Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is in: The Book Question

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Do I need a book for a first job?

The answer is — well, there’s more than one, actually.

The first answer is: It depends on your field. Generally, in the sciences and in some of the social sciences (especially fields that are quantitative-oriented and/or have lab models and co-authorship norms), it's all about publishing articles in high-impact journals. More humanistic disciplines like English, comparative literature, anthropology are all “book fields” — meaning there is an expectation that dissertation research will be synthesized and published as a monograph, rather than see the light of day in the form of five or six articles.

Second, how badly you need a book — even if you’re in a book field — is country-dependent. In many European universities, articles are the norm for employment, tenure, and promotion. That’s because of the increasingly neoliberalized productivity assessment model there that favors shorter and faster turnaround for scholarly output. The intellectual life cycle of a book may be two to three years, but the departmental assessments at many European universities are annual, so speed there is of the essence.

With that preamble out of the way, the answer to your question generally is: No, you don’t need a book to get a job — with some exceptions I will talk about momentarily. If you are going on the market as an A.B.D., the answer is definitely no. Your first book is supposed to be your dissertation book, and, presumably, you are finishing your dissertation.

Sometimes people write to me asking if it's strategic to essentially write a book instead of a dissertation from the get-go. I always tell them that is putting the cart before the horse. A dissertation is about showing mastery of a subject to your supervisors; a book is about establishing oneself as an expert on the topic. Those things are sequential. (Of course you should write your dissertation with a firm eye on the book it will become. Once you’ve pleased your committee, your manuscript will go through massive revisions as it is transformed into a book. You can aid the speed and ease of that transformation by thinking about its future book form as you write the dissertation. Just keep in mind that the most dissertation-y parts of it — the lit review, the methods chapter, etc. — will be excised from any future book.)

A.B.D.s and brand new Ph.D.s who have books generally only do so by publishing with a minor, obscure press — and that actually harms your CV more than helps it. Furthermore, at most R1s you need a book for tenure and promotion (at a handful of super-elite universities you may need two), and that book needs to be published while you are already at the institution in question. So it would not do you or your department much good if you came in with a book already.

What you do need on the job market is a convincing aura of promise that you will have a book out when you are up for tenure. There are a few components to that:

  • Having an article, and maybe one in the pipeline on the same subject as your book, serves as proof of concept — you have work that is publishable.
  • Having a book proposal in hand, and a clear plan for which publishers you will approach and when, will go a long way. That should be in your cover letters! It will show that: (a) you know what you need to do to get a book out, and (b) you are already taking steps to do so.
  • If you are more than a year out of grad school, having an advance contract with a major university press will help. Ideally, you want to convince the search committee that you will be sending your full manuscript to the press in question by about the end of your second year on the job. That would give you two years for reviews and revisions, as well as an extra buffer year to shop around for a new press in case of rejection and/or things like the editor leaving, the editor dying, or the series your book was supposed to be part of being cut off.

All that adds up to having a book out in your fifth or sixth year, right at the time your tenure dossier is due. Built into that timeline is an expectation that you will have a contract secured in time for your third-year review.

Now that I have demystified the timeline, I want to note the instances when the answer to your question would be Yes.

Mainly, the answer is yes if you have been out of a Ph.D. program for a few years and adjuncting. In that case, having a book will help offset your series of adjunct gigs and show that you have maintained “disciplinary currency.” The answer is also a qualified yes if you’ve held a prestigious multiyear postdoc, like the ones at Harvard or the University Michigan. While you don't need the hardbound copy of your book in hand after one of those, you should be close to publication at the tail end of three years dedicated to research with minimal teaching obligations. If you are at the end of such a fellowship, and there is no clear path to publication for your manuscript, that will raise eyebrows and make it seem like you are not “efficient.”

To sum up, the answer to your question is “absolutely not” — except for the specific cases when it's “yes” and “sort of.”

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