Academic Productivity, Part 1

[This post marks the beginning of a new column at Antenna in which a range of authors will discuss issues related to the profession of being an academic – publishing, parenting, pedagogy, “para-academic” professions, prestige, productivity, and many other topics, not all beginning with “p.” We also invite you to pose topics for us, either that you wish to write, or that you’d like to see covered but can’t write yourself. As always, just contact us at]

The two of us are often asked how we’ve been so productive and published so much. It’s cute sometimes when people expect a single answer—eat a bunch of cauliflower, sleep with your head on your laptop, write with vetiver incense burning—but below, we’ll offer a few tips, and we encourage others to post their own tips to continue the discussion.

First, figure out what you want this job to be for you and come to terms with the varied expectations. The day-to-day and the measurement of performance in academic careers vary widely. One of us started at a small liberal arts school, where the provost said that the job was half teaching, half service, and that an active publication profile was required (and indeed it was a job whose expectations seemed to add up to more than 100%). A recent memo from one of our Research 1 Dean’s, related to “buying” oneself out of teaching (for those privileged to have grants) catalogued the university’s expectation as 50% research, 40% teaching, 10% service. While the actual make up varies over a career (10% service would be a dream), recognize that jobs at different places require very different levels and types of publishing.

What jobs are available in a given year and the specializations most sought are beyond anyone’s control. If you don’t initially land in a job that fits you, you need to do all that is expected in that job and develop the profile required for the job you want so that you look like you fit when it comes along. In other words, you will need to publish at the rate and the kinds of things that your hoped-for next job will want, not just at the rate and the kinds of things that your current job wants.

Understand that productivity isn’t an abstract requirement and think about why you need to be productive or why you’re publishing. This has a broader level—recognizing publication as participation in a dialogue that advances the field and wanting to participate in that conversation, and recognizing that good research feeds into good teaching—as well as a specific level related to the practicalities of job expectations noted above. If you resent the need to publish, that’s unlikely to help you … and you may need to ask why you’re choosing this career path at all.

Some other tips:

To those in grad school, read a lot. All the time. Many people are slowed down in their progress by having an idea of something they want to write on, then needing to spend several years reading into that topic. If you’re constantly reading, and trying to keep up on a variety of fronts, however, you’ll have more already in the tank. Trust us: you will never have more time to read than you do in grad school, and the more you read now, the faster you can work later.

Similarly, always be writing. Don’t be scared of writing. Start a blog or write for other blogs if you need a little extra help. Or simply write drafts of sections now and then. Commit to it. Don’t ever look at writing as the thing that happens once you’ve finished research: see it as a process of discovery, and hence as a vital stage of ongoing research. And don’t be scared to share this writing, whether with a few others, or in a conference or publication. No writer is happy with everything s/he’s written, and you won’t be an exception, but you can react to that either by never writing or by recognizing that writing is part of a dialogue. Some of the smartest, most highly revered scholars regularly revise earlier statements of theirs, so you can too.

If you started other writing, like blogging, to overcome a block, stop when unblocked, or at least be aware of “what counts” and allocate your time accordingly. Blogs can be a helpful supplement to the dialogue of the field, and may create a public, but peer-reviewed publications are still the coin of the realm in terms of hiring and promotion. If you aren’t where you ultimately want to be, think carefully about what you put out there. You want to contribute your most fully-considered ideas that represent the skill of your thinking to the dialogue.

Part 2 tomorrow …


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6 Responses to “ Academic Productivity, Part 1 ”

  1. Jason Mittell on July 19, 2011 at 8:29 AM

    One addition to these other good pieces of advice: most tasks will expand to fill the space/time you allot for them. So if you give yourself a month to write a syllabus/conference proposal/manuscript review, it will take a month; try giving yourself only a week (or less). The marginal difference in quality will certainly be outweighed by using that time for something else productive – or having your juices rejuvenated by investing time into your personal life.

    • Jonathan Gray on July 19, 2011 at 9:15 AM

      thanks not only for the great tip, but for not picking one we had in tomorrow’s post 🙂

    • alexj on July 19, 2011 at 10:17 AM

      My recc for productivity: have some kids.

      While I know this sounds facetious, and it is in part, I have found that there’s something important to learn from this life-enhancer/work-challenge that is relevant to (my) productivity. Having children (or a dog or hobby or partner outside the professions) insures that you STOP, usually for quite awhile every day, and do something that feeds another part of you deeply. It also means (for me) that when I am working, I am SO HAPPY to be working, and I am much more focused and task-orietned then I was when I had all the time in the world (which I would squander frivolously).

      The facetious part is of course in relation to the gender inequity usually written into this equation, and how having kids (and a spouse or partner) has been proven to actually help male academics and slow female academics, and I think this would be a great topic for this conversation at a later date.

      Thanks for beginning this conversation!


      • Jonathan Gray on July 19, 2011 at 10:52 AM

        academic parenting issues are definitely on tap for at least one post in this series, ideally more

    • Erin Copple Smith on July 19, 2011 at 10:30 AM

      Great tip, Jason, and one I’ve heard before from recent PhDs. I remember a few years ago, one of my grad school pals (who had recently finished and gotten a job) told me, “I didn’t know it was possible to write a journal article in a week, or a conference paper in a day, but it is. When you have to do it that way, you just…do it.”

      Excellent advice, and something I understand even better now that I’m a VAP with limited time on my hands during the school year!

  2. Jeffrey Jones on July 19, 2011 at 9:54 AM

    In grad school, we read the appendix to C. Wright Mill’s The Sociological Imagination, a section called “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.” I recently reread it and have assigned it to my graduate students as well. I also assign Wayne Booth’s (forget his coauthors) The Craft of Research. What both suggest is the “churn” (my word, not Booth’s or Mill’s) between a file or folder one keeps on one’s research subject, and constant writing about that subject. The suggestion is a helpful corollary to what you describe here–the lack of segregation between research, writing, reading, and everyday tasks.