Last week, I submitted yet another article to the never-ending churn of academic peer review. As someone at the tail end of her graduate school career, the submission got me thinking about what we expect of graduate students, how reasonable it is given other demands on their time, and how connected it is (or isn’t) to career outcomes.
To spoil the punchline: publishing expectations are not reasonable, and they privilege individuals who come into grad school knowing exactly what they want to study, have the skills and funding to do so, and never waver from that. In and of itself, this is not a new insight. Nor, really, is the fact that every year, amazing scholars who nevertheless have no publications get tenure-track jobs, while amazing scholars with lots of publications don’t. We don’t talk openly about this last point, preferring instead to instill the fear of unemployment in first-year grads and turn them into research robots, but I’m getting ahead of myself. In the spirit of transparency about my own journey, what follows is a list of every project I’ve pursued in grad school. I don’t include projects that currently only exist as nebulous parts of my dissertation, nor seminar papers that never went anywhere. I do include projects that got pretty far (including past the submission stage) that were eventually abandoned, because that’s a real part of our job. My aim is simply to show what the drive to publish can look like when you don’t know exactly what you want to do in your first year, which I would argue is the modal experience. (For reference, my first year was 2015–2016.)
Project 1: My International Studies Quarterly article on Germany and white supremacist violence (solo-authored)
Started: summer 2019
Submitted: fall 2019
R&R: winter 2019
Resubmitted: winter 2020
Accepted: spring 2020
Published: fall 2020
This is pretty much the ideal publication story: I did a discrete bit of fieldwork, some interesting insights fell out of it, and I was lucky in finding sympathetic reviewers and editors at ISQ. That entire process took a little over a year. And that is the ideal. I should also mention the many ways I was set up to succeed with this project. I’d been thinking about the theory for years; I had secured fieldwork funding and IRB approval; I had necessary language skills thanks to 9 years of formal training pre-grad school. If I did not attend a well-off department with ample funding for grad student research, or if I’d had to work with interpreters/translators, the work would’ve taken a lot longer.
tl;dr: I had a solo-authored publication by the time I went on the job market because I was lucky.
Project 2: Conceptual paper on terrorism (coauthored)
Started: fall 2019
Submitted: winter 2019
Rejected: spring 2020
Revised and submitted again: summer 2020
Rejected again: fall 2020
Current status: in limbo while I’m on the market and coauthor adjusts to her first job
This project was made possible because I presented a draft of the aforementioned ISQ article at a conference, someone in the audience thought it was cool and reached out, and we decided to collaborate. The first real-ish project makes possible many of the rest. So, if you happen to do an about-face halfway through grad school and abandon much of the methodological and substantive training you’ve pursued for three years, like I did, you might be a happier person and a more interesting scholar, but you are also very far behind. Anyway, we’re still struggling away on this one. It’s bold and ambitious and reviewers don’t like it very much. We’ll see!
Project 3: Oxford handbook chapter (coauthored)
Started: winter 2016
Submitted: winter 2017
Finally withdrawn after years of poor communication and insults from the editorial team: spring 2021
Ooooooooh boy. This one is a SAGA. I’ll keep it brief and say that I know many academics who have years-long publishing stories similar to this one, even if they have happier outcomes. Even in the best-case scenario, getting an article published can take years, sometimes 4+ years, which means, to minimize risk, you have to start early. But there are many reasons you might not be able to (lack of funding for your research, an about-face like mine, having no idea WTF you are doing, etc.). Yet another reason why the expectation that grad students have publications on the job market is absurd.
One might respond that the logical takeaway is to have multiple irons in the fire at once. I was lucky in that this was the case for me, and it was made possible by a number of semesters where I either had fellowships or minimally demanding RAships. Again, I was LUCKY. This is all about LUCK. The job market is LUCK and publishing is LUCK and this whole field is mostly LUCK but that makes us uncomfortable because it suggests maybe this thing isn’t a meritocracy after all. Who knew.
Project 4: Review article (coauthored)
Started: spring 2017
Submitted: spring 2020
Rejected: summer 2020
Current status: in limbo while I’m on the job market and coauthor has a kid
This project grew out of the aforementioned Oxford handbook chapter disaster. To be honest, it was a little tangential for me—it was never close enough to my core interests to demand enough of my attention—and I think the rejection reflects that. My takeaway is that you can pour a lot of time into something, but if you don’t really believe in it, it will stress you out and probably not be very good in the end and not get published. Publications for publications’ sake are not worth it. Period. Do work you care about.
Project 5: Article on terrorist designations (coauthored)
Started: fall 2020
Submitted: winter 2020
Current status: under review (review period pushed back due to complications with a journal special issue beyond our control)
In contrast to the review article described above, this paper was a testament to pushing through during an extremely stressful time to write something I believed in. To beat what by now should be a dead horse, the path to publication was extended due to factors beyond our control. If I were counting on this paper to be my calling card on the job market, I’d be in a world of trouble. Again, stop expecting so much of grad students in a system that moves at a glacial and capricious pace.
Project 6: Article on counterterrorism and anti-Blackness (solo-authored)
Started: summer 2020
Submitted: spring 2021
Current status: under review
We’ll see! In a non-pandemic, non-job market year, this one might have followed a timeline more similar to my ISQ article discussed above. As it stands, my brain is fried and cannot have a thought more coherent than “publication expectations bad.”
Project 7: Article on the Soleimani assassination (solo-authored)
Started: winter 2020
Current status: will present at ISA this week; apologies to my poor discussant
Project 8: Text analysis (coauthored)
Started: fall 2018
Abandoned: spring 2019
You win some, you lose some. Realistically, lots of projects end up on the cutting room floor. Tenured scholars know this, but it doesn’t seem to be something we allow for grad students: everything is presented as a step toward publication. Well, sometimes one of those steps is knowing when not to publish something. In this case, I got brought onto a project about halfway through as the data monkey, did my data monkey thing, and found out there wasn’t enough in the data to justify an article based on my data monkey-ing alone (which had been our original plan and, to be quite frank, was why I agreed to do the work). I found a fantastic mentor in the process and learned a lot, including to care less about publication. I don’t regret it at all.
Project 9: Formal models of terrorist bargaining (coauthored)
Started: fall 2016
Coauthor leaves academia after paper has already been accepted to a conference: spring 2017
Finally abandoned after many attempts at reworking and coming to the realization that I couldn’t do any of the methods I needed to do to make the paper work: summer 2018
Lesson 1: do not agree to coauthor with someone when you are a wee second-year and the other person also doesn’t know anything about coauthoring. Lesson 2: the pressure to publish leads you to make decisions like this and cause yourself a lot of unnecessary stress. Lesson 3: we could lessen that pressure to publish if we wanted to because job decisions depend on a zillion idiosyncratic things and there is no magic formula. I said what I said.
My final tally: nine publication-type things pursued during my grad school career, and only one of those published at the end. Are some people luckier than me? Of course! Am I still incredibly lucky? Also of course. And if that’s the case, we need to have a serious conversation about what we’re telling grad students they need to do, and how much of their well-being and passion they need to sacrifice, for such a spurious process.