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Academic writing series: Publishing as a graduate student

Information about the academic writing series: This series is of interest to students and professionals working on academic papers, theses, dissertations, journal articles, grant proposals, or books. It is intended to provide inspiration and advice to both novice and advanced writers. Each article will feature advice by renown experts in the field.

About the author: This article was written as a guest post by Leanne ten Brinke, Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia (Canada). Although she is still a graduate student, Leanne is already a world-renown expert on deception detection and has published over 17 peer-reviewed articles, 3 chapters, and various informational articles for the general public (all published within the last 4 years!). Don't believe me? Read her CV here.

Publishing as a Graduate Student

So, you’ve just spent over a year working on a research project – your thesis, your pièce de résistance, your long-term relationship … call it what you like. You crossed your fingers tightly, fired up your SPSS program, and the output includes a p value less than .05. It’s all so exciting! This is the first time you’ve felt awake in months. Sure, the project is responsible for your current malnourished state, a decline in your personal hygiene, and your shortened life expectancy, but you’ve just discovered something entirely novel about human nature and you’re ready to share it with the world.

Over the course of my graduate training I have tried very hard to see my name in print (not as sexy as having one’s name in lights, but then again, graduate school is not known for glamour). Earning some positive feedback and a variety of scathing reviews along the way, I’ve learned a decent amount about what to do, and even more about what not to do, to get published along the way. Here are some of my tips and tricks that have led to successful publications for me (and my fabulous co-authors!). I hope they help you share your new discovery with the world!

The Preparation:

  • Consider the impact of your research findings – what kind of journal would be most appropriate for (and mostly likely to be accepted into)? Check out your options and try to pick a journal that fits your work in terms of both topic and impact. I like to aim high (but realistically so!) first, and consider a lower impact journal if my paper is rejected by my initial journal choice.
  • Check out the guidelines of the journal that you’re aiming for. Write with the mission of the journal and the journal’s audience in mind. Further, respect word count limits! If there are none, check out the length of successful papers – try to replicate them.
  • Have a good grasp of the literature before you do anything! Knowing about what you are going to write before you start will make the process much easier and more efficient.
  • Write an outline – especially for your introduction and discussion! There’s a lot to cover and it’s easy to get off track or miss an important point entirely.
  • This is a big undertaking – it’s going to take a lot more time than you think! Be prepared. You’re going to need the venti coffee today, and potentially for the next several weeks (or months). Commitment phobics beware.

Pen to Paper … or Fingers to Keyboard:

  • Start with easy sections first. It feels good to have a document with several pages even if they are mostly blank. Set up the document with a title page, an abstract page, and the other sections of the document. This is an easy way to start off with a bit of encouraging (and easy) progress.
  • The abstract is really important! This is the first thing that editors and reviewers read, and potentially the only part that readers will pay attention to once you’re published (especially if your readers are undergraduates pulling an all-nighter on a term paper). The abstract should grab the reader’s attention and let them know what they’re in for. I have a simple formula that I generally follow. My first sentence is general and places the topic of study into context. Next, I note some general consensus findings in the field, but point out what we don’t know yet (conveniently, my results address exactly this hole in the current research). Then include a brief (1-2 sentence) summary of the methods. Now, hit them with the results (especially the most impressive ones!). My last sentence usually is a note about how your findings impact the field or may be used in applied settings.
  • Because the abstract is so important, it gets a second bullet. When do you write this integral section? I know some people like to write this first – it helps to organize their thoughts and provide an outline for the rest of the paper. On the other hand, I like to write this last. This approach allows me to boil everything down into a succinct summary. Do what works for you, but expect to spend a lot of time polishing this section. Also, pay attention to word limits – a lot of journals have maximum word counts for abstracts.
  • The methods section is an easy section to start with if the abstract is giving you problems – just write what you did! In fact, you probably have much of it drafted already if you wrote a proposal or ethics application. I like to copy and paste from my past documents and revise from there. Doing the same work twice is lame.
  • Start with a broad introduction, then narrow down to your specific hypotheses, which you will likely state in the last paragraph of your introduction. Don’t forget to consult your outline – you didn’t just do that for the fun of it! The discussion section should be the inverse – write about your specific findings first, ending with a more general discussion of how your work contributes to the field, applied benefits, and future directions.
  • Consider your likely reviewers. You know the leaders in the field and some journals actually ask you to recommend reviewers for your work. Make sure that you look for any of their recent findings that are relevant to your manuscript and incorporate references that fit. More generally, make sure that your literature review is up to date
  • Keep it succinct. Regardless of the journal, space is probably at a premium. The editor will appreciate brevity. That said, use enough information to be clear. There’s a fine balance to be struck here.
  • Finally, a note on writing style and grammar. Keep in mind that a poorly written, but excellent piece of research, may be rejected while a very well-written, but less impressive piece of research may be accepted to the same journal. Make sure your manuscript does justice to the amount of time you spent on the project it describes! Learning good science writing is hard and I’m not aware of any magic formula for success in this regard. The best advice I can give is to read lots and lots of work that has been published successfully and keep writing. Probably more importantly, keep soliciting feedback from good writers and revising accordingly! In short, practice makes (closer to) perfect.


  • Use sub-headings to organize your introduction, especially where you have several topics or theories to discuss. For example, in the introduction, I may have a sub-heading for each of two theories that I need to talk about, as well as a “The Current Study” sub-heading that lays out the uniqueness of this work, and explicitly state the hypotheses
  • Symmetry rules. I like to use the same (or similarly themed) sub-headings to organize my results and discussion sections too. This will keep you organized and will make your article easier to read.
  • Along similar lines – to keep organized – I like to number my hypotheses when there are many. Number them as they are explicitly stated in the last paragraph of your introduction. Use the numbers to remind the reader what Hypotheses you are testing in your results section (e.g., “We conducted a 2X2 ANOVA to test Hypothesis 3.”). Further, you can even use the number labels in the discussion section. For example, you might say: “Confirming Hypothesis 3, analyses revealed that …”.

Review and Revisions

  • Use your co-authors. You probably have collaborators on your project that will be listed as co-authors. Some (e.g., your supervisor) may have tons of experience with publishing. Use that experience! Get lots of feedback, revise, revise, revise. So, in a way, your manuscript has already gone through a review process – and a lot of the obvious kinks have been worked out – before it’s on a reviewer’s desk. Don’t expect the final product to look like your first draft.
  • Submit and wait. And then wait some more. The review process can take a really long time. While this may be annoying to some, I like to enjoy it as a time when this project is “out of my hands” and “off my plate”. Silver lining found.
  • Speaking of silver linings, reviews are great for helping you develop a thick skin. If a reviewer says anything positive, I chalk it up to a win, considering that it is their job to find problems with your work and research is rarely perfect. If you get a ‘revise and resubmit’ or an ‘accept with revisions’ – congratulations! Try to resubmit in a reasonable time period – sooner the better. You likely will be asked to resubmit the revised paper with a letter outlining what you have done to address each suggested revision. I have found the revision letter to be very important. It gives you an opportunity to show the editor and reviewers that you took the suggestions seriously and addressed them to the best of your ability.
  • If your manuscript is rejected from your first choice journal, it’s not the end of the world! Consider resubmitting to a lower impact journal. If your initial attempt was sent out for review, try to incorporate reviewer suggestions into your next attempt. These suggestions are meant to enhance your work and it is possible that the same reviewer will see your paper again – don’t let their initial review be in vain.