The vulnerability of publishing

Advice from a published graduate student

Last year was a bit of a milestone for me. It was not a good milestone. I finally had one of those quarter-life crises that seem to be all the rage nowadays. For me, it took the shape of the ugly question, am I cut out for academia? If the answer is no, then just what the hell am I doing? Months before, I moved to a new city and to a new program. A sociology PhD program known nationwide for churning out competitive applicants in the academic job market.

I’m almost definitely being melodramatic. I didn’t consider dropping out of the program or anything. But it does suck to have your world rattled when you’re used to excelling. High school, undergraduate, MA—I was good at all of those. I got awards and stuff. Then I get to a PhD program, and it’s filled with people who are exactly like me. Actually, better than me. Many have publications in very good journals. One colleague of mine (in my cohort) has eight or nine publications, all in leading journals. I can’t even hate him, because he’s a super nice and helpful person. In that first year, it was hard to not feel like a complete chump, or to feel like it was my fault, that I was losing some kind of magic. So, I scrambled to submit anything I could pump out between course readings.

After having a couple of manuscripts rejected, I felt like even more of a chump. And I started to panic. How am I ever going to catch up to everyone else by the time the job hunt rolls around? Then, I had a paper accepted in an okay journal. Then I got a couple of revise and resubmits from bigger journals. And recently, it hit me. I’m not doing anything wrong—this is the publishing process. Maybe the process sucks, not me. Sure, I’m going through it a little slower than I would like. Doesn’t change the fact that it sucks. Don’t get me wrong—I love writing. I am a graduate student, after all. But getting your ideas out there is difficult and can be soul-crushing.

The whole ‘it’s not me, it’s you’ thing offers little solace here, since as graduate students, we’re now expected to have at least a handful of publications before graduating (if we’re interested in academia, and too many of us are). So, I’ve been asked to give some advice, from one newcomer to other newcomers, on how to make it suck slightly less. Please note the following are not exhaustive, and I come from a social sciences background. I don’t have any magic bullets or tricks to get through the review process unscathed. But I find keeping these in mind help quell the calliopean roar of self-doubt into a manageable, if slightly condescending, self-heckle.

Play the long game. Getting good publications is a marathon, not a sprint. In that vein, don’t do what I used to do and ditch manuscripts after one rejection. I mean, if a manuscript gets rejected from 3 or 4 journals, it might be time to go back to the drawing board. But the odds are at least one journal will give you valuable feedback you can use to improve the manuscript. Have a stress ball ready when you go through the reviewers’ comments, because you may need to wade through a swamp of smart-assery before getting to the good bits. That’s a skill acquired only through experience—the more rejections, the better you get.

Consider revise and resubmits victories. A revise and resubmit is the norm, and, in most cases, it means the journal editors want to see your work published. It just needs either some re-framing, or some tweaking/polishing. In my former idiocy, I used to think asking for revisions was a kind of insult that served only to delay the process and keep my CV forever impoverished. Now I choose to see it as working with some faceless people to strengthen the arguments in the paper and to make sure it appeals to readers. We benefit just as much from this. A few years down the road, we don’t want to look back and be embarrassed by a crappy paper that somehow slipped through the cracks.

Detail is important. In terms of practicalities, when you respond to revisions, your cover letter needs point-by-point documentation of what the reviewers said, and right next to or underneath each point, your response. If you don’t agree with the reviewer, explain very clearly and very convincingly. Deference will usually help you out more than defensiveness. At the same time, don’t let anyone bully you into changing what you feel are important arguments. In that case, maybe a different journal would be a better venue. But even if you disagree with a reviewer, if you want to publish in that journal, try to think of smaller concessions to make. Make them.

Have a system of logging ideas. Mine is a very masculine notebook that has a clasp and palm trees on the cover. Once every few days, while eating lunch or in the shower, I’ll think of 2+ theories that have some synergy, or an interesting case study that might be better explained by a few authors I was reading earlier, or how something has yet to be addressed in my subfield. I write it down. Then at the end of the week I go through what I have. Yes, most of them end up being stupid. But a couple make it into manuscript form, and get further shaped by colleagues’ and reviewers’ comments. Feedback is the main currency of academia (second only to free baked goods), and it is best attained within established networks and from trusted colleagues. So, build your network and exercise that process a couple times every year.

Get lucky. I consider Daft Punk’s 2013 summer anthem a permanent academic one. Make sure reviewers read your manuscripts when they are well-fed and in good moods. Ensure reviewers see eye-to-eye with you on your methods and assumptions. Bribe editorial boards with baskets of mini-muffins of slightly above-average quality. Except you can’t do any of these. So many times, we are left hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. In my short experience, adopting this mindset is easier said than done, but it helps. It gets easier with time. In the interim, get a stress ball. No, really.

If you want to get into contact with Matt please go to his website at where you can read his biography and research interests.