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06/17/2016

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Derek Bowman

Here's the question to ask yourself: if you act strategically, what are you strategizing for? Yes, publications in order to get a tenure-track job, but why do you want that?

A big part of the answer for many of us is that we want to be able to think, research, and write about topics we care about.

If if this is the letter writer's main aim as well, then I think it would be a mistake to give up the definite ability to do this now in favor of increasing your odds in a very uncertain venture that might allow you to do this in the future. Indeed if pursuing an academic career requires making this sacrifice, it should lead you to question whether an academic career is any less of a distraction from the things you care about than another job would be. (See this recent article by philosopher Liz Swan who gave up a tenure-track job in part to allow her to do the kind of writing that matters to her. https://chroniclevitae.com/news/1438-so-you-think-you-want-a-tenure-track-job)

This doesn't tell against Helen's very sensible mixed strategy, of course.

Postdoc

I'm also a fan of the mixed strategy. However, I've been moving more toward writing on "hot topics," and I've found this extremely rewarding. When writing on your own interests (which may or may not be of concern to a broader audience), you might hear from others that they appreciate the quality of your scholarship, your arguments, your writing, etc. This is, of course, great to hear.

However, when writing on a topic that is of broader interest--especially when you offer a solution to a problem that many consider pressing, or worthy of attention--you're likely to hear from people who are genuinely interested in your work, who were able to solve new problems by drawing on what you've written, or who have built upon your own project. I personally find this extremely rewarding, and highly motivating.

In short, I think I've moved away from thinking about philosophy as a solitary endeavor where we simply pursue whatever happens to interest us (although I still think we should be able to pursue these personal interests when we wish). Instead, I've become more interested in philosophy as a community of contemporaries who benefit from intellectual engagement, and should aim to contribute to shared interests. To this end, even when personal interests move me to write a paper, I spend considerable time thinking about how what I'm doing might be applicable to popular debates, and try to frame the paper by pointing out these potential applications (in some cases, this focus on framing has allowed me to publish what might be narrow, personal philosophical interests in well regarded journals). Maybe some will think that this is giving too much up, but I don't think there's anything wrong with writing to be read. I don't write on "hot topics" as a way of chasing citations, but as a way of meaningfully engaging with the broader philosophical community.

Marcus Arvan

Early in my career [when I was still seeking a TT job], I tried the "mixed strategy." It didn't work well for me. I published a couple of "reply" pieces in a pretty good journal, but the more ambitious stuff I was writing on "hot topics" wasn't landing at journals--and to be frank, I just wasn't enjoying my work very much. Following Dotson's and Derek's points, I felt like I had "sold my soul" to try to get a tenure-track job.

I remember at one point asking myself, "If I'm going to go down [i.e. not get a tenure track job], is this how I want to do it--writing on 'hot topics'?" I decided, in my case at least, that the answer was firmly no. I decided that if I was going to fail at this philosophy thing, I might as well fail writing on topics and ideas I love, believe in, and which reflect the kind of philosopher I wanted to be. That way at least [or so I figured], regardless of what happened [TT job or no] I could look myself in the mirror at the end of the day and know that I at least did philosophy in an authentic way.

Anyway, regardless of whether it is better to fail authentically or *perhaps* put oneself in a better position to succeed inauthentically [I'm much inclined to side with the former], the "follow your passion" strategy worked for me in multiple respects. First, it helped me fall in love with philosophy again. I went from looking at research and publishing primarily instrumentally [viz. "I really need to publish"] to writing new drafts from a sense of joy in what I was doing. Second, this was no small thing: it made me far more productive. I went from writing one or two papers a year to writing well over a dozen. Third, I was not only finally having fun again and being productive: it led to a lot of publications. No, it did not lead to publications in highly-ranked journals--but, as I have said before, the more publications I got in lower-ranked journals, the more interviews I got [yes, mainly but not entirely at teaching schools, but more interviews is more interviews].

Anyway, that was my experience. I certainly understand the "mixed strategy" idea, and am not wholly opposed to it [as writing on hot topics may well be helpful in terms of publishing in good places and getting a job]. Still, my experience has been that "following your passion" can work wonders--for one's psyche, productivity, and competitiveness on the market.

There's a saying in baseball for pitchers: "If you're going to get beat, get beat on your best pitch." The idea here again is, if you're going to fail, fail with a pitch you believe in rather than one you don't. Wise words, I think.

Jerry Green

I'm not going to take a normative position just now, but here are some observations about practical difficulties with the strategic approach:

1) Fads come and go. This means that, by the time you've got a paper ready to go, people aren't interested anymore. This happened to me early in grad school with the situationist critique of virtue ethics. It was *the* topic in VE for a bit, but quickly played itself out.

2) There's a time lag. The work we're reading now was written and accepted months or years ago, and other work you don't know yet is in the pipeline. Unless you live in a centrally located place and/or have a big research budget, you won't be up on all the current work going on at conferences. This makes it both hard to respond to hot topics, and hard to guess which topics will be hot.

3) More competition. A topic is hot if lots of people are working on it simultaneously. This increases the odds that (a) you get scooped, (b) you aren't the best paper on the topic submitted on an editor's desk, (c) you're competing for a single journal spot (e.g. because they don't want too many papers on a narrow topic), (d) a referee sees your paper as one of a group on the topic, making it look average.

4) Polarizing. If more people are thinking about your topic recently and/or frequently, they're more likely to have strong views on it. This increases the chances a ref won't like your paper. Also, some people are reactionary, counter-cultural, etc: if they see something is popular, they ipso facto won't like it. So a ref might think 'ugh, another unneeded paper on X' from the outset.

5) Unfocused. If you're bouncing around from hot topic to hot topic, it might be hard to have an overarching research project. This could be harmful for job apps or tenure down the road.

Of course, these considerations won't apply in every case, could be counter-balanced by other considerations, etc. Even so, we shouldn't assume 'strategy' is automatically the savvier, more practical option.

Helen De Cruz

JG I agree with most of what you say. It's important to have a research arch, and coming off as unfocused is definitely a risk (although if you are a prolific publisher, it's not that big a risk. I know some people in the profession who write a lot, on topical debates, and it does not seem to harm them.)
And you are right about fads (1), therefore, I would recommend the jump on the opportunity strategy especially if you are in a place where you hear a lot of unpublished work (e.g., Oxford, where I was a postdoc), and do it quickly before the interest wanes. I especially think you are right on (3). I recommended reject for a paper I reviewed today on a trendy topic, and it's the third paper on that topic I reviewed this month. I wonder whether I would have been less harsh if the topic had been something novel - I think so.

Ed

Now of course another risk, if you follow the advice on writing in trendy topics when you are at Oxford/Harvard etc., is that the work may come out as being written by immature scholars with a sliver spoon, which may irritate some reviewers...

shane wilkins

One point that I'd like to make here is that trying to publish with the latest trend *might* be a counterproductive strategy, for the following reasons.

In the first place, it's not evident to me that it's actually easier to get a paper published on a "trendy" topic in a top journal. Suppose you're an editor, and you've read a whole bunch of papers in the last 18 months on grounding or disagreement or whatever, and now you get another one. Even if it's a really good paper, maybe you're just tired of the topic, or feel like there's already so much good stuff written on it the bar for dedicating additional pages of your journal should be so much higher . . . It's easy to imagine that an editor (or referee) would get "trend fatigue" after a while.

In the second place, while it can also be hard to get a new topic into a top journal, I think the rewards for doing so are considerable. Having a paper in good journal is nice, but having a paper in a good journal that opens up a new problem, or suggests a completely different direction in an established debate is much, much better I think from the point of view of hiring. Somebody who is starting something new is going to garner a lot more attention and citations than somebody who is just making regularly yeoman's contributions to pre-existing approaches, or so I would expect.

Both points suggest to me that it is a good strategic move (ceteris paribus) for people to send their work to top generalist journals, even when their work isn't on "trendy" topics.

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