As the summer term comes to a close there will be thousands of students working under pressure to submit draft dissertation chapters to supervisors. Some will spend most weekends in the university library whilst others will pull all-nighters to submit on time. (No doubt a number of unlucky students will end up doing both.) Writing a top-grade dissertation requires hard work, and yet it’s probably true that the vast majority of dissertations are only ever read by students, supervisors, and examiners. In today’s ‘publish or perish’ culture, anybody with a dream of working in academia needs a decent publication record to go far. However, even if the dream is to escape the ivory towers and get back to the real world there is still something to be said for trying to get your dissertation published. In this post I’ll share a few thoughts about publishing master degree dissertations based on personal experience. The aim is to motivate students I’m currently supervising, but hopefully others will feel inspired to give publishing a go too!
Impact: the social media revolution
I recently chatted to students who desired to make a difference in their field of research but felt that their dissertations would be of little interest to other researchers. As a masters student I had similar concerns. However, being ambitious, I decided to give publication a try and was shocked when my manuscript was accepted by the British Journal of Special Education. What surprised me further was the amount of interest generated by the paper. According to Google Scholar the paper has been cited every year since its publication. Academia.edu shows that the paper has been downloaded 2,000 times, and I’m told by students that it finds its way on to university reading lists. Why is this? It’s not because I wrote a great paper (in fact, I’m a bit embarrassed by the paper’s naivety!) Instead, the reach of the paper partly stems from social media. In today’s digital age it’s easier to gain exposure to new audiences outside your home country, and postgraduate dissertations are no exception. You can tweet, blog, and upload drafts to places like Research Gate to spread the word. Concern over a lack of audience shouldn’t prevent today’s students from publishing dissertations so give it a go!
PhD studentships, postdoctoral fellowships, and research assistant posts
Publications look great on a PhD application and can make a big difference if you’re competing for a studentship. As a (very) early career researcher you may have little data to work with, and against this backdrop master degree dissertations can be gold mines. Don’t relegate the dissertation to dusty shelves in a university library. Revisit your hard-won material and make it suitable for public consumption. If you’re applying for a postdoctoral fellowship then publishing becomes even more urgent – essential even. (When applying to the British Academy I was asked to submit a sample of published work). Whilst postdoc applications may require PhD-level publications, getting your publication skills up-to-scratch by publishing your dissertation is a great first step. Furthermore, in today’s competitive job market even junior research assistants are asked to demonstrate an ability to publish. If you’re applying for an RA post then having publications under your belt can go a long way (especially when 50+ people apply for the same job).
It’s not too taxing…
If you’ve already submitted your dissertation then you’ve done the hard work! All you have to do now is cut it back and get it ready to submit. Not every paper has to be submitted to a top-flight journal and you’re unlikely to get your first paper in to Nature (or whatever the equivalent is in your own field). There are plenty of accessible journals or practitioner/professional publications that offer a great space for disseminating your work (in my field there are journals like SLD Experience and PMLD Link). Perhaps invite your supervisor to be second author and share some of the burden of beating a paper into shape, or co-author a paper with former classmates. (I did the latter after my second masters and felt that it enriched the paper).
A while ago I subscribed to an internet forum for parents and practitioners of children with complex disabilities. Whilst browsing the forum I stumbled across adverts asking for participants to join various research projects. To my surprise, I also found posts written by parents who were complaining about researchers not sharing the findings of their work. In my view, leaving parents out of the interpretative process is a methodological flaw. However, completely ignoring parents who shared personal stories on sensitive topics is deeply unethical and unsettling. The point I’m trying to make here is that feeding back to participants should be part of a every researcher’s protocol and there should be a good reason not to inform people of the research findings. (Perhaps universities should encourage feedback by ensuring that all dissertations have an appendix with a 1,500 dissemination report.) Extending this point further, participants who give time to projects often want to make a difference and publishing the findings is a great way of honouring their participation.
As a researcher (PhD and postdoc) I find recruitment a little easier when people already know my work. Not only do I spend less time convincing headteachers to participate in the project but staff appear more enthusiastic after reading my publications. People are keener if you’re fighting a cause that they feel passionate about and almost celebrate the fact that research is going on. I imagine that this is the same when it comes to job interviews – if you’ve written an article in the TES on inclusive education and apply for a teaching post in a school which is passionate about the topic then you’ve got something extra on your CV to chat about!
Publishing your dissertation can be a tricky endeavour but in my experience well worth the effort if you pull it off. Good luck!
(Pictured above: Bristol University’s Wills Memorial Library)