Sunday, June 26, 2011

Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Out as a Professor

There's lots of good advice out there for new faculty, including tons of books that are supposed to be really good (such as this one and this one).  But one of the best pieces of advice is to use time wisely, and reading self-help books didn't seem consistent with that one, so I didn't bother.

Self-help books may or may not be worth your time, but you'll find most people who've gone through it all already are glad to share their thoughts with you, often unprompted.  Listen to them.  And, at least at first, make a point of asking for advice.  Ask the same questions of the advanced APs and the tenured folks. They'll almost certainly have different, though equally valuable, things to say.



A lot of what you'll hear will sound obvious.  At least, it should.  Time management is key.  You can't be perfect at everything.  Prioritize.  When it comes to service, say yes if asked, but don't volunteer.  And when you are asked (or assigned) to do service, don't shirk, but don't be an overachiever either.  No one ever got tenure because they did great work on committees.  Don't say "this is how they did it at [your alma mater]" all the time in faculty meetings.  Figure out what the factions are and who leads them (and believe me, even if you are fortunate enough to find yourself in a very collegial department, there are factions), and if possible, try not to alienate or align yourself with any of them.  Find yourself a mentor.  Or several.

Anyway, what I'd really like to focus on is a few tips I've picked up about publishing (and failing to publish) in scholarly journals.  Things I didn't hear from nearly every single person I spoke to, unlike much of the advice in the preceding paragraph.  Things I wish I had heard a few years ago.

1. Be honest with yourself about the quality of your work.  This is hard for a lot of new APs.  You were a brilliant undergrad.  When you first got to grad school, for perhaps the first time in your life, you realized that everyone else in the room was pretty smart too.  But you still knew you were the smartest, and when you finished and got a TT job and most of the rest of your cohort didn't, that only confirmed it.  So of course that slightly reworked chapter of your dissertation, which you believe is substantially reworked but someday you'll realize still had a long ways to go, should be sent to APSR or AJPS.

But consider a few simple facts first.  These journals publish about 5% of their submissions.  Think carefully about that.  If you were to divide their submissions into two piles, and figure that 75% of them go into the "never going to get published in any form in any journal" pile (which I hope is an overestimate), that still means 4 out of 5 of the papers in the shorter "has some promise" pile are going to get rejected.  Four out of five.  Granted, none of the journals you should be aiming at publishing in have very high acceptance rates, but few others are this unforgiving.  You should also keep in mind that, at least at the moment (maybe future editorial teams will be different), these two journals tend to take much longer to make a decision.  Especially if you make it into the "has some promise" pile.  The truly terrible papers might get rejected in 2 months.  But I've only submitted to APSR twice, and each time, I waited more than 6 months for my rejection.  Once it was 8 months.  If you consider the fact that you really only have 4.5 years to build a tenurable record (yes the decision is made in your sixth year, but they solicit letters 4.5 years after your first semester begins, and you turn in your file a few short months after that), that means that especially if you're right that your paper is pretty good, you're investing a significant chunk of your precious time on a bet where the odds are overwhelmingly against you.

Sure, the upside of that bet is huge.  But unless you're at one of the few departments in the world that won't tenure people who haven't published in the APSR or AJPS (many departments tell their junior faculty this, but  only a handful seem to mean it), it's probably not worth gambling more than once or twice.

I sent every paper to top journals my first year.  And after they were rejected, I sent them to other top journals.  Now, after a while, I did start to send some of my work to field journals.  And, shockingly enough, I've had much better success there.  Enough so that my senior colleagues now tell me I'm right on track for tenure.  But even so, if I had it all to do over again, I definitely would have submitted to top journals less often, especially early on.  I barely even knew what reviewers tended to look for then.  It was stupid.  And if I'd focused on mid-ranked journals instead, maybe I'd have six or seven publications right now, instead of four and a long list of working papers.

Now, to be sure, I know people who consistently publish at top ranked journals.  If someone had told them not to, and they'd listened, they'd have made a huge mistake.  I don't want to deny that this is possible, and yes, you may be one of those people.  But the point is, far more people think they will be and turn out not to be than think they are not but could have been.  I'm not saying don't aim for the fences.  I'm just saying think very carefully about which piece you should send to which journal.  And it's better to have an upward trajectory than a downward one.  If you have a few pieces accepted at mid-ranked journals early on, and you find yourself wishing you'd aimed higher with them, well, that's a much better problem to have than finding yourself with essentially the same CV you had when they hired you after two years that blew past faster than you thought they would.  And now you know the ropes a bit better, so you'll probably have a better shot at the top journals than you would have had in your first year anyway.

2. You are in the business of sales as much as scholarship.  You've probably heard people say as much, and you probably didn't believe them.  Or maybe you went from believing that the quality of your work (which you mistakenly believe can be measured reliably and objectively) is 95% of what matters to thinking it's 75%.  But what you need to realize is that while it may be true, all else equal, that "better" work is more likely to get published than "bad" work (and I know people who would question even that), packaging is absolutely necessary.  Some would argue it is also sufficient, though I'm not I'd go that far.

The most important page of your paper is not the table of results, or the one with the pretty graphs, or any of that.  It is the first page.  Because, in most cases, by the time the reviewer has finished the first page, they've got a pretty good idea of what their recommendation will be.  By the end of the introduction, they almost certainly have made up their mind.

Scandalous, right?

But still true.

And when you start reviewing papers more regularly yourself, you'll understand why.  Reviewers are not compensated in any meaningful sense for their work.  When you have to teach a full course load, serve on committees, advise students, conduct your own research, revise papers you've already lost interest in, and somehow squeeze in a life outside the office on top of that (at least I've heard most people do this), you tend not to feel like spending 12 hours reading a paper closely and writing a careful review is the best use of your time.  Especially when you find yourself reviewing 8 to 12 papers a year.  Maybe you've reviewed one or two already, and you really took your time with it, and you're convinced you always will.  But you're an ABD who probably isn't teaching classes, or is teaching one, doesn't serve on any committees, doesn't advise students, and so on.

You're also probably used to having your work receive careful consideration.  Up until the time you took comps, every single piece of scholarly writing you've ever produced was read closely by at least one person.  And even now, your adviser reads every draft of your dissertation chapters closely.  Of course s/he does.  Your adviser knows your name (hopefully), and cares if you succeed.  Sure, the discussant at Midwest didn't read your paper closely, but that's just because it's Midwest, right?

The first time you write a paper that you are convinced is brilliant but can't even seem to get anyone else to read closely, you will be shocked.  It keeps getting rejected, but they obviously didn't get your argument.  If only they read those footnotes.

But your work wasn't rejected because the reviewer didn't read the footnotes.  It was because you didn't sell them in the first few pages.  I think I've said this before, but even if I have, it's worth repeating.  Reviewers decide what their recommendation is going to be, then try to think of reasons to justify that.  Some of the time, those reasons will be silly.  They may accuse of you saying things you didn't say, or of not saying things that you did.  But all of that is just post hoc rationalization anyway.  You failed to persuade them, and that is what matters.  End of story.  If they offered useful suggestions about how to improve the paper, great.  If they offered stupid suggestions about how to improve the paper, come back to the review a week later, or a month later, after you've worked on other things and cooled off, and ask yourself whether that suggestion was actually stupid after all.  You may still think it is, but at least some of the time, you'll realize it wasn't.  Otherwise, forget everything they said and move on.

Sean Gailmard told me this last year, and I've had a really hard time putting this advice into practice.  When a reviewer says your work does not contribute to knowledge for reason x, y and z, which a patently absurd, it's hard not to get upset and defensive.  But the fact remains, you failed to persuade your audience, and that is, after all, your job.  Your job is not to be right. It is to disseminate knowledge.

3. If you know people aren't going to like it, it doesn't matter if their reasons are silly.  This is closely related to the previous point.  But it's important enough to be worth expanding upon.  Plus, you can't have a list with just two things on it.  Three is okay though.

In your non-academic life, you've probably noticed that with certain thing, critics always respond with one of two extremely predictable responses, and do so with a tone of voice that indicates they believe you've never considered this before.  Such as, "I don't like Facebook.  I'd rather have friends in real life."  Because, obviously, the two are completely at odds.  You cannot both be friends with someone and FB friends with them.  And everyone you think is your friend in real life really is.  Fake friends only exist online.  And nevermind that one could just as easily say that the telephone is a stupid invention because real friends talk to each other face to face.

You might want to think academics are above this.  Maybe they are somewhat less prone to it.  I don't know.  But they're certainly not immune.

If you find that every time you describe a project to people or present it somewhere (you are presenting your work before you submit it to journals, right?), there is always at least one person who has the same exact objection, it does not matter if you think that objection is irrelevant.  It does not matter if your adviser and your best friend and your spouse all say that you've got a perfectly valid response to that objection.  It does not matter that you spend a good deal of time articulating that response in the paper.  When you send your paper out to a journal, it is all but guaranteed that at least one of the reviewers will recommend that your paper not be published and offer the objection you believe you've already addressed.

So what can you do about that?  Well, obviously, one option is to make sure you don't put forth the kinds of arguments that people viscerally object to, since those are the ones that tend to elicit the same exact (flimsy and irrelevant) objection from most everyone who comes across it.  And there are plenty of people who've built perfectly respectable careers without ever once advancing a claim that evokes this kind of reaction.  But suppose you are a contrarian by nature and can't resist the temptation to push people's buttons.  I, um, can relate.

Going back to point number 1 above, this is when you accept that a top tier journal is not the right venue.  I have had papers rejected at top journals that received more favorable reviews than some of the papers I've published.  At the top ranked journals, the editors are looking for any excuse they can find to reject your paper.  If a reviewer recommends rejection and offers an objection you've already addressed at length in the paper, you're still very likely going to get rejected.  That doesn't happen nearly as often at field journals.  Even with fairly well respected field journals, which can hardly be accused of accepting virtually everything that is submitted to them, there's a good chance that the editor will have read the paper and will discount objections for which you've already provided a reasonable response.  So if you're going to write the kind of paper that advances an argument people don't want to hear, send it to a field journal.  You'll still be fighting an uphill battle, but it won't be hopeless.  At the top tier journals, such papers are pretty much DOA, as far as I can tell.

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