Friday, 20 March 2009

Publish or be damned

One of the foci of STORIES this year was publication. We invited three speakers, each of whom is on an editorial board of a journal, has edited a journal, or in one case (and it was naturally our own department’s Professor Geoffrey Walford) edits, sits on boards, reviews, and has published every kind of work imaginable.

University departments are judged on the quality and quantity of their research output. That’s why a publication record is important for any student hoping to secure an academic appointment. The RAE that has just passed is the last one of its kind, however, and the next assessment will be a Research Excellence Framework, which will be metrics-based. What this means is that citation will be taken into account. It’s not just publishing that’s need, it’s publishing in journals that appear in the citation indexes.

There’s a definite hierarchy of publications, apparently. According to Professor Walford, articles in journals are better than chapters in edited books: they tend to be cited more. The exception is if someone famous is editing the book! He also stated fairly categorically that articles in professional journals or practitioner journals, good for the ego though they are, do not count towards getting jobs in academia.

The key, they all agree, is to target your writing to the audience you’re submitting for. Check out the journal you’re planning on sending your work to. What’s their editorial policy? Some journals have a smallish editorial board who all read everything submitted then decide among themselves. Others have a much larger board, and an editor who sends articles out for review to someone on the board and someone outside it. Think about finding out about the interests of the editorial committee: if there’s only one person in your field on the board, it’s a good bet that they’re going to be the person to read it. Perhaps it’s not a good idea to take a completely opposite position to whatever they’ve written previously. Though that is not as important as reading the submission criteria, and sticking to the length. However magnificent you believe your manuscript to be, the editor is not going to allow you to bust the word limit.

Once you’ve submitted, and your article has been reviewed, there can be one of three outcomes: accepted outright (which virtually never happens), completely rejected or they can suggest some changes. If an editor sends you back your manuscript with some suggestions, then indulge in some primal screaming if you need to, and get back to work. Act on the suggestions, and send back your amended manuscript with a covering letter explaining how you’ve acted on them, step by step. Even, if you’ve thought carefully about it, justifying why you’re not acting on one or two of them.

There can be quite a long lead time to publication – even once you’ve had an article accepted. That means that doctoral students need to be submitting articles based on their research by the beginning of their third year at the very latest in order to have some citations ready for job applications. Book reviews can be a good way to get started: write to editors and offer your services. Get your supervisor’s advice on your writing – indeed, get anyone and everyone to read and give you advice before you submit a manuscript.

The real key to getting published though, the experts tell us, is this: do good quality research and write it up well.

Thursday, 19 March 2009


Well in the last ten days, it's all come together. I've made progress, written about five thousand words on my project, for a variety of reasons, made two different presentations on it, and helped to run a very successful student conference, leaving me completely exhausted and a lot happier with the whole study thing.

Conferences are amazing things. I've been to quite a few, and this is not even the first time I've helped run one, but this time, something just clicked. Usually if the word 'networking' comes up, a tiny muscle in my left eyelid starts twitching uncontrollably. But thinking about the gains from the last two days, the best way to describe them might be just that. Working on the committee has brought me a lot closer to several people I knew vaguely, and some people I'd never even met before. At the conference itself I spent time talking to lots of other doctoral students. The fact that my presentation was scheduled immediately before a plenary featuring lots of important lecturers meant that most of those lecturers were actually at my talk, and they gave some really useful feedback - one of them, a woman whom I hold in great awe, even going so far as to come to talk to me afterwards. Although there were substantive gains, both in terms of ideas and in terms of feedback on presentation style, the best thing was simply feeling part of a community.

It's all too easy as a doctoral student to feel like it's just you and the books (or, in this day and age, just you and the e-journals), stuck in the library fighting a lone battle. This was an opportunity to show that that just isn't so. We're all in this together, and the advantage of being in a relatively small department (although nowhere near as my first academic department, which had less than a hundred people in it total, undergrads, grads and staff combined), is that you can get to know a lot of different friendly faces very well. Going to listen to other people present their studies means an opportunity to offer your help to them, and a chance to make a connection, to feel part of an academic community.

The keynote address was given by Dr Nick Hopwood, a Research Fellow at the Department, who (whisper it) used to be just like us. He currently works on a project investigating what doctoral students are like, and how they work. One of the key findings they've come up with is that the most important people for doctoral students, the key to their survival and academic progress, are their peers. Student conferences are the kind of forum that enables us to make those connections.

One of the advantages of a student conference like ours, which had representatives from every year group presenting, is that you get to see other people at your stage. It brings home the fact that you're not alone in not having everything completely sorted, and that progress can be slow. It's also reassuring to find third years who haven't got the wording of their research questions quite right yet - when you've been agonising that only six months in, they're not sorted!

So on we go - bolstered up and ready to make progress, as part of a community of doctoral students, with friends and advisors, we'll all get through this.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009


When I was an undergraduate, we always talked about 'fifth week blues': the point in term where you were just about halfway through, and there was so much work to be done you couldn't even imagine ever finishing it all, and you were probably about to come down with something horrible.

Well, I'm thinking that in graduate terms, it happens a couple of weeks later. Both this term and last, at about this time, end of sixth week and beginning of seventh, I've started to feel as though the whole world is coming crashing down on me. I'm wondering why I started this, I'm raking through the job adverts to see what else I could do with my life, and I'm feeling like there's no way that I can complete a doctorate, or even at this rate get started on one properly. I suspect that the reason for this is that there are only a couple of weeks to go to the end of term, and when you sit down and assess where you are, and where you can reasonably expect to be by the end of term, it feels like you've accomplished sod all.

I was trying to guard against this at the beginning of term by completing a weekly DPhil log, showing all the things I'd done related to education each week, and highlighting the ones which were specifically relevant to my doctorate. Unfortunately falling ill for a week in the middle of the term meant taking a week off and failing to fill in the log document. I haven't done one for either of the last two weeks. It's all too easy as a graduate student, especially as a first year DPhil, to feel that you're not really making any progress. You go from day to day reading and writing about your topic, but not really achieving much in the way of solid work. I'm feeling this particularly because I'm still waiting for a meeting to try to negotiate access for my research. In four months time I need to be doing pilot work, or there won't be a project to do. This is making me very nervous.

So I'm here in the computer lab trying to write an early literature review to present to my fellow first years, and wondering at what point I should start to panic, which is preventing me doing much constructive reading and reviewing. On top of academic concerns are my worries about where I can afford to live next year, and what on earth to do about that. The only thing I can do to prevent myself from wanting to quit and run away home at the moment is relive over and over in my head the worst parents' evening encounters I ever had, to remind myself of why I'm doing this and not sitting in a cosy classroom reading a nice Shakespeare play right now.