career strategy: if you can’t go forward, move sideways
In giving advice to graduate students and untenured faculty, I start with the obvious. Show your work to people, get feedback, and submit to well respected journals in your field. Often, this is enough. Through peer review, we often (though not always) get feedback on what is good about our work. We improve and eventually, stuff gets published. But sometimes you learn something else. There is something about your work that just makes people uncomfortable. And it’s fundamental to your work. No amount of revising will change that.
For example, when I started writing about Black Power and student protest, it made some folks really angry. Some reviewers still resented student protestors and said so in peer review. Others thought that Black Power was a strange choice of a movement to study. Yet others did not like a historical sociology approach at all. In other words, doing a historical institutional analysis of an unpopular movement was making my life hard as a junior faculty member.
I did eventually get some traction, when Social Forces accepted an article. But still, the work/reward ratio was way off. I simply wouldn’t get tenure if my rate of publication was one article every three years. I was toast.
The solution? Move sideways. In other words, rather than beg the top journals in my field for approval, I shopped my work around in some adjacent fields. Why? It is better to be well respected somewhere than pegged as a loser. And it worked. Eventually Black Studies material was published in a leading management journal, leading ethnic studies journals, and the book came out with Johns Hopkins, the leading higher education press.
There’s a deeper lesson here. When we do our scholarly work, we often seek approval from people within our field, but our ideas don’t fit into existing intellectual framework. The solution to this problem might be to seek legitimization from people outside your field. Moving sideways is not easy. You might run into the bugaboos of other disciplines and still get stuck. Also, some disciplines or departments will only promote you with in-discipline elite publication. They care more about the brand than the work. But it’s certainly worth a try. So apply for that job in a different discipline, send that paper to a journal in a different discipline. You might not get the career you originally imagined, but you might like the results anyway.