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Publishing your PhD Thesis: Articles or Book?

Have you recently obtained your PhD Degree? Been accepted as a new faculty member? Consider publishing asap?

Welcome to a club in which yearly publications might or might not earn you promotion. But, at the very least, publications will earn you academic survival.

So, go ahead and use your thesis for your first set of articles or your first book. It’s an outstanding way to take your first steps to academic tenure. Didn’t you, after all, spend several years in preparing and writing the thing?

Now it’s time to refocus your thesis and make the all-important decision:

  • Turning your thesis into a book, or
  • Breaking it up into articles for journal publications.

Refocusing your Thesis into Articles

Here, your academic discipline matters. Does your thesis belong to the Humanities? Aim for your first book. Does it belong to the Social Sciences? Publish several articles based on your thesis. It’s not a golden rule, but in a world where conventions and style dominate, it’s recommended.

Whatever you decide, you still need a job after your choice. So first consider the expectations of your department. What are your colleagues publishing? Have a good look at their publications. See whether they focus on research similar to yours. If not, have a good talk with the chairperson of your department. This gives you a second opinion on where you should go from here.

Still, the decision on what or how to publish will be yours – and yours only. If that decision happens to run contrary to your department’s expectations, you might go ahead and publish your articles anyhow. But, in that case, also prepare to search for a department that better suits your academic field. Or prepare to become increasingly frustrated in your work.

Above all, don’t change your research direction in order to appease your department. 

The department I belong to, for example, puts more emphasis on TESOL than on my field of Linguistics. Yet, I’m lucky. Since a few other colleagues are equally involved in Linguistic research, we are still encouraged to publish in our discipline – and get due recognition for it.

Find out how exactly articles are ranked in your university. Are three articles in refereed journals equal to one book? Are two or three SCI or SSCI articles enough to be considered for promotion? Does one SCI or SSCI article count more than a book published by an unknown publisher? And how does your university rank online publications?

Or you could, like I’ve done, go your own way and aim at publishing your articles without making the university’s evaluation a priority. But then I hope it works out for you as it did for me. In today’s academic environment, I don’t recommend it.

Refocusing your Thesis into a Book

Your PhD thesis/dissertation might look like it, but it’s not yet a book. Is your academic discipline unpopular or overly narrow? Publishing your thesis as a book is, in this case, definitely a non-starter. You will have to be patient and concentrate on follow-up research.

Just never lose sight of your intention: publishing articles for a more limited audience.

If you’re in doubt on whether to publish a book, have a long and hard look at your research. Or ask someone you trust to do so. Then try answering this question objectively: does my research have the potential to become a book? Hard to tell? To make a decision, consider these three questions:


1. How long is my thesis/dissertation?

Don’t equate the number of pages in your thesis with the number of pages in the book you might publish. A generally accepted number on book length is 100.000 words. If your thesis is longer, it can be cut, of course. But to an academic publisher, a shorter manuscript might give the wrong message: that you do not have researched your topic in depth.

Then again, your supervisor might have encouraged you to keep your thesis rather compact. You may therefore want to add material to your thesis. Yet, this implies that you have to add more text/content. In the worst-case scenario you’ll end up with analyzing new data, or analyzing new articles that have been written since you began writing (probably over 5 years ago!).


2. How focused is my thesis topic?

If your topic is overly focused, your book will fail to attract a big enough audience. A publisher will easily perceive this and reject your manuscript. A sociolinguistic study of language attitudes among Hong Kong’s youth will not appeal to most people. But add a geopolitical dimension to it and you might be in business.

Or, let’s say your thesis reports on several case studies. These reports will make good chapters in a book. But unless you have written on them in infinite detail, they will not be suitable reach a 100.000 word count.

Keep in mind that, in the Humanities and Social Sciences, books on a single topic are rare and therefore discouraged. The only exception would be Humanities-related works that involve a well-known individual. If you manage to challenge the opinions of Noam Chomsky or Steven Pinker (Linguistics), for example, your readership is assured. But in general, books that favor one major theme that is then applied to different topics – in different chapters – are the safer option.


3. How ‘hot’ is my thesis topic?

What makes your topic special? How much has already been published on it? How long ago did you do the research that led to your thesis? These questions are pivotal in your decision on whether to publish one book or several articles.

The answer lies in your literature review.

Have a good look at the most recent citations and references in your thesis. Are they up-to-date with recent developments in your field of study?

In case your topic has been largely untouched by other scholars, then this is a reliable indication that there is little academic interest in what you researched. This means you should give up on your idea of publishing a book. But a good publisher will also tell you that.

Keep in mind, as mentioned above, that books based on purely academic materials (like a thesis) do not appeal enough to the general non-scholarly publisher. But if you still want to go ahead in trying to attract the attention of a publisher, find one with previous scholarly publications who, more likely, has a proven record in taking such a risk.

In a following post, I will describe the road from having produced a thesis to an actual book proposal. In the meantime, here’s a post by Pat Thomson on the advantages of writing book chapters: