Publish or Die?

One of the major challenges a PhD student faces here in the UK is that of publishing. This especially noticeable if the reason for undertaking graduate studies has been to enter the wonderful world of academia, which is dominated by that evil demon known as the Research Excellence Framework (REF). We all see it on the job adverts:

You will also be an active researcher able to make a strong contribution to the next Research Excellence Framework

As I am coming out of the PhD process (I passed my Viva in May and am just working through some corrections) and have managed to get an academic position (albeit in a museum setting), I can well remember the heart palpitations that this term gives you. It is not helped when you talk to friends and colleagues who are already working in the academic sector and they provide you with an insight into the competition that you face. For example, a colleague who teaches at the Joint Services Command and Staff College here in the UK once summed up the challenge nicely for me. Essentially, when they advertise jobs they are getting experienced applicants who have a combination of military service, have already published a major book and are in the process of completing their thesis. While this clearly does not guarantee them a job, it does illustrate the competition that is out there. This is made worse by the fact that you can easily get 100 people apply for one position at a university. It is a scary proposition!

Is there a solution to this conundrum? How do you mark yourself out from the crowd? To the first question, I suspect there is solution but it is never going to be neither pleasant nor simple. We have to remember that completing a PhD is ostensibly a full-time job and ideally should be treated as such. Therefore, any extra-curricular activities have to come out of your own time unless you are super organized. This means working long days while you undergo what my supervisor, Air Commodore (ret’d) Dr Peter Gray, described as the ‘apprenticeship’. As with any apprenticeship, you have to recognize that long hours are part of the game. Indeed, these long hours are one of the reasons why I suspect PhDs are not conducive to relationships as they become all-encompassing, of course, that is just my opinion. I also say this knowing that I was never the most organized in the course of my own studies!

Also, think about whom you publish with. No one has yet been able to show me a ranked list, as it relates to REF, of top publishers and journals. I have realized that a lot of this hierarchy is decided within departments though I stand to be corrected! Of course, there are impact factors measured by various external agencies and we should take note of these. For example, War in History has impact for a reason; however, your article may not be appropriate for a specific journal. For example, my first article on the RAF’s role during the Dieppe Raid went to Canadian Military History because I perceived this as the most appropriate journal for my work.

The most important thing to recognize and remember is that publishing is a long-term process. Do not expect publishers or journals to just accept and publish your piece straight away. Given the peer-review process that we all must go through this is just an unrealistic expectation. Simply put, plan long term. One of the ways to get into the publishing process is to examine how you might convert work form your masters into something publishable. It is likely that if you completed an MA and are now doing a PhD then your dissertation was well written. Thus, it is probably worth examining any potential outputs from it. This will put you ahead of the game and give you a chance to think about how you might publish research from your PhD in the medium term. Having done an MPhil, I have published two pieces derived from this research and still have another piece to finish. I also managed to publish something based on research from my undergraduate days but this was actually written while doing my MPhil. It was also radically re-written but that is another story. However, remember the time factor. To give you an idea of the length it can take to publish, this latter piece was originally delivered as a conference paper in 2008 and was not published until 2014. There were mitigating circumstances as why this piece took so long to emerge, however, if you are publishing in an edited collection then the turnover is normally at least two years and possibly more. For example, this month sees the publication of my first book that I co-edited with a couple of friends on the subject of military transformation in the British military. The symposium on which this book is based was held back in April 2011, so that is a three-year turnaround. This is not unusual, so be prepared. Indeed, 2014 has been a year of publishing for me as projects I completed in 2011/2012 are now coming to fruition, which I think perfectly sums up the need to plan. Always think about the next project and how you can build upon research you have already done. The next major project will always take time so think about the time in between and what you can generate to move your career aspirations forward.

There is no simple answer when it comes to publishing. It is not easy and I will not sugar coat it as such. We all have all heard the scare stories. My best advice is that you have to do it if you want the job but do not stress over it. Firstly, talk to your supervisor. They will have been through the same process at some time (especially if they have completed their PhD in the past ten years or so). It is what they are there for. Second, talk to fellow PhD students who are going through the same pressures as well as friends who have recently completed. Find out about their experience. I have not ended up in a university setting but still work within academia. I am convinced that my publishing record was one thing that helped me get my current position, which proves the necessity of grappling with this challenge early on. Finally, take your time (relatively), develop a research/publication strategy/trajectory, and think long term about what you can do with all of that research that you have done over the preceding years. A single document can form the basis of any interesting article.

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