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The final step: getting grad students to publish

Posted on 5 March 2012 by

Academic advisers (supervisors) and graduate students have different goals for the student’s graduate school careers. While students may be focused on completing a degree and gaining enough knowledge and experience that they can get a job, most advisers expect that at least one of the benefits of supervising students is the opportunity to publish more papers. Sometimes these divergent goals do not intersect sufficiently that both the student and adviser get what they want from their partnership.

It can be surprisingly difficult to convince students that handing in the final version of their thesis is not, in fact, the end of their research responsibilities; that in fact, in some ways it is the beginning of the most important part … communicating their results to the world outside the three or four committee members who have participated in their research path so far.

While most students continuing in academia have a strong incentive to publish their research, many students who don’t plan to take an academic career path do not realize the importance of publishing. However, academic publications can make a CV stand out from the crowd, demonstrate that a thesis was of high quality, suggest that the author can write and communicate well, and demonstrate that graduates can follow through with responsibilities.

These are a few suggestions for encouraging them to take that final step to publish:

1) Set the stage

When (or before) my students start their research program, I make it clear that I expect them to publish their research in a peer-reviewed academic journal. I also remind them that a lot of their schooling costs are being covered by taxpayers, and they have a social responsibility to make their results accessible to the public. These arguments might not actually make them publish their theses, but at least they should feel guilty about it if they don’t.

2) Make it easy

Many thesis formats are very different from journal manuscript formats. However, a “sandwich thesis” style, in which one or more journal articles is/are sandwiched between an introduction and conclusion chapter, makes it much easier for students to extract and submit a portion of their thesis following (or prior to) their defense. As a bonus, committee members who review unpublished chapters will provide feedback on the actual manuscript, hopefully increasing its quality prior to submission.

3) Give them a warning

Academics are used to the rigor and criticisms inherent in academic publishing, but most students are shocked at the intensity and sometimes aggression of reviews. Every time a student submits a manuscript, I explain the experiences that they are likely to encounter throughout the process. Usually, students are still surprised by the amount of work required throughout the revision process. If they don’t realize that extensive revisions are a normal part of the publication process, many students are likely to give up after they receive comments on their first draft.

4) Do your share

There’s not much point in harassing students to provide you with manuscript drafts if they are just going to sit in your inbox for three or four weeks before you get a chance to read them. Getting comments and edits back to graduates in a timely fashion helps to create a culture in which both formal and informal deadlines are taken seriously. This is particularly important with graduate students, who may have had few hard deadlines over their most recent few years.

5) Stalk them

Ok, maybe you shouldn’t actually stalk former students (is it considered stalking if you leave “I know where you live and I provide your references” sticky notes on their desks?). But some of them might need gentle reminders that they haven’t actually completed their research until they’ve published it.

Nicola Koper

About Nicola Koper

Dr. Nicola Koper completed her PhD in Conservation Biology at the University of Alberta in 2004, and joined the Natural Resources Institute (NRI) at the University of Manitoba as a faculty member in 2005. She is now an associate professor at the NRI, where she conducts research in conservation of prairie and wetland birds.

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