Does ‘Publish or Perish’ apply to graduate students?

August, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

Publish or perish has become a truism in academia where the pressure is always on to write the next article, get a contract for the next book, or edit a journal issue. But what about graduate students? Do they face the same pressure to publish or perish? Or do they perish if they publish…without planning?

The reasons to publish are obvious: to increase your academic profile, to put your work before your peers, to network with other scholars, and most of all to make yourself more competitive in this dire academic job market. Anything to set you apart from the hundreds of other under-employed scholars is critical.

But are there also dangers in publishing as a grad student?

Preparing an article for publication can help marshal your thoughts, offer new insights for your work, and motivate you to achieve deadlines that can also be applied to your dissertation. But it can also distract you away from your most important task as a graduate student – writing your thesis or dissertation. If writing articles and reviews allows you to procrastinate and avoid your primary task as a graduate student, they are more harmful than helpful. If your degree goes long, it costs both time and money that could be devoted to other tasks. And if you fail to proceed toward completion of your dissertation in a timely manner, it can be a black mark against you in scholarship competitions, and with postdoc and job committees evaluating you before completing your degree.

Another concern grad students must consider when publishing is the quality of the work they put out there. Your first publications will follow you for some time. It will be a matter of record, and you might not want your earliest work and ideas to define you too soon. I would tend to discount this argument, particularly if you publish in respected, peer-reviewed journals. These publications will vet your work with experts in your field who can give invaluable insights to shape your work and make it stronger. Used effectively, this not only gives you the opportunity to publish a superior article, but affords you the chance to make your dissertation even stronger as well.

In a related concern, one which has been expressed to me, is that committees are more willing to forgive errors or points they disagree with in a dissertation or manuscript under revision. If, however, they find fault with material in a published article, they are more likely to hold on to these criticisms and weigh them against you in postdoc and job determinations. Of course, strong publications position will position you well for the job market. As L.L. Wynn pragmatically noted at the Culture Matters blog:

When hiring committees are trying to narrow down a large pool into a short list, they’ve got to pick between a lot of bright young graduates with highly rated dissertations, enthusiastic referees, and clever ideas. So what distinguishes candidates?  Often it comes down to bean-counting – grants, awards, publications. Publications really make you stand out, especially if you’re very junior.

Finally, as philosophy professor Gualtiero Piccinni has pointed out on a “Brains” blog post on graduate publishing, “Students should be aware that where they publish is at least as important as whether they do, especially if they aspire to a job in a research institution.” A well-written and researched article in a respected peer-reviewed journal will be worth more than a more quickly turned out piece in an online graduate journal. This isn’t to say that other or non-traditional publications are not valuable. But before publishing anything, you will need to consider how this publication will position you for your future aspirations and activities.

Ultimately, as long as it is well-placed, and doesn’t distract you from completing your degree, effective and planned publishing as a graduate student can only benefit you.

This post was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
12 August 2010.


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