Daily Nous currently has an "Ought-Experiment" post under discussion entitled, "Are Journal Rejections a Hazing Ritual?". Although I will say a bit below about what I think the answer to this question is (my own short answer to it is: "It depends on your publishing strategy!"), I want to begin by focusing on a quandary that people on the job-market typically face, and which I struggled with myself. The quandary in question--very roughly, that job marketeers do not have enough time to successfully navigate the vicissitudes of peer-review--is nicely (albeit depressingly) summarized in the following comment by 'Disgusted' in the Daily Nous thread:
With this market, many of us need tenure-like packages before even getting interviews. Therefore, having to shop a paper around to seven journals–or even fewer, like three–is too time-consuming. If one strikes out on the market this year, with three, four, or five publications (as I am currently experiencing), then they will need to have four or five papers out for review in the spring in order to have a shot at getting one of them (probably more than one of them) accepted in preparation for next year’s market. If each of these has to make multiple rounds before being accepted, they will not be listed on next year’s CV before the new job season begins. Every year, job market candidates who have tried unsuccessfully in previous years feel the tenure-like pressures, but within the range of a matter of months, not years. Personally, I would sleep a lot better at night if I worried “merely” about the ticking of the tenure clock.
Given that it takes publications to compete well on the job-market, but many journals (A) have very high rejection-rates, while typically (B) taking many months, and in some cases upwards of a year (or even two!) to arrive at a decision, what should one do? Allow me to explain what I think one should not do--something which I attempted to do my first few years on the market, with spectacularly unsuccessful results. I will then return to what I think one should do, and why.
A suggestion of what not to do: don't merely focus on refining a small number of papers, hoping you can publish one (or a couple) of them in "top-journals"
Time and again, I have come across the view--expressed on various philosophy blogs--that publishing a paper or two in a top-ranked journal or two is a "magic ticket." I think this Magic Ticket view, if one focuses on it to the exclusion of other strategies i explain below, is problematic for several reasons. First, focusing all of one's attention on trying to refine and publish a paper or two in top journals (seeking one's "magic ticket') is incredibly high-risk. Most "top journals" in the discipline have ridiculously high rejection rates (upwards of 90-95%)--and, as we all know, reviewers can be very fickle (and in some cases irresponsible). Tying all of your hopes to a paper or two at "top journals" is a recipe for publishing nothing. I should know. I tried the strategy my first couple of years on the market, with a paper that people kept telling me at conferences made an important contribution to the discipline, and which reviewers often gave encouraging feedback. It took me seven years to eventually publish that paper. Second, I think--for a few different reasons--that the Magic Ticket view is something of a myth. Each year, I come across posts (at the Smoker, the now-defunct metablogs, etc.) where people say, "I have a top-5 publication but don't get any interviews!" If publishing in a top-journal were indeed a "magic ticket", why do these comments seem so common? I'll tell you why. From talking to more than a few search committee members, there are two related reasons why publishing in a top-ranked journal may not be a magic ticket. First, I have heard, from more than one search-committee member, that if all a candidate has on their CV is a single top-ranked publication, "it may be a fluke", since "sometimes bad work gets into top journals." Second, and still more to the point, I've heard that search committee members are looking to hire someone likely to get tenure--and, from their perspective, one top-ranked publication is little evidence of tenurability (a far better indicator, or so I have heard, is whether the person has a publication record "with legs"--i.e. a string of publications demonstrating a fecund research-program).
A suggestion about what to do: "put lots of eggs in many different baskets"
As I've said a few times on this blog before, when I was struggling on the market--and struggling with publishing--I reached out to two early-career scholars I knew (graduates from my PhD program) who were incredibly successful, asking them "what their secret was." They both told me the same thing: "You need to send out a lot of stuff to a lot of different places. Given that rejection-rates are upwards of 90%, you need to have 10 articles under-review at any given time." I followed their advice, in two ways. First, I continued to send some of my very best papers to top-ranked journals, in the hope of scoring a couple of hits. Secondly, however, I began to compose a variety of new-ish papers and started submitting them to lower-ranked journals: journals with much higher acceptance-rates (it's also a good idea to send papers to journals with good turnaround times!). Let me be clear here: I did not "send out whatever crap" I wrote. Although I've published a paper or two that I don't think is all that great, I worked very hard on simply becoming more productive--writing more papers, sending them out to colleagues and conferences for feedback, etc., instead of spending all of my time revising one or two "magic ticket" papers. (UPDATE: it was only once I started doing this, getting good, timely feedback and some acceptances, that I started experiencing peer-review not as a cruel hazing ritual, but as a decent, surmountable process for improving and publishing one's work!--though I still think there may be better methods).
Anyway, here is what started to happen: although I never landed a "top 20" publication, I suddenly began to add peer-reviewed publications (in lower-ranked) journals to my CV...and it paid off, at least at teaching schools. Publishing some papers in "bad journals" not only raised my confidence a lot (viz. "Hey, maybe I can publish!"), it also put lines on my CV, showing that I was an active (if not "elite") researcher--and, perhaps most of all, "hedged my bets." Instead of putting all of my hopes in scoring a "magic ticket" publication, I was doing both simultaneously: trying to publish in top-journals, but also settling for lower-ranked publications.
Here is why I think this is a good strategy: it optimizes one's chances for competing successfully for the very different types of jobs advertised on the academic job-market. In my view, which is based on experience, people coming out of grad school--who only have experience getting a PhD at a research university--tend to have a very dim (and often, inaccurate) understanding of institutional and departmental priorities at small, "non-elite" liberal arts schools. As I explained here, there are oftentimes institutional reasons for small, non-elite liberal arts schools not to want to hire "the best researcher." Hiring the best researcher (i.e. someone from a tip-top PhD program with publications in "top journals") can be a serious risk, as if the person is hired only to "jump ship" for a research university a few years later, the department may lose the tenure-track position they hired the person into. Consequently, or so I have heard, smaller, non-elite liberal arts schools tend to look for candidates who are "good enough" researchers (a good string of peer-reviewed publications, not necessarily in top-ranked journals) who are outstanding teachers (likely to draw in new majors), otherwise "fit" the job and university, get tenure, and be likely to stay rather than leave. This also firmly cohered with my experience as a job-candidate. Although I still do not have a top-20 journal publication, the more non-top-20 publications I got, the more interviews at teaching schools I got (and not just by a little bit--by a lot!). Finally, non-top-ranked publications not only plausibly increases your chances of getting interviewed and hired at non-elite teaching schools; it also plausibly improves your case for tenure (having worked at and interviewed at a number of teaching schools, I can say--in no uncertain terms--that "top-ranked" publications are not necessary for tenure at such schools. What's more important is that one has a consistent, respectable peer-reviewed publishing record, and that one publishes interesting stuff).
Here then, I submit, is the thing to do. When it comes to being competitive on the job-market for the most amount of jobs, try to simultaneously publish (A) in top-journals, and (B) non-top-journals. Publications in the former will make you a more attractive candidate for research posts, and publications in the latter will make you more attractive for teaching posts. And indeed, as a final aside, having tracked the market the past few years, the oft-asserted adage, "Publishing in a bad journal will harm your chances for research jobs", appears ill-supported. I've followed the philjobs Appointments list assiduously the last few years, and you would be surprised just how many hires for research jobs had publications at "no name" journals in addition to top-ranked pubs. If you've published papers in Phil Review, Phil Studies, or whenever, some pubs in lower-ranked journals won't look bad. Indeed, if I were on a search committee at a research place, I would think to myself, "Yes, this person has published in some no-name places--but honestly, who cares: they've published in Phil Review, Phil Studies, etc."