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.

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

September 6, 2013 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, grad school rulz

9 Responses

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  1. I guess I wouldn’t have expected you to run into trouble publishing on Black Power, but that was a slick move. Great advice. I have a close buddy who grew up in the movement, and is going into soc — do you think he’ll hit the same resistance?


    Graham Peterson

    September 6, 2013 at 1:45 am

  2. It’s a little different now. The generation of the 60s has retired, so they won’t referee many papers. Also, the historians have worked on this topic a lot in recent years, so it isn’t so unusual. It’ll be tricky, but not as bad as it was in 2002 when it was totally out of left field.



    September 6, 2013 at 3:43 am

  3. It took until 2002 for people to publish academic lit on the Black Power movement? That’s incredibly strange. I would have thought sociologists would have been all over it from the get.

    Maybe since I’m younger, and Black Power was big politically before I was born, and grew up on Dead Prez and other conscious rap, a lot of it seemed very mainstream, acceptable, and old news to me. Cray.


    Graham Peterson

    September 6, 2013 at 5:47 am

  4. Then again, they don’t play this on the radio.


    Graham Peterson

    September 6, 2013 at 5:50 am

  5. This advice resonates with my experience. I finished my dissertation on Afro-Peruvian identities in 2005. My first mainstream sociology article based on my dissertation came out in Social Problems in 2010. If I only stuck to that topic, I would have had a difficult tenure case, even with a book published in 2011. What saved me was branching out to another area – immigration policy – first through co-authored pubs, and then on my own. It’s not that studying Afro-Peruvians is controversial; it’s just that most sociologists are not interested in the topic. That is changing now, but my timing was off.


  6. @Graham: The history of Black Power writing is that from 1970 to 1990 you had mainly first person memoirs and polemics. Then, in the 1990s, with Van Deburg’s book, you get the first serious work. Then, in the early 2000s, with my dissertation work and others, you get the first real social science. Then, by 2007 or so, you have a critical mass of historians writing on all aspects of Black Power (e.g., see Bloom’s 2012 book on the Panthers). We have a seen a little more social science but not much. Much of it is hidden in edited volumes.

    @Tanya: That’s a great example. No one is openly hostile to Afro Peruvian research, but it simply isn’t a priority. Great example of moving sideways.



    September 6, 2013 at 6:38 pm

  7. Fabio, I observed you doing this firsthand and the lesson wasn’t wasted on me. Jan and I have been publishing outside of traditional sociology with some success (enough to get tenure). I think the approach you outline is “a success strategy” I’ve seen before; loads of early-career scholars publish a few traditional pieces in top journals while also sending non-traditional works to outside fields or “freer” edited volumes. I think your message should be incorporated into more graduate training programs because doing cutting-edge, unorthodox work can seem endlessly good whole in the safe confines of graduate training; however, as faculty, the R&Rs must — and I’m saying this as a pragmatist — come through one way or another. Sounds like your approach was “or another” … Thanks for posting. Also, irresistible to ask: how does being on TV fit into your plan?



    September 8, 2013 at 1:32 pm

  8. On a related note, what about works with findings that challenge orthodox views. I had a paper with findings against well-established, and to some extent I believe, ideology-driven conclusion. Reviews that I received contain comments like along the lines of “this cannot be right because so and so did such and such studies, and this was pretty well-established” or “there got be something wrong with your data….” I spent a lot of time analyzing the data very conscientiously, and found otherwise. The data are quite reputable in sociology, in my view. But I am trying to use it in an area where the data are lesser-known. Any good idea?



    September 8, 2013 at 7:26 pm

  9. john: this is a pretty common problem and it can be infuriating. Your best hope is to begin the article with a section summarizing the previous finding that everyone believes is right and pointing out the problems with it, calling attention to the fact that you are challenging an existing finding. Then after you present your data, you have to go through the possible objections to the result, which may include the fact that it is a different sample/era or you included different controls or you operationalized the variables differently. Try to say exactly why you think the result is different or at least review the standard methodological issues that could give two different answers to “the same” question. Sometimes the older piece actually has the same empirical result but discounted it or interpreted it differently. If none of this helps you have to try a different journal.



    September 8, 2013 at 8:08 pm

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