Writing Conference Papers and Journal Articles

As part of your development into a fully professional researcher, there are two important pieces of writing that PhD student should be thinking about – conference papers and journal articles. These are the ways in which we begin to test whether we have something to say that our professional colleagues want to listen to. Some time in the later stages of our research we should consider whether we can get a conference paper delivered and a journal article accepted. These papers are much shorter than the thesis, and typically will cover only an aspect or a component of the whole research work.
Conference papers are often easier to get accepted and we suggest that you start there. Indeed, in many larger doctoral programmes, the department will arrange an internal conference that will give you a gentle start on presentation. As with the need to read accepted PhDs to get some insight into the standards required, so you need to obtain copies of papers presented to the public conferences of your discipline to which you might submit. Your supervisors and the academic bodies that organize the conferences should be able to help. In many disciplines there are ‘reserved tracks’ where doctoral students present, and obviously it is sensible to start your public presentations in this more protected environment if that is possible. You need to read several student papers to get an understanding of what is expected of research students in your discipline. Hopefully, reading the beginning efforts of other students in your field will encourage you to feel that you too can offer a contribution.

A larger step is to develop a paper for publication in an academic journal. It is a much bigger task, since it is a major shift in your academic development, making your work accessible to many members of your professional group. A published paper may also be presented as supporting material in your thesis submission.

If you work in a science environment with your research being part of a wider programme in which one of your supervisors is the principal investigator, then your first paper is likely to be a joint one with your supervisor. This clearly has advantages in that you will be working with an experienced published researcher to learn the ‘tricks of the trade’.

If you are working in a more individual research environment, then your first task is to determine which journal you are going to submit to. This needs more thought than is often given by beginners. All disciplines have a large number of journals among which to choose. Your contribution must fit into the journal’s policy and practice if it is to be seriously considered. If you are presenting empirical results then it is no use submitting to a journal that concentrates on reviews and ‘think pieces’. If your paper is a specific technical one on a particular topic, then it must be submitted to a journal that publishes on that topic, not one that concentrates on other issues. All academic editors will tell you of the considerable number of articles received that, whatever their standard, are inappropriate for their journal.

Having found, with the help of your supervisors, a journal that, at least in principle, can accept a submission based on your research, you should then look in that journal to find a recently published paper that you consider an outstanding contribution. (It would be sensible to check that your supervisors agree with you.) Then analyse what makes it so good: the logical layout of the argument, the reliability and validity of the data collected, the form and rigour of the analysis, the originality of the findings, the clarity of the conclusions? This can then act as a guide, as you determine how you can bring your study up to these standards.

In preparing your paper for publication you go through the writing process as described earlier in this chapter – developing drafts, getting feedback from colleagues and then from supervisors – until you are ready to submit the paper to the journal. All established academics spend time regularly reviewing articles for inclusion in journals. If your paper is accepted to go through the journal’s review process, you will therefore receive a significant amount of highly relevant feedback from leading academics working in your field. This will, of course, help not only in improving your paper but also your PhD thesis.

Although presenting conference papers and writing journal articles are an important part of a PhD student’s professional development, as always, there are dangers of which you need to beware.

  1. there are no rules, at the present time, that journal publications are required for a PhD degree. It is true that university regulations say that the examiners have to determine that the thesis is ‘worthy of publication’. But by ‘publication’ here is meant that the thesis is deemed worthy of being placed in the university library with the designation as an accepted PhD of the University of X.
  2. a strong concern is that such activity can be used to divert time that would otherwise be spent on writing the thesis. Because the thesis is a daunting document, some research students experience panic symptoms at the mere thought of trying to write it. These panic symptoms vie with feelings of guilt when the student is not writing. One way of stemming both these emotions is to write – but not to write the thesis. Therefore, the legitimate activity of writing a paper for publication is used to evade the inevitable duty of confronting the actual thesis-writing.

If the paper-writing is approached professionally; if not too much time is spent on it; if it is sent off for refereeing and then attention is returned to thesis-writing, then it would be time well spent. But, if the paper-writing continues indefinitely; if it is never quite good enough to be sent to a journal; if it always requires just a little more work, time and attention, then it only succeeds in distancing you even further from your thesis and the work that requires to be done. For these reasons, any writing aimed at publication must be agreed with your supervisors and closely monitored throughout the process.

Ultimately, however, whether you write any papers during your time as a PhD student is really up to you. If you consider the PhD to be a period of professional training, then learning to write papers, as well as learning to teach and do research is an important component. Provided you know what you want to get out of it, and what you want to do at the end, you can choose your own specific objectives. The criteria for obtaining a PhD are the same for everybody (presenting and defending an original piece of work). If you meet those criteria, you are free to develop the skills you want to develop.


Phillips, E., & Pugh, D. (2010). How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors (p.80). McGraw-Hill Education: (UK).

1 Comment
  1. Abdullahi Inusa says

    Really thought provoking write up.

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