had submitted way too early). I wrote to the journal editor asking him if he would consider the rewritten paper as a new submission, which thank goodness, he agreed to. Otherwise I did have a list of other possible journals to consider but my first choice was definitely the premier international journal in the field.  After another interminable waiting period the second manuscript decision email landed in my inbox. Time for another deep breath.  This time around the decision was “accept with major revisions” – a major step forward but as point 3 below illustrates I was not out of the woods yet.

3. Don’t panic when you first see the reviewer comments

On first examination the lengthy list of comments from the two reviewers seemed inpenetrable, appeared in places mutually incompatible and impossible to address.  Speaking to academic colleagues I don’t think this is that unusual.  The best advice I can give is to read the comments through once and then walk away and do something else.  As the initial panic subsides, the right side of your brain will be subconsciously processing the comments and so when you return to look at them a week or so later they won’t look quite as scary.  This was definitely my experience, and by taking a solid week out of my schedule I was able to grapple with the required changes, which resulted in a second substantial rewrite of the article.  I don’t want to downplay the effort involved here.  By this stage I was pretty sick of the whole manuscript and ready to move on to more exciting tasks on my PhD to do list, but I persevered and sweated over each reviewer comment in turn until at last I was ready to press the submit button.

4. Treat the reviewers as peers not superiors

Reviewers are other members of the academic community.  They may be more established in the field than you, but in all likelihood you will know more about your exact research topic than they do.  When preparing the “response to reviewers” you do not have to accept every recommended change.  It is reasonable to argue your position and defend your manuscript in places, provided you do so politely.  Good reviewer comments will be constructive and lead to the emergence of a much improved paper, but it is still your manuscript and you and your co-authors need to be happy about its final content.

5. The elation on getting your paper accepted is worth all the hard slog it took to get there

The total elapsed time from my initial manuscript drafting to final acceptance of the second rewrite was about 18months.  I spent many days slaving over the rewrites, much of which was not that enjoyable – It’s a bit like having to complete an undergraduate assignment three times over! At times I thought I was wasting my time and that the paper would never see the light of day.  Even now I don’t think it’s the best paper ever written, but its mine and its my first in my PhD research domain, and as such I still have a massive sense of elation, even 6 weeks after getting that final “Paper Accepted” email.

Getting your first peer reviewed publication in a respected journal is a hugely symbolic moment on the PhD journey.  It is the first successful assault on the citadel of the academy and “getting published” can feel like entering through a magical gateway into the inner sanctum of academia.  So go for it and keep persevering even in the face of an initial rejection.

Over to you. Have you had a similar publication experience ? How did you persevere in the face of initial manuscript rejection ?

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2 thoughts on “That elusive yet essential first PhD journal publication”

  1. Hi Fiona,
    Really great post with fantastic advice for anyone trying to get a publication – I’ll bet there are seasoned academics who could learn something from the tips you’ve shared!
    One point I would add is to see if you can assess the journal’s publishing timeline in advance: during my PhD my supervisor and I wrote a paper together that took two years to see publication (due, as I recall, to a reviewer who didn’t review and then a backlog of papers). My supervisor had something like 40ish years of academic experience and was still surprised.
    Again, great post!
    All the best,
    Nathan

    1. Hi Nathan
      Thanks for your comment. I agree that it can be very frustrating to get an article accepted for publication and then to have a wait an age for it to finally appear in print. not sure what the answer is though – other than to choose our journals wisely !
      Fiona

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