Manya Whitaker

Associate Professor of Education at Colorado College

Which Publications Matter at Which Stages of Your Career?

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As a newly tenured associate professor, I am already fielding requests to be an external reviewer for tenure-and-promotion cases at other colleges. I have yet to accept those requests because I’m about to be chair of my department and frankly, I’d like to settle into my new rank and duties before I take on even more professional responsibilities. But reading those files lately has been eye-opening — and not in a good way.

I have been stunned — given the hypercompetitive, tenure-track market — at how many young scholars have less-than-impressive publication histories. The problem is not quantity but quality. Too many early career scholars seem to be investing their time and energy writing a lot for the wrong kinds of publications. By "wrong," I mean venues that won’t lead to tenure.

So I thought it might be useful to move beyond the publish-or-perish mantra and offer a primer for graduate students and new Ph.D.s on the types of publications that are valued at each stage of an academic career.

What I’ve outlined below doesn’t list every type of publication and is not meant to be an indictment against any one of them. But for scholars who have any designs on a tenure-track job (not an easy get these days), let alone tenure, it’s important to know which invitations you should decline.

Don’t hesitate to be calculating about that. Just say no if the return on your investment of time and effort is not high enough, particularly early in your career. If you’re not sure about the rate of return, review the relevant tenure-and-promotion requirements, and consult with your mentors and senior colleagues.

First, the basics. How do you know what is, and isn’t, a "high-quality" publication? Clearly that varies by discipline and institution type. But there are a few standard criteria that apply across the board for a publication to "count" toward tenure and promotion:

  • It must be peer-reviewed. That’s the gold standard. Academic journals often have a double-blind review process — meaning neither you, nor the two (or three) reviewers, know one another’s identities. Other permutations of peer review won’t count as much: for example, when academics in an edited collection give feedback on your chapter or when press editors offer revision suggestions. Sure, there is an element of peer review in both cases, but that’s not what the term means when it comes to high quality, rigorous publishing on your way to tenure and/or promotion.
  • The publisher must have credibility, as determined by your discipline. You can get a handle on that by: (1) reviewing journal impact factors, (2) noting the value within your field given to different types of presses (trade versus general academic versus university), and (3) determining if it is acceptable or expected that you as the author pay publication fees. For scholars in the fine and performing arts, consider the reputation and audience of the hosting venue.
  • Order of authorship matters. At many institutions, being principal investigator or lead author (sometimes referred to as "first author") is the only way a publication counts toward tenure. So check your disciplinary, departmental, and institutional criteria.
  • Make sure your publication appears in a venue that is actually considered scholarly. I see more and more academics listing blog posts, op-eds, or other opinion-oriented writings on their CV. All of those things show you to be a well-rounded person but — outside of certain fields like journalism or creative writing — such nonscholarly publications contribute little value to your record of scholarly productivity.
  • The publication must matter within your field. Other scholars should want to cite it, assign it in class, or, at the very least, read it. In fact, most of the top-tier Research I universities explicitly state that in order to receive tenure and promotion, your work should "change the field." Talk about a high bar.

Publishing as a graduate student. Because the academic market is so saturated, qualifications for postdoctoral fellowships and tenure-track jobs are higher than ever and publishing expectations have increased.

In response, some doctoral programs even expect students to publish a first-authored article in order to graduate. Many other programs don’t, yet still expect their students to be active in the field, producing some kind of scholarly writing. That could mean being third or fourth author on a journal article. Or it might mean writing book reviews, conference papers, encyclopedia entries, and policy or practitioner briefs. For those in the arts, students would be expected to give local or self-promoted performances, exhibitions, and productions.

Clearly a journal article for which you are first author is the ideal, but that’s not realistic for most doctoral students. All of the other types of scholarly writing I mentioned (third author on an article, book reviews, etc.) are a necessary part of professional development, and you should have them listed on your CV before entering the job market.

Just keep in mind: When it comes to tenure and promotion later on in your career, those kinds of second-tier scholarship, on their own, won’t cut the mustard.

Pretenure publishing. This stage — between earning your Ph.D. and submitting your tenure file — is, arguably, when you do the most important publishing of your academic career. What you produce in this stretch of time determines whether you earn tenure and influences the course of the rest of your career.

So it is incredibly important to prioritize getting published in the highest-valued venues in your discipline, department, and institution. That means saving any other projects for after you’ve earned tenure.

What P&T committees most want to see from assistant professors is:

  • Work in which you are the lead or sole author.
  • Empirical articles employing the methodologies prized by your discipline.
  • Grants.
  • Chapters or essays in notable volumes/collections (i.e., with prominent scholars and/or prominent presses).
  • Monographs/books.
  • White papers/reports.
  • Featured and invited performances, exhibitions, productions (or curating such work), particularly beyond local audiences.
  • Commissioned creative work.

To complement your scholarly productivity you should also have scholarly activities: presenting papers at conferences and symposia (poster presentations in the social sciences and humanities are not desirable at this stage), serving as a peer-reviewer for journals/presses, and being active in your disciplinary society. Again, tenure will depend on the actual publications, but you need some sign of scholarly activity, too.

The best advice I received during my first year as a postdoc: Establish a publishing cycle in which you always have two manuscripts under review, are actively working on another manuscript or two, and are proposing/brainstorming a separate manuscript. Given that the publication process can sometimes take two years, there is plenty of wait time that can be used on smaller projects such as book chapters/essays, book or grant proposals, and conference presentations.

Midcareer publishing. This stage begins when you earn tenure and continues for the next 20 years or so. Tenure brings a bit more flexibility — you don’t have to demonstrate your competence or potential anymore. Additionally, your job has likely changed in that you may be advising more postdocs and graduate students, doing more departmental service, and holding administrative positions.

Academe recognizes, too, that people’s interests change across time. At this stage, it’s OK to start a new line of inquiry in your research, engage in more collaborative work, and focus on depth of analysis. In short, it’s not about stretching one data set into three publications; it is about producing fewer, but more comprehensive, publications.

Assuming you want to be promoted to full professor, you can’t abandon scholarship at this stage and do whatever you want. A midcareer scholar’s CV should include things like:

  • Articles in which you are listed as second author after the name of your postdoc or graduate student.
  • Empirical and theoretical articles (perhaps delving into new methodologies).
  • Monographs/books.
  • Edited volumes.
  • Grants.
  • Textbooks.
  • White papers/reports.
  • Featured performances, exhibitions, productions (or curating such work).
  • Commissioned creative work.

Late-career publishing. After 25 years on the job, many academics take a step back from the publishing rat race and focus on scholarly mentoring. I don’t mean guiding a handful of people through their careers. Rather, I mean creating opportunities for younger scholars to publish — for example, editing a book series, directing institutes and centers, or curating performances, exhibitions, and productions. This is also the time when academics finally indulge in a nonscholarly writing project they always wanted to do but put off because it didn’t align with their research agenda, it required too much time, or it didn’t count as scholarship.

Publishing is highly individual. Some academics are prolific throughout their careers and even into their retirement. Others write less and less after tenure and focus on teaching or administration.

Ultimately, there should never be a time when you don’t have an "in progress" project. But as you advance through the various stages of an academic career, so should your research — such that you move from applying knowledge, to creating knowledge, to evaluating knowledge — making the types of contributions that are expected of a scholar across time.

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