‘Publish or Perish’: publishing as an Early Career Researcher

Publishing. You quickly learn it’s a big deal if you want to establish yourself as a ‘proper’ grownup academic. It can profoundly affect your employment prospects. It can determine your success in grant applications. It can shape how fast (or not) you progress up the academic ladder. The phrase ‘publish or perish’ has never seemed so true. As an Early Career Researcher (ECR) it can be really hard not to obsess about publishing. And when you get down to it, it’s gruelling, particularly for a ‘fresh out of the box’ ECR! In the following tale, I recall my experiences of publishing. It’s a frank and honest account. It touches, perhaps inevitably, on the lows of academic publishing and recommends practical strategies to overcome the heartache (aside from ice cream and/or wine). I do this not to put you off, but to reassure you that it is possible and confirm that it is really worth the fight!

I submitted my first paper to a peer-reviewed journal in 2013. It was essentially a chapter of my PhD thesis. Having received glowing reports from my PhD supervisors, I eagerly sent it to a carefully selected journal. This in itself was a learning curve. What’s an impact factor again?! I sat tight and the following months passed by in blissful ignorance. Then one morning, I received my first ever ‘Decision on Manuscript’ email. I was horrified as I poured over the details of the two reviews. Looking at it now, a few years into my academic career, the comments I received on this occasion were far from scathing. And yet I don’t think my response was unreasonable at the time. As a PhD researcher you are (generally) used to the safety of your supervisors’ comments. Yes, they might think what you’ve done isn’t quite there yet, but they get paid (and trained) to say that in a constructive way! There is often no such luxury in anonymous peer-reviewing where criticisms aren’t typically sugar coated and are there to see in black and white. What was really helpful at this point, was seeing the kinds of comments other colleagues had received on their papers. It allowed me to understand that it wasn’t a character assassination. I hadn’t been unfairly victimised. The comments I had received were blunt but entirely fair. Talking to my colleagues helped rebuild my confidence, and I was soon able to respond to the handful of comments that actually improved the paper considerably. The paper was accepted quickly after these revisions and was published later that year.

Years later, jubilant from a string of successfully published articles, I sent off what I considered to be the best work to have emerged from my thesis. This time I faced different pressures; I was no longer a PhD student so there was suddenly a more pressing need to publish (although this was largely self-imposed). I no longer had so much dedicated time for thesis-paper writing. And something I found particularly challenging was, I had an actual job (albeit still in academia) so had less time to write the thing and make any revisions. The paper came back a 4 months later with a mixed bag of remarks. Although some comments were positive, they were cancelled out by negative ones; I found the time to make the revisions and was hopeful as I sent it off. After another 4 months in the system, and a further mixed bag of comments, the editor eventually rejected the paper on grounds that there was no consensus on how to progress. I felt frustrated. I couldn’t help but feel that all the late evenings and early starts spent on the revisions were now going to be wasted. I steeled myself and after some reformatting, sent it to another journal. Again the months passed. The much anticipated decision email read ‘Major Revisions’. My heart sank (again).

After taking some time away from the paper, I approached the editor, for his advice on how best to proceed. He was incredibly positive and helpful. He actually took the time to ring me, and to my surprise said how much he liked the paper. He strongly encouraged me to revise it and gave me some useful advice on where to start. I was absolutely determined at this point that this paper would eventually get published! However, as most aspiring academics find themselves having to do at some point or another, I was also about to start a new post, which meant moving house and dedicating A LOT of time to constructing IKEA furniture (as opposed to paper revisions). Focusing on the move and new job, I doubted I was ever going to find the time and energy to submit the paper. Later that year, having settled into my new research post and become an expert in flat-pack construction, I managed to find a block of time to revisit the paper. Although I had the time, as I sat down to look at the paper AGAIN, I really struggled to motivate myself to revisit this paper again. As much as I love my subject area, I didn’t know if I had the energy to go over old ground, particularly when my previous efforts felt wasted. But I did. Inspired by the conversation with the editor, I began to look differently at reviewers’ comments. No longer did I see them as attacking or belittling my work, but trying to make my work better. Where I didn’t agree with their comments I was happy to defend my work. I eventually resubmitted a significantly improved paper. Sipping coffee in an Amsterdam café last Autumn I received the email I had been waiting for … the paper had been accepted pending some very minor revisions. Seeing the paper online after such a long and arduous journey made all the hard work seem totally worth it.

With only a handful of publications I am not professing to be any kind of expert on publishing. I just wanted to share some of my journey to reassure other ECRs that, although tough, it is very much worth that feeling of seeing your work in print! My advice …

  • Be prepared! If you have workshops or sessions available through your institution on publishing and/or the review process, go to them. That way, you will be more adequately prepared for reviewer comments and what to do to respond to them! If there’s no formal support in place through your institution, explore more virtual options e.g. join other PhD students or ECRs on Twitter. It’s really nice to know you’re not alone on your publishing journey.

  • Ask for help! Don’t be afraid to talk to colleagues about your publishing woes. Don’t feel embarrassed or intimidated. Chances are they’ll have their own story to tell, and they may be able to offer some practical strategies regarding your work or just offer some words of support.

  • Talk to the editor. Editors are busy academics too so this might not always be possible. But it’s worth a shot; it was instrumental to my eventual success. Remember they want to see good papers published in their journal. If they see potential in your paper, chances are they’ll be happy to give you a few pointers.

  • Don’t take things personally! (easier said than done … and something I really struggled with) As a regular reviewer myself now, the anonymity of it all makes it very easy to be blunt and to the point. Like all reviewers, it’s a case of finding time to review a paper on top of a normal working week! So, if I don’t agree with something, I say it. It’s not a personal thing.

  • Reframe your understanding of reviewers’ comments. Try to see reviewers’ comments as suggestions on how to make the paper better rather than simply criticisms. If you can adjust to this mind set, you’ll find it a lot easier to make revisions.

  • Take time away from the paper. The most useful bit of advice a colleague gave me was to take 2 weeks away from the paper. Don’t think about it and don’t look at it in that time. Come back to it with fresh eyes and a renewed enthusiasm. You’ll be able to see a way forward more clearly.

by Dr Hannah Chiswell (@RuralResearcher)

Dr Chiswell defended her PhD in 2014 and is currently a Researcher at the Countryside and Community Research Institute, University of Gloucestershire. Her latest paper entitled “It’s Definitely a Good Time to Be a Farmer”: Understanding the Changing Dynamics of Successor Creation in Late Modern Society is available here.