Although finishing your dissertation may be the final hurdle to completing your doctorate, getting it published may be an important step toward your career as a psychologist.
Indeed, academic psychologists are not the only ones expected to publish-research is increasingly a part of clinical positions, says University of Rochester Medical Center associate professor Robert Pollard Jr. PhD. And your dissertation may be the most logical place to start. Even if it’s a small finding in a big field, your dissertation is probably a quality piece of work because it’s been closely supervised by knowledgeable faculty, he notes. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy to winnow a traditional dissertation-averaging upward of 200 pages-to the lean 40 pages or less required by most journals.
Editing your dissertation means more than cutting out enough words to fit a journal’s page-count.
“I can remember when I first thought about publishing my own dissertation,” says Gary VandenBos, PhD, APA’s publisher. “I was terrified. But the bottom line is, it’s just work….It is not an overwhelming and impossible thing if you break it down into component pieces.”
GET IT RIGHT FROM THE START
This process can be helped along if students think about publishing before they even start writing their dissertation, says Steven Yantis, PhD, director of graduate studies in Johns Hopkins University’s department of psychological and brain sciences.
“I believe that the ultimate goal of publishing should be kept in mind so that the transformation from a dissertation format to a publishable piece is not a huge rewrite but a modest revision,” he says.
And it’s OK to pitch the idea of a short, pithy dissertation to your committee, says University of Victoria psychologist Steve Lindsay, PhD, editor of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General .
“The dissertation is a symbol of competence to work as an independent scholar,” he says, “so its form should be that used by independent scholars.”
If even after going through the process of preparing your dissertation for publication, it’s not accepted, consider it part of the learning process, says University of Tennessee psychologist Gordon Burghardt, PhD, editor of Comparative Psychology .
“I often have manuscripts rejected,” he says. “It’s a learning experience. The important thing is not to lose heart and to listen to what the editors and reviewers are telling you, so you can get it right the next time.”
Of course, even if you write your dissertation with publication in mind, you will still need to make major revisions to trim content and appeal to a broader audience than your doctoral committee.
A MULTIPRONGED APPROACH
Pollard provides a step-by-step guide for preparing a dissertation for publication in The Internet Journal of Mental Health (Vol. 2, No. 2). The first thing students need to realize, he says, is that editing your dissertation means more than cutting out enough words to fit a journal’s page-count.
“The entire organization and thrust of the manuscript must be reconceptualized,” he says.
VandenBos agrees. “The U.S. model trains the candidate in exactly the type of writing that journals do not want,” he says. “Dissertation committees take a very inclusive approach, asking students to explain everything.
In contrast, scholarly articles are very exclusive, excluding everything that isn’t germane to the core topic.”
Some institutions are turning away from this traditional model, allowing students to write several publishable articles that they then tie together with an overarching introduction and discussion, says VandenBos. Even then, many students have a considerable amount of work to do to transform their dissertation into a journal article, notes Pollard, who suggests taking a multipronged approach:
Select a journal. Many journals have their own style and submission requirements, so picking a journal and writing to its requirements from the get-go will save time, Pollard advises.
Through suggestions of mentors and peers, develop a list of potential journals, including some that may be outside your field but related in some way to your research. Pare your list down based on recommendations from your dissertation committee, says VandenBos.
Be realistic, but optimistic when choosing what level of journal to submit to, he says. “I usually recommend that, to start, students shoot about a half-notch higher than they or their committee members think their paper warrants,” says VandenBos. “You have to be a little arrogant and pumped up.”
Prune and prioritize content. Create a list of bullet points of your major facts and findings and select the most important ones by asking yourself: Does the reader really need to know this? Does the reader already know this? Is this so important that the reader needs to be reminded of it?
Selecting core findings was the hardest part for Simon Fraser University psychologist Deborah Connolly, PhD, who wrote a 200-plus-page “monster” for her dissertation at the University of Victoria.
“With all the analyses and all the detail, the simple take-home message was hard for even me to find,” she says. “Today I would say to a student, you have to figure out the five most important points. If you want, you can order them all from most to least important, but start by just focusing on the top five.”
If you can’t find just five, you may want to break your dissertation into several different articles, says Burghardt. If there’s a small finding that’s particularly timely, students could even pull out the essential data and methods and write up an extremely concise research brief for some publication as prestigious as Science or Nature, he says.
Use simple, direct language. Even after editing, dissertations revised for publication tend to be too long, with wordy, passive sentences, and lots of formatting errors, including flip-flopping between “I” and “we” and mistakes with references, say journal editors. Those kinds of mistakes aren’t going to win you any fans, says Burghardt. Connolly learned this firsthand. Editors of Child Development rejected her revised dissertation because it read too much like a cut down dissertation, she says. “It was too dense, too complicated and too difficult to follow.”
Taking reviewer comments to heart, Connolly revised her writing style keeping things simple and focusing on only the most critical findings. Editors at Applied Cognitive Psychology accepted the rewritten article with almost no revisions.
Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.
The dissertation, start to finish