practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

These days, graduate students learn early that to get and keep an academic job they need to publish, publish, publish.  In fact, many programs have turned requirements like a Master’s thesis into a paper so that students have something early on to place before they hit the job market.  What’s not as often communicated is what to expect in terms of timeline. No one can tell you exactly when you need to submit a paper to a peer review journal in order to have an acceptance in hand to be on the market by fall of 2024 as the process is incredibly variable.  That said, there are a number of known factors that contribute to how long it could take and some common advice on what to consider.  

How Many Submissions Might it Take

I did a poll on Twitter asking folks across the academic world the highest number of submissions they had ever had before placing a manuscript.  116 people responded in the 24 hours the poll was up, so this provides a decent starting point to understand how long publishing could take. 

For over one-third (37%), the most submissions they had ever done to place a manuscript was 3-4.   A lucky 27% said 1-2 submissions, but an almost equal percent (26%) said 5-6 submissions. Finally, 10% said 7 or more submissions.  

First thing you should take from these numbers is that it is common for it to take a few submissions before your work sticks.  You should not feel bad if you’ve gotten a few rejections for a paper because most of us have been there: 73% had 3 or more submissions.  In fact, you should feel accomplished that you’re putting yourself out there, use the opportunity to strengthen your paper, and, for those of you with less publishing experience, learn more about how to write for your discipline from the feedback you’ve received.  In fact, I’ve found that besides a few grumpy reviewers, the feedback I’ve gotten along the way has been gold.  

Why Does it Take so Many Submissions?

How many submissions it takes to get published is affected by a number of different factors that I want to acknowledge to explain the results above.  First, some papers are harder to place than others due to limited venues, sample size constraints, or controversial topics. For instance, I have a paper based on interviews with about 35 respondents.  It’s a respectable number of interviewees, but some editors and some reviewers don’t like that I’m looking at subgroups within the 35 for my analysis because that splits them into smaller groups.  

Second, where you aim to place will influence how many submissions it takes.  A common publishing strategy is to aim higher than you’re willing to have your work land, which means starting with journals that often have more submissions and higher rejection rates.  I personally use and encourage others to use this approach because you’re likely to get feedback from other experts before your paper ends up at the venue you’d be really happy getting a publication with, but wouldn’t know where to send it to next if it got rejected.  Now this isn’t always possible as some topics have a limited number of appropriate venues, but I implement it whenever I can.  

The other way to go about choosing a venue is to target the “perfect fit” journal on your first submission.  For this approach, your work needs to be a good fit for what the journal does (or for a specific special issue) and have solid methods and analysis.  My suspicion is that some of the folks who answered 1-2 submissions in the poll have taken this approach. I’ve done this for at least one manuscript, which I submitted to a special issue in a subfield journal.  The article fit the theme really well and while the reviewers and editors asked for pretty major revisions to the framing, they didn’t have major concerns about my data source or analytical approach, so the paper was accepted.  The downside to the perfect fit approach is that you could get rejected from the perfect venue for the paper. So if you’re going this route, I would recommend getting the paper as polished as possible before submitting. Workshop the heck out of it and get feedback from anyone and everyone who will read it to make sure it’s as tight as possible.  Maybe even pay someone to copy edit before you send it in.  

Finally, the last factor I want to mention is arguably the biggest factor, which is how much you know about writing a good journal article.  Obviously your first academic paper might take longer to get right, which could go two ways. Either it means you spend a lot of time with the paper and revise draft after draft after draft, or it means that your submit it early and often and get a lot of rejections trying to get it right.  There’s no right or wrong approach here because both take time.  

So the moral of this story is you could get lucky and place the first or second place you send your manuscript, but expecting 3-4 submissions is a more reasonable estimate.  

How Does that Translate to Time?

This is the part that is a little tricky.  Some journals have a fast turnaround with desk rejections within 1-2 weeks and reviews back within 3 months.  But others take a longer time due to a large number of submissions, challenges recruiting reviewers, reviewers taking longer to submit their reports, and editors having other demands on their time.  Realistically, you could not hear for a year if your manuscript gets sent out to reviewers. (Side note: If it’s taking a long time based on any information about timeline provided on the journal’s website and information you’ve heard from advisors and colleagues, it’s okay to contact the editor to ask for an update.)  

Given that you will likely need 3-4 submissions to place and that it could take up to a year to hear back from each of those, your worst case scenario is that it takes 3-4 years to place a manuscript.  Obviously not every submission is going to take a year, so, in reality, this might be closer to 2-3 years. The point is you probably won’t be able to lock in a publication over the summer before you go on the job market (or in the two months before you submit your tenure file for that matter), so starting early is to your advantage.

Rack up Those Rejections

This is why writers of all genres promote accumulating rejections.  You’re not going to get a publication if you’re not submitting your work to journals.  Furthermore, your manuscripts are likely to get better with more and more feedback on specific papers.  While it’s never easy to get that email with that sentence starting with “Unfortunately…,” it also gets a little easier to stomach the more you get.  Courage (read with French accent) to all of you in putting your manuscript babies out there!

2 thoughts on “Publishing: How Long Does it Take?

  1. nafisasnotes says:

    So true there is so much more to publishing successfully than meets the eye and students should learn not compete with one another over how many publications they have 👌🏽


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