Sunday, October 20, 2019

Publishing Advance to Graduate Students

Tomorrow I am giving advice to graduate students on publishing their first article and I thought I would write up some general reflections on what I intend to say here. I will cover the basics of: the Why? When? What? and Where? of publishing.

Firstly let's start with the question "Why aspire to publish?" I would identify two general types of answers: (1) it is your calling, and (2) for instrumental (careerist) reasons.

Regarding (1), for those students who have undertaken the PhD program because they aspire to become scholars and teachers, publishing is an intrinsically rewarding process because they find great satisfaction in the creation and distribution of knowledge. After doing extensive reading and research, an aspiring scholar reaches a point where they want to actually contribute to (and not simply learn about and observe) a debate. This is the most foundational reason for wanting to publish, and a passion that (if nurtured and cared for) can sustain a scholar throughout their entire career. If you do not have a passion to create and disseminate knowledge, you should consider a career outside of academia.

For (2), there is the motto "publish or perish". It is a motto that starkly conveys the reality of the job market. Landing that first tenure-track job, and ultimately getting tenure, will require you to publish often and in quality venues. It is imperative that doctoral students know this reality of their career aspirations so they can come up with an effective plan early on for putting themselves in the best position possible for the competitive job market.

When to publish? I myself began to submit to journals while still in the MA program. My very first publication was based on my MA thesis and it appeared in a graduate student journal. I probably tried to get published too early. I had (prematurely) sent out a few other things to more established journals in the field but they were all rejected. One was based on a graduate level history course I took as an MA student on utopian socialism. Another one was part of my MA thesis. Those were, with only one other exception, the only things I sent out to journals that never found there way, in some form or other, into a published article or chapter. But I gained valuable insight into the publishing process via referee and editor feedback.

During my three year PhD program I was very proactive about sending chapters of the dissertation out for publication, so that by the time I defended my PhD in 1999 I had published here, here and here (twice). Having papers out in print as I hit the job market really helped me land academic appointments as they were a tangible benefit to the RAE process in the UK where a scholar's top publications are assessed as part of a department's research score.

What to publish?
Your best work. Chapters of your dissertation. A strong term paper. This was the first publication I had that was independent of my dissertation, and took 10 years from the time I first developed the ideas in a graduate level course as an MA student till when the final published paper appeared in print. As I was working on my dissertation I took the view that nearly every chapter I was writing should be a "stand alone" publishable journal article. Not every chapter ending up being that. But I think this helped motivate me to write the dissertation in less than 3 years, and to successfully publish substantive parts of it in decent journals.

Where to publish? Early on in one's career I would avoid publishing in invited edited collections, and focus instead only on getting peer-reviewed articles published in respectable journals. Those carry the most weight in terms of career advancement. Furthermore, proving yourself in the peer review process of journal publishing will, I believe, make you a better scholar. Your ideas will be vetted by a more diverse and rigorous "market place of ideas" than in conference proceedings or edited volumes with scholars you might have connections with/shared viewpoints.

As with most things, there are some complex tradeoffs to consider when deciding which journals to submit your work to. The rejection rates are very high in the top journals, so is it wise to submit your work to those journals (which might take months to hear the outcome) when you are trying to be competitive on the job market? This is not easy to answer. You are likely to get differing advice on the importance of quality vs quantity of journal publications. Personally I think you should send your very best work to the best journals, and have a plan to send to second-tier journals in the event they are rejected. But avoid submitting your work to low quality journals, conference proceedings etc. as they will carry much less weight and impact than respected journals. It was only after 17 years of publishing almost exclusively in peer-reviewed journals that I agreed to publish more in invited edited collections. But even then I am very selective about doing so. They have to be quality venues and on topics I am curious to write about and believe are genuinely significant. I never write things to just fill my CV.

That is my two cents worth of advice to junior scholars about getting the ball rolling with publications. All the best to everyone starting that part of their journey!