Preparing your dissertation for publication can feel overwhelming. The dissertation represents the pinnacle of many challenging years in graduate school.

By the time its defended, you have no doubt poured countless hours into its design, implementation, and writing. It has likely been formally proposed, heavily critiqued and reformatted, and “defended” to an expert audience.

After this effort, repacking the dissertation into a concise, academic-journal worthy manuscript is time consuming, but completely doable. Here are 8 steps to help you succeed:

1. Give Yourself Ample Time to Meet Your Goals

After your defense, create a realistic timeline with specific goals for publishing your dissertation. Consider impending deadlines (e.g., job applications) in devising your timeline. You may choose to take a break after the dissertation defense before revisiting the document; you have certainly earned a break, and time away can help you gain perspective as you reformat.

Give yourself ample time to complete the task. Although it may seem like reformatting something that’s already been written should be quick and easy, it often takes more time to rewrite something than to write from scratch.

2. Set Small Goals & Reward Yourself Often

Avoid sweeping writing goals: disappointing yourself by not meeting unrealistic goals will hinder your dissertation morale and foster avoidance. Avoidance is common during any writing task, and the urge to avoid can be especially strong when writing your dissertation.

In addition to the mammoth task of repackaging the document for publication, many of us have emotions associated with the process itself. Unfortunately, that PhD at the end of our names is no trade-in for the imposter syndrome many of us experienced through graduate school, and putting our dissertation work on display for our entire academic community to see can be stressful. You may also feel exhausted after all the work you have already poured into it.

Know that these feelings are normal, and set yourself up for success by setting small goals. Minute goals! Whatever keeps you engaged in the process to reduce avoidance. Some people use the technique of writing at least something (e.g., 1 sentence, 1 paragraph, 30 minutes) every day.

You can also endeavor to simply open the document every day to promote approaching the task.

Reward yourself for completing these small goals. It may take years for your dissertation publication to hit the printing press, so don’t wait until then to pop champagne.

3. Shift Your Mindset from Dissertation to Publication

The context of a dissertation is much different than that of a manuscript publication. The dissertation is a narrative: your committee is intimately aware of your thought processes over the years. You have had many opportunities to convey the impact of your work through clinical anecdotes, persuasion, and compelling visual and oral presentations. Your committee wants you to succeed and has helped you achieve that success over the years.

From your perspective, you have worked very hard to prove your knowledge to your committee: showing off the thoroughness of your literature review in a lengthy dissertation proposal and/or qualifying exam, your statistical skills in limitless dissertation pages, your critical thinking skills in liberal discussion sections.

As you refocus your introduction for publication, remember that 1) you do not need to prove yourself as a student, but 2) you do need to sell the impact of your work in a concise submission without the context of a personal narrative.

4. Revisit Your Aims

Begin the process of reformatting your dissertation by reworking your aims. This will form the heart of your rewrite. It’s likely that your aims have changed since the inception of your dissertation idea, and will need to be reframed to focus on your most important dissertation findings, or possibly divided up for the purpose of multiple submissions.

Reworking your aims will help focus the rest of your manuscript, and it will also inform decisions related to journal selection. Brainstorm a list of journals for possible submission, choosing a couple of front-runners based on the journal’s central aims and submission requirements. Your selection will help guide the rewrite of other sections of your manuscript.

5. Rework Methods & Results

After you’ve crafted a winning set of aims, determine which analyses are essential to addressing them. Many of your dissertation analyses will likely be extraneous and will not need to be included. You may need to conduct new analyses in their place.

Complete your methods section with only the information essential to understanding your project. At this point in the process, you will know your methods so well it can be difficult to adopt an outside perspective. It can be very helpful to have a co-author or friend review your methods to ensure they make sense to someone not intimately related to your dissertation.

6. Hone Your Introduction

As beautiful, carefully crafted, and thoroughly researched as your dissertation introduction surely was, you will likely have to cut down substantially for the purpose of manuscript submission.

In addition, you will need to incorporate recent literature in your field that has emerged since you completed the introduction to your dissertation, likely conducting another literature review.

Ensure that the introductory information you provide is closely aligned to your manuscript aims, and resist the urge to include extraneous information.

7. Summarize Results in a Compelling Discussion Section

Once you have drafted your introduction, methods, and results, it’s time to summarize your findings in a compelling discussion section tightly linked to your study aims. Again, you will need to rework the dissertation discussion section for the purpose of publication.

Your dissertation committee may have enjoyed your waxing narrative about the potential world-changing implications and career building future directions of your research; however, the editors and reviewers who review your work will expect a straightforward discussion section that describes how your work aligns with similar findings in the field.

They will expect to see an appreciation of the limitations of your research and inconsistencies with existing data. So, keep your discussion grounded in reality, and straight to the point!

8. Submit for Publication

If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to tailor the manuscript for submission to a specific journal. Once everything has been formatted correctly, you are ready to submit.

Once you submit, celebrate! And then, brace yourself for reviewer feedback and possible resubmission to a new journal. Such feedback, particularly on a product for which you have worked so diligently, can be difficult to face and to incorporate into a new draft. But once you have a complete publication-ready draft, it will be much easier to tinker until it is reviewer- and editor-approved.

Publishing your dissertation can be time intensive and daunting. But know that after a successful dissertation defense, the hardest work is over. Be patient with yourself throughout the rewrite process and reward yourself liberally. Eventually, you will see your hard work come to life as a peer-reviewed journal article!

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Rachel Aaron, PhD

Rachel Aaron, PhD

Rachel obtained her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Vanderbilt University in 2016. She is now a postdoctoral fellow focusing primarily on research at the University of Washington. Her research examines the intersection of affective processes and chronic pain. Her clinical interests relate to improving mental health outcomes and physical functioning in behavioral medicine populations. Outside of the research laboratory, Rachel enjoys life on her yoga mat, exploring Pacific Northwest wonders, international travel, and a serious quest to uncover the best happy hours in Seattle.
Rachel Aaron, PhD

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