PhD Students Should Think About Publishing From Day One

Accurate view of graduate school socialization. Via Pexels.

Once again, I’ve been invited to give my advice to graduate students about Graduate School and The Market, the two topics that occupy the anxious discussions of years 2 through N in a young scholar’s career. A quick note: I recommend reading my earlier post with job-market advice; this is an update and a companion to that piece.

There’s an inevitable selection problem when talking about how someone’s career succeeded. We don’t see the counterfactual outcomes, nor do we observe the shape of the probability distribution of success given the variables that went into the probabilistic determination of success and failure. It’s likely that the single largest factor in my succeeding in getting a job where and when I did was the composition of the search committee at UMASS-Amherst the year I was first on the market for tenure-track (t-t) jobs, coupled with the specifics of the job ad: a committee with an Americanist chair and a job ad that needed someone who could teach Honors courses in a joint appointment at a public university spoke to several of my key skills and accomplishments unusually well.

So it’s possible that my success is a fluke, and should be judged accordingly. But I have been around; I’ve now been on a search committee; I’ve been through additional searches; and I know a little bit more than I ddi when I was a graduate student. Indeed, I may be at Peak Advice, since my personal experience as a job candidate closely overlaps with my service as a committee member, and I really have seen this market at close hand. I hope, then, that this lets me talk about what worked and what didn’t work for me. I should caveat all of this by bounding my advice a little further: the dynamics of hiring at top-5 research universities and at teaching-intensive universities are very different from “ordinary” R1 jobs.

What Worked

As the title of this post suggests, what worked was publishing. As both an applicant and as a search committee member, this was the single biggest qualification that I found relevant. I had early publications in Comparative Political Studies and American Politics Research (both with fine co-authors!). Publications will not get you a job, but not having publications will make it much harder to get one. It is not uncommon to hear that search committee members won’t even look at CVs that lack publication, and these days committees can be picky enough to insist on publications in good places as well. There are other factors in play, of course, and even an R&R at a good enough journal can be a substitute, but this is the single biggest factor.

So how do you publish? You have to be thinking about this from Day One. Learning about what makes for a good (= publishable) journal article, learning about how to submit articles, participating in workshops and courses that lead to feedback that creates journal articles, being around faculty and graduate students who are publishing journal articles, learning the prestige rankings for journals, taking article-sized projects to conferences, attending “how to publish” panels, understanding the risk-reward tradeoff of “starting high” or “starting low” (both in general and for specific projects), and being willing to undergo the harsh and helpful review project…all of that matters.

I am not the world’s most prolific or thickest-skinned author. I should be better at both! And my batting average is, I think, okay but not great. But going through lots of rejections with our first article helped not only get that article published but also helped future articles be set up better from the beginning.

This is a different mindset from the dissertation-centric mindset that many people still have. I don’t mean to suggest that you should publish a second project (as my early journal publications were), or that you should rush to have a job market paper from the dissertation (if you’re doing a “book” dissertation, that might not be possible). But you should have 2 or 3 ideas in your intellectual portfolio that are en route to being publishable in year 5 or year 6. Given 18-30 months as a timeline to go from blank LaTeX page to acceptance, that means you should be identifying these projects at the same time as your dissertation prospectus.

And then you need to have a sense of your pipeline: what’s next? This isn’t a “one-and-done” rule. You need to show that you have the chops to deliver consistent and consistently publishable article-sized units of work, adjusted for whether you intend to also deliver book-sized articles of work. Committees are looking for that first publication to show that you’re a good risk for a t-t line, and being able to talk about your pipeline in terms of specific projects, journals, and timelines helps. Even if you don’t deliver on those initial plans, it still separates you from the pie-in-the-sky grad student whose great work is always ahead of them.

The second biggest thing, by the way, also relates to this notion of the pipeline–or, perhaps, of the assembly line. As an academic worker, you are not an intellectual (at least during daylight hours): you are a knowledge artisan. You take raw ingredients, apply techniques, and turn them into finished products. Again and again and again. That means that you should also be progressing to finishing on your dissertation, because that is your journeyman piece–it shows you belong in the guild.

There are many ways to do work that looks like writing a dissertation (adding to the lit review, gathering still more data, applying for grants, going to another conference) and people may fool themselves into thinking that they are writing a dissertation. But they are not. (I mention those problems because other avoidance techniques, from sheer evasion to perfectionism, are better treated elsewhere.)

You need to have a timeline to finish because search committees are much more leery of taking on ABDs than they used to. And the pool, post-2008, is much better stocked with postdocs, VAPs, and APs than it used to be. Why take a chance on someone who might not finish the degree on time than someone with a degree (and several articles, and a book, and a teaching portfolio) in hand?

The third biggest thing is to have taught at least one course. I taught many more, and on net that was bad, but Georgetown was stingy in those days and I wasn’t going to take out loans. But as a committee member I wanted to know that faculty members could do the job that faculty members actually do, and that involves doing research while teaching. This wasn’t a make-or-break rule but it weighed heavily. (Courses that were “My Dissertation: The Course” were also weighted less heavily than “Introductory Course In My Field”, because we always have to offer Introductory Courses but can’t always offer boutique courses–although those can be the icing on a well-made cake.)

What Didn’t Work

For me, what didn’t work was a combination of publication problems and dissertation-writing problems. It took me a long time to figure out what my project was, and each stage was just 4 or 5 months off from the optimal application cycle. I could have addressed this with more focused work; I’m trying to do that now, for instance. But I also got unlucky a few times with reviewers. My first submission, to ISQ, got two R&Rs — which turned into a reject because the editors didn’t think the piece could be saved. I sat on that piece for years afterward because it was so exhausting. I have since become better at handling rejection.

I also faced challenges because I chose a weird project that IR people think is too American and Americanists think is too IR. (I’d like to thank Donald Trump for helping me explain it to people better.) This is not trivial. I was warned against the project. In some respects, I should have taken the advice and done something more “core IR”. There were only two problems: I couldn’t think of anything else and I didn’t want to do anything else. But if you have the options of doing something boutique or something immediately publishable and grantable, my advice would be to try the latter. If you have to bail, you’ll at least have something publishable out of it. You can always do the boutique work later!

I was also insufficiently aggressive at getting feedback on my job market materials. Writing cover letters, research statements, and the like is a craft. You need feedback from faculty members who have been on search committees within the past three years of your search. They will help you write materials that will be comprehensible in the 60 to 90 seconds that a cover letter and CV might get on initial review. Those first impressions are so important when a committee reviews hundreds of applications! Remember, the burden of crafting good materials is on the applicant; it is not the committee’s job to find a diamond in the rough. An error in format or emphasis might doom a promising applicant without meaningfully changing the expected utility of the search outcome, especially in a buyer’s market.

What Students Now Should Do

The key is to do good research. And by good research I don’t mean research that is true, and deep, and innovative. I mean research that is all of those things and gets published. Steve Jobs insisted that “real artists ship.” Well, real academics publish. God knows that academic publication isn’t a proof of truth, or depth, or innovation. Shitty work gets published all the time; many beautiful manuscripts languish unpublished. But over time a researcher must demonstrate the ability to be published. Even researchers who are now so well-known that their working papers are published to the community long before they are accepted by a journal initially had to spend years crafting their reputation.

“But what of knowledge for its own sake?” Knowledge for its own sake is not rewarded with tenure-track lines. That may be regrettable; I have mixed feelings. But that is the truth of the matter.

Students should be doing all they can to learn how to do good research including learning how to publish. That is not separate from the process of research design, writing, and theorizing; it is part of it, and the hardest part to master in some ways. If your advisor doesn’t help with that, get a new advisor, at least for that part of the game. If nobody around helps, network the hell out of Twitter and conferences. If that doesn’t work, start learning how to do non-academic work, because the odds are stacked against you.