Does Publish or Perish apply to grad students?

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Publish or perish has become a truism in academia where the pressure is always on to write the next article, get a contract for the next book, or edit a journal issue. But what about graduate students? Do they face the same pressure to publish or perish? Or do they perish if they publish…without planning?

The reasons to publish are obvious: to increase your academic profile, to put your work before your peers, to network with other scholars, and most of all to make yourself more competitive in this dire academic job market. Anything to set you apart from the hundreds of other under-employed scholars is critical.

But are there also dangers in publishing as a grad student?

Preparing an article for publication can help marshal your thoughts, offer new insights for your work, and motivate you to achieve deadlines that can also be applied to your dissertation. But it can also distract you away from your most important task as a graduate student – writing your thesis or dissertation. If writing articles and reviews allows you to procrastinate and avoid your primary task as a graduate student, they are more harmful than helpful. If your degree goes long, it costs both time and money that could be devoted to other tasks. And if you fail to proceed toward completion of your dissertation in a timely manner, it can be a black mark against you in scholarship competitions, and with postdoc and job committees evaluating you before completing your degree.

Another concern grad students must consider when publishing is the quality of the work they put out there. Your first publications will follow you for some time. It will be a matter of record, and you might not want your earliest work and ideas to define you too soon. I would tend to discount this argument, particularly if you publish in respected, peer-reviewed journals. These publications will vet your work with experts in your field who can give invaluable insights to shape your work and make it stronger. Used effectively, this not only gives you the opportunity to publish a superior article, but affords you the chance to make your dissertation even stronger as well.

In a related concern, one which has been expressed to me, is that committees are more willing to forgive errors or points they disagree with in a dissertation or manuscript under revision. If, however, they find fault with material in a published article, they are more likely to hold on to these criticisms and weigh them against you in postdoc and job determinations. Of course, strong publications position will position you well for the job market. As L.L. Wynn pragmatically noted at the Culture Matters blog:

When hiring committees are trying to narrow down a large pool into a short list, they’ve got to pick between a lot of bright young graduates with highly rated dissertations, enthusiastic referees, and clever ideas. So what distinguishes candidates?  Often it comes down to bean-counting – grants, awards, publications. Publications really make you stand out, especially if you’re very junior.

Finally, as philosophy professor Gualtiero Piccinni has pointed out on a “Brains” blog post on graduate publishing, “Students should be aware that where they publish is at least as important as whether they do, especially if they aspire to a job in a research institution.” A well-written and researched article in a respected peer-reviewed journal will be worth more than a more quickly turned out piece in an online graduate journal. This isn’t to say that other or non-traditional publications are not valuable. But before publishing anything, you will need to consider how this publication will position you for your future aspirations and activities.

Ultimately, as long as it is well-placed, and doesn’t distract you from completing your degree, effective and planned publishing as a graduate student can only benefit you.

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8 Responses to “Does Publish or Perish apply to grad students?”

  1. Caleb McDaniel Says:

    Though it certainly can seem like hiring committees eventually just resort to “bean counting,” it’s worth thinking about why beans like articles and publications count.

    At the graduate student level, one of the most important things they do is signal that you are already speaking to audiences beyond your doctoral committee and your home institution. I think you’re right that it’s a form of validation, but the main thing being validated is that you are already an active scholar whose work has attracted interest from third parties (not just you, and not just your immediate teachers and colleagues).

    If you think about it that way, then there are other ways to demonstrate such outside validation, like obtaining a recommendation letter from a scholar who was on a panel with you at a conference, or applying for research grants, or teaching a class at an institution other than your own, or possibly even showing that you belong to some other scholarly community (like the blogosphere or History Compass) besides your Ph.D-granting institution. Such things show, to paraphrase great advice from Phil Agre, that you are plugged into a network of scholars, a network that you will to some extent bring with you when you come to a new institution.

    I agree with what you say about sending your work to well-respected journals, but not necessarily because I think only publications in such journals will “count.” Rather, aiming high means that you are likely to get very helpful readers reports from the most relevant people in the field. This will help you with revisions, and even if your article subsequently comes out in a more specialized journal, the readers who went through your article the first time will likely be more aware of your work–once again contributing to your construction of a network or scholarly audience for what you do.

    I also agree that too much distraction from the most important task–the dissertation–can ultimately be risky But my own experience has also been that sometimes it is good mentally to work on more than just the dissertation, for those moments when the dissertation becomes a real slog. I find having another iron in the fire that can be picked up periodically can help throw sparks that makes going back to the dissertation or the main work easier.

    Still, the points you raise about the limited time one has as a graduate student and the good reasons for finishing in a timely way mean that one thing worth considering (for students looking at grad programs) is whether the program encourages original research and scholarly production at an early stage and provides institutional support (in terms of research grants, etc.) for that.

    Finally, though we all–myself included–sometimes feel reticent to share our work or publish it because of worries about its quality or whether it will hang over us later, I think in general such reticence can do more harm than good over the course of a scholarly career. Sharing work before we are ready and putting it into circulation even when imperfect is something that academics will have to do again and again over the course of a career, no matter how “senior” they become.

  2. JoVE Says:

    Great advice. In terms of the potential conflict between publishing and finishing the dissertation, I would advise people to publish things they have to write anyway.

    A conference presentation gave give a nice deadline for a draft chapter (or part of one) and turning that conference paper into an article that can be submitted for publication can move the whole project forward.

    Just as established academics write all the way through a project, graduate students can, too. Good guidance from supervisors on what might be publishable is valuable here so students aren’t wasting their time.

    My first publication as a graduate student started out as a paper working out something my supervisor had pressed me to clarify in my thinking. In the end, it didn’t even end up in my dissertation. But it did end up being used by others in teaching for many years.

  3. mike sajor Says:

    Thank you so much for this post and to your great advice. I really appreciate it so much.
    university degree

  4. Shellen Says:

    My advisor is of the other school of thinking – that premature publication could be harmful in the long run because they put ideas out there, whether they wind up in your dissertation or not, which you may not have fully thought out and developed. I have followed her advice, and I think it is true that I now think quite different from my early graduate years. In the end, I think only you can know what works and what doesn’t – the same as the process of writing the dissertation.

  5. Brett Says:

    As a graduate student at a large state doctoral program at a top 30 university that isn’t in the top 15 (e.g. Ivy, etc.), I’ve done some crude statistics on publications and jobs prospects that I will briefly explain below.

    I’ve never once met someone who published more than one article in a decent journal who did not land a job, either permanent or temporary, a year or two out of grad school. Of course this current job market could change that, but that was the case the past 5 years. Those who published more, even in less well known places, tended to end up with better jobs than those who didn’t. In fields where the market is exceedingly tight, such as American history, publishing made all the difference in the world. White men who didn’t publish but received jobs received less desirable jobs than women or minorities who didn’t publish. The best jobs went to people in fields that were in demand – i.e. Africa, Middle East – and who had published. Very few people- and no white males – in competitive fields (e.g. America and Europe) got very good jobs (e.g. research or top liberal arts) without publishing.

    I draw attention the fields, ethnicities, and sexes (I think there is also a pro-European or British bias for men, because academics love accents) of grad students because at least in my program it is common knowledge that affirmative action and gender balance does affect hiring some. It’s no conspiracy, of course, but there have been hires here where the administration made it relatively well known that it was looking for a woman or would favor a minority candidate. I would say that affirmative action affects white males from top universities very little (as there are white males who we hired without any publications but they had an Ivy degree) and white males at middle-top PhD programs with aspirations for a research job more. At the lower level of jobs, such as small liberal arts and state schools, I’ve detected very little pattern based upon sex or ethnicity. This should be taken into account when you are trying to decide whether to publish or not as a grad student. Are you in a hot field? Is your PhD tops, medium, or lower? Do you receive any type of preferential treatment?

    As for myself, I am a white male who works in one of the more competitive fields (European history). I followed a high-publication model and tried to publish as much as possible in journals that are relatively well known but not the American Historical Review or Past and Present (think good specialist journals). This meant sending in my masters right away as an article, to sending off chapters as I finished them. What this meant is that I did receive a job, and one that I feel is quite good, whereas most people who do my field and didn’t publish as much didn’t get the same quality of jobs. I found that peer review was good, but not great, and some little things are published that I’d rather have back. Still, I don’t for a second want to take anything back because I’m happy with what my pubs did for me. Plus, you’ll always make a tiny mistake, and scholars around the world are still citing me positively, so I’m not overly worried. Only horrific mistakes — and those probably won’t do much — might follow you. How many people on a committee seriously reads all your work? Almost none.

    The only problem raised by publishing, I feel, is how much you can publish without ruining your book. I went for high publications out of the dissertation sooner rather than later in order to get a job and fellowships. But this means my book must be modified greatly. In the US this is less acceptable, as many hiring committees don’t want the dissertation to be “gutted” before publication. Although lots of top publishers don’t want to turn dissertations into books anymore, so if you can prove yourself as a high publisher then your job will perhaps trust that you can do a new book. I’m in the British system so early publication of articles is a good thing. We rank and quantify things and so 5 articles is a book whereas in the US one cannot get tenure at a research institution without a book. I guess that is another thing to think about–what country you are in.

    I hope this analysis is of some interest to the readers. It’s obviously nothing official but it offers the results of one PhD program.

  6. A Postdocs’s Life: Can you publish too much? « History Compass Exchanges Says:

    […] written before on the issue of publishing, and whether graduate students should actively publish their work. Consensus would seem to show that yes, they should, so long as they do so strategically […]

  7. Peer reviewed articles Says:

    Peer reviewed articles…

    […]Does Publish or Perish apply to grad students? «[…]…

  8. james Says:

    Nice article, for sure it applies to PhDs, in some disciplines anyways ….Can really help Masters students as well, I’ve written a bit on this topic too
    Publishing in Grad School

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