Publishing En Route to a Tenure-Track Job

TrainTracks

Publishing En Route to a Tenure-Track Job: Great Expectations vs. the Real World

Like many PhD students in the humanities and social sciences, I received mixed signals about publishing my work. Would it help me improve my dissertation, plant my flag on a field of study, and eventually land a tenure-track faculty job? Or would preparing publications cause angst and distract me–perhaps permanently–from the dissertation? How would publishing early impact my chances of publishing a first book later? Advice on the Internet just made things seem more dire (as it usually does). This article uses 298 responses to a survey run between December 2015 and February 2016, interviews, as well as existing studies to shed light on what a nervous student should consider when it comes to publishing before getting the PhD.

Editor’s Note: See the first installment of Y. Yvon Wang’s series on publishing here.

There is still significant consensus on the ideal way to get a tenure-track academic position: complete a high-quality dissertation in a timely fashion. A PhD by dissertation is not only more widespread but also remains more prestigious than the “PhD by publication” now available in some UK and Australian universities, in which candidates publish papers and defend them as a portfolio to receive their degrees. Furthermore, though we seem split on the best course of action for individual students in today’s circumstances, there is a fairly strong consensus on other practical questions related to scholarly publishing before receiving the PhD. First of all, survey respondents showed an overwhelming preference for publishing in a peer-reviewed academic journal as opposed to chapters in an edited volume, non-academic periodicals, or academic and non-academic web sites and blogs. A whopping 89.3% of the survey respondents still in PhD programs said they would most like to publish a piece of their work in a peer-reviewed academic journal. Only 8% said that they’d most like to publish a chapter in an edited volume. No one chose an academic blog or website. Very similar patterns held true for holders of PhDs: 90.5% saw peer-reviewed journals as the top choice for publishing their work; a mere 3.4% chose chapter in an edited volume, and only one respondent (0.7%) opted for an academic blog or website.

In addition to the ideals of intellectual openness and engagement often given as reasons for publishing early and frequently, there was also a practically-minded consensus on why publishing as a grad student is important. 52.7% of respondents still in graduate programs said that “securing a job after graduation” was the top reason that they would choose to submit their work for publication. This was followed by “claiming a particular topic of research in your field as your own,” at 20.7%. Like the students, many holders of PhDs also saw publications as key to getting a job or promotion (41.5%), but more of them put value in staking a claim on a particular topic of study (31%) and receiving input from colleagues in their fields (19%). Among both students and those with the degree, “getting feedback from non-academics” ranked last as a reason for publishing one’s work, at 3.3% and 2.1% respectively.

In short, there is a lot of apparent agreement among academics about what constitutes the “best” kind of publication venue as well as the primary motivations for striving to publish our work in them. But what about real-life behaviors? Where do PhD students actually publish their work, if they have at all, and how do academic search committees actually evaluate job candidates? What do editors think of publishing work by graduate students? What about the fear of having published so much from the dissertation that academic presses refuse to consider a book manuscript based on the same research?

First off, most scholars have published something during grad school, and most have done so in a peer-reviewed journal. 86.7% of students still in PhD programs have published at least once. When these survey respondents were asked to choose all the places in which they had published, 82% said that they’d put out at least one piece in a peer-reviewed journal. Of respondents with a PhD in hand, 86.5% had published at least once during their grad school years and 81% of those had done so in a peer-reviewed journal.

Though the ideal hierarchy of publication venues seems consistent, the actual activities of respondents highlight how current students may be starting to diversify their portfolios. Of students with publications, more than a third said they’d contributed to edited volumes; over a quarter had written for academic blogs or websites. Nearly one-eighth published on non-academic websites and 10 respondents even said that they’d contributed to anonymous, collaborative sites like Wikipedia. Compared to current students, fewer PhD holders had contributed to blogs or websites in grad school. The proportion of PhDs who published as grad students who had written for academic or non-academic blogs and sites, respectively, was about half that of current students. Only a single respondent said they had contributed to an anonymous, Wiki-type website. This gap between the practices of PhD students and PhD holders perhaps reflects changing times or, more distressingly, that non-peer reviewed publications are not especially valuable to advancing one’s career.

Jeffery Wasserstrom, who has a considerable online presence— from 2008 to 2012, he ran the China Beat blog in collaboration with fellow China historian and former American Historical Association president Kenneth Pomeranz and two UC Irvine graduate students—notes that “even 5 or certainly 10 years ago, there was a bit of a stigmatic side” to such pursuits as blogging, podcasting, and the like. But “anxiety with the state of the academy and the need to justify what we are doing” has meant that attitudes have gone from “negative/neutral to more neutral/positive.” Still, scholars overall hold less conventional venues in lower regard when it comes to academic employment. Respondents seem to opt for formerly stigmatized venues like Wikipedia only in conjunction with publishing in more traditional ones. All but one of the current students who’d contributed to a Wiki-type site had also published at least one peer-reviewed journal article.

Generational differences

How much of the perceived need to publish before receiving the PhD matches how hiring committees actually judge job candidates? Is it important to publish at all?

There seems to be a strong correspondence between the type of publications that junior scholars most highly value and the type of publications actually considered most important by hiring committees. The 78 survey respondents who’d served on at least one faculty search committee rated a peer-reviewed journal article by far the most valuable type of publication on a job applicant’s CV. On average, they gave discipline-specific journals 4.61 out of 5 points in terms of its importance and interdisciplinary ones a 4.43. Chapters in edited volumes trailed behind at 3.57 and less conventional venues ranked still lower: non-academic periodicals or journals came in at 2.13, academic blogs or websites at 2.19, while non-academic blogs or sites were lowest-rated of all, at 1.55.

But perhaps these results reflected not the experience of serving on committees, but a generational gap. After all, hiring committees tend to be composed of older respondents. I filtered the survey results to see what respondents in different age groups would say to a current graduate student in their field. The results were striking. Though a significant minority of search committee members between 26 and 45 were likely to warn students to “publish or perish,” a much smaller proportion of people over 45 who’d served on at least one search committee would offer the same advice.

Age % Of search committee members who answered “Publish or perish”
18-25 N/A
26-35 42.8
36-45 47.8
46-55 18.8
56-65 16.7
65+ 50 (1 of 2 respondents)

 

I then broadened my scrutiny beyond those respondents who had served on search committees. Again, all participants over 45 were markedly less likely to tell grad students to “publish or perish” instead of “dissertation or bust.”

 

Age % Who would advise “Publish or perish”
18-25 69.2
26-35 56.5
36-45 49.3
46-65+ 21.4

 

When I broke down what people said they had published during graduate school based on age group, I ran into the problem of having relatively few respondents older than 45. The outcome was nonetheless suggestive:

 

Current Age % Who had published at least 1 peer-reviewed journal article in grad school
36-45 58.2
46-55 51.2
56-65 25 (2 of 8 respondents)
65+ 40 (2 of 5 respondents)

 

Taken together, these figures show a strong generational difference in attitudes toward publishing while in humanities and social science grad school. All of the participants older than 45 were in PhD programs between the 1980s and the first years of the 2000s, likely before the “publish-or-perish turn” took more serious hold in their fields. They are more disposed to put the dissertation above publishing while in graduate school. These more senior scholars are perhaps the type who published out of a “pull”—the desire to share their work on a new topic—and less because they felt the “push” of relentless competitive pressure in getting a tenure-track job.

These numbers corroborate the qualitative evidence given by survey respondents. One tenured member of a literatures and languages department wrote that “[t]hings changed very rapidly between 1995-2000 in my field….” Even then, as one tenured respondent teaching history and international studies at a liberal arts college remarked, “[o]nly a few of us actually managed to publish peer-reviewed articles while still students.” A tenure-track anthropologist at an R1 institution wrote to me that, “in the past, perhaps publishing wasn’t so important, but in the present market it’s vital.…faculty who got their PhDs before 2005 simply won’t understand.”

In other words, the pressure to publish is real and growing, but a great number of those currently in positions of power in the academy did not have had to suffer under it. Problematically, the advice that a given scholar offers is most strongly correlated with their personal experiences—even if those experiences occurred decades ago—rather than the current, fluctuating situation on the ground.

In the future, as a new generation of scholars become the key decision makers on search committees (and in departments more generally), publishing peer-reviewed work in grad school and a good dissertation are increasingly likely to be seen as the dual essential stepping stones onto the tenure track.

“Brand” differences

Where a candidate is coming from and where they are applying for an academic job—the type of department or institution and its “brand”—also play an important role in determining the importance of publishing within the selection process, as does the particular field of study. The less well-known one’s PhD program, the more a candidate may have to “prove” herself by publishing widely and in well-regarded venues. A tenured professor trained in North America and working in East Asia noted: “Even if you are in an excellent program within a university that is not a top brand name …, there is more need to have something (or multiple things)… that make a search committee sit up and take notice.”

The reputation of one’s PhD-granting institution in determining the pressure to publish came up again when I spoke with Michael McGandy. McGandy holds a doctorate in philosophy, but chose to work in academic publishing, where he has now been for sixteen years. “My PhD program was a second-tier program. If I’d wanted to go for it [on the academic job market], I needed the top-shelf journals.” For better or for worse, McGandy told me that candidates for tenure-track academic positions with backgrounds like his must show search committees that they “are coming out of plan B but [have] an A game.” Jeffery Wasserstrom echoed these sentiments. An Ivy League PhD “automatically gets a close look,” but those studying at other institutions, even if they’re in a good program and emerge with excellent recommendations from respected mentors, face greater pressure to publish. Sharpening competition for a shrinking pool of tenure-track jobs has contributed to this “inflationary process,” as Wasserstrom called it.

The perhaps less expected side of the story is that where one applies for a job can also affect how much search committees care about one’s grad school publishing record. On the one hand, some of the responses I received matched what we might expect: institutions emphasizing undergraduate teaching tend to put less weight on the number of publications on a job candidate’s CV. “Publishing is not absolutely required as a prerequisite for hiring in my [department],” wrote one survey respondent based at a university with “a heavy teaching load” that only had PhD programs in a few areas— not including theirs.

On the other hand, the reduced scrutiny put on candidates coming from “name-brand” universities may apply to job candidates applying for jobs at such institutions, too. Takashi Fujitani, Dr. David Chu Professor and Director of the Program in Asia-Pacific Studies at the University of Toronto, noted that, “ironically the best universities tend not to be as concerned with published articles as the quality of the dissertation overall. In the last few years my students who have gotten the best jobs…didn’t have a publication at the time they were hired.” Fujitani’s observation is striking when compared with that another from a survey respondent who wrote, “My program is at the bottom of the rankings, and we don’t even look at C.V.s unless the candidate has at least four (4) peer reviewed top-tier academic journal publications. My program doesn’t count blog posts, book chapters, or anything else whatsoever.” Perhaps those graduating from and applying for jobs at the best-known and most prestigious institutions are still insulated from the mounting pressures to publish in grad school. For everyone else, the game is tougher than ever.

My conclusions tally with those from another discussion of publishing while in graduate school—one of the few that I have encountered whose authors draw on quantitative as well as qualitative evidence. In May 2012, Marcus Arvan, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tampa, created statistics on publications as they had been self-reported by newly hired tenure-track philosophy professors. Arvan posted these as a comment on a blog run by University of Chicago legal scholar and philosopher Brian Leiter. Leiter regularly polled the readers of his blog to rank publication venues and institutions, and Arvan drew upon the 2009 Leiter list in his statistics. That year, Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, Princeton, and Ann Arbor were the top five among the list of institutions. Though limited to the field of philosophy, Arvan’s observations corroborate what I’ve described in this section about publication expectations for graduates of different institutions seeking TT jobs.

Of 94 total R1 hires across philosophy departments in that year, 30 had at least one “top 20 ” publication and 15 had more than one. However, 31 R1 hires from “top 25” schools had no publications at all. Meanwhile, only three people from non-top-25 departments had been hired with zero publications. As Arvan summed it up, ” If you want an R1 job, you must either have multiple top-20 journal publications or have no publications but come from a Leiter-awesome department.”

Field differences

There are also important field differences at work in determining how search committees evaluate candidates’ grad-school publication records. The survey participant who described a minimum 4-paper criterion for candidates, for instance, is based in a North American Communication department, whereas Fujitani and his students are historians of East Asia. Students in fields in which the supply of grad students tends to exceed the number of faculty positions, as well as those that emphasize the publication of papers generally, face greater pressure to publish before receiving their doctorates. “In US history, … where a given job posting may receive hundreds of applications, it is wise to publish as much as possible, as early as possible, on top of an excellent dissertation, in order to stand out of the enormous crowd. …In small fields like Chinese history, … the top priority should be to produce an excellent dissertation,” wrote a tenured historian.

Certain fields, particularly in the social sciences, simply place more emphasis on papers. Several survey respondents felt–and objected strongly to–this expectation to produce papers at a speedy rate throughout one’s academic career. “There is too much focus, at least in psychology, on publishing a high quantity of publications, even if the quality of each is mediocre,” one PhD student complained. “Publishing in most social science academic periodicals has more to do with salesmanship rather than innovative scholarship,” wrote an emeritus professor of anthropology and sociology. “You write to score points, to enhance your status among your peers, not to make a fundamental contribution to a wider audience.”

What publishers want

Questions about what, when, and how much to publish don’t end after landing the tenure-track job; the next main obstacle becomes publishing the tenure-securing book. What about the people who prepare book manuscripts from their dissertations but get rejected by university presses because they’ve published “too much” of the material already? How can grad students looking to publish material from potential book manuscripts avoid this nightmarish situation?

I asked Michael McGandy, Senior Editor at Cornell University Press, if there were a way to judge when publishing from the dissertation risked becoming “too much” for an acquisitions editor to consider the book later on. “One thing that would give us a more decided opinion,” he explained, “is what kind of press we work for.” Larger presses, McGandy asserted, “have robust databases and think of books as content, to be cut up and put into different things.” Their editors “like to see books come in ‘unencumbered.’” Moreover, some more “corporate” presses are said to have stricter, company-wide policies about acquiring previously published material. Whatever the size of the press or the disposition of the individual editor, though, presses have to approach any venues in which material had previously appeared to get the rights to use it in a book. And all this costs money, “or at least overhead.” So, McGandy concluded, “if you want to play it safe, keep the amount you publish in the journals to a minimum.” This is especially true in the humanities. But no matter the cost to the publisher of clearing permissions, he counseled, “you don’t want to feel like you ‘gave away’ your principal argument in a journal article.”

Wasserstrom and Fujitani, who have both curated book series for major university presses, largely concurred with McGandy. There is a certain degree of wiggle room. McGandy commented that, particularly in social science fields emphasizing papers, “the very form of the presentation is so different that I don’t think we see it as competition.” As Fujitani put it, “often we publish articles that are then revised, broken up into more or less than one chapter, etc. That’s different and there’s more flexibility.”

But there is a limit. In order to “deal with the most conservative rule or person out there,” Wasserstrom suggested that students publish no more than two chapters from their dissertations; Fujitani agreed. “Usually, it’s not a good idea to publish more than a couple of articles out of what will become the dissertation.” If one does trim off a chapter of the dissertation to submit to journals, Wasserstrom cautioned, it’s better to “think of it as a standalone piece.” Just as acquisitions editors don’t want books that have already been given away in articles, and journal editors don’t want articles that “read like a dissertation chapter.” The ideal content for a grad-school publication thus comes from “the stuff you find that can’t go into the dissertation.”

Finally, staying open-minded for a potential opportunity to publish on a subject that seems out of one’s purview can reap great rewards. Wasserstrom considered one of the pieces that he published before hitting the job market his “strangest foray.” It was a symbolic comparison of the anti-foreign Chinese Boxer uprising of 1899-1900–his academic home turf–and the Luddites, a group of British textile workers who violently rejected new technologies like power looms during the 1810s. “Weird” though this article was to write for Wasserstrom, it became a “hook to have a conversation with anyone about” during his interviews. Department chairs and deans who “knew nothing about China but had heard about the Luddites…felt like ‘there’s one thing that doesn’t seem completely exotic to me about this guy,” Wasserstrom recounted. Campus visits and interviews are whirlwind affairs, and having a point of connection—no matter how unexpected—can mean not just less awkward conversations, but might also make a candidate seem a good bet.

Novelty is, for better or for worse, a critical asset—and pre-PhD publications should look more like movie trailers than movie spoilers. Younger scholars seem more sensitive to this need for “holding back” some of their dissertation: only 52.8% of my PhD student respondents who have published in their grad programs have drawn on dissertation material, while 68.5% of my PhD-holding survey respondents did the same during their training. On the other hand, the dissertation is often such a consuming project that PhD students may find it difficult to publish on other topics. When I asked survey respondents about the biggest obstacles to publishing more in grad school, the top response—unsurprisingly—was “I had too much pressure to complete existing research projects (e.g. dissertation),” at 55.4% of respondents. Teaching responsibilities, personal responsibilities, and fear of negatively impacting publishing graduate-school research as a monograph trailed far behind, at 29.9%, 24.8%, and 24.2% respectively. The balance between publishing out of the dissertation versus other topics is compounded by the increasing accessibility of digitized dissertation repositories (see Audrey Truschke’s three-part Advisor article on dissertation embargoes for a thorough investigation of those concerns).

Brighter Futures

So—as many of us already believe—there can be a lot of merit in publishing during grad school. But maybe you shouldn’t. It’s true: a completed dissertation does not guarantee a job. “When it comes to evaluating job candidates, everyone has a PhD or is ABD,” as a tenured historian put it. Publications can indeed distinguish one candidate from another, and there are signs that they will be increasingly crucial for the academic job market as a generation of younger scholars who come to the fore as departmental decision-makers.

But, as my survey results and other evidence show, a completed dissertation is still the fundamental measure of a PhD in the humanities and social sciences. Peer-reviewed articles in respected academic journals are highly regarded by many of the people making hiring, promotion, and editorial decisions, but they are not a substitute for a completed dissertation, which still defines a PhD, especially in “book” fields. The experience of one survey-taker who today works in a registrar’s office and as an independent scholar corroborates this. “I published widely during my PhD program – I turned my MA thesis into a book, got out a few book chapters, reviews, and one peer-reviewed journal [article]. I thought this strategy would help me land a TT job, but it didn’t seem to work.”

Perhaps more importantly, the dissertation is what actually frees its author to decide what they wish to pursue next. As a tenure-track faculty member at a teaching college put it, “Getting done with your dissertation will let you move on with your life; that’s the most important thing. The articles and publications will help you get a job, but they do not guarantee employment.” As I read several respondents’ wrenching stories about their feelings of inadequacy when it came to writing their dissertations and publishing widely, I found myself agreeing with this assessment.

That said, publishing is increasingly key to advancement in the academy. My respondents’ input points to a baseline quantity and quality of publications. The exact number varies from field to field, but “one or two polished pieces in high-quality journals” is the going standard for fields like history, philosophy, religious studies, and languages and literatures. In fields like sociology, sexuality studies, psychology, or linguistics, the target is higher: at least two high-quality peer-reviewed pieces, and as many as five to six. It’s a challenge to reach these benchmarks, but, as the survey responses show, many of us are attaining them.

If the pressure to publish causes a student great distress, indeed “depression and physical inability to do anything more than work on [their] dissertation,” as a non-tenure-track survey respondent in International Studies wrote—or, worse, derails thesis-writing altogether, then the dissertation should come first. But all of us have to acknowledge that venturing onto the academic job market will inevitably bring even more stress, as will actually landing on the tenure track. As Andrew Johnson, a tenure-track anthropologist, put it: “[N]ot dissertation-writing, but publishing articles in journals, is what life is like after the PhD. Better get used to it.”

Y. Yvon Wang
Assistant Professor
Department of History
University of Toronto
yyvon.wang@utoronto.ca

Image: Train Tracks. Wikimedia Commons.

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