Developing Professionally through Graduate Student Publications

by William Christopher Brown, University of Minnesota, Crookston

The Problem: Graduate Student Professionalization

In the past three decades, one of the most consistent criticisms of graduate programs centers on the lack of professionalization with respect to publishing.  Repeatedly, scholars have criticized graduate programs for failing to teach their graduate students how to publish.  A sampling of the scholarship illustrates the persistence of the problem:

1979: “Every recent Ph.D. I have asked says that the facts of academic life were not revealed in graduate school.” (Purdy 819-20)

1984: “Right or wrong, good or bad—the fact is that success among college and university academic personnel depends greatly upon the ability to write and to have published what has been written.  Unfortunately, however, many if not most neophytes in academe know very little about the process of ‘breaking into scholarly print.’” (Lumsden 36)

1999: “Students say that they have had little guidance in the writing process and have not been trained adequately to write for academe. …  They enter professional fields without having mastered a skill that is essential to the development of their identities and careers.” (Mullen 28)

2009: “Few graduate students in the humanities can name a professor who has discussed the difference between writing for the classroom and writing for a journal.  Even fewer can name a professor who has advised them on how to select a journal for submission or how to work editors.” (Belcher 190)

Formerly, critics of graduate school professionalization focused on the effect that poor publishing preparation has on assistant professors new to the tenure track.  More recently, trends in hiring suggest the necessity of publishing before graduation as an informal prerequisite for the job market.  In a 2012 article, Liz Shelby and Nathan S. A. Okilwa report that “it is obvious that publishing is becoming less optional and more expected of graduate students, particularly for those seeking positions in academe” (2).

Against these calls for graduate programs to teach graduate students the publication process, some scholars caution against graduate students publishing before their final accreditation.  Janice M. Lauer expresses reservation about graduate students entering the publishing arena too early because their “course papers that may present ideas new to them but not to the field” (231).  Leonard Cassuto suggests that “[m]ost faculty members deplore [the] professionalization of the graduate-school years” (par. 3) because it pressures graduate students “to conform early on to what the market will reward” rather than cultivate their intellectual curiosity (par.4).  Martha Banta thinks that graduate students do not have the “intellectual independence” to advance their respective fields (Pfund, Hutner, and Banta 178-79).

This pressure for graduate students to professionalize and the resistance to teach them to publish creates a very real problem for graduate students still in the apprenticeship phase of their career: they do not spring from their coursework into their dissertations as professionals in the same way that Athena burst forth fully grown from the head of Zeus.  The professional development that it takes to mature into a professional scholar occurs in stages that involves multiple scholarly engagements and copious amounts of critical self-reflection.  Graduate student publications provide those critical engagements that allow graduate students to grow professionally and reflect critically on their intellectual and professional growth.

Thus far in the scholarship that I have reviewed, very little has been written on the importance of graduate student publications in professionalizing graduate students.  Higher Education in Review, a journal published by graduate students at the Pennsylvania State University, aspires to “provide graduate students first-hand experience with the publishing process” (“Mission”), but the subject remains largely unacknowledged in the research published by accredited professionals.  In this essay, I will provide my own personal experience of publishing in graduate student journals contextualized in the scholarship on graduate student education.   I have chosen this hybrid approach—personal essay combined with scholarly research—to help graduate students to understand the psychological barriers to publishing that I had to overcome.  The research should point graduate students to a larger body of literature that they may turn to for practical understanding of the publishing process as well as inspiration for making that first step into the publishing world.

I view my main audience as graduate students who are interested in continuing their career in academia; however, throughout the essay, my discussion of graduate student publications provides advice on communication skills that are relevant to graduate students interested in careers outside of academia.  To make my case persuasive, I will compare briefly the benefits of publishing scholarly peer-reviewed graduate student journals with graduate student conferences, a far less controversial professional development opportunity for graduate students than graduate student publications.

Graduate Student Conferences as Professional Development

Graduate student attendance of conferences provokes far less controversy than the question of graduate students entering the professional conversations of their professors.  Diane D. Chapman, et al. state that conferences allow graduate students to “explore their chosen profession” and “find ways to enter into and become involved in their professional communities” (6).  Kevin Haggerty suggests that, beyond networking, conference attendance helps to curtail the impulse to revise “interminably” (90).  For him, reading a conference paper helps graduate students to recognize their growing expertise as “expert[s] in the[ir] field[s]” (90).  In other words, graduate students who attend and present at conferences accelerate their “socialization” into their chosen professions. [1]

In my own experience, graduate student conferences were invaluable growth and development exercises because they are designed to meet the needs of graduate students in transition.  In addition to the networking and confidence building aspects common to the best conferences, I found that composing abstracts for conferences helped me to improve as a writer.  Adapting papers I had written for particular classes to calls for papers (CFP) made me more flexible as a reviser.  While I was still in coursework, I turned papers written at a furious pace during the end of the semester into conference papers.  Rethinking my audience gave me a critical distance from the evidence that allowed me to see my work anew and reformulate the critical problems that originally inspired the paper.

This is an invaluable skill for anyone with aspiration to become a published scholar.  Often, a dissertation committee or readers for a journal will recognize that your work could benefit greatly by repositioning the evidence in a different direction.  Scholars must have the flexibility and intellectual breadth to enter into different scholarly conversations.  This ability to adapt ideas produced in a particular context to various audiences holds relevance for graduate students who decide to leave the academic life. That same flexibility in conveying one’s ideas to various audiences will be necessary in any professional context.  Learning how to adapt my work to a broader conference audience taught me to think about my work as it relates to the discipline and not solely the particular professor who graded it.  It prepared me to adapt my work so that I could reach new audiences at graduate student journals.

Breaking Down the Mental Barriers to Publishing

My allusion to “mental barriers” is not mere hyperbole; instead, it reflects a problem affecting graduate students attempting to socialize into their fields.  Carol A. Mullen frames pre-published graduate students attitude to publishing in terms of “fright.”  In her essay “‘What I Needed to Know to Get Published’: Teaching (Frightened) Graduate Students to Write for Publication,” she writes that “graduate students are afraid to generate text and are even more afraid of receiving feedback on it” (29).  In an article that reflects their experience publishing as graduate students  Denise Cuthbert and Ceridwen Spark also invoke “fear” as the dominant emotion in the attitudes of graduate students prior to their first publication.  They note that “[i]n this context of ignorance about the process of publication some of the fear graduates feel heightened anxiety about the process of peer review” (83; my emphasis).  They also observe that “[i]ncreased knowledge about the practical steps involved in publishing is related to growing confidence” (84-85).

My own experience at the Master’s and doctoral levels reflects this common experience of feeling “fear” prior to the first publication and a surge in confidence once a manuscript was accepted for publication.  Because the emotion of fear seems to dominate graduate students’ attitudes toward publication, I want to share with my readers my own personal professional experience of overcoming the fear to send something off to a journal.

“You’re Not Publishing. . . Because of You!”

While working on my Master’s in English at the University of South Alabama, one of the particularly prolific Assistant Professors, Tom West, regularly advised graduate students to stop fretting about publishing and send something off.  I will paraphrase his advice:

The only reason you’re not publishing is because of you. You’re
smart. You can do it, but you’ve got it in your head that it’s
something you can’t do because you’re a graduate student. That’s
nonsense. Send something off. If they reject you, read their
comments, revise, and send it off someplace else.

Looking back, I think his assessment is correct, but his cheery speech masks the intimidation that graduate students feel at sending off an article. Even that word choice—“article”—signifies the chasm between graduate students and professors in how they think about their writing.  Professors do not grade students’ articles.  They grade “student papers.”  Despite his motivational speech, which remained in my consciousness, I never sent off anything until approximately five years later.

I mention West’s motivational encouragement because it never left me even as I found many reasonable excuses to procrastinate sending something off to a journal. I attribute part of my inactivity to my busy schedule. I was teaching, grading, preparing for the GRE, moving to Indiana, and adapting to the demands of coursework at my doctoral program. I cannot deny, though, that I was rather intimidated. Ultimately, ignorance of the publication process fed the intimidation that I felt.

It was another discussion with Richard Nash, at the time the Director of Graduate Studies in English at Indiana University-Bloomington, that finally prompted me to turn a “student paper” into a manuscript and send it off.  During my last semester of coursework towards the doctorate, I met with Professor Nash to make sure that I could transition to the dissertation process.  When he looked at my CV, he asked if he could be candid, to which I responded, “Please do.”  He pointed out that I need to publish so that I will come across as a scholar, and not a graduate student, to future hiring committees. He stated explicitly that publishing is the key to looking like a professional scholar rather than a perpetual graduate student.

Nash’s observation was not idiosyncratic.  In her blog Tenured Radical, Claire B. Potter concurs with the importance of publishing prior to the job market, though she is not referring explicitly to graduate student journals.  She writes,

I think if one article on the curriculum vitae has been seen through to publication, or has been accepted for publication, this should be counted as a real plus for a candidate. It shows maturity, and it shows that the candidate has been willing to accept the scrutiny of anonymous peer review and learn from it. Because publishing is long, hard, and often tedious work, I like to know that a job candidate has mastered the rudimentary discipline of submitting, revising, meeting deadlines and actually finishing something, an act that will have to be performed repeatedly if tenure is to be achieved. (par. 13)

For years my conscience had niggled at me with the encouraging words of my MA level professor, “The only reason you’re not publishing is because of you.”  My conversation with the DGS at my doctoral institution finally prompted a productive train of thought that led me to send off a manuscript.

Prior to this conversation, I had unconsciously been waiting for a professor to say, “Now, it is time for you to publish.”  I assumed that a professor would lead me through the process and tell me where to send it.  This passive approach to publishing accomplishes nothing, and, more importantly, nor should it.  Waiting for professors to lead you through the process unfairly burdens them with yet another responsibility over and above their enormous commitments to committee work, grading, advising, and their own research.

I recognized the irony immediately: my DGS gave me the permission not to need anyone’s permission to publish.  Once I realized that I did not need someone’s permission to publish, I finally felt free enough in my own mind to turn a “student paper” into a manuscript.

After years of being intimidated by that mantra of the university professoriate, “publish or perish,” I finally took action.  I realized that “time to publish” was not just going to happen.  I had to make it happen.  I said to myself,

I have all of these obligations that I absolutely must prioritize: preparing for class, meetings with students, grading, working on my dissertation, cleaning house, cooking, etc. …  Well, I’m not doing any of those things!  I’m going to revise a student paper and send off an article!

How to Begin: Search CFPs

Like all graduate students who finish coursework, I recognized that some of my papers were more successful than others, but I had no idea which paper would lend itself best to publication.  In the past, I had seen CFPs from the occasional journal on the Call for Papers (or CFP) website hosted by the University of Pennsylvania Department of English, so I began searching there. [2] I thought that a CFP would be a good starting point for turning a student paper into an article.  A CFP would give me an audience for whom I could gauge my revision. With a new audience, I had an identifiable rhetorical purpose to guide my revision.

Of all of the CFPs for journals that I found, I kept coming back to a then-new peer-reviewed online journal called Forum: The University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture and the Arts.  Their CFP on Origins and Originality closely matched the last essay I wrote for the last class of my coursework.  Recognizing a connection between my own research interests at the time and the interests of my peers at another institution allowed me to push beyond the psychological blockages.  Instead of focusing on myself and my own apprehensiveness at the idea of publishing, I began to think in terms of communicating with peers I had never met.  I no longer viewed my writing as a part of the classroom or as a potential line on a curriculum vitae.  Instead, I viewed my writing as an opportunity to connect with others.

Because my experience with graduate student conferences had been so positive compared to my peers who had not had those experiences, I surmised that a peer-reviewed graduate student journal would be an equally helpful learning experience.  Publication depends on successful peer review, and the people at graduate journals were my peers at other institutions.  I could not resist the possibility of engaging intellectually with my peers across the Atlantic.  Once I resolved my fears, I turned my “student paper” into a manuscript and emailed it to the editors of Forum.  The next year, I sent off another manuscript to the editors of Hortulus.

I recognized that an online scholarly graduate student journal would be an opportunity to learn from my peers.  Coming into a doctoral program with an MA, I knew how different graduate programs were from one another.  I thought that being able to learn from my peers at other universities would give me a whole range of new influences.

Graduate student journals position themselves exactly in this manner.  This journal, In Progress, aspires to provide graduate students with a venue “to interact with and learn from each other outside of [their] own departments” (“Welcome,” par. 1).  The two graduate student journals that published my work offer similar ideals.  Forum’s “objective is to create and foster a network for the exchange and circulation of ideas within the wider postgraduate community” (“About Forum,” par. 1).  Hortulus offers a similar rationale for its existence: “its mission is to present a forum in which graduate students from around the globe may share their work” (“Main Page,” par. 1).

Peer Learning through Graduate Journals

Graduate student journals give burgeoning scholars a venue to see their ideas anew through the eyes of peers who have had different graduate study experiences.  Wendy Laura Belcher alludes to the difficulty that many scholars have in sharing their research:

What most graduate students and junior faculty need is a way to make publishable the research they have already conducted, or written up in graduate school, or taught.  They know that their classroom essays, conference papers, dissertation chapters, or rejected articles are not ready for journals, but they don’t know how to improve them.  Many scholars are unpublished not because they have bad ideas but because they have never learned how to present their ideas properly. (192)

Gaining new influences on a regular basis is vital to one’s continued growth and development as a scholar, whether a graduate student or faculty member.  Specialization at the doctoral level satisfies a need for immersion necessary for the creation of expertise; however, too much time around the same people at one’s home institution can quietly dull the critical senses.  Composition textbooks regularly invoke the idea of “defamiliarization” as an antidote to the dullness of habit that impedes critical thinking.

The Intricacies of Revision for Publication

I consider the revision process for both of these publications as peer-learning at its finest.  The editors and readers of both Forum and Hortulus responded to my writing as thoroughly as my dissertation committee commented on my chapters.  This should come as no surprise.  Their thoroughness and excellence as readers was learned from their experiences dissertating and receiving feedback from their dissertation committees.

Both journals followed the same pattern in the revision process.  The first round of revision focused largely on global revision.  The editors and readers of both journals interrogated my thesis and support thoroughly.  In the first drafts of each manuscript, I lacked clarity at integral points that elicited no comment from my professors.  My conclusions to both manuscripts were also far weaker than they should have been.  The manuscript reviewers at the journals helped me to strengthen these weaknesses in my prose.

The second round of revision focused on particularly problematic passages that affected the overall argument.  All of my readers at the two journals recognized a stylistic flaw that marred my writing at the time.  I tended to rely on too many quotations and let the primary texts speak for themselves.  Forum helped me to be more judicious in my use of footnotes—a problem with which I still struggle.  I tended to be overly discursive and include information less relevant than I thought.  The medievalist readers at Hortulus critiqued the translations I used and helped me with my first implementation of the Chicago Style of citation into a document.

The final round of revision concentrated solely on local revision issues related to typographic errors and stylistic matters.  For the Forum manuscript, I was most surprised at how poorly I quoted my authors.  By “poorly,” I mean that the quotations had slight errors.  Sometimes, I used a synonym for a word rather than an author’s original term; at other times, I switched the order of the words around.  These slips occurred because they actually helped to integrate the quotation into my style; nevertheless, they were errors in need of correction.  It was quite eye-opening and made me more careful in the future.  When I turned a student paper into a manuscript for Hortulus, I knew to double-check the quotations before I sent them off.  Once again, I found the same types of errors in this second manuscript.

Gaining New Perspective

I realized that these errors in papers from coursework occurred because of the time-crunch graduate students work under at the end of the semester.  Returning to strong papers from coursework with guidance from my peers at other programs extended the education I received from my classes and expanded my abilities for future writing projects.

My readers’ comments made me realize how closely my previous student papers were bound to their curricular contexts.  The student papers were the product of a semester’s worth of valuable and engaging class discussion and meetings with professors; however, these repeated intellectual engagements with the same group of people over the course of the semester inadvertently created a kind of occasional shorthand that readers outside of the class found hard to follow.  Those passages in both papers that left the editors and readers confused seemed to be moments that were context-specific to the particular classes for which I wrote them.  Having to clarify my meaning reinforced the ideas that we covered in my classes because I had to rethink the ideas for a new audience.  These peer-reviewed online scholarly graduate student journals taught me to think of my work as it relates to the discipline rather than solely in terms of my own interests or my identification with my home university.


I am inclined to say that “I feel fortunate” that I had these experiences because they preceded pivotal moments in my doctoral study.  The Forum publication occurred prior to composing my Exam Proposal.  The Hortulus publication preceded my Dissertation Prospectus.  In both cases, learning from my peers around the world helped me to bring something new to important writing projects for professors at my home institution. [3]  Improving my abilities as a writer allowed my professors to concentrate on the most important thing in a dissertation: the ideas.

I was not “fortunate,” though.  “Fortunate” suggests that I was lucky and that the publications arose by chance or luck. As my professor at the University of South Alabama used to declare, “The only reason you’re not publishing is because of you.”  I found the calls for papers.  I adapted my student papers for the new audiences.  I sent off the manuscripts.  I found the contacts that I needed to grow and develop intellectually and professionally.

My point here is not to boast—partly because what I’ve described is potentially available to any graduate student who chooses to send off a manuscript.  I simply want to encourage graduate students that graduate student conferences and publications are important resources for your professional development.  “Peer review” defines quality scholarship.  Your peers are communicating with one another at graduate student conferences and online scholarly peer reviewed journals.  They want to meet you and they want to learn from you.  Graduate student publications are an effective way to crush the fear of sending something off for publication.  As Simon Lei and Ning-Kuang Chuang explain,

The feelings of accomplishment when publishing [one’s] own research work can be an important step in developing students’ self-image and self-confidence as a professional researcher.  Students will likely find that their first research publication awakens a powerful thirst and hunger to generate additional publications, thus providing incentive and motivation to continue with quality original research. (par. 11)

Keep in mind that you only have a small window of opportunity to utilize these resources.  After you earn your Ph.D. and enter the job market, you will be expected to be a publishing scholar.  Given the importance of publishing to your future career, practice at earlier stages rather than later will help you to transform yourself from graduate student to scholar.

Once you leave coursework and begin dissertating, consider these opportunities as part of your professional development.  Publishing regularly is like writing regularly: it is a matter of habit.  Cultivating good habits earlier in your graduate study will help you to transition to the next stage of your career.

[1] In referring to “socialization,” I have in mind Ann E. Austin’s “Preparing the Next Generation of Faculty: Graduate School as Socialization to the Academic Career,” which she defines as “a process through which an individual becomes part of a group, organization, or community.  The socialization process involves learning about the culture of the group, including its values, attitudes and expectations” (96).

[2] My educational and professional background is entirely in English.  For graduate students who are not members of English Departments, you may need to consult with your professors for the location of CFP repositories for your particular fields.  The resources I use may be different than many fields, but the process I went through is relevant.

[3] Forum is based at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.  At Hortulus, the editor during the revision process was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the middle of a postdoc at Purdue University.  The reader, and subsequent editor of the journal, was based at the University of California-Los Angeles.  To my surprise, I quoted a scholar who served on this latter person’s dissertation committee.  Engaging with scholars from around the world helped me immeasurably in my growth and development as a writer and thinker.

Works Cited

“About Forum.”  Forum: The University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture and the Arts.  No date.  Web.  26 November 2011.  <>.

Austin, Ann E.  “Preparing the Next Generation of Faculty: Graduate School as Socialization to the Academic Career.”  The Journal of Higher Education 73.(2002): 94-122.  Print.

Belcher, Wendy Laura.  “Reflections on Ten Years of Teaching Writing for
Publication to Graduate Students and Junior Faculty.”  Journal of ScholarlyPublishing (2009): 184-200.  Print.

“Call for Papers.”  CFP Website.  Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Department of English.  No date.  Web.  28 November 2011.

Cassuto, Leonard.  “Pressure to Publish Fuel the Professionalization of Today’s Graduate Students.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education(27 Nov. 1998): B4. Academic Search Premier.  Web.  28 May 2012.

Chapman, Diane D., et al.  “Crossing Scholarly Divides: Barriers and Bridges for Doctoral Students Attending Scholarly Conferences.”  New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development 23.1 (2009): 6-24.  Print.

Cuthbert, Denise, and Ceridwen Spark.  “Getting a GRIP: Examining the Outcomes of a Pilot Program to Support Graduate Research Students in Writing for Publication.”  Studies in Higher Education 33.1 (2008): 77-88. Print.

Lei, Simon A., and Ning-Kuang Chuang.  “Research Collaboration and Publication During Graduate Studies: Evaluating Benefits and Costs from Students’ Perspectives.”  College Student Journal 43.4 (2009): 1163-68. Academic Search Premier.  Web.  30 May 2012.

Lumsden, D. Barry.  “Preparing Future Educational Leaders to Write for Scholarly Publication.” Innovative Higher Education  9: 1, (1984): 36-41. Print.

“Main Page.”  Hortulus: The Online Graduate Journal of Medieval Studies.  05 May 2011. Web.  26 November 2011. <>. 

“Mission.”  Higher Education in Review.  The Higher Education Program at the Pennsylvania State University.  No date.  Web.  03 September 2012.

Mullen, Carol A.  “‘What I Needed to Know to Get Published’: Teaching(Frightened) Graduate Students to Write for Publication.”  Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 10.2 (1999): 27-52.  Print.

Pfund, Niko, Gordon Hutner, and Martha Banta.  “The New Challenges of Academic Publishing.”  Professions : Conversations on the Future of Literary and Cultural Studies.  Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2001.  159-85. Print.

Potter, Claire B.  “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe: Or, How to Evaluate the Candidate Pool.”  Tenured Radical.  3.0 edition.  Washington, DC: Chronicle Blog Network (Chronicle of Higher Education).  13 September 2008.  Web.  28 November 2011.

Purdy, Dwight H.  “The Destructive Element: Academic Publishing.”  College English 40.7 (1979): 816-20.  Print.

Shelby, Liz, and Nathern S. A. Okilwa.  “Publishing in Graduate School: A Narrative of the Process.”  Higher Education in Review 9 (2011): 1-20.

“Welcome.”  In Progress.  01 November 2011.  Web.  26 November 2011.

Further Reading

Brunn, Stanley D.  “Academic Publishing.” Aspiring Academics: A Resources Book for Graduate Students and Early Career Faculty. Eds. Michael N. Solem, Kenneth E. Foote, and Janice J. Monk. Upper Saddle River, NJ. Prentice Hall 2009, 179-89. Print.

Bucholz, Mary.  “In the Profession: Peer Review in Academic Publishing.” Journal of English Linguistics 38.1 (2010, 88-93.

Colbeck, Carol L.  “Professional Identity Development Theory and Doctoral Education.”  New Directions for Teaching and Learning 113 (2008): 9-16.

Cox, Bradley E., and Meghan J. Pifer.  “Cultivating Excellence in Academic Writing and Publishing: Our Individual and Collective Responsibilities.” Higher Education in Review 6 (2009): 1-9. Print.

Donovan, Stephen K.  “Big Journals, Small Journals, and the Two Peer Reviews.”  Journal of Scholarly Publishing 42.4 (2011): 534-538.  Print.

Ferwerda, Eelco.  “Open Access Monographic Publishing in the Humanities.” Information Services and Use 30 (2010): 135-141. Print.

Gardner, Susan K.  “‘What’s Too Much and What’s Too Little?’: The Process of  Becoming an Independent Researcher in Doctoral Education.” The Journal  of Higher Education 79.3 (2008): 326-50.

Golde, Chris M.  “Applying Lessons from Professional Education to the Preparation of the Professoriate.”  New Directions for Teaching and Learning 113 (2008): 17-25. Print.

Hilmer, Michael, and Christiana E. Hilmer.  “On the Search for Talent in Academic Labor Markets: Easily Observable Later-Graduate Study Outcomes as Predictors of Early-Career Publishing, Placement, and Tenure.”  Economic Inquiry 50.1 (2012): 232-47.  Print.

Knieval, Jennifer E.  “Instruction to Faculty and Graduate Students: A Tutorial to Teach Publication Strategies.”  portal: Libraries and the Academy 8.2 (2008): 175-86.  Print.

Pasco, Allan H.  “Should Graduate Students Publish?”  Journal of Scholarly Publishing (2009): 231-40.  Print.

Spender, Dale.  “The Gatekeepers: A Feminist Critique of Academic Publishing.”  Doing Feminist Research.  Ed. Helen Roberts.  London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.  186-202.  Print.