Five Reasons Why Writing Your First Article Need Not Detract from Writing Your Dissertation | Lex Academic Blog

Should you be publishing peer-reviewed articles while in grad school? In the sciences, the response to this question would be a resounding ‘yes’. In the humanities and social sciences, however, not everyone does this. Some prefer to start publishing only after defending their thesis.

Some disciplines in the humanities and social sciences have moved towards the article-based (also called ‘manuscript-based’, ‘cumulative’, or ‘bundle’) model of dissertation in which a dissertation consists of a given number of published articles or article manuscripts plus an introduction tying these together. In other disciplines, the monograph dissertation maintains a strong foothold. In addition to variation by discipline, practices may also vary by country or department.

Many graduate students working on a monograph dissertation believe that they should focus solely on the dissertation. One might want to edit dissertation chapters into publishable articles later, but a widespread view is that this is something to do after you’ve already got your doctorate.

The underlying idea is that writing an article versus writing your dissertation is a zero-sum game, and that writing an article would detract time and focus from your dissertation. This worry is particularly common in students who are not writing in their native language and for whom writing may therefore feel like an arduous task.

I think this idea is just plain false. Writing an article during your dissertation journey is not a zero-sum game. Instead, writing an article will help you get ahead with your dissertation. For the past couple of years, I have been involved in the running of regular writing retreats for graduate students and postdocs. PhD students around me who have written at least one article pre-defence have defended faster and with more confidence than those who did not.

Here is why I think that is.

  • Writing an article helps integrate you in your field

In my discipline (philosophy), it is common to first draft a paper, then present it at conferences to get feedback, and then incorporate that feedback into a finished article. In some other disciplines, one typically presents at conferences only after the manuscript has been published or accepted for publication. Whatever the standards of your discipline, the process of writing an article helps you to get integrated into your discipline. You can get feedback on your work not just in the Q&A session, but also by asking colleagues to read your article draft.

Finally, when you submit to a journal, the much-dreaded reviewer comments often amount to diligent expert commentaries, empowering you to improve your manuscript. You will learn first-hand that even single-authored work flourishes on community and collaboration.

The following standard advice is still true: before you submit your article to a journal, ask your advisor or other senior colleague whether it is of adequate quality for submission, and ask their advice on whether the particular journal is a good fit.

  • Writing an article helps you to hone your ideas

While what makes an article good will differ by discipline, there are some things that are universal. One of these is that a good article has a single, consistent idea that forms the backbone of the article.

While fitting one idea in one article may seem easy, it often isn’t. Academics at all career stages struggle to meet word limits, to assess whether adding another perspective or more background information adds dimension or is too tangential, and overall to make tough decisions about what to include in a manuscript.

While dissertations have larger word counts, for good dissertations, too, your ideas need to shine through, and the background information you share needs to be relevant for understanding your original contribution. Writing an article helps you to assess what is relevant and helps you learn to edit your text for originality and consistency.

It’s not just the skill of honing your ideas that you get from writing an article. Often, the very same ideas – and even (some of) the same writing – can go into your dissertation. Here, consult your advisor and/or administrative staff about the guidelines for your institution and discipline. It is always acceptable to discuss ideas in your dissertation that you have published on. In many institutions, it is also acceptable to recycle text from an article you’ve authored in your dissertation. Stay away from simply copy and pasting, though: even if you’re including text from your article, you’ll need to edit it to fit your dissertation. It’s also a good idea to always check the copyright of the original article.

  • Writing an article helps you to learn the craft of academic writing

Writing an article requires two things: a single, coherent idea that forms the backbone of your article and learning the conventions of academic writing in your discipline. Maybe you’re already a skilled academic writer, but let’s be honest – publishable work is the true test of the craft of academic writing. Maybe your writing skills are your Achilles’ heel and drafting that article will give you much-needed practice. Whatever the case, there are useful guides out there for writing good articles in the social sciences and humanities. Many of these can be found online, but of those in book form, I particularly recommend Wendy Laura Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks.

  • Writing an article helps you to learn how to break tasks into chunks

One skill every academic needs is that of breaking tasks into manageable chunks. This is nowhere as true as it is for dissertations. Is breaking your dissertation into chapters breaking it into manageable tasks? While it’s a start, if you have a procrastination problem, chances are it’s not a sufficiently structured approach for you. A manageable chunk is something you can do in a single sitting, at most in a day – and something that doesn’t feel too daunting. When you learn this skill, it will speed up your dissertation process simply by reducing procrastination and anxiety.

Article-writing makes it easier to learn to create manageable chunks because the tighter format and the more explicit conventions around structure make it easier to see how it breaks into small parts. Guides like Belcher’s book, mentioned above, give further instruction on breaking writing up into manageable tasks. (Readers, please recommend your favourite resources in the comments!)

  • Writing an article will take pressure off your dissertation

If you’ve published a piece of your own research in your field, or have even just gotten to the stage of a favourable outcome such as a Revise & Resubmit, that is hard evidence that your work in your field is of a professional, publishable quality. This can make you more confident about your work, decreasing anxiety-induced procrastination, and can make submitting your thesis to your committee less daunting. Consider that your committee wants you to succeed, whereas Reviewer 2 does not know you and is not invested in your success. Convincing your committee is only half as hard as convincing “Reviewer 2”.

Could you get all these perks while not writing an article? Sure. But writing an article does help. Finishing your thesis is never easy, but it gets easier as you accumulate skills, knowledge of your field, and confidence in your abilities.

Most PhDs I’ve spoken to about this describe a time in the dissertation process when things ‘click’. Suddenly your ideas are clear to you, and you know you can communicate them effectively. After that, finishing your dissertation is still hard work, but it’s no longer an uphill task. Will writing an article help things click sooner? For many, it seems like it does (lack of randomised controlled trials notwithstanding).

Dr Polaris Koi is a senior researcher in Philosophy at the University of Turku, Finland. He works on philosophical issues connected to agency, control, and psychiatry.