Becoming a More Productive Researcher

February 17, 2005

It's a paradox of the tenure track that, once on it, you get asked to do all sorts of things that will in no way help your case for tenure.

In just the past few months I have been asked to sit on a committee to review scholarships, come to a new December graduation ceremony, guest lecture in classes ... the list goes on.

I could say yes to all of those things, but then I would probably wake up one day and realize that all of my time was being spent on activities that would do little to increase my chances of earning tenure, while the one activity that is extremely important was getting left behind: research productivity.

At research universities like my own, both the quality and quantity of publishing in peer-reviewed journals is the most important factor in tenure decisions. As an assistant professor in the social sciences in my second year on the tenure track, I simply can't allow myself to get sucked into too many obligations that take time away from publishing.

Already I've learned a few tricks that have helped me immensely in maximizing my publishing productivity, and I think they can work for you too:

Equipment Is Nice, but People Are Nicer

When I was negotiating for my current position, I asked for start-up money to purchase equipment such as a laptop computer and software. What I have quickly realized is that although having spiffy equipment is nice, there is nothing so valuable as human resources.

I was lucky enough to have also asked for, and received, money to hire a part-time research assistant. That means one thing: I haven't had to spend time engaged in tasks that my research assistant can do instead. If I need assistance tracking down articles at the library or preparing a manuscript to go to a journal, I can delegate those tasks to my assistant.

Now, if you do not happen to have a warm body at your beck and call, what can you do? My advice would be to take advantage of any human resources in your department. For example, often departments have work-study students who are there to help faculty members. Some professors in my department use those students for a number of tasks, while others don't take advantage of them at all.

Another option would be to develop research collaborations with graduate students. Think about it: Who is hungrier to publish than graduate students just starting out? Often I have not had the money to pay them, but I have found that if I offer them significant responsibility on a project -- and significant authorship -- they snatch up the offer. It's a a win-win situation: I get work turned out more quickly with their help, and they get experience on the project and are a co-author on the publication that results from it.

No Grant Is too Small

This relates to my first point, as securing grant money allows you to hire people to help with your research. I tend not to encourage my fellow junior faculty members to apply for large grants from the big agencies. Why? Submitting those applications eats up a lot of time, and if they are not approved, then you have spent a massive amount of effort and gotten nothing in return.

What types of grant opportunities should you seek out? That's simple -- the ones that are easy to apply for and easy to manage once you get the award; for example, a grant from a professional organization.

What I have found to be particularly useful are grant opportunities at your own institution that are specifically for junior faculty members. Such small-grant programs can exist at the department, college, or university levels. They are typically easy to apply for, and are often not that competitive. I have received one such grant from my college and plan to apply for a larger one soon. Don't turn down a chance for some easy money.

Manage Your Research and Writing Time Carefully

Do you have a certain time each month when you sit on some curriculum committee, and a certain time each week when you teach your classes? For most academics, the answer is yes.

So, why do so many junior faculty members not have a specific time set aside each week for writing?

Here's my advice: Set aside one day a week to write, and repeat the following mantra: "On writing day, there will be no class preparation, no administrative work, no meeting with students." This is the one day each week on which you will do things that lead directly to publications.

Sometimes faculty members find that their office is not the place to do research, and may prefer to write at a local coffee shop, bookstore, or from home (that last option tends to be my preference). The idea is to create an environment in which writing reigns supreme for that day, and all other distractions are minimized or eliminated.

Be sure to spend the time wisely. Often new faculty members pursue publications stemming from their dissertation, which is a great idea. You know that project better than anyone, and it may just need some formating and small revisions to fit a journal.

In addition, I tend to work on small, manageable projects that begin at the beginning of a semester and are written up and sent out by the end, if possible. The longest project I have conducted so far lasted a year from start to finish, and resulted in two articles currently under review for publication.

Large, multiyear projects can be exciting when you have have tenure, but in the early years it's important to stay away from projects that are not going to yield publications in a relatively short period of time.

Look to Senior Scholars for Advice

There is no substitute for the wisdom of good mentors. Early on, identify and ask a senior faculty member in your department to be your informal mentor. Check in with that person when making decisions about what projects to focus on, what journals to send work to, and even what college committees to serve on. (I try to find out which department and college committees tend to take up the least amount of time. Then I nominate myself for those committees.)

A senior professor knows both the department and the discipline, and can help ensure that your decisions are sound and can provide opportunities for you. I am fortunate in that I conduct research in some overlapping areas with my mentor, who recently invited me to work on a book chapter with him.

In addition, although I try and stay away from involvement in multiyear projects, my mentor conducts many such ventures and has invited me to work on articles resulting from those projects. That means I get to write articles using data from his studies, but I do not have to deal with the time-consuming aspects of actually managing those studies.

Here's the bottom line: If research productivity is the most important factor in attaining tenure at a research university, then shouldn't you be doing everything you can to be successful at it?

I'm not suggesting that you lock yourself in solitary confinement in your office, only to emerge eight months later with five publications. But if you're spending major time on the stuff that doesn't really count, and very little on the stuff that does, then it's time to make a change.

Jason Stone is the pseudonym of an assistant professor in the social sciences at a research university in the South.