By: Cassandra Bransford, Ph.D., LCSW-R
To publish or perish has long been the mantra in academic departments of higher education (Burgan, 2003; Euben, 2002). Both traditionally and philosophically, the impetus to publish has been based largely on the value and necessity of knowledge production and its dissemination, and to further the development of a disciplinary field’s particular knowledge base. Increasingly, however, faculty members are pressured to publish to secure governmental and professional funding for their universities and academic departments (McGrail, Rickard, & Jones, 2006) and perhaps, most importantly, to secure academic security or tenure.
Despite these realities of academic life, publication rates still remain fairly low across academic disciplines (McGrail et al., 2006). The highest rates of both manuscript submissions and actual publications among social work faculty, for example, may be found among males, those with doctorates, and those who’ve already attained tenure, especially full professors (Schiele, 1995). Indeed, in a review of three leading journals in higher education, Hart (2006) found that the publication rates for women in academia who submitted articles to peer-reviewed journals averaged only 16% in the years between 1990 and 2002, despite the fact that American women have now earned more doctorates than American men (Smallwood, 2003). Moreover, in some universities, the publishing bar is set at what is perceived to be an unreasonable and, at times, unreachable height, and, consequently, many academic faculty members experience tenure anxiety (Burgan, 2003).
Nonetheless, publishing peer-reviewed articles is considered the coin of the realm in academia. In today’s market, even newly minted social work Ph.D.s will already be expected to have peer-reviewed articles in their portfolios if they hope to be competitive in their quest for tenure-track faculty positions. This article will describe a bi-focal approach to academic writing and publishing, both for social work doctoral students and for junior faculty. By achieving a bi-focal perspective on both the trees—the daily activities of academic life (e.g., writing research papers, developing syllabi, teaching classes, building community partnerships, conducting research)—and also the forest—the goal of completing a dissertation or achieving tenure—one should be able to successfully traverse the social work academic landscape. Thus, to begin this metaphorical journey, put on your bi-focals!
Fear and Loathing: On Becoming a Doctoral Student
Beginning doctoral education can seem like an overwhelming task; even choosing the programs to which one should apply can seem foreboding. However, in the spirit of a bi-focal approach of seeing both the forest and the trees, you may first wish to give some considered thought to your choice of social work doctoral programs. In addition to geographic locale, financial costs, funding and scholarship opportunities, and the prestige of a particular program, you may wish also to first identify faculty who have expertise in your specific areas of scholarly interest. Indeed, successful mentoring and supportive relationships can be the most salient factors in support of educational success and in securing academic publications (McGrail et al., 2006) across academic disciplines. Although the path to a successful academic career may be long and, at times, arduous, you can begin to think about your first academic social work position even before you fill out your initial applications to doctoral programs.
Once you’ve decided on the doctoral programs to which you will apply, you need to begin the process of preparing your applications. Depending upon the admissions requirements of particular institutions, you may need to arrange to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) or other standardized entrance examinations, obtain undergraduate and graduate academic records, and politely cajole professors, supervisors, colleagues, and personal friends/acquaintances to write recommendation letters to seemingly fearsome admission committees. Also, you may be asked to compose a finely wrought, personal essay and clear statement of research and scholarly goals to persuade committee members of your worthiness to be admitted into their esteemed institution. Often, all this angst takes place even before you’ve started the application process! Once, after all that turmoil and tumult, you have been lucky enough to be admitted into a doctoral program, doubts may ensue as to whether you are capable of traversing the academic terrain of doctoral life.
With visions of Sisyphus dancing in your head, you may wonder just how many gravity-defying boulders you will have to single-handedly push up the mountain to finally reach its summit. There will be hours of reading and writing, taking mind-numbing courses in statistics, passing certification exams, writing qualifying papers, choosing your dissertation committee (if you’re allowed latitude in that regard), identifying your research topic, gaining access to data, writing and defending your dissertation proposal and final dissertation, navigating the inevitable politics of academic departments, and all while you’re barely subsisting on your graduate stipend. And, by the way, why was it that you decided to quit your job in the first place to apply to a doctoral program?
Now is the time for you to take a deep breath, polish your bi-focals, and focus on both the forest and the trees of the academic landscape. As a starting point, it may be helpful to begin to develop an academic plan that encompasses your particular area of scholarly interest. This will guide you as you take required courses, choose advisors, and later, pick electives. Remember, you will probably be devoting at least three or more years developing your final dissertation project, so you’ll want to choose a subject for which you have a real passion. If you simultaneously focus on both the forest and the trees of the doctoral landscape, the uncharted wilderness will slowly begin to take form and shape. Not only can each class project or paper you complete throughout your educational experience potentially become a part or chapter of the dissertation; it can also be developed into a peer-reviewed article.
Many graduate students and new academics find the prospect of academic writing and publishing to be overwhelming. Identifying the barriers to academic publishing and then discovering ways to overcome them may greatly assist aspiring academics.
Overcoming Barriers to Academic Publishing
McGrail et al. (2006) identified a number of reasons why academics fail to write for publication. These reasons included lack of momentum (Boice & Jones, 1984), difficulty finding institutional support structures (Hale & Pruitt, 1989), lack of time (Page-Adams, Cheng, Gogineni, & Shen, 1995), an absence of a formal framework or structure (Morss & Murray, 2001), lack of confidence in one’s ability to write for publication (Berger, 1990), fear of academic writing (Lee & Boud, 2003), a lack of knowledge about the process of writing and publishing, including fears of rejection and failure, and avoidance of competition with one’s peers (Dies, 1993; Grant & Knowles, 2002).
Moreover, the authors (McGrail et al., 2006) identified three general intervention strategies designed to increase publication output. These included: 1) short-term, didactic writing courses; 2) longer-term support groups; and 3) the use of writing coaches (p. 19). Whereas all interventions yielded statistically significant results, support groups and the use of coaches and other mentors yielded the best overall results in publication rates (p. 33-34). Indeed, Berger (1990) identified the particular need for social work academics to develop mentoring relationships to improve publication rates. Thus, the importance of supportive relationships may be the most salient variable in improving publication rates.
Taking up My Author(ity): A Personal Case Example
When I entered the Columbia University School of Social Work as a doctoral student in the fall of 1995, I had some idea that I wanted to study the issue of authority. I was interested in learning how I could better take up my own personal and professional authority and have an impact on the individuals I served, whether they were clients or students, in a way that respected their autonomy and right to self-determination.
As I worked full time in a busy outpatient mental health center, the completion of the doctoral program took a period of nine years. During that time, I published five peer-reviewed journal articles, all of which had originally been mid-term and final papers submitted for my doctoral coursework. Additionally, each one of these publications later formed the basis for various chapters in my dissertation. The time and research invested in class papers and other program requirements not only laid the groundwork for each chapter of my final dissertation, but also resulted in peer-reviewed publications.
Thus, for example, the first paper accepted for publication was based on a final paper that I had written for a class on the ecological perspective in social work practice. My instructor had written some very encouraging comments on my final paper and had suggested that I think about converting the paper into a manuscript for publication. At the time, I filed his comments away, both literally and figuratively, and continued to make my way through the doctoral program, while also juggling a number of other professional and personal obligations.
I went through a similar process with three other papers I had written to fulfill course requirements. For me, the turning point in converting my course papers into manuscripts was the help of a colleague from another college, who was already on the tenure track and had published prolifically in his field of study. During a visit, I showed him my work and he was very impressed at the enormity of the research I had invested in my class papers—the same substantial research that all doctoral students must invest in their work. He volunteered to assist me in turning my papers into manuscripts.
He had extensive editorial experience and expertise and was very productive and efficient in his use of time. Before long, several of the papers I had written for classes had been converted into manuscripts. Eventually, they were all published in peer-reviewed journals. Truly nothing succeeds like success, and in the process of completing my doctoral studies and producing peer-reviewed articles, I was able, in part, to fulfill my initial goal to better take up my personal and professional authority. I also learned how to roll with the punches, so to speak, so that if a manuscript was rejected by a particular editor, I simply incorporated the reviewers’ suggestions and quickly resubmitted the manuscript to another journal for review.
With the exception of conducting my primary research and analyzing the ensuing data, the bulk of my dissertation took shape through importing various papers I had previously completed throughout my tenure in the doctoral program. Thus, by the time I graduated in the fall of 2004, I was able to go on the job market with four completed peer-reviewed publications and one in press.
Having successfully landed my first academic position, I continued to follow the same process of attempting to see simultaneously the forest and the trees. All academic endeavors, whether teaching a course, establishing community partnerships, presenting at conferences and professional forums, collaborating with colleagues, or conducting research on one’s own, can provide opportunities for academic writing and publishing.
It is important to use a bi-focal approach to academic writing and publishing, both in one’s doctoral education and also as one becomes a junior faculty member. It is useful to identify supportive mentors who may offer help and assistance in beginning the process of converting academic papers to manuscripts. By remaining focused on both the forest and the trees, a doctoral student may be able to both develop and later produce peer-reviewed articles and also work toward the successful completion of a dissertation. By remembering to maintain an integrated focus on teaching, service and, especially, academic publishing, a junior faculty member may be similarly successful in navigating the journey toward academic tenure.
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Cassandra Bransford, Ph.D., LCSW-R, is an assistant professor of social work at Binghamton University. She obtained her Ph.D. in social work from Columbia University after having worked for 20 years as a clinical social worker in New York City. She is the author of a book on casework, titled Becoming a Caseworker.