Writing an article from your thesis

Liz Beddoe

In recent issues of the Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work journal several social work master’s by research graduates have published from their thesis. Here are several examples:

Kerri Cleaver on policy changes for state care leaving provisions: read here

Stefanie Dobl on social work in primary health care: read here

Delia McKenna on older people moving to residential care: read here

Natalie Thorburn on children and survival sex: read here

Sarah Elliott on older adults with haemophilia : read here

Reporting your social work research to a wider audience is an important contribution to the profession and to local knowledge. In the text below Lorraine Muller PhD, an Indigenous Australian researcher eloquently explains the importance of sharing the knowledge you have gained through conducting research.

Circular learning reflects the responsibility to knowledge. Knowledge and responsibility are inseparable; custodians of knowledge have an obligation to ensure that knowledge is respected, nurtured, and shared where appropriate. Sharing knowledge on the basics of our theory is part of my responsibility for having that knowledge shared with me. As interviews progressed, I shared the collective knowledge from previous discussions, fulfilling my obligation as both teacher and learner. (Muller, 2014, p.101)

I feel very strongly that it is  important to present your MSW research at conferences, to staff training groups, in the relevant communities and, ultimately,  to write for publication. I didn’t publish from my masters thesis and always regretted it. Life got busy with work and family commitments.

These are the main reasons why I think it is important:

  • To share developments with wider audience, especially practitioners and advocates
  •  To receive feedback and incorporate this feedback into further research
  • To contribute to local and global knowledge in social work
  • To have an impact on policy and practice
  • To honour the commitment that you almost certainly made in your proposal and ethics applications that you would disseminate the results
  • Because it is an ethical obligation to let the light in on the experiences of those who gave their time and wisdom to participate in your research.

I do know that it is hard. My estimation based on helping one or two graduates  to prepare an article is that it will take some time over 3-4 weekends to reduce and polish an article from your 34-50 K word thesis. Here are some tips that I hope will help:

Getting started A note about authorship: Your supervisor(s)’ job is done when you have had a successful examination of your thesis. However, in some disciplines it is expected that you will publish at least one article with them as co-authors. If you haven’t already had this discussion, now is a good time.

A good place to start on preparing an article for publication is to re-read your thesis: what were the main findings/themes. You may find it helpful to make your own concept map or diagram to show these themes and how they relate to each other. Write a working title from each of these for possible articles. What about your literature review- what insights did you gain from this? Could the review of the literature be useful to practitioners and other researchers?

Choosing journals:
• Make a list of all the journals that you could publish in
• Rank them as meeting your needs
• Balance speed of publication and quality
• Consult your supervisors about your ideas
• Read recent editorial and articles in your target journal
• Read the guidelines for authors

Check out open access journals e.g.  Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work  and Kotuitui the open access Aotearoa social science journal.

Don’t forget to search for recent publications on your topic, the subject will have developed while you were having those relaxing  post-thesis weekends off!

The next task is to write an abstract and keywords. Most journals will just require a standard format and set the length for an abstract. This may be quite short-100-200 words. At this stage it is useful to examine the guidelines of the journal you are considering writing for as they have different formats. The Journal of Social Work for example requires the following format:

Summary: about 200 words- describe the problem, the study, the main findings and what specifically this paper will address.
Findings: one or two very clear concise sentences describing the findings or results of your research.
Applications: One or two sentences explaining what the implications of your findings for practice or policy.

For a working draft, make the abstract 150 words –you can always reduce it later. An abstract should contain the following:

1. An introductory sentence that describes the phenomenon or problem you are considering
2. Its implications /effects
3. A sentence or two saying what you studied and how (e.g. method)
4. One or two sentences saying what your findings were
5. One last sentence explaining the implications of your findings, with some recommendations/suggested further research

Let’s get writing
First off, consider who you are writing for?
Is it an audience of disciplinary peers? Or an interdisciplinary journal?
Why is your work relevant to them?
What are the key ideas or findings you wish to communicate?
How can you cover what you want to but stay within the word limit?

Structuring a Research Article
First choose a title that contains key words that will enable your work to be found by search engines. Here is some good information about choosing titles. Four steps to a better title.

Introduction –introduce the topic and background. Be clear about your research question and aims. Keep this short and avoid just restating the abstract.
It is important to condense your literature review. This is difficult when you spent so long gathering, reading and synthesizing. Cite enough to support your arguments but not to make your text unreadable. Readers will already  know you read a great deal to get your degree! If you are only writing up part of your study be sure to use the literature to support that element.

Methods section– many articles provide too little information about the design of the study and the research methods. Explain why you chose to design the study the way you did in order to answer the research question. Don’t forget to discuss ethical issues and informed consent if relevant.  Most journals  routinely require information about research ethics approval. Explain briefly that you gained ethical approval from an appropriate body. Explain your method of analysis. Journals increasingly require more detail than “I undertook thematic analysis”.

Think about data-display: for qualitative studies there are less hard and fast rules. Check the style of the target journal. You may develop one or two figures and you can also think about using tables for display some thematic material or models. Quantitative data-display is bound by more rules and conventions and the journal style may be quite strict especially with regard to the formatting of tables. Before you add too much text in tables check whether this will count towards the word limit.

The discussion section is where you can write about the implications of your findings and in this section you are expected to return to the literature, explaining where your work confirms previous research and/or where you believe it contributes new insights. When you have drafted this section, go back and look at the findings you have presented and ask whether you have substantiated any claims you are making. You may wish to briefly comment on any limitations and areas that you believe require further exploration.

Finally, a short conclusion should include the main “take-home” points: what do you want the reader to remember? What recommendations do you have for practice, policy or future research?

Submission– Print drafts and revise- I would expect to do at least 2-3 drafts before submitting.

Follow the rules in the guidelines exactly e.g. how to submit the manuscript; separate files for figures and tables; the article should be anonymous for peer review (write Author, 2017 for any of your own publications, anonymise the name of your university and save the acknowledgement of your supervisors for the final version).

Follow the referencing style exactly; do not give the editor a reason to reject you outright. There is plenty of help on referencing style easily accessed via a Google search.

Proof–read your article, read it aloud for sense, bribe a colleague, family member to read through….. Finally check that all the in text citations are in the references and remove any references that aren’t cited in the text.

Submit, relax and wait for the peer reviews.


Muller, L. (2014). Indigenous Australian social health theory: Decolonisation, healing, reclaiming wellbeing. In Beddoe, L. & Maidment, J. Social Work Practice for Promoting Health and Wellbeing: Critical issues (pp. 99-110). London: Routledge


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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