Research

Publishing Your Dissertation in a Scholarly Journal

By Jennifer Coombs, PhD, MPAS, PA-CMarch 9, 2016

letter flying out of book

When earning your PhD, don’t forget that all important final step.

So you’ve decided you want to earn a PhD. You have read about the road blocks, you’ve selected your committee, and you’ve started writing your dissertation. But why start thinking about a publication? What does that have to do with earning the ultimate degree?

Writing a dissertation without a publication is like going to the trouble of making a cake but not baking it. No one can taste your cake, no one can benefit from your hard work—of course, no one can criticize your work either. But without a publication, or two or three, the dissertation is not technically a total success. You’d be amazed at how many people don’t get a publication out of their dissertation. Without advanced planning, a publication likely won’t happen, because, once again, there are often unanticipated roadblocks.

1. Publication will be completely driven by you and no one else. A publication will not be on the priority list of your dissertation committee. And you will likely be the only one to understand where to publish.

2. Planning is the most important step and the only way to be successful. If you wait until after you go through the dissertation process, you will be too exhausted to publish, and it won’t happen for a year or two. You must plan.

3. Configure your dissertation for three separate publications. This may be three separate chapters, or it may be three different data sets or arms of your data. Link this to the selection of your committee. In my previous articles, I recommended choosing a committee wisely, with different members being associated with different jobs. Committee members should not have similar areas of expertise. Their “jobs” should not overlap. There should be a content expert or literature review expert, a methods person, a results person and a “whip.” Ideally, the “whip” (think politics, as in majority whip or minority whip in Congress) is your dissertation chair. The jobs of each member should be distinct to avoid having members fighting or making conflicting suggestions. Each article should be aligned with a separate expert. So there can be a Review article, a Methods article, and a Results article.

4. You get to decide who is listed as an author on your articles. You will be first author, and your mentor should be last author (a position of honor). If a committee member does not contribute, they ethically should not be included in the list of authors. Many journals now ask you to list the authors along with their meaningful contributions.

5. Decide ahead of time the journals in which you wish to publish. Full disclosure — I am on the board of the Journal of the American Academy of PAs (JAAPA), and I’m a reviewer for the Journal of Physician Assistant Education (JPAE). I’m going to recommend these PA journals for one of your publications. Here is my pitch (although biased): We are THE scholarly journals for the profession. If your data is completely focused on PA education, then select JPAE. Think about JAAPA for any research on PAs themselves or PA analogues. Select a PA journal for a personal touch and some really important feedback. Your article will be on a stage with your peers. This gives you the home crowd advantage.

6. Lose ownership. Remember how I said your dissertation is like your baby? Well, your baby now has gone through elementary school and the tumultuous teenage years and currently is entering college. Your publication needs you to back off and give it some space. It will leave home for a while (often for the long review process). When it comes back, it might need to do some laundry, but it should essentially not look at all like the baby you once knew. A publication should look like a publication, not a dissertation. It should be neat and mature and all grown up.

7. Try for the highest level journal you can realistically get published in. Here is the main problem: time. You cannot ethically submit the same article to multiple journals. You will need to make sure you have three completely separate articles in order to submit to multiple journals. There are many people who believe you should publish in the most prestigious journal you can make it into. I do not disagree with this philosophy; however, the alternative is that your work might not get read in a higher scholarly journal because PAs and PA educators don’t tend to read these other journals. This is for you to decide. There are websites that can help you determine where to publish. But be careful and check out Beall’s List, a list of potentially predatory “scholarly” open-access publishers.

8. Best of luck — and don’t fail to publish. Don’t bake your cake and not put it in the oven. Remember to reach out to your peers within the profession to aid in your success. Ultimately, your committee will be pleased to add a publication to their CVs. They will remember this as their reward for all the hard work that they (and you) put into your PhD.

A publication is the lasting legacy for all of your tough efforts and sacrifice. It is the “so what” of all you have put into this academic Mt. Everest. Consider the impact that your work will have on the profession. Don’t run the marathon (or climb the mountain) and not cross the finish line!

Jennifer Coombs
Jennifer Coombs, PhD, MPAS, PA-C

Jennifer is an assistant professor at the University of Utah PA program. A frequent contributor to the Journal of Physician Assistant Education, she also sits on the editorial board of JAAPA and received PAEA's "Research Achievement" award in 2014.