From the Science Student Council

Publishing Your Dissertation

Tips for publishing your dissertation

The Science Student Council is a group of nine graduate students who spend a couple of weekends a year with the Science staff, advising on programs and activities that would benefit graduate students in psychological science. In this column, the students will present useful information that other graduate students need to know! Visit the Science Student Council page  to learn more about the activities of the SSC.

Publishing Your Dissertation
by Jennifer Brielmaier

For doctoral students in psychological science, the dissertation is a culmination of years of graduate training. Dissertations usually involve original research that, if shared with others, will advance psychology as a science. All too often, however, dissertations go unpublished. After the long and difficult process of dissertation writing, the prospect of converting such a large body of work into a publishable manuscript (or two) can seem daunting. However, there are many reasons to indulge in this challenge. For instance, as highlighted in last month’s PSA column, publishing is a crucial component to a successful career in psychological science. What better place to start than your dissertation? In addition, being able to pare down your research findings and target them to a specific audience (i.e., the readers of a journal) is a skill that will be necessary throughout your research career. Below are a few tips to make the process of publishing your dissertation easier.

  • Write your dissertation with the goal of publication in mind.

An increasing number of schools are offering students the option of writing their dissertations as a series of journal articles. If you are early in your graduate studies and this option is available, consider taking advantage of this opportunity. If it is not, keep in mind that converting your dissertation into a manuscript (or two) will be an easier task if you set publication as the ultimate goal. For example, be sure to cite the most recent and relevant papers in your research area when writing your dissertation. This way, you don’t have to go searching for them when you begin to write the manuscript. It is also a good idea to keep potential journals and reviewers in mind.

  • Consult with your committee about which aspects of your dissertation are publishable.

When you are nearing completion of your dissertation, sit down with your dissertation committee to determine 1) whether your research findings are publishable, 2) which of your findings are most salient and therefore ought to be highlighted, and 3) which journals to target. Step 1 is especially important if your experiments did not turn out as planned or if you have obtained null results. In such cases you may be able to "salvage" your work by using your literature review as the basis for a review paper that generates ideas for future research, and submit it to journals that are open to this type of paper (e.g., Psychological Bulletin or Psychological Review). If you plan to submit more than one manuscript for publication, consult the APA Publication Manual for rules on what constitutes duplicate and fragmented publications. Multiple manuscripts should only be submitted if the information in each article is substantially different.

  • Think of the manuscript(s) as based on, not cut and pasted from, your dissertation.

Dissertations can be a few hundred pages and invariably include details that are not appropriate for a 25- to 30-page manuscript. The main challenge is to convey your most important findings while omitting irrelevant information. This requires selectively rewriting portions of your dissertation rather than simply cutting and pasting certain pieces. For suggestions on length, selectivity, writing style and interpretation of data, consult the APA Guide to Preparing Manuscripts for Journal Publication.

  • Try to submit the manuscript(s) before you move on to postdoctoral employment.

It is often easier to write manuscripts while the findings and pertinent literature are still fresh in one’s mind. When moving on to postdoctoral employment, however, many recent grads find themselves too busy with new research and other responsibilities to revisit their dissertations. If possible, negotiate your starting date with your postdoctoral employer so that you have time to get your manuscript(s) out the door for initial review before you begin. (This will be more feasible with a postdoctoral fellowship than with other appointments, such as a faculty position). Once you start your new job, it will be much easier to find the time to revise and resubmit your manuscript(s) than to start writing from scratch.

  • Put your time management skills to use.

No matter what your situation, use the time management skills you undoubtedly learned during graduate school to set a schedule for writing the manuscript(s). Devote a few minutes each day to manuscript writing, set deadlines, and inform others of your schedule so they can help keep you on track. Your new employer will likely take note of your dedication to publishing your research, making it a win-win situation.

Converting a dissertation into a publishable manuscript (or two) is challenging, but it can be done with some planning and hard work. Many psychological scientists have advanced the field and launched their careers by publishing their dissertation findings. As just one example, the famous developmental psychologist Mary (Salter) Ainsworth published her dissertation research, entitled "An Evaluation of Adjustment Based on the Concept of Security" (Salter, 1940), after earning her PhD in 1939. She went on to become one of the major contributors to attachment theory, and helped set the stage for psychological science research on infant-caregiver interactions. You can follow in Dr. Ainsworth's and others' footsteps by taking the approach that your dissertation is not truly “finished” until your work has been submitted for publication.