Why publish? This is a strange question with which to frame a response to a graduate student request for advice on “how to publish.” But given Ashley Dawson’s astute comments on the “increasingly cutthroat character of the downsized, outsourced corporate academy,” and Anna McCarthy’s warnings over the time and workload pressures that graduate students face today (which, for different reasons, applies equally in the UK), I think it is worth taking the question seriously precisely as a step toward successfully publishing as a graduate student.
Publishing is, of course, the best way to disseminate your research, but that implies that you’ve sufficiently developed your thoughts, findings, even new questions to contribute to that circulation of ideas in public that publication achieves. If PhD degrees are training courses, then those years of training provide a valuable time and space in which to immerse yourself in literatures, debates, and new ways of thinking and approaching the subject of your project. Publishing should not be ruled out as a vital part of that training process, but it’s worth thinking about what you want to get out of the process of publishing your work at such an early stage.
As Ashley’s comments and the very nature of the MLA Graduate Student Caucus request indicate, there is a (academic job) market-driven pressure on graduate students to publish these days. This is an inevitable effect of the corporatization of the Euro-American academy, and it coaxes all of us (not just graduate students) into hitting and exceeding publishing expectations merely to improve our saleability on that market. It would be naïve of me to suggest that graduate students pursuing academic careers don’t need to play this game. But remember the importance of quality as well. Given that trying to publish an article means your work will go to journal editors and (maybe) referees, and if accepted your work will end up in the public domain, make sure you have work that you feel confident is ready to contribute to the debates, thought, places, and political questions that peer-reviewed journals commit to pushing at. Moreover, make sure you are happy that the work you submit does yourself and your passions as a research student justice. Journals like Social Text are interested in publishing exciting, critical, provocative work, whether from established scholars or emerging voices, that has the potential to take debate and thought on the important issues of our times in genuinely new directions. If you, your peers, and advisors think your article is not quite there yet, don’t rush it. Use those mechanisms that Ashley suggests (collective organizing, mentoring and workshop discussions, for example) to develop it such that it is. Indeed, that process of developing your work such that it makes a contribution that you and others believe is genuinely worth making can be one of the most exciting elements of the PhD conceived as learning or training process. For my part, I would dearly like to consider all of us as academics immersed in a life-long process of learning conceived this way.
And finally, if there is one skill that I think anyone embarking on an academic career needs to develop quickly, it is learning how to deal with rejection! For many humanities and social science scholars our work quickly becomes a passion so entwined with our selves that it is difficult to not take criticism personally. But most (if not all) of us have had to deal with having articles rejected, and it never stops being difficult. Sometimes reviewers might just be wrong (even if they’re not, this can be a great defence mechanism!). But my own sense is that if we conceive of publishing as another part of that ongoing, dynamic process of learning-without-end, then rejection is simply another inevitable dimension of our careers as academics whose vocation it is to learn.