Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Why should students publish papers?

I still cringe when I recall the words of a former colleague (not an archaeologist) to the effect that graduate students should not publish papers. Students should spend all of their available time reading everything they can, and worry about publishing once their PhD is in hand. This attitude is closely related to what Krathwohl calls the "dissertation as process" approach --the idea that a dissertation is a methodological exercise and does not have to be an important piece of original research worth publishing. You learn methods and skills in writing a dissertation, and then you go on to apply them later. Do I have to say that I disagree very strongly with this position?

Well, if you don't publish articles while still a student, then you won't have to worry about applying your dissertation skills (because you won't get an academic job). Here are some reasons why graduate students should publish papers:

(1) To build up a resumé in preparation for the job market. When an academic department is hiring a new faculty member, brand-new PhDs are at a definite disadvantage compared to scholars who have been done for a couple of years. The latter people have had time to publish articles and perhaps get a new fieldwork project going. They have more of a track record, which indicates to a search committee that they are a good bet. The only way a brand-new PhD can stack up against someone with three years of post-PhD work  under their belt is if he or she has published a few papers and established a track record. And if you don't get started BEFORE doing your dissertation, you won't have time to get the papers out in time.

(2) To get experience doing the kinds of things that academic researchers must do. Academia is a meritocracy. "Publish or perish" is the way of life. Its a jungle out there. The sooner you get started submitting papers to journals (and doing other kinds of professional activities), the more sophisticated you will be when you complete your PhD and go on the job market. And the more success you will have with later publishing and other professional things.

(3) Because this is what the professional life of an academic is all about. We carry out research and publish the results. We do this because we love it. Publishing is merely one part of the broader academic enterprise. If this is distasteful, then perhaps you are in the wrong line of work. Graduate students are professionals, or at least, professionals-in-training, so you should be doing the things that your professors do (well, some of those things). And all scholars have an ethical responsibility to publish the results of their research.

(4) Because you can. If your seminar papers or conference papers are not good enough to publish, then you are in the wrong line of work. If you have what it takes to succeed in this field, then you are almost certainly sufficiently smart and well-read and creative and motivated to be publishing papers. Now students sometimes have issues of self-confidence and self-doubt (these are related to, but not the same thing as, graduate student paranoia). This is where your professors sometimes need to give you a kick in the butt to work up a couple of your papers into articles. I certainly benefited greatly from the butt-kicking abilities of my own dissertation committee.

So, get off your butt and submit one of your papers to a journal.


James Brady said...

I couldn’t agree with you more, especially with your statement that if you don’t enjoy publishing, you are in the wrong line of work. When a department has a position to hire, the faculty want to be sure that the person will be tenured. If the person is not tenured, there is no guarantee that the department will able to keep the line and hire a replacement. While my university has stated repeatedly that teaching is the most important category on which tenure is based, the truth is that we can’t measure it. We are very adept, however, at measuring publications so insufficient publications is almost always the reason that someone is denied tenured. Once again, this is at a teaching university.

I believe strongly that graduate students need to focus on the step beyond the immediate goal of getting a Ph.D. As you say, they need to be building a track record of publications to be competitive for the job search after they finish. After graduation, the usually strategy is to break up the dissertation into a number of articles that are then submitted to journals. The problem is that it is hard to find a journal that doesn’t take two years from submission to publication. My strategy, with the blessing of my committee, was to write and submit articles that were then brought together with other material to form a dissertation. In this way, I had a track record when I left school.

James Brady
California State University, Los Angeles

Anonymous said...

Another suggestion for grad students: time things so that one of those articles comes out around the time you defend your dissertation, so you'll have a nice recent publication on your CV when you send out job applications. This won't happen if you spend your last year of grad school focused entirely on getting your dissertation finished (as many of us tend to do).

Michael E. Smith said...


Very interesting! I had heard about this practice in other disciplines, but not archaeology or anthropology. It is a creative and useful procedure, if the situation is right. It would be nice at one's dissertation defense to have a bunch of chapters published or in press. "Well, Professor RMA, I'm sorry you don't like that chapter, but it was good enough for American Antiquity."

Reminds me of the dissertation proposal defense of one of my students a while ago - her proposal was already approved for funding by NSF, so it was hard for us to find major problems with it!