The 7 rules of completing and publishing your first academic paper

Publishing an academic paper is a very important step in transitioning from being a consumer to a producer of scholarship, especially if it’s your first. Even if you find yourself drawn to a career at a teaching-focused institution, you will still be judged as an academic largely on the basis of the quantity and quality of your research. It’s important to get into the habit of writing early, ideally the summer after your first year. Here are some tips to help you get started.

Be specific.

Pick a concrete research question within a well-established literature. For your first paper, you almost certainly are not going to revolutionize theory or practice in your discipline. Grandiose reflections on the Big Questions are fun. They are also almost impossible for young scholars to execute well.

Avoid those for now.

Your best shot is to write an empirical paper. By that I don’t mean fancy econometrics. I mean a paper that uses whatever qualitative and quantitative tools you have at your disposal to shed light on a specific historical episode.

Know the literature.

Before you begin writing, you should be thoroughly familiar with the state of the literature. This does not mean reading everything ever written on your topic. It does mean being familiar with the “classics” that are relevant to your question, as well as every major contribution to your specific research area within the last ten years. (Google Scholar is your friend!)

This is important because journal editors and referees are going to want to know exactly how your paper advances the literature. You can’t answer this question if you don’t know the literature.

Write every day.

There’s a reason scholars are fond of the saying, “Don’t get it right; get it written.” I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to put something down on paper every single day.

  • If you aren’t ready to begin the paper yet, write an outline.
  • After outlining, start summarizing the literature to help organize your thoughts.
  • If you’ve already done that, write an introduction that states your research question and makes explicit how you are contributing, and what subsections of the literature are most relevant to your contribution.

Even while you are doing background reading to write your paper, you can follow these steps, and they will save you time later. They will also help you get into the habit of writing, which we’ve already established is crucial.

Any draft is better than no draft

Some scholars don’t like writing until they’ve got a perfect idea in their heads. They don’t want to put words to page until they’re sure they are going to churn out an amazing paper that will land in a top-tier journal.

I strongly encourage you not to follow this strategy.

Any drat is better than no draft. Drafts can be revised. Drafts show your advisors you’re actually working. Even the most underwhelming draft is better than the most promising idea of a draft.

Having working papers, and revising them as you get feedback, is what being a scholar is about. Which brings me to my next point…

Your first draft is probably going to be bad, and that’s okay

My first academic paper was on economic methodology. I presented it at a graduate student workshop. It received strong criticism, as it should have, because it was bad. I revised the paper several times, and it eventually got published.

You also will likely receive strong criticism on your first paper. That’s fine.

Again, you’re trying to make the transition from consumer to producer of research. Even for extremely clever people, this is a hard transition. Pretty much everyone writes a bad first paper. With the feedback you get when presenting your research, you will be able to make the paper better and better, until it is publishable.

Actively solicit feedback

I’ve mentioned feedback a few times. From whom should you get it, and when? I personally like to wait until I have a first draft before I solicit feedback, but even if you’re somewhere between an outline and a draft, it’s fine to ask for comments. Present your research at graduate student seminars. Ask your faculty advisor(s) for feedback. Send your draft to scholars at other institutions whose work you cite, are building off of, criticize, etc. And of course, go to academic conferences if you can. Doing the latter is also important for networking and becoming familiar with scholars in your field, so you can accomplish several things at once.

I struggled with soliciting feedback. I had a hard time hearing smart people whose opinions I respected telling me my arguments were weak, or that my evidence didn’t support the conclusions I thought it supported. If you’re feel that way, I sympathize. But it’s something that just has to get done. Do it again, and again, and again, and the discomfort will eventually go away, and all you’ll be left with is gratitude for the advice, as well as lots of good ideas for your project’s next direction.

Actually submit your paper somewhere for publication!

You’d think this doesn’t need to be said. But a surprising number of students complete steps 1-6, and then never submit their research—or they submit it, receive a rejection, and then never do anything with the paper again.

Even faculty sometimes don’t follow this advice. I’ve met scholars who snobbishly adopt an “American Economic Review or nothing” mindset. They refuse to send their work anywhere if it doesn’t land in a top journal. Does this strategy work? I’ll give you a hint: these scholars never work at a top-20 department, and they always have empty or almost empty CV’s.

The referee process can be frustrating. You submit your paper, wait 3-6 months, and frequently get bad news. That’s just how it is. Even elite scholars have a large chunk of their papers rejected at the first place they send it. Don’t get discouraged. Figure out which journal would be the best fit for your paper and then send it there. If your paper gets rejected, send it to the next journal down in the rankings list that you’d think would be a good fit. If you get rejected there, do it again. Eventually, the paper will probably find a home. “Orphan papers” are rare for scholars who are more concerned with getting their work out there than they are about the average impact factor of the journals they’re in.

Conclusion

If you do all of the above enough times, you’ll definitely end up with a published paper by the time you go on the job market. In fact, you’ll probably have more than one. But you actually need to do the work, and do it as many times at is takes to get your research published. For academics, tenacity and determination usually matter more than raw intelligence. Adopt a “fake it ‘til you make it” mindset, and you’ll be a published scholar in no time.

And more importantly, somewhere down the line, you’ll realize that the whole process feels different. It’s no longer strange, or foreign, or uncomfortable. It’ll just be what you do.

See more posts: Publishing 

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