Don’t Get Your Career at Costco

From a reader, on Facebook:

“Thank you for the post on The Five Year Plan.

“After reading it, I realized that during my years as a tenure-track assistant professor, I went about publishing and doing research, the way I do the grocery shopping: concentrating on the sale items (conferences, book reviews, on-line collaborations), ie, all things that seemed ‘affordable.’

“As a result I stock up on unnecessary items and find myself too tired to focus on the important things, those items that do not go on sale, but that are the building block of a good kitchen: articles and books.

“Luckily, it’s never too late to understand one’s mistakes and amend them. I wish I had realized the importance of planning about 4 years ago. Although I have managed to publish quite a bit, I have squandered a lot of time and energy, because I did not have a clearly elaborated research plan.

“I am getting there, thanks to your suggestions, for which I am deeply thankful.”


I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a brilliant and elegant sketch of the seductive allure of the “easy.”  Everybody has done it–accepted an offer to publish or present a paper because it was handed to you, possibly by a friend or ally, without any particular effort on your part.  “It’ll be quick!” you say to yourself.  “I’ll get an easy line on the CV out of it!”

Who knows, you might even congratulate yourself on your career savvy.

The quick and easy sale items of the academic career leave you with a CV that looks like the stockpile of an extreme couponer—a collection of stuff that you’ll never use and that doesn’t sustain you.  Put in academic terms, the CV becomes a stockpile of low-rent quasi-achievements that don’t actually bring you visibility and job offers.

An extreme couponer at home

One high-risk, high-cost item—a book proposal successfully written and pitched to the leading press in your field, a journal mss. dragged through the excruciating, endless review process of the top journal in your area–is worth ten of the cheap alternatives like book reviews.

If you are an extreme couponer of the academic marketplace, don’t be misled by the rapidly growing length of your CV.  If the content is not rich and meaty and meaningful, the quantity counts for little.

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Don’t Get Your Career at Costco — 25 Comments

  1. I agree with this, to a point. Sometimes, if it doesn’t take time away from the important work, it’s worth picking up an easy project here and there when you are starting out. At least that’s my situation as a new MA going on to the PhD. I am working on a book, but that won’t get to the contract stage, if I’m very lucky, before the next round of funding application deadlines. Journal articles can take forever to get into the review process and so I have a CV with two ‘in submission’ entries below the two published ones. Of course, when you are in the tenure track, you have one long-range deadline that allows for longer ‘incubation’ but I need to show progress on the CV every six months or so. That means, between the book and the two major papers I’m sorting on (neither of which will get anywhere close to publication for another 6 months to a year) I’m doing conference papers, book reviews, a chapter for an edited collection (yes, I know that’s verboten, but I’m in history and that’s how we roll). If I only concentrated on the major stuff I would have one article to show for 2 years of the MA and one purgatorial year of funding applications. That’s not going to cut it. Yes, none of this will count for tenure post-PhD, no-one expects people at my level to write book reviews or short articles, but when you need to stand out amongst all the other keener you must do something, because publication is all that’s left. At least I have a nice mix, (one major paper published, one in submission, one smaller one published and another in submission, 1 grad-conference as an undergrad, 4 major conferences, and 4 book reviews). Maybe you can get away with this earlier but I will be more conservative later on.

        • OK. Your record suggests that you actually get my point, but your rhetoric suggests otherwise. Yes, you’re totally right that an ABD needs some lines on that CV to do well on the market. And no those lines can’t all be a major press book and an article accepted to the American Historical Review! It would be self-defeating as an ABD to exclusively chase that caliber of CV-line, when those types of achievements are multi-year endeavors. the CV lines to be pursued do need to be attainable on an ABD time frame. But in the process of making that argument you gave a laundry list of “little” projects that do, in fact, dissipate your time and energy from the refereed journal article that really is the make or break element of your CV and app. To tell you the truth, just one refereed journal article in a solid ranking jouranl in your field, in History, along with a solid record of AHA conference presentations and panels, already sets you apart. I do not believe that book reviews add anything substantive to that recrd. And in the time you spend on 4 book reviews, why not write one more ref. journal article? Now, in your case, you already have a number of articles in submission, etc., so that remark is not directed at your personally, but more in general. Book reviews don’t distinguish you. Ref. journal articles do.

  2. I very recently defended my dissertation. In the next month or so I’ll start sending off postdoc applications (I’m in Comparative Literature). My “record” is currently thus: two journal articles (one sole-authored, published in lowly-ranked journal; one co-authored, forthcoming in well-ranked journal); two book chapters in edited collections (nice collections but lower end publishers; one collection in press, the other still being assembled); two books translated (both by great writers for excellent indie publishers); an Afterword for one of those books (book was this year nominated for prestigious US literary award); numerous essay translations published in very cool periodicals; one book review; a dozen international conference papers. In addition to this, I hope to sign a book contract (with a good publisher, but not a major university press) for a revised version of my dissertation in the next couple of months or so.

    What is my point? The pending book contract aside, at this very moment—about to hit the postdoc market in Europe—I would trade almost everything else I’ve published over the past four years for three articles in the very top journals in my field. I’ve loved doing what I’ve done, but in strictly career terms, I’m sure the three articles in very top journals would have been a better investment. In short: I think Karen is giving good advice here.

    • thanks, David, and your record sounds pretty good. My only concern is the “good publisher, not a major uni press” part. Don’t sign the contract!!!! Take the extra year and shop that thing to the very best publishers! The career impact is incalculable.

  3. Karen, can you speak to acceptable ways to say ‘no’ to people who think they are helping you out by offering you opportunities you’d rather pass up in order to spend the energy elsewhere?

    • “Thanks so much for the opportunity, but I’m afraid that right now I’m completely consumed by my dissertation/book project, and I can’t take on any additional commitments.” Then go off and write and send out the chapters as journal articles (you don’t need to disclose that goal if you don’t want to). That line is the time-honored method of the tenured (which is probably WHY they’re tenured!); practice it until second nature.

      Do NOT let a senior person twist your arm to do any stupid bullshit conference organizing or translating or book editing (as in the comment below). You fear they will withdraw their support. They will not. They’re be temporarily irritated and then move on and forget. The risks of losing their support by saying no are minimal and/or manageable. Meanwhile, the risks to you of saying yes are dire.

  4. Yes, please! We had two people in our program that had edited volumes in press (not an essay, they were primary editors) before they finished their dissertations because a faculty member insisted he was helping to establish their scholarly credentials. They’re gone now (adjuncts not TT) and the remainder of our cohort is already starting to feel the pressure to engage in these activities. Must. Say. No.

    • That is SO what I”m talkin’ about. Classic case. (also ref. post: “Should I Do an Edited Collection?”)

  5. Everyone needs to listen to Karen here. I NEVER published a single book review through grad school, nor as a sessional, nor as a prof. until my first book was at the copy-editing stage and I knew I would get tenure. Then I published my one and only review, and I only did it then because I wanted a free copy of the book. I was the only person I know who had this attitude, which made me worry a bit at the time. But the power of this approach to choosing tasks has proven itself to me over the years. And, I still have tenured colleagues who get bogged down with these things and, frankly, I think it is because book reviews function as a form of procrastination that keeps you from the hard work. Reviews and papers at tangential conferences (especially if you have to do research to come up with the paper) are generally a waste of your valuable energy since, if done properly, they take up at least 2 full work days and no one cares if you did them or not. Wouldn’t you rather spend that time fixing that paragraph in Chapter 3 that just isn’t working, or going on a canoe trip, or whatever your thing is that is materially or spiritually productive? By the way, I am more productive than my colleagues who do lots of book reviews, if I do say so myself. Take the high road: first priority – book or top tier journal article. Also, your focus on the important things gets you across to others as a professional with good judgement. For giving people the honest truth, thanks to Karen, again!

    • Reviewing books is service work, and should be done by all. I have done at least one a year since grad school. If the book pertains to your research, then read it and do the review as well as other research. But if no one reviews books, then no one’s books will get reviewed. I think you can see where this is going.

  6. Thank you, this is an eye-opener for me. I just finished my PhD last year in US and now work abroad at a university. However silly that sounds, my perception was that reviews, conferences, editorial work – that’s just what you need to do as an academic, in addition to journal articles and monographs. The fact is that I do focus now on articles mostly (I have published 2 in the grad school, submitted 3 recently to good journals), decided recently to cut conference activity to 1-2 prestigious conferences a year, and am beginning to work on a book project, but I felt that I *should* write some reviews as well and do some editorial work as a member of profession. So, thanks for sharing your thoughts, Karen!

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  8. Thanks, Karen, for the heads up on how to avoid time wasting energy-sucking projects. I was heading down the “pad my CV” route and am glad to get re-railed before I’m too deeply into my PhD (I’m about to begin my 2nd year). I have done one book review (my department highly encourages them), but in truth, it was a book I wanted to read and I have used for my research. I guess strategic is the keyword here, when choosing CV sale items at this level.

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  10. I keep coming back to this post, since I feel like until I read it I was sleep walking into Costco-style decisions. The last couple of years I really feel like I have achieved more and ‘done’ less. This has taught me something that i’d like to share, just my opinion. Many ‘cheap’ decisions made in your past should never be advertised, but can be salvaged. If you feel like something you did in the past was overly quick and convenient, perhaps see if you can ‘upgrade’ your labor into something more hard hitting (using that low ranked journal article to write something juicier, for example). Don’t delude yourself into thinking that it counts, but don’t just sweep it under the rug. Use it!

    • Good advice. Another of my principles is “waste nothing.” If you can find a way to leverage the work for something else, do it!

  11. I completely agree with you, Karen. I wrote three or four book reviews while I was a graduate student, but I haven’t said yes to writing any more since I am tenure track. My only question is: how can you say no to these things when the editor of a good journal asks? Is it OK to just say ‘I don’t do book reviews, period’? Or do you use the ‘I am busy at this time’ line, every single time?
    Many thanks!

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  14. Ah this is sooo true and I wish, wish, wish I had the clarity of thought to see this years ago. I was in a department where there was huge pressure to publish journal articles but also to attend loads of conferences and present a lot, which took huge amounts of time. I kept shelving my PhD work and I am now still finishing it. Of course, none of the other work really mattered and wasn’t that great quality, as we were pumping it out. A finished PhD is the key to leaving the academy and working in a new area.

  15. I am in an entirely different field, Chemistry, with entirely different publishing habits.

    Most of our work is in peer-reviewed publications and this is what matters. Conference proceedings are much inferior in importance and book reviews are practically unknown. And I never considered that book chapters might be a no-no, maybe because they are so rare and mostly written by senior academics.

    O disciplinae, o mores!

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