thesis to journal article -where’s the paper?

The thesis is done. Now you are expected to write some papers from your PhD. You may of course be able to write a book  from your PhD – but not everyone can or does. Everyone does however have some papers that they can write from a monograph thesis. And those who have done a thesis by papers may indeed still have some more to write.

You have to get your head out of thesis land and into the world of the journal. That sounds simple until you come to do it. I’ll just turn Chapter 7 into a paper…. and then it doesn’t work. Many people find that they get stuck at the point where they have to decide what papers can be written from the thesis, and where the papers sit in the pre-existing writing…

Some bad news. Reality.

One of the first things to accept is that a monograph thesis doesn’t straightforwardly translate into papers. It’s tempting to think that there is an easy transfer across from the big text, a quick rewrite of a few bits and hey presto, there’s a paper.  You can get one article out of the literatures chapter, one from methods, and one each from your data chapters.

But darn it, that’s often not the case. You are probably going to have to do some rewriting – in fact, most likely quite a lot of rewriting.  The truth is that there’s generally not that much cut and paste involved in getting publications from your thesis.

accept it - there's still more rewriting and revision top come.

accept it – there’s still more rewriting and revision to come.

There’s no way around it. The text you wrote to get through an exam may well not be the same text that you need for post-thesis publication. Here’s why.

Your literatures chapter, if you have one, was written to support the argument of your thesis, and what you gave in hand may not be significant enough to warrant a journal paper. Writing a literatures based paper is hard – start with these posts on literatures papers here and here for a fuller explanation.

Your methods chapter was also written about your whole project. Now, you may have developed a particular method which is “new”, not only for your research, but for the wider research community. Fantastic. You have a paper. Half your luck. Most people are not in this position. What most people have read and written about methodology and methods will need more work in order to make it ready for a journal.

For example, if your research was  case studies and you want to write about case studies for a journal, then you will have to ensure that you have something new to add to this particular methodological field, already well established. What does your way of tackling case studies have to offer that isn’t already well discussed?

Another example. If you had difficulty getting into your chosen research site and you want to write about it, then you will need to know all of the literatures that address “access” and think about what you have to add to them. This will not be the same as your thesis account where you simply had to report the difficulties you had and how you overcame them. Now you need to put this difficulty into the context of a wider field.

And so on.

So you may not in reality have a literatures paper or a methodological paper at all. It’s a real trap to assume that you do. You can spend an awful lot of time trying to make a literature or methods paper happen and get nothing but a bunch of rejections.

So where are the papers? Well, it’s certainly not the whole shebang, the full 80 to 100k words. As everyone will tell you, it’s pretty difficult to cram an entire thesis into one paper. The million dollar trick is to work out how to break up the text that you spent so long putting together. 

But it’s very hard for me to write about getting papers from a thesis in general terms, as every thesis is specific.  To be really helpful, I need to address a particular case. And then everyone else would be left out… However, I can say something in general terms. 

I reckon that there are at least five places to start to look for possible papers in your thesis:

  1. The key moves that you have made towards the overall contribution of the research – this is not the same as the overall contribution of your thesis but the steps that you established in order to build the case for a contribution. Its helpful to try to write these as a kind of list:
  • My thesis argues that a.
  • The evidence for this is b, c and d.

Potential papers may well be the b, c and d. And these may or may not equate to results chapters. The point is to think about which of b, c, and d equate to something that is new, something that people will be interested in reading about.

2. Points of disagreement with the established literatures. Where do your results challenge or question what is currently the state of the art in your field? You can make a list of these differences, and each may well be a paper.

3. Novel conjunctions – did you bring together different disciplinary knowledges, methods or social theories in a novel way? if you did this, then there is a potential one or two papers where you demonstrate and argue the benefit of this innovative marriage. (Insights from geography and literature?- one paper for each discipline… )

4. The inevitable offcuts. Was there some data that you just couldn’t fit into the thesis but was nevertheless interesting? Many a fine paper has come from thesis leftovers – those things that in the end weren’t germane to the argument, but nevertheless form a neat little set of “stuff” which isn’t yet much discussed in the field. The cutting room floor paper is often an easy one to write.

5. New angles on the thesis material. When you decided on a way of arguing your case through the thesis you may have been aware of another possible way (or ways) to approach the data, or a piece of it. There was another analytic approach, another theory you might have used. You may be now able to take (a subset) of your data and re-read it using this different analytic approach or a different social theory. Or you may be able to bring a smaller set of texts together in order to offer different, more in depth, but nevertheless complementary insights to those that already exist in the thesis.

Where are the papers? It always helps to try to brainstorm your options. It’s good to talk them over with someone. Find a mentor or writing friend and set a time to discuss the possibilities. If this person knows the field that you’re in, they may well have some additional ideas to offer, things that you haven’t yet thought of.

And it’s certainly appropriate to ask your PhD examiner at the end of your viva – or by polite email afterwards – for their ideas on what you might publish. And supervisors should always be up for a publication-from-the-thesis conversation both pre and post completion.

And in the next post I’ll talk some more about some of the things to consider once you have found the topic for your first paper.


Photo credit: Kellyswritinghouse, Flickrcommons.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Big Book, journal article, thesis to papers and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to thesis to journal article -where’s the paper?

  1. Dear Prof Thomson. I am a PhD student and a lecturer in one of the South African universities. I have just submitted my thesis on 02 August 2016. The purpose of this correspondence is to thank the Lord for assigning you as my guiding angel. Throughout my PhD journey you were there supporting me unknowingly. All your posts met my needs and you posted them right on time. Yesterday morning (10/08/2016), I had a meeting with my research supervisor on writing an article from my thesis and today there you are posting exactly what I need. I thank God for you. Keep doing what you are doing!!


  2. Can’t thank you enough for this post. For several months I’ve been trying to ‘extract’ an article from my thesis and have got precisely nowhere. Just last week, following a bit of free writing to (re)start the ball rolling, it dawned on me that the paper I had in mind was never going to happen, but the reason was still unclear — leading to all kinds of self-doubt. This post has helped me recognise and understand the serious flaws in the paper (it wasn’t ‘just me’). Free of this baggage, I’ve gone back to the drawing board and outlined a completely new article, still based on the thesis but introducing a fresh perspective and some new analysis (another obstacle had been a sense of just rehashing old research). Reading this post today, I’m really encouraged to see that the new approach is one of the starting points you’ve listed above (novel conjunctions). Thank you so much for setting me straight!


  3. Thank you for this post. I, too, have been asking myself where are these papers? I think I’ve found something that isn’t often written about in my field so I am going to follow that path. After I write one journal article from my thesis, I believe I will be satisfied enough to move on to something else.


  4. Pingback: thesis to journal article – five things to remember | patter

  5. Pingback: PhD: The gift that keeps on giving | the édu flâneuse

  6. Hello, thank you for the insightful article. One question here, should we put our supervisor’s name on the paper we construct from thesis/dissertation? (my case is master thesis).


  7. Ian says:

    Thanks for another great article. Do you have any comments on cut and pasting elements from a thesis chapter into a journal article and self-plagarism? My understanding was any cut and pasting had to be paraphrased. Is this correct?


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