Are you currently in graduate school? Are you looking to try your hand at the graduate student publishing process?
If so, awesome!
Graduate student publishing can be a great source of ‘closure’ on your academic career. If you’re planning on leaving academia after finishing your PhD, publishing is a chance to get your work out there and make your voice heard.
Even 50 years after defending your dissertation and closing your lab book for the last time, your publications will be available on Google Scholar, for anyone to download directly into their government-issued Google brain implant.
It’s a genuinely great feeling.
But how do you get from A to B? How do you get from submission to peer review to revisions to acceptance?
This article seeks to demystify the graduate student publishing process.
We’ll start by discussing the changing nature of grad school publishing and the kinds of experiences you’ll be likely to have.
Then we’ll get into the weeds of what exactly happens after you click “submit.” We’ll review the typical timeline for processing your submission and discuss how you should respond to reviewer feedback.
1. The Changing Nature of Graduate Student Publishing
You probably know that publishing works very differently across STEM and humanities/social sciences fields.
In STEM, publishing research findings (usually with several co-authors) is a normal part of grad school training.
In the humanities and social sciences, the very idea of graduate student publishing is a fairly new phenomenon.
Years ago, before the tenure-track job market collapsed, nobody expected History or English PhDs to publish before defending their dissertation.
But now? Publications (at least one, preferably two or three) are the bare minimum requirement to be considered for postdoc or tenure-track positions. The same goes for STEM fields: the pressure on graduate students to publish has never been greater.
Many academic journals today are inundated with submissions like never before.
Understanding the publishing process is absolutely crucial for anyone looking to establish a grad school publishing record.
2. Two Kinds of Graduate Student Publishing Experience
Broadly speaking, graduate student publishing can go one of two ways:
- Surprisingly easy and straightforward
Let us explain.
Option (1) occurs when you know someone who is interested in publishing your work.
If you’re lucky, your PhD advisor is the editor of a journal in your field. Otherwise, you may have met someone at a conference or have some kind of ‘in’ with the panel of a suitable journal for PhD students to publish their work.
This is one of the reasons networking at academic conferences is so crucial. You truly never know who you might meet or who might be interested in publishing your work.
It sounds like a one-in-a-million shot, but it can and does happen.
Option (2) occurs when you have to do things the hard way.
You don’t know anyone with an obvious ‘in’ to a publisher. So, you find a good journal, submit your paper via Editorial Manager or some other system, and wait.
Then, one day, you miraculously hear back. Your manuscript was savagely torn apart and rejected. Or maybe, with a bit of luck, you got a “revise and resubmit” request.
Either way, the odds of your manuscript being graciously accepted the first time around are slim.
How can you successfully navigate the graduate student publishing process when things don’t go your way?
3. The Publishing Timeline
Academic journals are usually managed by professors or faculty members from various universities around the world. In other words, they are run by a lot of VERY IMPORTANT PEOPLE who are already VERY BUSY.
For this reason, timelines for publication can vary widely between journals. Sometimes you’ll hear back in a few weeks. Sometime a year or more will pass without a peep.
Below is a very rough timeline for the graduate student publishing process:
- Week 1: Submission of your manuscript.
- Weeks 2: Internal processing by publishing office staff.
- Weeks 3–8: Editorial discussions and reviewer selection.
- Weeks 4–20: Peer review, editorial discussion of review, first decision.
- Weeks 8 and beyond: Editing, revision, resubmission, and (finally) acceptance!
As this timeline shows, the earliest you can reasonably expect to hear back is 2 months after submission.
In most cases, the process will take 3–5 months. In extreme cases (i.e. the reviewers forgot about your manuscript) it may drag on for 6 months to a year.
Additionally, all kinds of external factors can affect this timeline. For example, if you submit an article in November or December (just as people start going on holidays), factor in an extra two months to the review process.
So, if you want to publish before finishing your degree, get started early. Do your homework and plan accordingly.
Pick your journals wisely. Don’t waste time submitting to journals that are unlikely to accept your manuscript.
In graduate student publishing, time is of the essence.
4. How to Pass Internal Processing
Internal processing is performed by editors and proofreaders at the journal before sending a manuscript to reviewers. This consists of general proofreading, a formatting check, and a plagiarism check.
As far as formatting goes, many scientific journals require article to adhere to specific structure. A typical format might be:
Proper table numbers and figures are also part of the formatting process.
Word counts also vary by journal. Some journals rigorously enforce word limits; others happily disregard them if they like the article in question. If you have someone ‘in the know’ with a particular journal, check with them to see how rigorously formatting and word-count rules are enforced.
Humanities journals are generally more lenient on formatting issues like structure and word count. But, as with all things in publishing, it depends on the journal and editors. Always check with someone if you can.
Plagiarism checks are done via automated software. If you’ve ever asked your students to digitally submit essays on Moodle or Canvas, you may already be familiar with how automated plagiarism checkers work.
The maximum acceptable plagiarism rate for a manuscript is around 15%.
The reason for this (weirdly high) number is that all manuscripts include some plagiarized content. Between references and block quotes, your paper will always use text that can be found, word-for-word, in other sources.
However, if your plagiarism rate reaches 20% or higher, editors may flag or even reject your paper outright. To be safe, it never hurts to do a plagiarism check yourself.
5. How to Select Reviewers
Wait, you can pick your reviewers?
After internal processing, your manuscript will be assigned (generally two) peer reviewers in your field.
Some journals, mostly in the STEM fields, will ask you for “recommended” and “non-recommended” reviewers. This is done to avoid sending it to research competitors or anyone else with a potential conflict of interest.
But even if recommending reviewers isn’t an option, you can cheese the selection process in other ways
One proven tactic is to declare in your abstract and/or introduction exactly which scholars may be biased against your manuscript. Include a line like: “Arguing against Jones and Cohen especially, I suggest instead that this issue should be viewed in this totally different way, and those two guys can suck it.”
However you do it, with whatever means are at your disposal, choose your peer reviewers carefully.
No matter how well researched and written a manuscript is, the fact is that academic peer review is a deeply subjective process. The right reviewer can make the difference between a “revise and resubmit” request and a stinging rejection.
6. How to Respond to Feedback
Let’s be real here, reviewer feedback can be rough.
It’s rare for papers written by grad students to pass the review process with flying colors and reach the publication stage unscathed.
Most likely, you will receive copious comments, critiques, and criticisms. Reviewer feedback falls into three broad categories:
- Grammar and formatting: This feedback addresses typos, wrong citation style, and other nitpicky stuff that’s relatively easy to deal with.
- Content edits: This feedback acknowledges that your manuscript, while valuable and worthy of publication, exhibits flaws in several key areas. You may be asked to expand upon certain points, clarify your approach, or reanalyze a data set. Take this feedback seriously and your manuscript will improve dramatically.
- Complete rewrite: This is the kind of feedback you’ll receive if the reviewer vehemently disagrees with your methodology or approach. They’ll describe your manuscript as fundamentally flawed and unsalvageable barring a total rewrite.
You’ll probably be confused and angry by at least some of the comments. That’s perfectly normal. Common refrains from frustrated grad students include:
- “Did they even read my paper!”
- “These were the ‘wrong’ reviewers! They completely misunderstood what I was trying to do!”
- “How could they possibly think that about my work? In section 2.3, I clearly said I was doing the opposite of that!”
Receiving genuine academic criticism for the first time (i.e., from people other than your colleagues and professors) is hard. Trust us, we know.
Take a few days off from writing. Talk to your advisor, colleagues, and anyone else who might be able to help put things in perspective.
When you’re ready, begin revising your manuscript.
Revising can be a long, hard slog, especially if you’re racing to complete your dissertation at the same time.
But know this: your manuscript will be infinitely better by the end of it.
7. What to Do if Your Manuscript is Rejected
Having your manuscript flat-out rejected hurts. A lot. But it happens to the best of us.
If this happens to you and you intend to try again and submit your manuscript to another journal, take careful stock of the criticisms you received. Work through the feedback, decide which criticisms were fair or unfair, and revise your paper accordingly.
Even if your reviewers were harsh or outright mean (it happens), try to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Step outside of your own head! See things from the reviewers’ perspective. Recognize that certain ideas that seem brilliant and make perfect sense inside your own head might not appear as such to outside observers.
You will likely need to rework large sections of your manuscript. However, don’t feel like you have to throw out everything and start over (even if the reviewers told you to do exactly that).
The revision process may take several months. But eventually, when you feel that you’ve addressed every criticism, closed off potential avenues of attack, and genuinely strengthened your manuscript as a whole, submit it to another journal.
Above all, don’t give up! Take the criticisms seriously, put in the effort to revise your manuscript, and your chances of being accepted the second time around will improve dramatically.
The graduate student publishing process can be rough. It’s a serious intellectual and emotional challenge that not a lot of prior life experiences really prepare you for.
However, successfully navigating the process teaches you a ton about patience, perseverance, and dealing with criticism in a constructive manner.
These skills and experiences will serve you well in graduate school and beyond.
Have a look at the Beyond Prof blog for more advice and tricks on surviving graduate school.
Looking for more advice on graduate student publishing? Please check out our recent webinar on the scientific publishing process.
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