Publish or perish?

Following on from Gualtiero’s earlier post about the options that graduate students have for getting feedback about their work, I’m curious to hear what the readers of Brains think about the importance of publishing as a graduate student.  The opinion here at Rutgers seems to be split between those who think that (ceteris paribus) it’s desirable to publish as much as possible, and those who think that graduate students should not make it a priority to publish, for fear that their name might become associated with mediocre or good-but-quotidian work (the motivating idea here being that it is “better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt”).

Although my general question here has nothing in particular to do with the content of this blog, my (initial, uninformed) impression is that for those of us working at the intersection of philosophy and empirical disciplines (cogsci, neuroscience), the scientific credo of “publish or perish” might be slightly more relevant than for more traditionally oriented philosophy students.  Thoughts?

26. January 2007 by John Schwenkler
Categories: academia | Comments Off

Comments (0)

  1. Being a graduate student who is doing work on neurophilosophy, I am grateful for you posting this question and eager to see what the responses are, especially from faculty members who occupy that space of intersection between philosophy and neuroscience. These points of intersection often seem to have slightly different criteria in regards to publishing, presenting, etc. than more traditional philosophical areas.

  2. In psychology, if grad students don’t publish, they won’t get jobs. It’s not even easy to get a post doc without at least a few publications.

  3. I agree that for those working at the intersection with empirical disciplines, publishing before graduating is more important. Reasons might include that people working in these areas tend to get cues from the way scientists operate (cf. Chris’s comment) and that people working in this areas tend to have research projects that can be published in small pieces without requiring to have solved Very Deep Issues, which in turn contributes to the expectation that they should publish something pretty early.

    More generally, though, I think the importance of publishing before graduating depends to a large extent on where one is applying for a job.

    Keeping in mind that every philosopher has her own opinion about all of this, I think we can simplify matters by assuming that for present purposes, there are (roughly) three kinds of departments.

    In top research departments, search committees look for clues that job candidates will become stars. Publishing early is not necessarily evidence of future stardom, unless the publication is particularly impressive (publishing in a top journal would help here). Publishing half-baked ideas or in marginal journals will hurt you here. If you are looking for a job at a top department, you should probably wait to publish until you have something very impressive and you can get it into a very good journal. (But then again, how many chances to you have of getting a job there?)

    In non-top research departments and elite liberal arts colleges, search committees look for clues that you will be a productive scholar. If you are looking for a job here, you should publish early, though still in reasonably reputable places. Keep in mind that you will be competing with people who have published, so if you haven’t, you will be at a disadvantage.

    In non-elite teaching institutions, search committees look for clues that job candidates know something to teach and are not too research-oriented, lest they move to an institution with a lighter teaching load at the first opportunity. If you are looking for a job there, you should probably not publish much (if at all) before you graduate, or if you do, you should avoid getting too many papers accepted in prestigious journals (which would make you sound research oriented).

    Unfortunately, the result if a bit of a paradox. A very good candidate with few or no publications may well fall through the cracks. She may get no job at a top institution for insufficient evidence of future stardom, no job at a regular research institution for lack of evidence of future productivity, and no job at a teaching institution because she looks too research-oriented. The only solution I know of is to try to get something published in a good place and go on the market again next year.

  4. I’m sceptical of this paradox.  I’ve been at “non-elite teaching institutions” all my life.  I’ve got to be at the least elite institution of any of the regulars here.

    When I was at Central Michigan University, we had about 9 faculty, including two from Michigan, an MIT, two Wisconsin-Madison, a Pitt, a Johns Hopkins, and an Oxford.  Although we were always concerned about someone leaving and getting our top candidates, we still wanted to get the best philosophers we could and by a wide margin did not shy away from folks with publications.

    Here at Centenary, retention is an issue, but again I’m not scared of publications.

    Where tenure rates are higher, there is a greater chance that a hire will be a 30 year commitment.   I want those 30 years to be with someone smart and productive.

    The probability of encountering a “fear” of publications might be greater at undergraduate teaching institutions, but it is not clear what that probability is.  I have no idea how high it might or might not be.  The idea of holding back on publications in order to secure a position at an undergraduate teaching institution seems to me to be unwise.  I’m sure that the job market does not ensure a perfect fit between quality of philosopher and quality of the institution, but I also don’t see that “sand bagging” is a good idea.

    As for the choice between “all you can publish” and “what you can do well”, I’ll leave that to others.

  5. I recently posed this question (or something very much like it) to a group of ontologists (as well as less metaphysically-minded philosophers) at the Arizona Ontology Conference. The reasons varied, but the general consensus was that, unless one is at a philosophy program ranked, roughly, outside the top-20, there’s little to gain by publishing.
    One argument for not publishing as a grad student is that, unlike psychology and other empirically-minded fields, philosophers tend to judge applicants by their worst article. While psychologists tend to focus on the nugget(s) of insight in a given publication, philosophers tend to remember the weaknesses and failures of an article.
    Given that the work done as a(n early) grad student will likely be below the quality expected of a full professor, and given that philosophers tend to remember the worst thing published, it seems reasonable to expect that publishing as a grad would have a better chance of hurting you than of helping.

    Another popular theme was that those in highly ranked programs, like NYU, Princeton, Michigan, or Rutgers, have very little (if any) need to publish. The reputation of their department does the same job without risking publishing something that might later haunt the applicant. Those earning PhD’s from the other top-10 or top-15 programs should only publish in top-top-tier journals, and only if it’s an exceptional article.

    So, in addition to what Gualtiero suggested about the quality of institution to which one is applying, it seems that much of the answer to Alex’s question turns on the perceived quality of the institution from which one is coming.

  6. “One argument for not publishing as a grad student is that, unlike psychology and other empirically-minded fields, philosophers tend to judge applicants by their worst article.”

    (Adam, I assume that you are not advocating this point of view, simply reporting on it, so this is not an attack on you). This seems to reveal a horrible stubbornness on the part of philosophers! I would hope that if someone had published an article at, for instance, age 26, and then published another article at age 28, the latter would be far superior to the former. In fact, it seems that if one’s articles progressed in quality over the span of one’s graduate career, this would indicate a real devotion to re-thinking one’s own ideas and not arrogantly assuming that once a piece was published, then that position was necessarily correct and never to be doubted by the writer. Are philosophy departments truly so pig-headed as not to appreciate the advancements a thinker makes through her work (even when elements of that progression are published)? Despite what he postulates, I have great respect for figures like Hilary Putnam who have, at times, admitted to taking a stance in the past that they now consider incorrect. It’s unfortunate if most philosophy departments do not acknowledge this same type of intellectual humility.

  7. Mark, I was absolutely reporting and not endorsing. I personally thought the argument was a bit pessimistic, maybe even cynical, but it didn’t meet much resistance in subsequent conversations. I might not have highlighted this enough in the original post, but the claim was comparitive: compared to psychology, for instance, philosophy is especially unforgiving, and vice-versa.
    Being a graduate student, I find myself hoping that hiring committees are, or will be, more charitable than this argument suggests; but there are other BRAINS contributors who are much more qualified to speak to this matter than I.

  8. I teach philosophy at a private liberal arts college that is not particularly elite. Getting tenure in philosophy requires demonstrating “scholarly productivity”. Certainly we recognize that when someone is just finishing the PhD they may not have published yet. But we do look for evidence that someone will publish, and one good form of evidence is that the person has published.

    I don’t buy any of the comments about publishing what you can vs. what is your best, or about your status going along with that of the institution you came from, or about being judged by your worst publication. Hiring and tenure committes look at the individual person, and look at the whole package. So the goal is to match the idea that Ken describes: you want to be someone who is smart and productive.