Transforming a PhD Chapter into a Journal Article | Lex Academic Blog


In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, American mythologist Joseph Campbell set out the ‘monomyth’: a narrative structure that apparently underpins storytelling traditions around the world. Campbell identified 17 universal stages in total, but in the simplest terms, it involves a hero crossing a threshold between their old life (or ‘ordinary world’) to go on an adventure (in a ‘special world’) that changes them and/or their community. This idea of crossing a threshold comes to mind when thinking about the process of transforming one of your PhD chapters into a peer-reviewed journal article. It is a kind of threshold that must be crossed, taking you from a PhD student to expert scholar; a kind of professional coming-of-age.

As with any threshold, crossing it is a challenge. Your work will need to step up a level, and you’ll need to directly turn your attention towards an audience of peers, rather than a supervisor or examiner. You will also need to write in a slightly different register. An article derived from a PhD chapter will probably, though not necessarily, be your first article, and it is a wonderful way to begin a scholarly career. A PhD chapter can come to life as an article, but it needs to be prepared a little differently; excised from the body of the thesis and made to live independently. It is a lot of work, so before we get into how you might start this process, let us be clear on why you might want to.

Why Change a PhD Chapter into an Article?

As a newly minted PhD, or student approaching the closing stages of your degree, you will already know what a peer-reviewed article is and why it is important to a scholarly career. You are likely reading this blog post because you understand that published, peer-reviewed articles are essential to obtaining academic jobs, and transforming a chapter into an article is an obvious place to start. This is true, but it is not the only benefit.

One of the most precious insights you will gain is into the workings of the peer-review process. Your first attempt will almost certainly lead to your first rejection, if only in the form of a request for major revisions that you do not agree with. And understanding early on that this is completely normal is valuable. Even more useful is appreciating how to re-evaluate apparent failures, such as journal rejections. They are part of a process of testing your ideas, seeing how they stack up against those of your peers, and using the feedback to strengthen your thesis. You will be taken seriously as a scholar.

Transforming a chapter into an article will also help you to prepare for your viva, keeping you engage with the ideas on which your thesis was built. It may even help beyond this, namely when you are working out your next research focus. It is not essential, but as we have noted here and there on this blog, it is an impressive boast at a viva if you can show that you have already been published.

Understanding the Difference Between a PhD Chapter and a Peer-Reviewed Article

To cross that threshold from unpublished PhD student to published scholar, you need to treat your work slightly differently. Most obviously, you need to see it in a different context. A PhD chapter is part of an intellectual tapestry, whereas an article has its own integrity and is a stand-alone piece, with its own self-contained argument, introduction, conclusion, and so on. For this reason, some chapters will be easier to turn into articles than others (the first and last chapters are rarely good contenders), though the transformation often involves much rewriting and reorganisation, pulling in bits from other parts of your thesis to help you articulate your argument, as well as the scholarly conversation it is part of.

The switch of audience seems obvious, too, but it is surprisingly hard to make the leap from writing for a supervisor or examiner to writing for a peer. And it is a practical problem: when new scholars submit their first articles, they are often rejected with a comment like ‘this reads like a class paper’ (an unkind ‘Reviewer #2’ might use words like ‘sloppy’,’ basic’, or ‘not scholarly’). It is a horrible piece of feedback to stomach, especially when you have worked for so many years to develop what you think is a mature—and thoroughly deloused—piece of work. Apart from trying not to take it to heart, there are a few things you can do to set you on the right track.

Choose Your Chapter

One of your first tasks should be to familiarise yourself with articles in your discipline and field. The best way to do this is to dive straight into some of the journals you cite in your thesis. You should aim to compare your own chapters with the articles you read, assessing their suitability, and the work you would need to do to make one of them suitable. As you peruse the journals, make a note of all the elements that make up a published article in your field: the various sections like literature reviews and methodology sections, the structure and presentation. You can then choose a chapter that comes closest to fitting the bill. If you then isolate your chosen chapter from the rest of your PhD, is there anything you can immediately change? Does your chapter work, roughly, on its own, or can you pull data from other parts of your thesis? What elements are missing that you must produce from scratch?

Choose the Right Journal

Another reason for flicking through a few journals is to compile a shortlist of publications to which you might submit your chapter. You should, of course, go beyond those journals mentioned in your thesis, though those you already cite are a good place to start. The best journal for your first article is likely to be a journal that publishes the kind of work that has been useful to your research. If you are citing a scholar, it is likely your work engages with them in some way, which probably means that the journal they are published in will be interested in the debate or conversation that your PhD is a part of. Perhaps make a shortlist of three journals to submit to.

When you’re a newly minted PhD, or even still a student, it is arguably more important to simply put yourself through the peer review process, and get an article published in relatively short order.

Getting in Touch Before Rewriting

Before re-casting your chapter as an article, you need to clarify a few things, being careful, of course, not to ask for information clearly available on their website.

It is almost always a good idea to find a reason to contact the Editor-in-Chief to discuss the suitability of your manuscript before submitting. If your message includes your abstract, and expresses how you feel your article contributes to a debate going on in their journal at the time, you should get a quick and informal impression, and perhaps even an invitation to make a formal submission. You may even ask, directly, ‘would such an article interest you?’. An editor is less likely to reject an article outright if they’ve already informally expressed an interest; they should at least send it out for peer review. If they think your article is unsuitable for their journal, then they will save you lots of time by telling you so before you put in a great deal of work making the piece compliant with their style advice, for instance. They may suggest another journal, in which case you already have the opening of your next email (‘[name] suggested I get in touch with you about my article…’)

Writing an article for your peers is a great challenge. It represents a threshold that you will probably require a few attempts to cross. But failure is only temporary. Feedback will help improve your work, bring attention to new areas to explore, help you put your finger on problem areas in your field, and make it easier to see your work in the company of your peers. This is the real value in transforming a PhD chapter into an article.