Although it is certainly not expected to have a publication before entering a doctoral program, having a published paper can give you a leg up. Even if your paper is not published, you will learn a lot from the experience of writing a paper and going through the submission process. Plus, this will be a great topic for discussion in your PhD program interviews. Academics love learning about others' work in progress, seeking feedback, and sharing thoughts.
When should I start thinking about publishing? It's never too early, but it's also never too late. As you think about your timeline, remember that even for smaller journals, it generally takes several months from the day you submit a paper to the day it is actually published. And that is assuming that everything goes smoothly with the first journal you submit your paper to. If your paper is rejected, then you must start the process over at a new journal. (Do NOT try to game the system by submitting to multiple journals at the same time, as most academic journals do not allow this.) So if you plan to apply for PhD programs in fall of senior year and you'd like to be able to list a publication on your application, you will definitely need to start working on the paper by the beginning of junior year.
How do I even go about starting a paper? If you wrote a term paper for a class, talk to your professor about further developing it and submitting it for publication. Most schools have "honors theses" or "independent research" courses, in which you pair up with a professor and conduct your own research project with the professor's guidance. Talk to your adviser about what options are available to you. Even if you cannot get academic credit for your paper, I recommend writing one anyway as an "extracurricular activity"; ask one of your past or current professors if they would be willing to be a mentor for your project. Most professors are happy to assist eager undergraduate students, especially when they hear that you are aspiring to do a PhD.
There are four broad steps to writing a paper: 1) Identify your research question. This is the most important step. Do some reading to get a feel for what . 2) Identify your data sources, download the data, and clean your data. 3) Run your analysis. Start by carefully studying summary statistics, graphs, etc. and looking for trends. Then estimate your actual models. Use the data 4) Write a draft of the paper.
How should an academic paper be structured? This really depends on your discipline. Generally, most social sciences paper include an Abstract (short half-page summary of the entire paper), Introduction (which includes your research question, motivation, lit review, and contribution), Data (which describes your data sources and outcomes analyzed), Methods (which includes your analytical methodology), Results, and Conclusion. A good way to get started is to start reading academic papers and notice how they're structured, what information is included in tables and figures, etc. Once you get a feel for academic writing, ask your mentor for some resources on writing a paper in your discipline. (For econ papers, check out Professor Plamen Nikolov's tips.) For specific instructions on page limits and number of tables/figures, check the guidelines of your target journal. (These should be available on the journal's website.)
How do I maximize my chances of getting accepted? As my adviser says, "A good paper must be compelling upfront and convincing in the back." In other words, the research question should be new, interesting, relevant, and fit into the mission of the journal. Your Introduction should clearly explain why the audience should care about your research question, what we already know about your topic (through a literature review of related work), and how your work makes a significant contribution to the field. "Convincing in the back" means that your data work and analysis should be thorough and rigorous; follow the methods most commonly used in your field. Be sure to get your paper reviewed by your mentor before submitting it to a journal. If you're able to present it at a conference or in front of a research group at your university, that's a great way to get additional feedback.
Where can I submit my paper? If you are an undergrad student, now is not the right time to try to submit your paper to a top journal in your field. Top journals have rigorous standards, require months or even years of peer review, and have low acceptance rates even for professors. Instead, aim for a journal that specializes in undergraduate work. The process will be fairly similar to the big journals (your paper is likely to go through multiple rounds of peer review and revisions), so you will get a good idea of what it's like to submit a
The journals below are a few that publish scholarly undergraduate research. Be sure to read the description of the journal and browse through several recent issues to make sure your paper is a good fit for the journal. When in doubt, ask! It is perfectly acceptable to e-mail the editor an abstract or brief description of your paper and ask if this topic might be of interest to their readers.
- 1890: A Journal of Undergraduate Research (University of Central Oklahoma)
- Aleph: UCLA Undergraduate Research Journal for Humanities and Social Sciences
- American Journal of Undergraduate Research
- Columbia Economics Review
- Comparative Advantage (Stanford)
- Equilibria: Duke Undergraduate Economics Review
- Illinois Wesleyan Undergraduate Economic Review
- Issues in Political Economy
- Opus 1: The Journal of Undergraduate Research
- Penn Journal of Economics
- Student Economic Review (University of Dublin)
- The Developing Economist (UT Austin)
- The Visible Hand (Cornell)
- Undergraduate Business and Economics Research Journal
- Yale Economic Review
- Yale Journal of Economics
- Yale Undergraduate Journal of Economics and Politics
- Check out the Council on Undergraduate Research website for more journal suggestions: https://www.cur.org/resources/students/undergraduate_journals/
What should I expect after submitting my paper? Generally, the journal's editorial board will review the submission first. If they find the paper unsuitable for publication, they will send you a "desk rejection," usually within 1-2 weeks. Otherwise, the paper will move on to the next phase called "peer review." The editorial board will send your paper to a few other researchers who are experts in the field of your paper. The reviewers may be professors or other students, and generally the peer review process is double-blind, which means the reviewers do not know the author's identity and the author does not the reviewers' identities.
There are three possible outcomes after peer review: 1) The reviewers will recommend that the editor reject your paper, in which case you will most likely receive an official rejection notice from the journal. 2) The reviewers will recommend a "revise and resubmit", in which case you will be asked by the reviewers to make a number of revisions and then resubmit the paper. In this case, along with your revised paper, you should send the journal a document describing point-by-point how you addressed each one of the reviewers' comments. 3) The reviewers will recommend that the editor accept your paper, in which case you will most likely receive an acceptance letter from the journal.
If your paper makes it to peer review, the most common outcome is the second one, i.e. revise and resubmit. After you send your revisions make to the journal, the editor may send the revised draft back to the reviewers for additional comments. So you may have to go through the revise and resubmit process multiple times before your paper gets accepted.
What if my paper is rejected? Welcome to academia! Rejections are simply a part of the game. Rejection does not mean the end of the paper but rather that the paper goes back into the publication cycle. Use the editor's and reviewers' feedback to improve your work and then try submitting to a different journal.