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A Postdoc’s Life: Can you publish too much?

October, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

I’ve 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 and effectively without compromising the timely completion of their own degrees.

But what about postdocs? We’ve already finished our degrees. We don’t necessarily have a concrete deliverable (dissertation) expected of us at the conclusion of our contracts. What should postdocs consider when thinking about publishing more articles, or even a monograph?

This is a concern of mine for several reasons right now. I have two peer-reviewed articles already in print, another that is forthcoming, and I am thinking about submitting a fourth. At the same time, I want to start thinking about whipping my manuscript into shape to get that all-important first book out there. I’ve been soliciting advice on both these issues for some time, and have been given a great deal to think about, and to balance, as I try to navigate my postdoctoral path.

The first issue is actually not unlike that encountered by graduate students. If you are spending all your time churning out articles, reviews, and other writing, you might not leave yourself time to revise your manuscript. Now, of course this varies from discipline to discipline depending on the relative importance of articles and monographs, but in history, a book counts for a lot. And if you never get to it, or you end up giving away all your chapters as articles, you are potentially jeopardizing future opportunities that a book might offer.

The other issue, the one that caught me more off guard, is timing. When should you seek to get a book contract? When should you aim for your book to be published? (Remember of course that from submission to publication we’re still talking in terms of years of lag time and continued revision and preparation).

I was advised by one professor to seek out a book contract as soon as I could. It would make me more competitive for future postdocs and that golden dream, the tenure track assistant professorship. But, she warned, once I had the contract, linger on it and negotiate as much time as I could before final submission and publication. The danger, she advised, was having a book in print before getting that first job. Disrupting the natural order of things in this way could have multiple effects.

Of course a book, particularly a successful one, is a great boost to one’s professional credibility and could increase chances of landing that job. But, it could also backfire, she worried, advancing one too far down a career trajectory without yet even having a career. If a book is a common requirement for tenure, she warned, having a book in print before getting even a first job could disrupt the normal hiring process.

Similarly, another professor at another institution warned me to avoid publishing my monograph too soon. He worried that, depending on the institution where I might be hired, the requirements for tenure would only count from the time I would be hired. Pre-employment publications could help me land the job, but might not be counted toward advancement and promotion once hired, effectively necessitating the speedy production of a second monograph in short order!

So, here I am enjoying the first months of my first postdoc. I don’t know whether this will be followed by another postdoc, an academic job, or paths I haven’t yet fully considered. But I am considering writing my book proposal and starting down the path toward its future publication. For those of you in this position, or those who have lived through it, what have you been advised? What are your plans? Are you anxious about publishing too much, or too soon?


This post was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
25 October 2010.

 

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Ian Bailey

Your question clearly relates to how an ‘arts’ post-doc should behave in the world of academia. I cannot speak with authority on how art post-docs are funded. I can say, though, that the majority of post-docs in the sciences obtain a contract off the back of the hard work of a tenured academic that has had to write a research grant to find their wages. They owe it to that academic to publish their work and include them as a co-author. In fact I’d go as far to say that is incredibly selfish for them not to publish their post-doc research. If such a practise became routine then one major incentive for a tenured academic to write a research grant would disappear (the need to publish) and so would the number of post-doc job opportunities. Btw, PhD students should always aim to publish their work and during their PhD. In this highly competitive academic world it is very bad advice to suggest otherwise. Ps. I wouldn’t take on any one for a PhD if their goal were not to remain in academia. It’s a research training degree not a conduit for other pursuits.

Justin Bengry

Thanks for your thoughts Ian. Currently, most history students and postdocs are funded through teaching stipends and associated grants, or stand alone grants that they have earned in their own right. Certainly none of my supervisors did anything on my grants except write letters of recommendation. That being said, this pattern seems to be changing, and I suspect Arts students will soon have to consider the issues you mention; that they ‘owe’ their sponsor. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

And I agree with you completely about the need to publish during your PhD. It’s too competitive, and there are too many strong candidates, these days to sit back. We have to be proactive or there’s no point in taking this path in the first place.

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