Two months ago, I wrote a piece about whether PhD students should publish journal articles when they are still a candidature. This article, indeed, only focuses on academic publication. There are still other questions that we can ask. For example, when would be the best time to get your first publication? Should PhD students consider turning their theses into books? What should early career researcher be aware of when building up their publication list?
But let’s put aside academic writing for a while. The world is big outside academia. There are other ways to submit your writings, if you so keen on writing. Here are some suggestions of what you can write to establish your publication record.
Book review is a fast and easy way to get your work published in an academic journal. What you do is to read a book, then write about 1000 words about it. The process should be very straightforward, as most researchers have done a literature review before. Indeed, book reviews are not peer-reviewed, but they can be included in your publication list during your early career.
For top-tiered journals, editors usually welcome people writing book reviews for them. They receive thousands of book review requests from publishers. However, it is sometime difficult to look for people to write reviews for them because editors are human — they cannot know everyone in the field.
Note that many academic journals do not accept unsolicited book reviews. That is, you cannot write a review for a random book and submit to the editors. You will either get desk rejected, or worse, ignored. Therefore, as a junior scholar, you need to communicate with the journal editors directly, telling them that your research expertise and you are available to write a book review. It does require some trials and errors, as editors may not have a suitable book for you to review all the time. So good luck with that.
There are also book reviews platforms in non-academic journals or social media. If you are planning to pursue your career in journalism or writing, those platforms may help to expand your network. Other than that, they are only useful as to improve your writing and earn a free copy of a book. Most academics rarely count them as publication record. So, it is not worth to spend time on it.
PhD students may consider submitting commentaries to editorials. They can be counted as publications if they are published in a reputable platform, such as The Conversation, The Interpreter, and Quanta Magazine. If you have something to say, try to submit something online.
A commentary usually worth 800 to 1,200 words. Different from academic writing, it needs to be written in a way that general readers can understand. Your argument needs to be clear, and perhaps include some good policy suggestions. Therefore, writing a commentary is also useful for those 50% of PhD graduates who do not plan to pursue their career in academia, because ultimately, you need to communicate your results with people outside your area. It is a good practice as you will learn how to communicate with broader audiences. If you publish in an online journal, it also develops your reputation in the research area. Namely, your name and your work is easier to be searched.
However, PhD researchers need to be selective when submitting a commentary. Personally, I do not recommend to work with newspapers. First, as they are not well-known, this is just like a person submitting a letter to the editor, but with little bit of knowledge about the topic. It can easily be neglected. Second, news media editors tend to have heavy copy-editing in order to have a sound bite for the commentary. While the article may be more readable, sometimes their editing might twist your meaning. As a early career researcher, you have little power to overwrite their revisions. Therefore, you need to be very careful when working with them.
If you find very difficult to get in touch with editors, you can create your own blog or even a website. WordPress is free for everyone. If you want a personal domain, you only have to pay approximately AUD 50 per year, which is quite a worthy investment.
A regularly updated blog has two advantages. First, it forces you to sit down and write routinely. I would suggest a PhD student who is thinking of blogging to post at least one article per month. This should not be a heavy workload. Second, a blog helps to develop your brand. If you consistently blog on one particular topic, people can search you in Google eventually. Not to mention, although publication record does not include blogposts, it always looks cool and professional to add your personal website in your CV.
Again, you need to be selective about what you are blogging. Unlike a personal blog, a researcher blog needs to be professional. Ideally, you may want to only blog about your research, and possibly some of your other research interests. Regardless, those posts need to be informative.
Writing plays an important part in your academic career. It is not just about the pressure of ‘publish or parish’, but the fact that academics need to develop an ability to communicate with others about their expertise. Therefore, I suggest early career researcher to grab every opportunity to improve your writing.
However, this process also needs to be selective, especially if you want to be competitive in academia. As you are now an expert, people are eager to hear what you think, and may ask you to write something for them. Surely they may pay you, but think about what publication can be put in your CV. Be strategic, you cannot write everything for everyone. And most importantly, PhD candidates need to focus on their theses as first priority.
Publication is not just publishing in a rank-A journal. This is an almost impossible mission for early career researcher. For PhD candidate, I always suggest to start something with low expectation, and start building your publication list from non-academic platform first. All the best with your writing!
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