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Josie Dixon – From Planet PhD to Destination Publication: A Traveller’s Guide. Part 4. Process vs Afterlife

This post is the fourth in a series by Josie Dixon, a consultant with 15 years’ experience in academic publishing, as Senior Commissioning Editor at Cambridge University Press and Publishing Director for the Academic Division at Palgrave Macmillan.  She now runs her own business, Lucian Consulting, and gives training workshops on publishing and other forms of research communication for postgraduates, postdocs and staff in over 50 universities internationally, alongside her training and consultancy work in the publishing industry. In this set of blog posts for PhD2Published, Josie examines some of the polarities between Planet PhD and the world of publishing, and offers strategies for how to bridge the gap. 

When you have lived with your PhD thesis as work in progress for several years, it’s hard to imagine it as a finished product.  Often that sense of perpetual process infects the language in which the project is framed, and I have often been surprised by the extent to which would-be authors are still writing about their aims, hopes and intentions at the point when they are submitting it to a publisher.  Aims and objectives are perfectly proper in a grant proposal at the outset of your research, but when your work is being published for a paying market, there is an expectation of completion, results, and a focus on what your work actually achieves and delivers.  That requires a good deal more confidence, since readers will look for a measure of authority in a publication; in the minds of commissioning editors and the referees involved in the peer-review process, your work will appear less convincing if your claims are watered down in formulations which suggest that you are merely aiming, attempting, intending or hoping to achieve the desired outcomes of your project.  Nobody’s hopes ever made a selling point in a marketplace as tough as the current one for academic publications.

Arriving at destination publication means completing the journey, moving from process to product, and achieving a degree of closure.  On the other hand, we could also see this as an opening out, from the inward focus on the foundations and analytical processes of your own research which is often characteristic of a thesis (documented in literature reviews and chapters on methodology), to look outwards to what it will now offer to your audience or readership.  This change of outlook is also a change in direction: insofar as a thesis is required to document those processes of your research for the benefit of your examiners, it looks backwards, charting its own development; a publication must look onwards, anticipating its afterlife in the hands of your readers.

What your project will do for its readers may be very different from what it has done for you.  In the second blogpost in this series, I looked at the outward movement from micro to macro, particularly relevant to case-study research.  Here the case study material which formed the end point of a thesis may only be the starting point for a publication, if it is to anticipate the ways in which its readers will be interested in transferring your insights or models for application elsewhere.  That afterlife of your project will be less about the research itself and more about its implications and applications – where does it take us, and what does it yield?  What difference will it make?

Here are five tips to help you ensure you make this transition effectively:

i) Use confident and purposeful language in the framing material outlining the rationale for your project– aims, attempts, hopes and intentions won’t do here.  If you really can’t say categorically what it achieves, then at least strengthen the auxiliary verbs and say what it is designed to do, rather than leaving a degree of doubt.

ii) Cut down methodology sections and literature review (see also Blogpost 3 in this series) to move the focus away from process

iii) Highlight your original research findings to emphasise the outcomes of your analysis

iv) Make explicit the implications and applications of your research

v) Look ahead to the afterlife of your project in the Conclusion – this should not merely recapitulate what has gone before, but point outwards and onwards to articulate where your research leads, and what difference it will make.

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