the “how many publications does it take to get an academic job?” redux

Every year as the academic job market gets going, someone posts online about what it “takes” now to get a job (or tenure). Think you needed a top-3 publication? Think again: now you need 20! People predictably flock to the post, sending waves of anxiety across graduate students, both those on the market and earlier cohorts watching the horizon. This week, twitter (as always) delivered the panic.

Underlying this roiling are real increases in productivity demands. As my colleague rob warren recently demonstrated, the volume of work produced by recently hired and tenured Assistant Professors at the top-20 Sociology programs has gone up significantly (and will probably inch upward again this year due to the pandemic-related hiring freezes). New Assistant Professors hired at these schools in 2015-17 had, on average, published 0-1 articles in the top-2 sociology journals (AJS and ASR) and 5 articles and/or book chapters. That is a lot of work to complete in the usual 6-8 years of graduate school (and, for some, a post-doc). But those averages mask a significant amount of heterogeneity that make it difficult (and even counter-productive) to give “one size fits all” advice to graduate students seeking academic jobs.

These variations include:

  1. Lots of academic jobs are outside of the top-20 departments and have different kinds of expectations. (So too do academic positions outside of sociology departments.)
  2. Some people publish a lot of co-authored work, which results in more publications, while others tend to do more solo-authored work, which results in fewer publications.
  3. Some scholars (and departments) value books over articles; other people and places treat articles as the most important scholarly output.
  4. There is a huge amount of variability in how much weight people/committees give to work published in journals outside of the top-2 (e.g. generalist vs. specialty journals, publishing in other fields, work that garners a lot of citations or public interest, etc.).
  5. Some fields and methods have average publication times that are faster (e.g. starting with existing datasets, publications with shorter word limits, etc.), while others are inherently slower.

People on hiring committees know all of this and won’t, for example, compare an ethnographer with two articles and a book proposal with a quantitative scholar who frequently co-authors secondary data analysis on the metric of number of articles published. In some fields and for some departments, sheer quantity matters more; for others, the focus is on the work’s quality and/or impact, the prestige of the journal venues, etc. The point is that the absolute number of publications, while obviously important, is not the only metric or goal—and can, at times, be in conflict with other targets, including publishing in “high-impact” journals or in longer formats like books.

The best way to get a sense for all of this is to find the kinds of people doing the kinds of work you want to do, at the kinds of places you want to work at, and look at their C.V.s. For R1s and other research-intensive places, what kinds of publications did they have in the years prior to starting as an Assistant Professor? For teaching-oriented schools, what kind of teaching experience, training, or awards are listed? While it’s not a perfect signal, it will give you a sense of the real-life profiles of people in jobs like the ones you’re seeking.

The goal then of graduate school isn’t to do the “most” work, but to do the best kind of whatever kind of work you want to do. Sometimes, this means taking on a lot of collaborative projects that keeps your research dynamic and energized; sometimes this means focusing on data collection (or analysis or writing) for a year or two before trying to publish. It might also mean finding a post-doc or other temporary position after your dissertation is defended to publish your work and/or complete additional training. Sometimes doing quality work means ignoring the constant chants to “Publish!” long enough to really focus on work that matters to you. In other cases, it might mean getting pieces out quickly while they are most timely. While these approaches often vary across people, you might also switch as you move into new stages of your career and/or new topics or methods.

Finally, the job market is just really unpredictable. This year, the competition will likely be more intense than usual, as it includes people delayed last year by the hiring freezes of the pandemic (together with a continued slow supply of jobs for the same reason). Even in the best of years, the process is wildly variable, depending on your subfield(s) and lots of idiosyncratic processes. Most departments hire based on what they need taught—a set-up that means undergraduates are actually driving demand for new Ph.D.s (together with generational patterns of who was hired in what subfield when and how many of those professors are retiring or leaving). Together with the mismatch between the number of Ph.D.s granted and the number of jobs available every year, this means that there are a lot of brilliant and hard-working scholars pushed out of the academy every year.

That unpredictability is awful to navigate and creates a lot of stress and uncertainty. But embracing this uncertainty as a sign that what happens on the market is a due to structural forces, not individual failings, can help people to navigate the process (and should come easier to sociologists!). This means that yes, you should work hard in grad school and try to publish your best work, of course, but also, yes, you should have a full life too. That full life should include doing research (and teaching and service) that is important to you, but also investing time and love into hobbies, friends, and family.

And, yes, think about other kinds of career paths where you can use your talents. This has always been true, but is particularly relevant when the number of academic jobs decline. Many alternative paths can be more desirable on some dimensions than joining the professoriate (e.g. choosing your own location). Because the job market for academia starts so early (typically the year before you defend your dissertation), you can usually try out the academic market to see what happens and then decide whether to apply for other kinds of jobs with degree in-hand. Trying these jobs on, for example through short-term collaborations or internships, can also be very helpful for deciding if they might be a good fit. (And for finding mentors in the fields you might want to enter.) Knowing that you have other options, both for short-term funding and long-term careers, can help to manage the stress of the academic job market.

Finally, as simone biles reminds us: You are more than your accomplishments (or success on the job market). Always.

post-script: latonya trotter replies: “Its also worth noting that the job market isn’t a meritocracy. The circulation of ‘the right number of publications’ rhetoric works to hide the fact that elitism and connections matter.” This is so important and not something I talked about in the original post. Where you go to grad school and who you work with matter a lot. (See, e.g., neal caren’s 2013 post on the academic caste system; warren’s more recent piece cited above notes: “About 90 percent of new assistant professors in the top 21 departments since 1991 received their PhDs from another of those top 21 departments.” Even then, however, going to a top-20 or even top-5 program AND publishing does not guarantee an academic job.) In part, the prestige of your Ph.D-granting institution matters because higher-ranked schools have more resources to give students to advance and publish their research (and because intensive research mentorship is easier in schools with lighter teaching loads, because faculty at these schools have elite connections, and so forth). But it’s also true that getting a degree from an “elite” program sends a signal on the market that makes your chances of later working at a top-20 sociology program much higher. So as you are looking at those C.V.s of people whose work and jobs emulate what you want your career to look like, check out where they went to grad school. You will probably see a small number of familiar names.

Author: michellesphelps

Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota.

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