Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Writers' Lab: Turning your dissertation into journal papers

Depending on your institution's guidelines, you will either finish your PhD by having a number of papers accepted for publication, or by writing a "big book"-style thesis.

This post is entirely aimed at those of us who spend months on end delivering a thesis of several hundred of pages. We might be overly proud of having our baby finally sent out into the world, but then it will dawn upon us: the majority of the researchers would prefer to read a 10-page paper about a more specific part of this research than plow through our 400 pages of labor.

And thus, for most of us "big book"-thesis-writing-and-publishing folks, we'll need to revisit all our material again after publication of the thesis, and turn it into a number of journal papers.

If you are lucky enough to get into a post-doc position that is fully research-oriented, you have all the time (or at least, you might think you have) to write your papers. If you venture out into the industry, you'll have to do it in your evenings and weekends.

Regardless the time constraints, it's still extremely valuable to take the step of turning your dissertation into journal papers. I'm in the very middle of this process (and I mean with "middle" that it surrounds myself, not that I am convinced that in X months, I'll have them all out, written and then accepted) - and so far, I've made the following observations.

1. Plan for it

After you graduate, life is going to take over. You might be changing jobs, moving to a different place/city/country, and these papers might start to slip to the back of your mind. Take some time while your dissertation is still fresh from the press, and ask yourself the following questions:
- Which chapters or subchapters would serve as a good journal paper?
- Which journal should I submit my work to?
- How much time do I think I need for writing this paper?

Then, start planning paper by paper. I'm currently assuming that I can produce a paper per month or 1,5 months' period of time, besides all my other duties and transitioning to my new job. I then give my co-authors a month to send their feedback. Then, I plan another 2 weeks to implement the comments of my co-authors. I plan to start writing the next paper whenever the draft of the previous one is done, so that I create a constant stream of writing, revising, sending to co-authors and submitting.

2. Co-authors

Now that you have -hopefully- worked well with some committee members to deliver the final draft of your dissertation, taking into account their advice, is there any part of your research that particularly benefited from their input? If you are planning to write a paper on this topic, consider inviting this committee member to be a co-author.

Writing with other authors than your standard folks (typically daily supervisor and promotor), will improve your writing, and is also considered well in most fields. Publishing with different authors shows that you can work across research groups, universities and that you are ready to extended into the world.

3. Not all papers are born equally

Some papers will roll out from your dissertation in a mere few writing sessions. For other papers you'll be sweating and sighing as you try to force a piece of research into a stand-alone narrative. Don't get mad at yourself or your work - just accept this fact as it is. And if the frustration becomes too much, just head out and have an ice cream.

Have you published several papers from the work in your dissertation? How did you organize this, and what advice would you like to share with me?


  1. I just graduated and just like you I'm in the middle of turning my dissertation into papers. I already planed to finish them all at Jan, but the problem is that my supervisor won't cooperate with me :( so I am going to do it on my own ask for co-authers to get them done. from my current experience I think you should specify a cretin hours daily ( like form 8 to 11 p.m) to work on your papers and stay away from any distractions. good luck ^_^

    1. Thanks! As I'm currently in between jobs, I can devote more time to writing my papers, but I still feel like I need a planning to keep on track.

  2. I'm also wanting to write a number of papers from my thesis. I planned pretty much as advised here (although, appropriate for my subject area, my thesis papers will be single-authored so I don't need to worry about co-authors), BUT I found that the timescale that I had put (similar to yours - a month/month and a half per paper) was unrealistic with a full-time job (in whatever sector). It was kind of helpful in that it got me started on a few papers, but I'm not convinced that starting and finishing a decent paper in that time is realistic, and at times it just meant that I was beating myself up for not producing 8-12 papers per year. I think that much more realistic is to allow 2-3 months per paper - yes there will be fewer papers but I think the quality is probably improved, and the need for time-consuming rewrites hopefully goes down. I now have a number of unfinished papers I intend to go back to and try and finish off in a more realistic timescale before starting on any new ones.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience. I'll be starting my new job in a month from now, and it might well be that from then on, I'll need to go to a lower gear and take 2/3 months per paper

  3. I am writing as I go during my PhD candidiature and my first paper has been like the difficult one you described! I like your icecream suggestion. I also think 8-11pm is a good writing time and might try to stick to that from now onwards. 2-3 months seems right to me, with those time constraints. This paper however, being my first and being a review paper has taken so much longer. I am hoping the next one I will be better and faster. I haven't been quick enough with revisions. It has been hard to prioritise writing during the PhD time.

    1. It's really hard indeed to find time for writing. Keep me posted on your progress, and all the best with your PhD!

  4. Sometimes, procrastination is really hard to deal when writing. A plan and identified goal is really needed.

  5. Sometimes, procrastination is really hard to deal when writing. In fact, it is usually the reason why people fail in meeting their goals. However, determination, smart planning and clear goals will surely saves one in making a dream into reality.

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  7. Hi eva lantsoght,

    i have question about my research paper, i have collect all the information and question about my research but the problem is how to start it. i'm pretty much frustrated and messed up with the arrangements, do you think its good idea to hire some one to do my assignment for me? because i want some physical help with that, to arrange my research and give some outstanding finished

    Paulette Dodson

  8. One of the skills that almost every student is expected to do really well in his or her academic life is writing. In their college life, students are assigned to write a number of different academic papers which they find really challenging to write. good site