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There are two parts to this question.

  1. As a student interested in pursuing a doctoral degree; how important is it to publish an article or "something" before one applies? Will it help your chances? I plan on writing a MA thesis but whether it is publishable or not, remains to be seen.

  2. What are the main steps to go about publishing?

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It would certainly help your application if you have previous publications. It probably won't tip the scales too much.

On (2), ask your advisor. To show you the ropes on this, a part of what research is all about, is part of their job.

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Yes, having a peer-reviewed publication will definitely help your application for a PhD program.

The steps, roughly, are:

  1. Do some publishable research, which adds some small new piece of knowledge to the literature.
  2. Work out what "story" you want to tell about the research. Often, it could be:
    • There was a problem, which was important for these reasons
    • This was our hypothesis
    • We used these methods to test the hypothesis
    • This is what we learned
    • This is what our findings will change
  3. Work out where you want to publish it. Find a reputable journal for which it is in scope. The easiest way to do this is to find out where people you respect in your field are publishing their own work. Other considerations may be whether it is open access, whether it charges publication fees (and if so, whether you have funding to pay those fees), what its ISI impact factor is and whether academics that you are working with think it is a good journal.
  4. Write up your research in the format required by the journal. For most journals, this will be:

    • Abstract (a brief (perhaps 500 word) summary of what you did and your conclusions)
    • Introduction (sets the context of your work: what else has been done on the topic, what were you trying to add to it, and why the question matters)
    • Methods (precisely what you did). If you used standard methods, you can cite the published sources for the details.
    • Results (what you found). This should include your analyses, but not your interpretation or speculations.
    • Discussion (what it all means, how it is different from or complementary to other work and why your results matter)
    • Conclusion (a brief statement of what you have concluded that is important).

    Writing your first paper can be difficult. Some tips:

    • Always know what your story is. Take your reader on a journey.
    • It often helps to prepare an outline, work out what your key references will be, and sketch out your key figures before you begin writing.
    • It may help to take a similar, and excellent, already published paper, as a template. Don't copy their words or findings, but it's fine to copy the way they have structured their paper, and use it for guidance on things like how much previous literature to cite, when to state your purpose and when to introduce new arguments.
  5. Make sure that you have considered who should be a co-author (almost always, your supervisor will be a co-author and will be able to help you work out whether any other contributors should be included as co-authors). Make sure that your co-authors have had the opportunity to contribute to the paper during its preparation and review the final version before it is submitted. Also make sure you acknowledge any funding or other help in the acknowledgements.
  6. Submit your paper to the journal through their online author interface.
  7. Wait for a response. This is likely to take months. You can put on your CV that you have submitted it.
  8. If the editor asks for revisions (almost certain, if it is not rejected), revise the paper and respond to the reviewer comments (positively and politely, since they will likely review your revision and response).
  9. Wait for a response. Make new revisions if necessary.
  10. Make any final changes requested by the editor.
  11. Receive the proofs and check for any typos, etc.
  12. Sign off the copyright transfer agreement (check with your supervisor whether you should do this yourself, or whether someone else at your institution needs to take care of this).

Online publication will usually be very soon after this last step.

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