Turning My Master’s Thesis into a Journal Article (Part 1): Don't Shorten

I wrote my communication thesis The Blind Spot on hand hygiene culture in hospitals six years ago. I was able to secure myself a PhD in health communication based on this thesis. Now, it’s just gathering dust in the drawer. Not any more! In this series, I document my efforts to rework my 190-page Danish thesis into a much, much shorter English scientific article.

Series content — these are links to the different steps:

  1. Don't Shorten
  2. Coming soon...

No, You Can’t Just Shorten Your Thesis

I started this journey by typing “How to turn your thesis into an article” into Google and this advice came up from Elsevier: “1) Find the best-fitted journal for your work” and “2) Shorten the length of the thesis”. I don’t believe this is a viable path for two reasons. Firstly, a thesis is a very different genre than an article. A long thesis, even the ones that are shorter than my 190 pages, contains several lines of argument and juggles several ideas. If you could actually shorten your thesis, why did you even write a long thesis? If you shorten down a novel, you don’t get a short story. You get a summary of the novel. I’m not looking for a summary of my thesis. I’m looking to distill the most interesting results.

Your Supervisor is no Longer Your Audience

Secondly, the argument of a thesis has a very different audience than a scientific article. Basically, the audience of your thesis is your supervisor and censors. There’s no getting around that. You had to pass that exam! Now, my thesis was written with and about a hospital in Denmark, and we did discover some valuable stuff regarding how the hospital could improve essential hand hygiene performance. It was a good thesis, I think, but I have not heard about anyone picking it up at the hospital afterwards, sadly. In the end, its most important job was the merit. When I now read my thesis again as a PhD student, I can’t help but notice this fact. For example, my thesis is FULL of quotes. It took me a long time to realise that scientific articles don’t use that many quotes because the main idea of an article is to present your own analysis. Contrary, a thesis is meant to signify knowledge, so it’s natural to stuff the sucker with long quotes, putting on display how many philosophers you know. Yes, a thesis is different from a scientific article. I see now that my thesis argument was supposed to convince an assessor of my skills primarily. That being said, me and my thesis group did produce some interesting results, so the first step would be identifying the most interesting core/analysis and leave out the stuff that cannot contribute to science.

Instead, Scavenge Your Thesis for an Essential Contribution

The basic advice of scientific writing is first to write up the “core” and then to “frame” it for a specific journal. My supervisor told me that. I can’t remember where, but Wittgenstein said that all phenomena has a hot core — or was he talking about language? I don’t remember. But the hot core is a great metaphor for your essential contribution: the really, fascinating stuff that is at the heart of your thesis. It’s the stuff that is kept you going throughout the thesis, although some parts where boring. There must have been something rumbling around your writings - the mystery that you hoped to solve or the key emotion that you wanted to preserve. Somewhere in your thesis, you might have discovered something fundamental like this. Importantly, the core is not a groundbreaking revelation or scientific discovery. For the core to be a revelation, it has to be framed in terms of a scientific discourse. It has to add to the conversation. For now, the core is just something that is plain interesting or mysterious. It's the thing that is still alive in your thesis, the thing that you could pick up today and tell people about with vigour.

Finding the hot core of my own thesis, my essential contribution, is my next step. Coming soon.

Malte Lebahn-Hadidi

Malte Lebahn-Hadidi