In this series with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here.
by Vincent Burgess
Thesis # 13. Because there is no direct relationship between seniority and the quality of one’s writing, one’s familiarity with the literature, or the novelty of one’s ideas, graduate students ought never to refrain from submitting their work to a scholarly journal for possible peer review publication simply because they understand themselves to be novices. Even if rejected, the comments that result from the blind review process will be of benefit to students who have so far only received feedback from professors already familiar with their work.
Overall, this seems like great advice—and advice which is unlikely to be drastically affected by changing hiring paradigms, or even the potential shifting landscape of academic publishing (as recently discussed here and here.) Unlike other authors in this series, I cannot draw upon any specific anecdotes or overt experiences when it comes to this topic. To be honest, aside from delivering a handful of conference papers, this is the first time I’ve come close to writing anything to be published. However, the imperative to publish, and to publish often, has been looming over my head for many years—even before I began graduate school.
In my first religious studies theory course at THE Ohio State University we spent some time going over the biography and bibliography of Mircea Eliade. Eliade, it is said, had published 100 articles by the time he turned 18. That’s a relatively intimidating factoid to learn when one is just beginning to process what would be expected of them as a graduate student/scholar in academia. Now, I have since learned not to hold myself to Eliade’s standards (for numerous reasons), but my understanding of the necessity to publish has never gone away.
There is, however, the inherent inferiority complex which seems to come along with being a graduate student (and much has recently been written on the notion of the “imposter syndrome”). Some of this is a result of one’s own insecurities, but much of it has been institutionalized as a primary component of academia and the processes of educating and professionalizing graduate students—presumably as a means of preserving the various egos and hierarchies central to said processes. That is, once one’s academic authority has been established, one would be understandably hesitant to relinquish even an iota of it by either implying or flat out saying that a graduate student is capable of researching and writing with the same skill and expertise as a more experienced academic. Who knows what could happen? Hell, the whole system may come crashing down.
Relatedly, a graduate student’s ‘fear of fucking up’ is especially appropriate when it can mean the difference between a highly sought after job in academia or…well…nothing. For this reason, it’s important to highlight the centrality of confidence to this thesis—being confident enough in your academic preparation to date, your research expertise with regard to a particularly technical topic, the subsequent intervention that your research and writing can make to the field, and confident enough to withstand the inevitable criticisms which come along with the submission process (no matter how constructive they may be).
After all, in most cases a well-read graduate student who has spent a considerable amount of time researching a very specific topic, case study, or question will, in fact, be better versed on the subject than most other scholars in the discipline, whether they are a junior or senior scholar. They should therefore not be hesitant to share their findings with the broader scholastic community if and when they have something to contribute. As one never knows when a significant intervention into a field or sub-field might be made, nor by whom, I agree that McCutcheon is right here to encourage graduate students to challenge such hierarchical preconceptions vis-à-vis experience vs. a potentially valuable contribution to the field. However, there are also broader issues to consider—such as the matter of one’s time.
As has been pointed out repeatedly in this series (particularly in the posts by Matt Sheedy and Emily D. Crews), one’s time as a graduate student (and, of course, as an instructor, lecturer, and/or eventual professor) is invaluable, and any extra work must be approached with substantial consideration and cost-benefit analysis. Sending a paper off for consideration to a publisher can entail a considerable amount of time. There is the researching, writing, editing, sending it off to professors for notes and initial feedback, waiting, re-writing, sending it off to the publication, waiting, waiting, more waiting, more editing (if accepted), more editing (if not accepted), sending it off to a different publication, waiting, waiting, and repeat.
Since professionalization is the goal here, it is important to point out that this endeavor—in time management and beginning to traverse the world of publishing—is undoubtedly worthwhile, as it will begin to prepare one for a potential lifetime of such activities. Just as one would not wait to demonstrate an ability to serve one’s department, and one would not wait to take every opportunity to develop their teaching skills, it would also, therefore, stand to reason that an ambitious graduate student should also not wait to begin publishing their work.
This, however, raises a question which is often the subject of much debate, especially when it comes to the hiring process: Should a graduate student take every opportunity to publish? Even though these theses are not necessarily about “how to get a job,” but, rather, how to prepare oneself for an eventual position in academia, I cannot help but take such questions—and the broader issue of employability—into account while considering this particular thesis.
There seem to be two schools of thought on the subject: 1) All publications are good, and any is better than none, and 2) it’s better to publish less, more selectively, with higher quality work, in better journals—even if that means not publishing at all before one goes on the job market. There is not space here to delve too deeply into this debate, but I will say that there does not seem to be a single scenario that is best for anyone, as there are many variables to consider—not least of which is the fickle nature of many hiring committees (see this recent reprint of a 1997 piece written by McCutcheon and Tim Murphy, along with Jeffrey Wheatley’s post in this series).
Even if publishing is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for being hired, it probably won’t hurt your chances. As long as it is quality work which has something of value to add to the conversation—that is, a significant intervention or contribution to the field. To return to McCutcheon’s thesis, regardless of whether or not one is successful in their endeavor to publish their research, they will nonetheless come away with valuable feedback. Feedback which will help them hone their work as they move forward, therefore raising the overall quality of their writing and increasing the chances that they are more successful next time. And, perhaps equally important, one will gain valuable experience from beginning to negotiate the publishing arena, which will surely help her/him in the future.
Vincent Burgess is a PhD candidate in the Asian Religions doctoral program of the Department of Asian Studies at Cornell University. His research is currently focused on discourses of renunciation and environmentalism amongst contemporary, North Indian religious traditions, particularly how such discourses have intersected with various conceptions and articulations of modernity.
 Daniel Pals, Seven Theories of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 159.