The Right Stuff: Graduate Alumni on What it Takes to Get Your Dissertation or Thesis Published

Photo Credit: Scott Chan

Some Graduate School of Arts and Sciencesstudents just can’t let go…of their completed dissertations or theses. Even though the last, arduous task of their graduate studies has been finished—downing obscene amounts of coffee and foregoing a good night’s sleep for way too many years along the way—many students need more. This craving is a good thing since it can lead to having a dissertation or thesis published in book or journal form. We reached out to several GSAS alumni who successfully published the seminal work of their graduate careers to find out how they made it happen and how you can too.

Hit the Conference Circuit…Hard

Conferences are a time to share research and meet graduate students and faculty members from other institutions. Conferences are also ideal places to create some buzz around your work, interest that may culminate in a book contract.

“I approached several publishers at conferences to see if there was an interest or appetite for my topic,” said art historygraduate alumna Annie Robinson, G99, who had her thesis published as a book, Peabody & Stearns: Country Houses and Seaside Cottages, (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.), in 2010. “Most publishers wanted a monograph on the architectural firm, which I was not prepared to provide since that would involve years more research. Several years later, I again contacted W. W. Norton with the pitch for my topic, and was accepted immediately. I was fortunate that the architectural firm of Peabody & Stearns had not been published before, so it was a fresh topic.”

Added drama graduate alumnus Mark Cosdon , G97, G01, whose dissertation was published as The Hanlon Brothers from Daredevil Acrobatics to Spectacle Pantomime, 1833-1931 (Theatre in the Americas Series, Southern Illinois University Press), in 2009.

“At many national conferences press representatives are in attendance and eager to talk with prospective authors. Make appointments to speak with them. You must also know the presses in your field. What books do they tend to favor? What themes are especially of interest?  How would your work fit in with the presses?”

Keep it Simple (Well, as Simple as You Can)

Many dissertations and theses are, to put it kindly, tough to get through. This is based, primarily, on the complexity of what’s being written about. So, when it comes to getting published, it’s a good idea to avoid jargon and write accessibly for a lay audience (though, generating interest in a nuanced topic may be difficult in a world where Snooki from “The Jersey Shore” is a best-selling author). 

When it came to publishing my dissertation, I first identified the paper I wanted to publish. Then, I identified a journal that would be appropriate for such a paper. I made some modifications to have it read more as a journal article and less like a dissertation, and I made sure it fit within the journal’s aims, scope, and format,” said Morgan Hynes, E01, G09, who holds a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering and a Ph.D. in education from Tufts, and had a portion of his dissertation published in the International Journal of Technology and Design Education.

Annie Robinson added that “most commercial publishers will want you to write in a nonacademic style, so be prepared to provide a writing sample that is not laden with footnotes and jargon.”

Patience is Everything

You may think that graduate school takes a while (six years or longer for Ph.D. students) but it’s nothing compared to how long it may take to get your dissertation or thesis published. So, it would be a good idea to get comfortable with waiting a looooong time. 

Photo Credit: Arvind Balaraman

“Writing my Tufts dissertation took nearly six years,” said Mark Cosdon. “Getting my dissertation published took nearly ten years, interrupted by several job searches, relocations, and family commitments.”

Added Maurice Dalton, who earned a master of science in economics in 2008 and has part of his thesis in press with the journal, Regional Science and Urban Economics.  

The publishing process can be a long, iterative process. It’s important to be patient and well organized.”

Promote, Promote, Promote

The continued growth of social media has made it easier than ever to promote yourself and your work. It’s a good thing, too—because if you’re fortunate enough to have your dissertation or thesis published, you may have to do some heavy (marketing) lifting.

Photo Credit: jscreationzs

“Be prepared to spend a lot of time doing self-promotion after the book is published—talks, lectures, blogs, etc.,” said Annie Robinson. “Also, in my field, photographs and images are of prime importance, and the cost of securing photos and rights to publish can be expensive. Clarify whose responsibility that will be and have an idea of how much you can afford to front.”

“Once a book is published a new job ensues—that of publicizing the book,” said Mark Cosdon. “Many academic presses don’t have the resources to adequately promote a new book, so this necessary work falls to the author. Many of us are not very good at self-promotion, but it’s mandatory for one to make arrangements for the book to be shipped to journals for review, to post announcements over listservs and on webpages, and perhaps to pay for advertisements in appropriate journals; all of which takes an enormous amount of time.”

Visibility Matters

Publishing your dissertation or thesis may not land you that coveted job, but it’s definitely a nice achievement to have in your back pocket.

“You want as many people as possible reading and considering your work as you complete your graduate studies,” said Mark Cosdon. “Once you enter the job market, you’ll have some visibility. Perhaps more important, you’ll also have some publications which you can draw upon to market yourself.”

Added James Artz, G08, who has a master of art in classical archaeology from Tufts and whose thesis, Natural Resources and 5th Century Athenian Foreign Policy: The Effect of Natural Resources on Fifth Century Athenian Foreign Policy and the Development of the Athenian Empire  (VDM Verlag), was published in 2008. “Think carefully about the title of your thesis. You will see it on your CV for a while, at least until you get enough other publications to not need it. Your title should be a good ‘jumping off point’ for discussions with prospective employers, researchers, and other professors.”

By Robert Bochnak, G07, senior writer/communications manager, Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences

We want to hear from you! Do you know other best practices for getting a thesis or dissertation published? Was this post helpful? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

 

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28 Responses to The Right Stuff: Graduate Alumni on What it Takes to Get Your Dissertation or Thesis Published

  1. We received the following email from a grad alumna the other day, and thought it might be of use to the readers of this blog.

    “Since I completed my dissertation in 1999 and it was published soon after, I may not have the most current advice on converting a dissertation into a book based on my own experience. However, the University of Iowa Press has a great tips sheet for doing exactly that on their press website. That link might be of use to your blog readers: http://uiowapress.org/authors/dissertations.htm.”

    • lynne pepall says:

      It is important to understand how and where your article or book fits in–into the grand scheme of things. Ask yourself who should be reading your work–this can help identify the right publication outlet. Look at what the journal or press has been publishing, and position your work accordingly. And don’t worry rejection letters are a badge of honor that we all have earned.

  2. Keith Maddox says:

    In my field, dissertations are published as research articles, not books. That said, the process is about targeting the correct outlet (i.e., journal) for your work. Hopefully you’ve surveyed enough of the past research to see where your work fits in, and where that work has been published. Once you identify your options, which may be several, talk to your adviser about the pros and cons of each. In addition to conceptual fit, you’ll want to consider the journal’s prestige and readership in order to disseminate your work to an appropriate audience. Be ambitious, but also realistic – your work may not be appropriate for the top journals in your field. But the feedback received from those journals, even in rejection, may be the most substantive and fruitful for your future directions.

    • Hello Professor,

      Thanks for these great comments! It seems like, from your and Gayle’s comments, that there’s some correlation between the approach one takes when seeking to have his or her thesis or dissertation published and trying to find a tenure-track job; common approaches which include finding the right fit in each case and discussing best options with peers or colleagues.

      -GradMatters Blog Team

  3. Gayle Pitman says:

    I completed my dissertation in 1998, and I’ve published my dissertation findings as an academic journal article and as a chapter in an edited book. The book chapter opportunity was the result of a professional contact I’d made while I was doing my dissertation – a researcher whose work focused on the topic I was researching invited me to write a chapter. So sometimes our professional contacts might offer a gateway to publication. The academic journal article came about the traditional way; I first submitted a manuscript to a top-tier journal, and after receiving a rejection, I targeted journals that I thought would be more likely to publish my article. My second attempt at submission was accepted.

    I think it’s important to remember, too, that a dissertation may or may not be our defining academic achievement. When I wrote my dissertation, at the time it felt like my magnum opus! Now, many years later, I can view my dissertation with a little more perspective – it was an important piece of research, but for me, it ultimately served as a springboard for future research and writing projects.

    • Hi Gayle,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, especially the points about the importance of perspective and of maintaining professional contacts. The importance of professional contacts came up in our last blog on landing a tenure-track job. History Professor Benjamin Carp wrote that, when discussing best practices for landing a tenure-track position, that “networking is important in graduate school, because you never know who might be a great mentor for you, and good advice can come from many places,” and we think this can also apply to the dissertation or thesis publication process; you never know how a professional contact may be able to impact you in this and other areas.

      -GradMatters Blog Team

  4. We received the following comment from Donna Banach via LinkedIn:

    Thank you for the excellent idea! Timely advice for my cohort at St. Bonaventure University.

  5. We recieved the following from Tufts graduate alumna Jeanne R. Smith via email.

    I got my dissertation published (back in the day), by U. California Press and the best advice I got, and have passed along many times, was to:

    1) thoroughly research publishing houses ahead of time and come up with a list of most likely publishers–based on their major fields of interest and new directions they seem to be heading in

    2) make a list of current editors at 12 publishers to whom to send your 3-4 page book prospectus. Just as importantly, have a second round of 12 ready to go, in the event that you get 12 rejections. You won’t feel like coming up with them after getting those rejections and you want to pre-empt defeatism and lethargy by having your second round of letters ready to go, just in case.

  6. Susan Thomas says:

    I published a book based on my dissertation in 2008 and I agree with Jeane Smith’s comment above that it’s really important to know the “personalities” of the different presses before submitting your manuscript. If you can see your book fitting in really well with the publisher’s other offerings, then you’ve got a stronger case. Picking a press is like applying to grad school–you want to think about your fit there; don’t just pick a press for its prestige.

    At many national conferences representatives from the various presses are there. Try to set up an appt with the acquisitions editor from the press, either before you go via email or just by stopping by their table and asking if there’s someone there who will speak with you. You’ll get a better sense of what they’re looking for and also establish a personal connection, which always helps. In my own case, I never blind sent copies of my proposal out. I spoke to a publisher at a conference, who asked to see a proposal and we went forward from that initial connection. My second book project is proceeding similarly. Never underestimate the value of personal contact.

    ***Ask colleagues who have already published to share their successful book proposals.*** On the front end, this is the best advice I was given, and I suspect that it really helped facilitate my getting a contract quickly.

    One thing I wish I had done was to research exactly what I wanted in a contract and that I had talked with other authors more about theirs. When you get your first book contract, you just want the book published!! Still, issues like hard/soft cover, the # of complimentary copies, image count, etc., really matter down the line.

  7. We received the following from graduate alumna Daphne Lei via email:

    My case is somewhat different: I published two books, before I revised my dissertation. My dissertation remains an important topic in my research, but I launched new research projects when I was a Mellon postdoc fellow at Stanford, and the new direction took me into new fields which resulted in two books. These are:

    Operatic China: Staging Chinese Identity Across the Pacific (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, http://us.macmillan.com/operaticchina/DaphneLei

    and

    Alternative Chinese Opera in the Age of Globalization: Performing Zero (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?pid=397714

    It is not a bad idea to take a break from the dissertation and start a new project. Most people cannot afford going into new projects because of the tenure clock. Nevertheless, I am happy that I took the risk and did what I felt right at that moment.

  8. Anne Fletcher says:

    Ditto Mark Cosdon’s comments about “patience” and about meeting with editors. I’d also add that you have to live with your dissertation for a l-o-n-g time from inception to book– and beyond! Pick a topic about which you are passionate, and one that can spawn articles and “spin off” in multiple directions. I have never tired of my topic, and that’s a good thing because my dissertation was completed twenty years ago! Also, the first book is harder to place, I think, because you don’t have a proven track record yet.

  9. Marianne says:

    I simply registered with GRIN a German Publisher, uploaded my thesis at their publishing site and this was it! It really was that easy – so I’d really recommend to go for this – I couldn’t find any strings attached, but see for yourself (http://www.grin.com/en). And still (after more than three years) royalties are pouring in on a regular basis. Ok, it is not enough to make ends meet but to have a nice diner from time to time. But this isn’t the the point anyway. I still think it is important to share research results free and still have it published as a book. And this is what GRIN offered me – free ebook, so anyone interested in my research results is invited to read and additionally a real book with ISBN, so I can spread it in libraries, too. Did I mention, that it is free – I couldn’t believe at first, but it really is true.

  10. Usually. The student who wrote the thesis or dissertation owns the copyright and must be asked for permission. Figures are generally considered works in and of themselves and do not usually constitute a small portion of the work. See “How to Use Copyrighted Materials” for more information.

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