New Ph.D.'s seeking their first job and assistant professors seeking tenure often believe they face a choice: develop and submit conference papers or develop and submit articles for peer review.
From our multiple vantage points as an administrator, a journal editor, senior scholars, and mentors, we urge young academics to do both. In fact, we would urge you to use conferences not only as a way to meet contacts but as a stepping-stone to publication.
The current job market demands that graduate directors and department chairs emphasize both the networking opportunities associated with conference presentations and the importance of publications resulting from conference work. At the same time, they must make the limitations of such work clear to new scholars: A conference presentation is no substitute for publication, especially when promotion and tenure decisions are made.
We're in the field of mass communication, where the publication pipeline runs through three major conferences. While we focused on talking to people in our own field, we think our recommendations apply to other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences as well.
Conference-paper presentations only mark "the beginning of a life of scholarship," says Judy C. Pearson, associate dean of the arts, humanities, and social sciences college at North Dakota State University. Focusing on conference presentations initially allows new scholars to hone their skills, improve their writing and research, and gain valuable insight and feedback. But all of that effort only counts, she says, if presenters learn the academic alchemy of turning those papers into publishable works.
At North Dakota State, Paul E. Nelson, chairman of the department of communication (and Pearson's spouse), instituted a publication requirement six years ago for doctoral students. They had to publish two to three journal articles before being allowed to take comprehensive examinations.
"Research productivity in the department has soared," Nelson says, "not only among doctoral students but also among the faculty. Also, our students learn the importance of collaboration, working with each other and their professors."
The publication requirement has paid off in terms of placement, too. Of the five Ph.D.'s produced by the department in 2006, three were hired at research-oriented universities.
Placement is becoming an increasing concern at doctoral-granting institutions that previously focused on teaching, with departments and schools building publication requirements into the graduate curricula.
Paula Poindexter, associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, is chair of a committee on research for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. Her journalism school also recently revised its Ph.D. curriculum, expanding the required research course to two semesters. That allows for more instruction on publication.
"We've been successful in helping our first-year Ph.D. and master's students get convention papers accepted," Poindexter says. From her 2004-5 research class alone, students submitted 10 papers to a national association's annual meeting that year, and five were accepted. This year graduate students in her course submitted nine papers, with seven accepted.
"With students having success their first year," she says, "the next year, they submit two or three convention papers, and by the third year even more."
She acknowledged, however, that that approach has led to some doctoral students having impressive convention-paper track records but weak publication records. "That's why, beginning this year, we are putting more emphasis on publishing so students will have at least two publications upon graduation."
That type of emphasis also prepares doctoral students for tenure-track positions.
To gain tenure and promotion at Iowa State University, a new assistant professor has to publish a continuous series of articles in prestigious peer-reviewed publications. Books, book chapters, and juried creative projects must be significant contributions to the discipline. Grant acquisition is encouraged.
At the University of Missouri, the standard is a continuous record of scholarly productivity, as evidenced through publication in peer-reviewed journals, production of scholarly books, and acquisition of grants where appropriate, among other indicators. In practice, that standard means a threshold of six to 10 peer-reviewed publications, and most assistant professors produce much more.
Time management is a key issue in the tenure process. New professors not only must make the transition from doctoral student to scholar but also must teach and advise students and serve on committees. Some even advise student organizations, which tend to be large in communication disciplines, with undergraduate memberships often exceeding 100 and with students entering national competitions involving travel. In short, the workload can overwhelm a new faculty member.
And yet, that same faculty member will devote weeks to creating PowerPoint presentations and handouts to accompany a conference paper.
"When scholars choose to submit a conference paper, they should consider several things -- most important, the length of time they will have to present," says Michael Haley, executive director of the International Communication Association. "If you have between five and seven minutes, do you really need all the PowerPoint slides that eat up much of your time setting up?"
Some young scholars seem to resist doing a poster presentation, but Haley encourages them to reconsider. Posters are relatively easy to assemble, teach conciseness, and showcase scholarship in an interpersonal format that helps networking. "More people will see your work through posters than through any other conference presentation," Haley says. That includes journal editors and reviewers. "Take advantage of meeting them at a conference."
"And lastly," he observes, "do not take feedback personally."
Coping with Rejection
The judging of conference papers can be fickle and occasionally unfair. Beginners need to remember that peer review is an essentially conservative process and, at the conference level, has more in common with showing at the county fair than exhibiting at an art museum. Some people's hogs show better than others, and some judges can't tell a barrow from a gilt.
In other words, all peer reviewers are not created equal. Some just go through the motions, telling authors to cite particular theories or publications that the reviewer has used or even written. Too often, methodological "issues" become an excuse for rejecting an otherwise provocative contribution. Few reviewers openly acknowledge that no methodology is perfect, or that they are unfamiliar with a particular approach and hence unqualified to evaluate it.
Not so surprisingly, junior scholars, who themselves are struggling to internalize international standards of excellence, can be among the most hidebound of peer reviewers.
So don't be surprised if you find the paper-competition process confusing and demoralizing. Should you fail to have your paper accepted, the goal is to try again. Many a professor has turned a conference-paper rejection into a journal acceptance, sometimes after revising the paper according to feedback they heard at the conference and other times by simply ignoring that feedback.
"Students don't have to fear rejection with convention papers" as much as they do with journal submissions, says Ms. Poindexter, the associate professor at Texas "And it's exciting having the convention spotlight shine on your research. Plus, sometimes famous scholars that students have read about are in the room listening to their research findings."
That's all well and good, she says, but some doctoral students, as well as assistant professors, are content to bask in the conference spotlight without doing the necessary legwork to revise those papers into publishable works.
Feeding the Pipeline
Poindexter believes that doctoral students and new professors should have a "one-three-one publishing strategy every year -- one convention paper, three journal manuscripts, one collaboration."
"When the tenure clock is ticking," she says, "it is admirable but not smart to have three convention papers on a program. All those presentations eat up valuable time, delaying publication. If Ph.D. students and assistant professors have three quality papers, they should send two directly to journals and one to the convention."
The goal is to have at least three single-authored journal manuscripts in various stages of the publication cycle, from submission to revising. We endorse that goal and offer a few other recommendations to feed the pipeline.
First, when you are contemplating collaboration on a research project, don't just look for an intellectual twin. Choose a partner who shares an interest in your topic but who also brings another talent to the table. For instance, if you're a qualitative researcher, seek out a quantitative collaborator (or vice versa).
Second, attend conferences not only to network but also to troll for publication opportunities. We know many professors attending poster sessions and presentations who double as editors scouting for talent.
Philip Seib, a professor of journalism at Marquette University, scouts conferences for papers that might become books, chapters, or articles. Presenters might see his name tag but not realize he is also the editor of the Palgrave Macmillan Series in International Political Communication and co-editor of the journal Media, War, and Conflict.
"Last November, when I attended the annual conference of the Arab-U.S. Association of Communication Educators in Kuwait City, I heard so many good papers presented by young Arab scholars that I designed a book around them," he says. Those papers became chapters that constitute about half of New Media and the New Middle East, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2007.
So far we have been emphasizing the individual benefits of turning conference presentations into published articles. But there are benefits to your institutions as well. The more paper acceptances and presentations that a department's faculty enjoys at annual conferences, the more prestigious that department will seem to others. That's a factor in the recruitment and retention of faculty members. A strong record of conference presentations also elevates a program's status when it comes time for evaluations internally or by accreditors. For all of those reasons, it is essential that administrators find the money to support faculty attendance and participation at national meetings.
In the end, conferences offer individual, collaborative, and collective opportunities. The key for emerging scholars is to see conference papers not as a separate entity, but as part of the publication process.