Turning a Master’s Thesis into an Article

Today’s guest post is by Christopher D. E. Willoughby, a fellow at the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center, New York Public Library. His article, “Running Away from Drapetomania: Samuel A. Cartwright, Medicine, and Race in the Antebellum South,” appears in the August 2018 issue of the Journal.

In August 2018 the Journal of Southern History published my 2012 Tulane University master’s thesis on Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright. As a thesis it was titled, somewhat generically, “Infecting the Black Body: Slavery and Medicine in Samuel Cartwright’s South,” but only the core research from the original thesis closely resembles the article. The structure, prose, and many of the arguments have evolved dramatically over the last six years. As a result of how much I had to change my thesis, I see the article paradoxically as both a cautionary and an encouraging tale for those wishing to publish their master’s thesis. Encouraging, in that you don’t have to waste the research you have done for these projects, but cautionary in the amount of revisions necessary, for me at least. Technically, my article started as a paper for a Comparative Slavery seminar at Tulane University before becoming my master’s thesis. Moreover, I have saved in the cloud more than ten drafts of this essay, only the last four or five related to revisions that I made after first submitting the article manuscript to the Journal of Southern History. Thus, I cannot say strongly enough that you should not submit an unrevised thesis for publication. If you wish to go down the road of publishing your master’s thesis as an article, here are three tips that I wish I had been told:

    • First, don’t look at the thesis for at least a year before you begin revising. I let my thesis sit on the shelf for about fifteen months, before I presented a revised version of it at the 2014 American Historical Association meeting. For that presentation, I got to create a low-stakes, ten-page new draft, and the feedback that I received convinced me that the project was worth pursuing.

    • Second, look at the article version like a new essay. Even the first draft of my article post-thesis had new arguments, sources, and structure. Content that works in a master’s thesis, even an article-length one like mine, doesn’t necessarily function in a publication. For example, hack away at your historiography. As I look back, even my fifth draft of the essay had ten pages of historiography. In the version that was published, the historiography was only two pages.

  • Third, workshop, workshop, workshop. At least a dozen people read this essay (as evidenced by my long acknowledgments, and I even forgot to mention the wonderful Tulane faculty who read it: my adviser Randy J. Sparks, Rosanne Adderley, Carole Haber, and the late, great Judith Schafer. I cannot overemphasize how much readings of early drafts from friends and colleagues helped me restructure the article. Finally, before submitting, I was lucky enough to be able to workshop it before the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine’s Medicine and Health working group, who again had me going back to the drawing board.

All of this effort, drafting and redrafting, only got me into the pipeline of the Journal of Southern History, when in the fall of 2015, after peer review, the editor invited me to heavily revise and resubmit my work. I don’t say this to discourage people from revising their thesis. Revising my master’s thesis is one of the most difficult and rewarding things that I have done to date in my thus far short career, but make no mistake: getting your thesis published requires a willingness to deeply criticize and question the quality of what, in this period of your career, will most likely be the most thoroughly researched and analyzed project that you have ever done.

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