Submitting the first manuscript: a PhD candidate’s reflections on the critical role of mentorship in navigating peer review
While for both established and novice members of academic discourse communities, writing and submitting a manuscript for scholarly publication ‘includes a mixed bag of merits, motivations, risk and pressures’ (Habibie and Hyland, 2019: 1), for doctoral students working on their first manuscript, it is an especially daunting prospect. Contributing to stressful nature of writing and submitting a manuscript are not only that many, if not most PhD students, lack familiarity with the process of publishing and that rejection rates can be as high as 93% for some academic journals (Hyland, 2012: 58) but that PhD students are pressed for time and not always well supported in efforts toward publishing (Lei, 2019; Habibie, 2016). There are lower stakes alternative modes of publication for PhD students and early career researchers, as Shehaden (2021) points out, but it is still the research article that plays such a significant role in the completion of doctoral studies, future hiring and promotion.
Given the high stakes nature of publishing in a scholarly journal, it is unfortunate that publishing and peer review processes are not always made explicit to PhD students, who may be left to navigate these processes on their own or with little support. Like much writing in the academy, writing for publication among PhD students can seem like an 'institutional practice of mystery’ (Lillis, 2001). One important difference in writing as a PhD student in contrast to writing as an undergraduate, though, is the close mentorship provided to PhD students including through regular feedback received on the thesis by their supervisors. When transferred to publishing, this mentorship and regular feedback provide tremendous opportunities for PhD students to decode and learn to navigate the processes of submitting a manuscript, responding to peer review and publishing a scholarly journal article. Below, I reflect on my own recent experience with submitting a manuscript, navigating peer review and successfully coauthoring a journal article for publication with my thesis supervisor as a second-year PhD student all of which was made possible through mentorship from my supervisor.
Reflections on submitting a manuscript
After reading a recently published article in a journal that I often go back to, I met with my supervisor to discuss what I thought was a great opportunity to respond to the article. I was thrilled when she agreed to do this and seemed equally excited about doing so. She outlined the first steps to be taken: we would develop a plan, divide up tasks, and begin to plan and draft before reading each other’s contributions and providing feedback to each other, similar to the process described by Darvin and Norton (2019) in co-authoring as supervisor and supervisee. We would also use the authors’ instructions and guidelines, unique to the journal, to format the manuscript before submitting. These initial steps in the submission process were clear to me and as I would have expected; however, what came next was not at all.
The need for mentorship in navigating peer review
Looking back, I am not quite sure I remember what I expected to happen next. I suppose I just thought the manuscript would be accepted or rejected and with either of these results a few comments from reviewers would be included. ‘Revise and resubmit’ was not yet in my lexicon. As you can probably guess, we were given the opportunity to revise and resubmit, which requires not only that you read through reviewers’ comments, which may conflict, but also that you include a table that shows changes made in response to each reviewer’s comments and recommendations for changes in addition to revising the manuscript. Without my supervisor, I would have been completely lost in understanding the critical steps and subsequent genres involved in doing this.
Hyland (2012) highlights that it may be helpful for novice researchers to see their submitted manuscript as part of a genre set, including journal aims and instructions for authors as well as referees’ reports and the editor’s comments, rather than as a stand-alone text. This is certainly helpful, but because the components of the genre set surrounding the manuscript are occluded, without a mentor’s support, these texts, the practices surrounding them, and the conventions for writing them are unknowable to novice researchers. Thankfully for me, my supervisor explained each step of this process (from reading and understanding reviewers’ comments, to deciding what actions to take, discussing possible changes in response to reviewers’ comments, drafting changes in the manuscript, and responding to each of the reviewers’ comments), and the purpose and expectation of each, fully aware of, and making explicit to me, the role of co-authoring and navigating peer review as a process of apprenticeship (Ferris, 2019). While I still have a significant amount to learn regarding writing for a scholarly journal, I am at least now aware of the stages and expectations of the publishing process, and this makes the next stage in my publishing apprenticeship, single authorship, much less unnerving.
Conclusions, Lessons Learned and a Few Tips
Submitting a manuscript to a scholarly journal and navigating the peer review process as a PhD candidate is difficult and nerve-wracking, but it is made possible through the mentorship of more experienced scholars with whom PhD students likely have the closest contact – their thesis supervisors. Co-publishing a journal article with my own supervisor has offered me growing awareness of, access to, and practice in producing pieces in a genre set I did not know existed prior to this experience. For those of you who may just be getting started thinking of working on a publication, or are in the midst of doing so, here are a few lessons learned and tips from my recent experience in coauthoring a journal article and navigating the peer review process:
Darvin, R. and Norton, B. (2019) ‘Collaborative writing, academic socialization, and the negotiation of identity.’ In Habibie and Hyland (Eds) Novice Writers and Scholarly Publication Authors, Mentors, Gatekeepers (pp. 195-213 ). London: Palgrave MacMillan.
Ferris, D. (2019) ‘Guiding junior scholars into and through the publication process.’ In Habibie and Hyland (Eds) Novice Writers and Scholarly Publication Authors, Mentors, Gatekeepers (pp. 215-232). London: Palgrave MacMillan.
Habibie, P. and Hyland, K. (2019) ‘Introduction: The Risks and Rewards of Scholarly Publishing.’ In Habibie and Hyland (Eds) Novice Writers and Scholarly Publication Authors, Mentors, Gatekeepers (pp. 1-10). London: Palgrave MacMillan.
Habibie, P. (2016) ‘Writing for Scholarly Publication in Canadian Higher Education Context: a
Case Study’. In Badenhorst, C.M. & Geurin, C. (Eds.). Research Literacies and Writing
Pedagogies for Masters and Doctoral Writers (pp. 51-67). Leiden: Brill Publishing.
Hyland, K. (2012). ‘Welcome to the machine: Thoughts on writing for scholarly publication.’ Journal of Second Language Teaching and Research, 1 (1), 58-68.
Lei, J. (2019) ‘Publishing during doctoral candidature from an activity theory perspective: The case of four Chinese nursing doctoral students.’ TESOL Quarterly, 53 (3), 655-685.
Lillis, T. (2001) Student writing: Access, Regulation, Desire. London: Routledge.
Shehaden, A. (2021) ‘Alternative modes of publication for novice researchers.’ TESOL Journal, 00, 1-5.
Angela is a second-year PhD Candidate in the School of Education, Communication and Society at King’s College London. Her research interests include English for Academic Purposes, academic literacy development, English medium instruction, and academic discourse in higher education.