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Publishing Research in Psychology: Creating Opportunities

Created December 5, 2012 by Emily M. Lund, MEd
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By definition, doctoral degrees in psychology, especially PhDs, should have a strong grounding in research, including publication. However, data from the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral Internship Centers indicate that more than half of internship applicants have not published any peer-reviewed journal articles by the time they apply for internship. Although publishing is obviously not a mandated component of graduate education, doing so may open up a broader range of career options post-graduation and increase understanding of the research and publication process. Furthermore, publishing before internship has been linked to higher internship match rates!

The prospect of publishing can feel overwhelming, especially to students who have not been through the publication process before or who are not part of a formal lab. This article contains some tips regarding publishing as a graduate student that I’ve taken from both my own experiences and those of friends, professors, and colleagues. Hopefully, they will assist you in finding new opportunities to publish early in your career!

Finding opportunities to publish

Some graduate students work in a very productive labs where opportunities to publish abound. Other students may attend more balanced programs where seeking out research opportunities may require more effort. Either way, it is important to be aware of ways to increase your research and publication productivity and efficiency!

Know the expectations upfront and make yours known as well. If publication is a goal for you, make that clear to faculty upfront. Don’t demand that you get published, but be clear that that is something that you’d like to work towards. Many graduate students have little or no interest in publishing and so faculty may not automatically assume that authorship on a journal article is a goal for you. Also, make sure you have a good understanding of what the faculty members and co-authors expect of you in return for authorship. Some people suggest negotiating authorship order upfront, but in my experience, this can be pretty fluid throughout the writing process, as people’s contributions tend to wax and wane over the course of a project or manuscript.

Have something to offer. When approaching faculty about conducting research or publishing, have something to bring to the table. Don’t overstate your abilities or brag, but do make it clear what you can contribute. For example, if you’ve taken advanced stats courses or have excellent coding skills that are relevant to a project, be sure to mention that. If you’ve done previous research in the area, mention and demonstrate a strong knowledge of the relevant literature. Make yourself valuable, even if you have to prove your skills first.

Hone your writing skills. Being known for being a good writer can be extremely helpful in securing publication opportunities. The process of writing a manuscript can be a long and tedious one and even more so when large parts of the manuscript have to be essentially re-written for clarity. Thus, co-authors who can write well can speed up the preparation process significantly and are seen as an asset to the research team.

Ask if there are any old manuscripts or projects that need work. Academic life is overwhelming, and perfectly good data and manuscripts sometimes get shoved in the file drawer when more pressing projects—or life!–intervene. Offering to take on an “orphaned” project or manuscript may be a good way to get a feel for the publication process without the responsibility of running an entire study right off the bat. You aren’t likely to be first author on these manuscripts, but if you contribute substantially, you should be an author on the manuscript.

Using your time and effort efficiently

Concrete your efforts. Although it is okay to have publications and research experience in multiple areas, your CV should form a clear portrait of you in as a researcher, especially if you have an interest in academic positions.

Consider two graduate students, each with the same number of publications. Student A has five journal articles on applied behavior analysis in autism, two on health outcomes in people with autism, and one on smoking cessation. Student B has one article on smoking cessation, two on applied behavior analysis in autism, one on domestic violence, two on OCD in adults, and two on bipolar disorder.

You can clearly see Student A’s interest in autism, despite the one “out of place” article on smoking cessation. However, there is no clear picture of what Student B’s research interests or areas of expertise are. Although some degree of “scatteredness” can be expected early in one’s research career, the sooner you can develop a coherent and focused research agenda, the better. Plus, writing multiple manuscripts on similar topics allows for you to become in expert in one or two areas of published literature, thus streamlining the writing process.

Use classwork to your advantage. Your area of focus should extend to your classwork whenever possible. Be creative—are you taking a class on consultation and interested in autism? Consider writing a paper on consultation in the context of applied behavior analysis. Taking a class on ethical issues and interested in psychometrics? See if you can write a paper discussing the minimal standards that a test or measure should meet before it should be considered a valid option in an assessment battery.

Even if you don’t end publishing what you write, there’s a chance some of that knowledge and those references may come in handy for future manuscripts. There are some situations where this may not be possible or advisable, and you are and should be expected to gain broad, generalist knowledge in grad school. However, writing ten papers each in two or so broad areas is probably a better use of your time than starting on a completely new topic for every single class.

That term paper (or thesis) may just become an article! If you have to write a “review paper” for a class, consider going the extra mile and making it a very thorough or even systematic review or an innovative theoretical or best practices discussion that may intrigue editors and reviewers. Don’t write the same paper that’s been written a thousand times before—look through the literature in your area of interest for a novel or needed niche that your assignment may be able to fill. Although your term paper is unlikely to be submission-ready the day you turn it in, with some careful planning and later revision, it may become a viable manuscript.

Many faculty are happy to work with you to revise a good term paper for publication, often in exchange for authorship. You won’t publish everything you write in grad school, but having two to four term papers that become articles over the course of grad school would put you very much ahead of the crowd in terms of publications and do so in a time efficient manner

This also applies to your thesis and dissertation. When you are choosing a topic with your advisor, try to choose a topic and approach that could yield a viable manuscript or two after revision. Your thesis or dissertation is unlikely to be revolutionary, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t go beyond your defense!

A note on working with multiple faculty

Some graduate students may find success in working with multiple professors in the department, particularly if there is overlap in research interests between faculty members. Before doing this, check with all faculty involved, especially your advisor! Some departments or faculty members have cultures that strongly discourage working with multiple professors. This is not something you want to find out after the fact! Even if your department and advisor allow and encourage cross collaboration, they may appreciate a “heads up” on your overall research activities.

Conclusion

In general, the key to creating research opportunities in graduate school lies in being proactive while being realistic. Make your desire to research–and hopefully publish–known, but be knowledgeable and respectful of the culture of your department, lab, and of academia in general. Being perceived as pushy, entitled, or very over committed can seriously backfire, so weigh your words and actions carefully. Above all, make yourself useful–develop skills and knowledge that will make you an asset on research and publication teams. Finally, as cliche as it sounds, don’t give up! You may get turned down by faculty, have projects fizzle out, and/or get rejected by journals. These sorts of setbacks happen to most everyone at some point, even prolific, successful researchers. Learn from negative outcomes and adjust accordingly if needed, but stay focused on your goal. It’s worth it when you finally see your work–and your name–in print!

References

1. Association of Psychology Post-doctoral and Internship Centers [APPIC] (2011). “2011 APPIC Match: Survey of Internship Applicants: Part 1.” Retrieved from http://www.appic.org/Match/MatchStat…2011Part1.aspx

2. APPIC (2011). “2011 APPIC Match: Survey of Internship Applicants: Part 2.” Retrieved from http://www.appic.org/Match/MatchStat…2011Part2.aspx

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  1. Dan P says:

    Great introduction and overview of publishing in grad school. Thank you for the contribution.

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