Everything is under control. (How to finish a PhD, or succeed at anything else in life).

For the past 2 years I’ve been procrastinating on my PhD program. Classes were hard, but I finished my credits with a high GPA. That’s not the problem. One of the requirements for graduation is submitting an article to a peer-reviewed journal and getting it published.

This was a major hurdle for me.

In part, because I don’t like writing in an academic style, and I’m careless with things like punctuation or referencing (because I want it to be about the purity of my brilliant ideas, not whether to put an apostrophe or semicolon).

I tried submitting some of the papers I’d written in class – but I did it poorly, without following the directions well. The few responses I got back admonished me for being careless and unprofessional.

That’s when I gave up.

I started complaining about how I had no control over the process, how I couldn’t predict or guarantee that anybody would publish my paper. I lamented that it wasn’t up to me. It was part of a silly system. I knew I had to do it, somehow, sometime, but I kept putting it off.

I thought about (and actually started) hiring assistants to help me improve the writing and manage submissions (those projects never got anywhere).

It wasn’t until I learned my adviser was retiring that I realized I had to finish my PhD this year or else probably never finish.

The kick in the ass was all I needed. Now that I’ve decided to finish my PhD this year, and convinced myself it’s possible, I’ve started seeing things in a new light.

Firstly, there is no conspiracy against me, trying to keep me down.

Even if I don’t believe in the system, I’ve chosen to play in a game with rules – I need to learn those rules if I want to be successful. Those rules help keep the game fair.

Secondly, academic journals want great content. They are struggling to produce a quality academic journal full of interesting, engaging research. They get tons of submissions, yes, but probably not that many brilliant ones. They want me to submit. As long as my paper is good enough.

Before, I was telling myself that my writing style just doesn’t fit with academia, because I’m a natural born rebel, but that’s bullshit – I can write well, and adopt an academic tone. I’m rigorous with logical, well-developed arguments that use references and quotes in a meaningful way.

While my graduate level work may not be perfect, I’m certainly capable of producing interesting, well-reasoned academic articles. I’ve been resisting it, because I have no passion for it, and I hate the idea of “proving” myself to a board of faceless editors.

But that’s a limitation that’s only hurting myself.

Previously, I’d written papers based on a system of permission and approval – I relied on my professors to give me a good grade. The papers were “practice” – in that nobody would ever see them. They had to be good enough to please my professors, but that’s about all.

It’s no wonder that those same papers weren’t ideal for a reputable academic journal.

Journals don’t want to publish practice papers just to fill space.

Journals want to publish interesting, thought-provoking articles that entertain and educate their readership. This is true for just about everyone and everything: if you’re asking to leverage someone else’s platform to publish your content, it should be your best content.

I’d been contacting journals asking for a favor. “Please publish my article, I really need it to check that box off and finish my PHD.” That’s a weak argument, which is why I always tell my book marketing clients not to negotiate from a position of weakness: never start a relationship asking for favors. Always find a way to provide value.

My end goals are the same, to get published, but instead of acting like I was relying on them to “give me a break” or do me a favor by publishing my articles, I needed to be coming from a position of power – giving them content so great they’d be lucky to have it. Writing articles unhampered by permission or teacher approval. Aiming not just to meet requirements and pass a class, but to actually impress readers who are already well educated on a certain topic, and make them see things in a new light that they’d never considered.


To get an article published in a peer reviewed article, don’t try to impress the editors or the reviewers – they are only the safeguards protecting their readership.

Try to impress the readership.

Know who they are and what they like and respond to.

Incorporate some pressing issues of immediate concern to show the paper is timely and relevant. Speak about an issue that matters to that audience.

I spend 2 years procrastinating because I wasn’t thinking like this, and my fear of rejection and aversion to asking strangers for favors was the root problem.

Nobody owes you anything, and asking for the thing you want is probably not the way to get the thing that you want. You need to consider how to provide an abundance of value that’s so direct and obvious, it’s incontrovertible.

You need to make them want your paper (or book, or art, or whatever else you’ve created).

All other considerations are secondary.

UPDATE: Holy shit. I wrote this post to motivate myself into sending out some articles, and it worked. Today, two weeks later, I was notified that one of my articles got accepted. I thought I’d need to keep submitting for several months. It took 2 weeks to do what I couldn’t do in 2 years, just because I shifted my perspective about who was in charge of the situation.

What’s something you’ve been avoiding but know you really need to do?

Why do you think you’re hesitating? Have you actually taken any action recently?

Share in the comments!

About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book designer with a Ph.D. in Literature. He's been featured on CNN and spoken at dozens of writing conferences around the world. These days he mostly writes young adult fantasy and science fiction, while helping authors build profitable publishing platforms. Find me
  • Congratulations, Derek! 😀

  • Tom Adams

    Well done for getting the paper accepted. Just wanted to say that I’m finally making the push into full time writing. It was a big decision to make, but your constant help and encouragement through the blog, emails, books and videos was a factor in making the move. I’m looking forward to receiving the next few emails as anything to help build my author platform will be very welcome. All the best with the thesis.

  • Lawrence Ambrose

    Derek, the professors really were scheming against you. 🙂 The “lacking passion” caught my eye. It’s hard to put a lot of work into something where you’re uncertain of the results or question whether you ought to be doing it for X reasons. Some people get a degree because they’re so close to it and have put so much work into it (what writer-philosopher Harry Browne called “malinvestment syndrome”). My best friend was one paper away from a PHD in philosophy. Twenty years later, he’s still one paper away. Anyhow, I’m glad you’ve found a way to push yourself over that hurdle.

  • Claire Luana

    Congratulations, and good luck on finishing your thesis! Just remember the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time!

  • Sarah Riv

    Congrats! I’m exactly the same way I complain about the “man” all the time, but I rarely take any action. It’s hard to change my habits. Right now I really need to write. I’ve been aching for years about how much I hate my writing, but I haven’t done much to improve. It’s a bit hard to keep writing when you hate it though. Still

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