Tip #1 Be Strategic
If you intend to publish an article while in graduate school, time is of the essence. Publishing is a long, difficult process. I don’t say this to scare you, but rather to share the facts. Consider the acceptance rates and time to publication of some prominent journals in sociology:
Imagine this scenario: You are starting your last year of coursework, and you know you’re nearing time to submit a manuscript to a journal. Remember: the turnaround time from submission to publication of a journal article can be over a year! You want that article on your CV by the time you go on the job market. That means you should think about publishing sooner rather than later.
Getting a job isn’t the only reason you should publish, however. Part of your role as an academic – in my strong opinion, your duty – is to share knowledge with your community. This can be your intellectual community, or an even broader community. After all, what is the point of making a discovery if you don’t tell anyone about it? In addition, the goal of taking courses in the first place is to improve your understanding of a concept, topic, methodology, or so forth. Writing is one of the best ways you can think through an issue and demonstrate your knowledge.
Writing a course paper is an excellent opportunity to prepare a draft of a manuscript to be submitted to a journal. You are focusing on a theme or topic, and you have access to a tightly edited collection of literature in the form of the syllabus. This will inevitably vary by course – “Gender and Society” for instance, may not have as narrow a syllabus as a course called “Christianity and the Civil Rights Movement.” No matter what the course, you are giving your sustained attention to a singular matter that can be the basis for a manuscript.
Now that you know why you should turn your course paper into an article draft, the question is how? First, decide on your topic early. Think about the course you are taking and how the readings on the syllabus will help you to write a literature review. Then determine what else you’ll have to read. It’s a rare occasion where you can write a journal article based solely on syllabus readings. Look at what’s there, decide what else you’ll need, and start reading. Make sure you have a system for organizing your notes.
Think about whether you’ll need to collect data. Do you need to conduct interviews? Use a dataset? Collect archival data? Start this process sooner than later. If you can, build on data you are already collecting. For instance, in graduate school I took a course in consumer studies, and wrote a paper on the evolution of a certain type of beauty products. Later, in an in-depth interviewing course, I decided to conduct interviews with the consumers of those beauty products. This is not cheating, nor is it trying to do less work. Think about it: you might take 2-3 years of coursework, where you take 3 or 4 classes a semester. That is going to be over 12 courses at a minimum, meaning you have 12 opportunities to write papers. Should they all be distinct papers? It would be impossible to publish 12 separate manuscripts, so why should you write something that will only be seen by your instructor 12 different times? That simply does not make sense.
Identify whether the requirements of the course paper are amenable to writing an article. What are the expectations of the instructor for your final paper? If, for instance, your assignment is to write a literature review, that can potentially be the basis of an article, but it will not be an article in and of itself (and later in this series I will explain why a course paper is NEVER an article – at least not without revisions). In some cases, you may be able to combine the work for two courses and write one paper. If you want to do this, be sure to seek permission from both instructors.
Let the instructor know what you’re doing. If they are teaching the course, it’s likely that they’re an expert on the subject matter and can give you additional guidance. The instructor can be one of your best resources. So tell her that you’re thinking of using your course paper as the basis for an article draft, and ask her opinion your topic, approach, and potential journals you can submit to. Ultimately, the instructor will be giving you feedback on the paper in the form of comments and a grade, so just start that process early.
What do you think are the most important steps to taking in preparing to write a journal article? Share them in the comments or connect with me on Twitter @janejoann.
 All information in table from the ASA Annual Report, 2014