There is absolutely no ‘standard’ practice with regards to publishing during your PhD and the decision to attempt to do so will be conditioned by a number of important factors, some of which you won’t have control over.
If you are writing a paper based thesis then you have a real head start with regards to publishing since your writing process will be totally focused on short, stand alone pieces that you will present as a final collection. However, if you are writing a monograph there will be a considerable amount of work involved in turning a chapter into a publishable article. The support and approval of your supervisor will be a major factor, but so will other things like the time you have available.
That said, the Times Higher Education reported in 2016 that,
“Those who published while they were PhD students were also far more likely to publish every year than those who did not, and they were also more likely to produce single authored papers and collaborate internationally – two indicators often correlated with higher citation rates and healthy career advancement.”
The reasons to publish are easy to understand – it makes you more employable, it gives you great satisfaction and it instantiates you into your academic community. However, there are risks associated. Immature research may earn you some bruising knock backs or if it gets through review may look fairly weak to the audience that reads it. The time it takes you to polish and publish an article may bite into the quality of other parts of your PhD research, and the stress it adds to your life may not be worth the benefit at this particular moment. For all of these reasons making the decision to publish is best taken in partnership with your supervisor.
If you are not yet at the point of publishing academic papers there are a number of other ways that you could consider developing your written output. This blog post from the Political Science Association gives more detail.
So, if you do have it in mind to try to publish during your PhD, what can you do to make life easier for yourself?
1 – Look for ‘routes in’. Many conferences are linked with publications, and if you attend as a student many will run a ‘best student paper’ award. In turn, the paper that wins this will often get direct support from the paper’s editor and the selecting panel to become publishable. However, you need to be well organised for this – your full written paper will need to be submitted weeks before the conference and you will need to be a paid up member and attendee to be eligible. If you are going to any small conferences, the competition may not be high and you may find your first publication comes to you!
2 – Take every opportunity to improve your writing. Attend workshops, writing retreats and present at departmental seminars. Often, there is an overwhelming fear of writing that lingers behind PhD projects and ‘getting started’ is a huge hurdle. If you begin your PhD with the expectation that writing should be an immediate and regular part of your work you will find yourself doing it with much less anxiety. Set yourself writing targets for short chunks of research, write a review after you have read a cluster of important literature and keep a reflective journal.
3 – Use conferences as an opportunity to get to know editors. Think which journals you wish to publish in, and take the time to work out who the editors are. Look out for them at conference panels and introduce yourself to them. You may even be lucky enough to attend a conference where there are publishing workshops for young academics. Go to them, listen, and introduce yourself. Be prepared with your elevator pitch and a business card, tell them you hope to publish in their journal and offer to be a reviewer if any work comes in that is in your field. If you are offered a review, take it and make the time to do a good and prompt job.
4 – Remember that publishing is not just about articles. You could also consider submitting book reviews. Journals often send around lists of new literature that they would like to be reviewed, but if you have found a text that you think you have something important to say about, you can usually submit a review without such a request. You may also find yourself with the opportunity to write a book chapter in an edited collection. This is the kind of thing you should talk through carefully with your supervisor – in some disciplines books chapter are almost invisible and you may be better off taking your idea and working with it to become an article.
5 – Get your head around basic publishing strategy. Your article needs to get through the editor to even go to review – it must satisfy the journal requirements for layout and referencing style. If you want to be taken seriously it must be perfectly written without spelling, grammar or editorial mistakes. You also need to show to the editor that your articles belongs in the journal, you need to make sure that you cite other important, relevant work that the journal has published and that your content aligns with the aims and scopes of the publication.
6 – Be extremely wary about ‘side projects’. What you publish during a PhD should be something that directly relates or contributes to that main project. Getting side tracked at the expense of your main research is a dangerous pursuit, especially if you are on limited funding and timing.
7 – It may be tempting to try to publish in a journal that is not included in the major indexes, the acceptance rate will be much higher but if you want a serious academic career this is an absolute waste of time. In an increasingly competitive academic market only papers in high ranking academic journals will have merit on a CV. One of the ways to find out which are the high-ranking journals in your field is to check the Scimago Journal Rank. If you mistakenly submit something to one of the burgeoning number of journals that ask you to pay for your publication, retract it immediately and run a mile!
There are lots of amusing and insightful blog posts and online articles about publishing as a PhD student, here is a selection to get you started:
Salma Patel writes of the University of Warwick's PhD blog, '5 tips for getting your first article published'
The Guardian collates top tips for getting your article accepted from editors
The Thesis Whisperer reflects on the importance of publishing during your PhD