As a first-year PhD student, publishing your first paper may seem like a difficult task but it doesn’t have to be; many will have published at least one peer-reviewed paper by the time of their viva. In Finland students need to have published at least three papers before they can be awarded a PhD!
Here are a few tips from us to think about when you’re ready to write that first paper:
1. Tell a story
Think of your paper as a story you’re telling to your readers. Introduce them to the subject, explain what others have already done and where the gaps in the knowledge were; what were your motivations for the study (i.e. the aims and objectives).
Then tell the reader what you did and what you found – how did this add to the gaps in the knowledge and what should future work investigate? Conclude by summing up with the key messages you want people to take away from your paper.
2. Get the first draft early
With the specific layout/formatting requirements of the journal in mind, we think it’s a good idea to get the first draft of your manuscript written as soon as you can. Yes, it’ll be rough around the edges and there’re likely to be sections you’ll end up completely re-writing or removing altogether. But it can be so valuable getting your thoughts written down whilst they’re still fresh in your mind; the process of editing with your co-authors will begin afterwards and it’s so much easier to edit real words on paper rather than concepts still in your mind.
3. Pick the right journal
This is one to get right. Of course, everyone would love all their papers to be published in the highest impact journals in their field but this is where you need to objectively evaluate your work and decide (1) is your work within the scope of the journal you’re looking at and (2) is the quality and impact of your work at the level appropriate for the journal. This is not to say that you shouldn’t aim for high impact journals but that it’s ok if your first paper isn’t accepted by Nature!
4. Get the figures right
When reading papers, it’s not unusual for someone to skip read the abstract then skip straight to the results. Including good figures that explain your key results can make understanding your work that much easier. Make sure you get the basics right – simple figure legends, clear text and everything labelled!
5. Don’t give up!
Publishing a paper is not an easy task. Don’t be disheartened if you don’t get your paper accepted on the first time of trying. Most good journals will ensure that their reviewers offer constructive comments on the strengths and weaknesses of the study and how it may be improved. Sometimes the editor will invite you to address these comments and resubmit to the journal for a second review; even if you are not invited to resubmit, you should consider addressing reviewer comments as you prepare to submit your work to a different journal – hopefully, this will lead to a stronger paper.