Best Practices and Pitfalls To Publishing Your Dissertation in the Social Sciences

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Completing your dissertation is an enormous milestone. You have lived, breathed and sweated this process for so long. The next step is to take your ideas into the world of publishing.

But, the options are overwhelming …

  • Which academic journals should you target?
  • Should you rather send out a book proposal straight away?
  • Who will edit and advise you?
  • Should you target only top-tier journals or start by getting feedback through other platforms first?
  • How much time should you spend on publishing efforts?
  • Will it cost you money or potentially become an income stream?

Where do you even start? 


Do You Target Journals or Publish a Book?

Your ultimate career goals shape this decision. Tenure-track requirements may dictate that you publish in top-tier journals as well as release a book for mainstream consumption.

Or, you may be more interested in the advocacy and policy environment, and seek to position yourself as a future public intellectual.

Each path presents a different audience and demands a style and tone markedly different than the dense academic form of your dissertation.

Once you have clarified the direction of your intended career trajectory and the corresponding publishing imperatives, it is important to understand that your PhD thesis will simply be a toolbox to unpack. For each of these different publishing directions, you will likely embark on a comprehensively new writing process.

A book from your thesis is likely to be a sixth or seventh draft, yet you should be able to pitch it with an elevator speech. Your extensive literature review and your chapter on methodology, for example, may not necessarily even form part of the monograph.

Should you opt to venture into the open access or peer-reviewed journal publishing environment, instead, you will need to focus on two or three narrow topics from your PhD-thesis. You could, of course, do both and use the invaluable feedback from your journal reviewers to help shape the outline of your book proposal.


Stick to Your Academic Publishing Family

Family matters, they say. The same applies to academic publishing, which in essence is an intelligent and evidence-based conversation among people with shared interests.

During the research phase of your PhD-thesis/dissertation, you probably developed an affinity for specific journals where you found your research interests frequently enriched.

This is your starting point, irrespective of their top-tier ranking, as this is your “family”.

We do not barge into conversations with strangers in everyday life; no less so in academic publishing. So, join the conversation where you have something valuable to say and where people care about the issues that matter to you.

The perceived publish or perish culture, whether myth or reality, often leads freshly-minted PhDs to what could best be described as a “shot-gun” approach. That is, turning their dissertation into several papers and pushing them out to as many highly-ranked journals as possible, however tangential to the research, in the hope that something may stick.

Journal editors have seen it all before and will not be fooled. The process you are embarking upon should be much more intentional, deliberate, and strategic.


Nurture Relationships in the Academic Publishing Landscape

Although the writing process may be a solitary endeavour, getting your work ready to publish depends on the approval and validation of others.

Don’t start off solo. 

Start at your faculty, develop co-authoring projects with more seasoned academics, and arrange staff seminars where you may receive early input on work-in-progress.

Should you opt for the journal publication route, and especially the peer-review process, take the opportunity at conferences or with other workshops, to get to know the journal editors whose scope covers your research.

Most of all, show respect for their time by submitting to the exact published formatting requirements for their journal. Do not write elaborate cover letters – briefly explain why your work is relevant and what your key findings are.

Unless rejected outright, your manuscript will move to peer review and a polite and short email should suffice when you start wondering where your manuscript is in the process.

Do not get upset by negative reviews. Engage with your reviewers in an equally respectful manner.

On your rewrite, send a cover email that explains succinctly how and where you have incorporated all their feedback, thereby saving them time. Never ignore the critiques you did not appreciate, and do thank them for their work.

When ready to start with your book, the choice of a good publishing house is paramount for your publishing career. Start with the press who works closest with the journals in your field. Ask your older colleagues about the qualities they appreciate in a good editor. Personal introductions may help. Speed to market may be important to you, as may the ability of your publishing house to market your book in the right channels.

Developing a healthy working relationship with a brilliant editor who has experience in your segment of the academic landscape is worth gold and may change your whole career trajectory.  Avoid people who over-promise, and listen to those who speak the tough truth.


Build Your Reputation with Integrity

Good conduct counts as much as good writing as an academic. Don’t panic and start breaking the rules, whether submitting the same manuscript to multiple journals at once; plagiarising; manipulating data; using paper mills or any of the other shortcuts that may present itself.

Your ideas and research are an extension of who you are and hope to become, and early missteps will cast a shadow of doubt over your work for many years to come.


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