Getting a PhD in the humanities and social sciences can seem like a years-long obstacle race in which most contestants are unlikely to receive the prize for which they so doggedly struggled: a tenure-track faculty position. The question of whether to publish one’s work as a graduate student is one of the trickiest hurdles along the way. Maybe you’d agree with what a tenure-track faculty member at a liberal arts institution said: “I am not convinced that there is even that much rhyme or reason [in] the system.” Or maybe you’ve heard or given some conflicting advice about the issue.
On the one hand, producing an original, book-length dissertation is the focal point of a PhD in fields like history, literature, and political science; preparing papers or book chapters can serve as yet another distraction from completing the dissertation. Such projects often issue “rapidly diminishing returns on time investment,” as Takashi Fujitani, Dr. David Chu Professor and Director of the Program in Asia-Pacific Studies at the University of Toronto, described it. Years can pass between submitting a paper to a journal and seeing the article in print. In the meantime, a dissertation may be delayed, which often cripples a job candidate’s chances. A tenured faculty member at a research-focused state university in the U.S. wrote that “a candidate without the terminal degree is often ineligible for employment in tenure track lines. Due to these hiring rules, as a search committee chair, I have always set aside those candidates without degrees in hand.”
Moreover, hastily producing publications can saddle a student with a bad reputation even before he or she graduates. 54.4% of survey respondents said that they hadn’t published more because they “felt that the work was insufficiently polished.” Just having an unusually large number of publications on the CV can arouse suspicion: a tenure-track faculty member in the Communications department of a research university confessed, “I often wonder about grad students that have published a lot. Typically, it seems as if they have lots of co-authors, and I wonder how much they truly did for some of their projects.” In perhaps the most nightmarish scenario, publishing too much, too soon from the contents of a dissertation in progress might even cause editors to disregard the project when it appears before them as a book manuscript. Michael McGandy, Senior Editor at Cornell University Press, told me that “some presses have a ‘zero tolerance’ policy” about manuscripts from which an author had published previous material. “I’d worry…if someone could read thirty pages in the American Historical Review and come away with the main argument and core evidence of the book instead of having to read the three-hundred-page book.”
On the other side, there are forceful arguments that academics at all stages, including students, are defined by their productivity. To put it more pithily, scholars must “publish or perish.” “The dissertation does not really resemble any of the kinds of studies that productive professors and researchers actually publish,” wrote an all-but-dissertation literary studies scholar. Publishing before completing the PhD can help “to indicate productivity, establish the significance of your topic, and the positive judgment of your work in the profession more widely,” one tenured member of a North American history department said. Launching work into the world can also help students mired in the depths of their dissertation to organize their project. “To have to condense an argument down to 30 pages or so,” Molly Pucci, a PhD candidate working on a dissertation in history at Stanford University, commented to me, “[forces students] to express themselves more clearly and convincingly.”
Just trying to publish, even without actually getting a piece in print, can also be beneficial. Doing so “demystifies” the process and can be “a way to perhaps get someone other than your advisor to read your work,” said Jeffery Wasserstrom, Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, prolific commentator on China studies, and editor of the highly-regarded Journal of Asian Studies. Submitting a piece for consideration teaches authors how to deal gracefully with rejection and critique, too. “I don’t like it when people get quite annoyed if I reject their submission,” Wasserstrom told me.
A survey run from December 2015 through February 2016 via Dissertation Reviews revealed just how mixed our feelings are about whether PhD students should focus on the dissertation or strive to publish widely before receiving their degrees. 298 respondents—all holders of PhD degrees or current doctoral students—revealed their opinions of publishing while in humanities and social science graduate programs, and wrote about their own experiences. At the end of the survey, I posed two deliberately black-and-white questions:
Which of these slogans would you be MORE LIKELY to repeat as advice to a graduate student based on your perception of your field today?
Which of these slogans do you think would be the MORE IDEAL situation for graduate students?
For each, respondents had only two options:
“Publish or perish”: you should strive to publish widely before receiving your degree
“Dissertation or bust”: you should focus attention on your dissertation
Respondents were evenly divided on what they would tell a student.
145 would advocate “publish or perish” to a current grad student, and 151 said that they’d advise “dissertation or bust.” But this picture contrasts starkly with what respondents believed to be the ideal situation.
Only 84 respondents thought that the ideal humanities or social science PhD student should operate under “publish or perish,” whereas 208 considered “dissertation or bust” more ideal.
One reason for this ambivalence lies in the shifting sands of academic publishing. New forces and fields of study may be redefining what “counts” as a publication, not to mention what the goal of publishing work should be. As one survey respondent wrote, “The value of blogging and public engagement varies a little according to subfield ….in some subfields it might be quite minor/marginal, while in others (such as digital humanities or public policy-oriented topics) it might seem more significant.” 58.6% of the respondents to the survey were 35 or under, and so are on the front lines of the changing academic world.
There can also be dramatic differences in expectations among different subfields and geographic locations. Several UK-based respondents told me that British PhD students are expected to turn in dissertations and complete their degrees in three years. This leaves little time to prepare other publications. On the other hand, some universities in Europe and Australia offer a “PhD by publication” option that requires candidates to publish a set number of research papers (somewhere between three and seven) in peer-reviewed venues, which they present as a portfolio to their committee.
Even accounting for such variety, however, there is a stark gap between how academics feel about publishing and how they feel compelled to act regarding publishing. I want to dig deeper into that discrepancy and our collective ideas about publishing during the PhD. Is there a gap between our perceptions of publishing as PhD students and the reality of things? Does when, what, or where we studied in graduate school affect our attitudes and actions? And what are some smart publishing moves for PhD candidates who are thinking about landing an academic job and publishing their first book?
Y. Yvon Wang
Department of History
University of Toronto
 This and all following anonymous quotations are taken from responses to a survey run via Dissertations Reviews between December 21, 2015 and February 22, 2016. Sourced quotations come from interviews conducted by the author.
Image: Portrait of Leo Tolstoy in His Study, Moscow. 1891. By Ilya Yfimovich Repin (1844-1930). Wikimedia Commons.
Editor’s Note: Stayed tuned for the next installment of Y. Yvon Wang’s Advisor series later this week.