We have discussed publishing strategies on the Cocoon many times before--and I have on multiple occasions questioned the conventional advice that one should only publish in "top" journals. As I will once again explain below, my own personal experience does not sit well with this conventional advice--nor, I think, does it sit well with some general reflections on the nature of the academic job market. Given that we have discussed these issues so many times, why do I want to broach them again? The answer is simple: I have repeatedly (and recently) encountered graduate students who, or so they tell me, are still receiving the same advice I received while in graduate school--the advice to only publish in "top" journals, not in lower-tier ones (indeed, I was actually told to avoid publishing in lower-ranked journals, as it might "reflect badly" on me as a job-candidate). Why are grad students receiving this advice? And is it good advice? Let's work through some of this again.
The idea that one should aim to publish in top-ranked journals and avoid lower-tier journals can seem, offhand, like good advice. After all, as we all know, today's academic job-market is brutally competitive, with not nearly enough jobs for qualified and talented candidates. Thus, at least offhand, one might think--as a grad student or faculty member in a PhD-granting program--that the way for candidates to become the most competitive for jobs is to publish in top-ranked journals alone. However, while this might seem intuitive, there are multiple reasons to doubt whether things are this straightforward.
First, as I have argued before, there is probably not one "academic job-market." There are many different types of institutions with very different priorities: R1 research institutions, elite liberal arts universities, non-elite liberal arts universities, community colleges, and so on. These institutions do not plausibly have all of the same priorities when it comes to hiring. R1 research institutions, obviously, are looking to hire the best possible researchers they can--people whose pedigree and research production will provide their institution with research prestige. And selective liberal arts universities are plausibly similar. But what about non-elite liberal arts universities and community colleges? Are they plausibly looking to hire the best possible researchers they can? There are several related reasons to doubt this. First, top-flight researchers are potentially a flight-risk if hired by a non-elite institution--and there can be strong institutional incentives to avoid hiring flight risks. Thanks but no thanks to shrinking budgets, here is the reality at some institutions today: if a person is hired into a tenure-track job and then they leave for a "better university", the institution who initially hired and then lost them may lose that faculty line permanently (I have recently heard of several cases of this occurring). Given that this is a disaster for the hiring department, there can be a strong incentive to hire someone who is a good enough researcher to get tenure, but not so good that they are likely to leave. Second, non-elite liberal arts universities and community colleges tend to have different tenure standards than R1 institutions. One does not necessarily have to publish in "top" journals to get tenure. I've known many people at non-elite SLACs and community colleges, and to get tenure one may only have to publish a few articles in "decent" but not elite journals, while being an excellent teacher and member of the university community. Thus, at some schools, there may not only be a negative incentive to avoid candidates whose publication records are "too good", but also a positive incentive to hire people who have a track record of publishing consistently in "decent" but not elite journals (who is more attractive at a non-elite SLAC or community college, a person who has one top-ranked journal publication or a person with a number of lower-ranked publications? I leave it to you to think about).
Here is a second problem with "banking" on publishing in top-ranked journals while avoiding publishing in lower-ranked journals. Given that top-ranked journals have a 90+% rejection-rate--and often take anywhere from 3-6+ months to get a decision--focusing on top-ranked journals alone can be a recipe for publishing...nothing. That's what happened to me in graduate school. I got a few R&Rs at really good journals (including Analysis) during my time at Arizona, yet none of them turned into publications. I ended up graduating with no publications--which, obviously, made the job-market really tough. And I was fortunate to come out of grad school in 2008, a time before publications in grad school became what they are now: an essential part of being competitive on the job-market.
These doubts about the conventional advice (to only publish in top-ranked journals) not only seems to me supported by these general considerations; it is very consistent with my personal experience on the job-market over several years. During my final two years on the job-market, I interviewed at exactly 20 different schools. All but two of them were either non-elite liberal-arts colleges or community colleges, and I ultimately got a permanent job...without any "top-20" publications. During the same period of time, I kept coming across job candidates--e.g. on comments on the Smoker and elsewhere--who reported receiving few or no interviews despite having one or more highly-ranked publications. This is when I initially sensed something amiss with the conventional wisdom of only publishing in top-ranked journals. My sense here was only amplified when I looked at the CVs of people in departments interviewing me (at non-elite teaching institutions). I noticed that they tended to be like me: they didn't tend to have "top-ranked publications" either! This isn't intended as a put-down in any way (on the contrary, I'm among those who dislike prestige hierarchies, and think work should be judged on its merits, not venue). It's just a set of observations that once again suggest to me that there isn't just one academic job-market, but several ones, each with different hiring priorities. Finally, on the same note, having followed the appointments thread at philjobs for a long time, I have noticed many hires of people with both high-ranking and low-ranking journal publications. High-ranking publications just do not appear to be a "magic bullet" for getting a job. All kinds of publications--high-ranking and lower-ranking--peer-reviewed publications both appear to help, but for different types of jobs.
In short, there seem to me to be many converging reasons to believe there are multiple job-markets, and that the "only publish in top-ranked journals" advice is apt for only one of them. There is both:
A research job-market (R1s & elite SLACs): a relatively small number of prestigious jobs that everyone is fighting for, where top-ranked publications make one more-competitive.
A non-elite-research & teaching job-market (non-elite SLACs & community colleges): less prestigious jobs where "decent" publications make one more competitive, top-ranked publications can make one a potential flight-risk, and teaching and service matter a lot.
Because there are multiple markets, if one wants to be as competitive as possible--in both of them--the way to go about it is to not focus solely on "top-ranked" journals, but instead try to publish in both top-ranked journals and lower-tier journals. That way, you get the best of both worlds: if you publish in top-ranked journals, you improve your chances at R1s and elite SLACs, but if you publish in lower-ranked journals, you improve your chances at non-elite SLACs and community colleges.**
Why, then, are grad students still (apparently) being told only to publish in top-ranked journals? Although I can only speculate, my sense is that there may be two reasons--one entirely innocent and understandable, and one a bit more cynical (if also, as I will explain, somewhat understandable). The innocent explanation is that faculty in PhD-granting programs may have only ever worked in an R1 setting, so they may not know from experience what priorities and incentives in other institutions (e.g. non-elite SLACs and community colleges) are like. A somewhat more cynical possibility is that faculty in PhD granting programs may have explicit or implicit biases in favor of their grad students getting jobs in research institutions rather than non-elite teaching ones. I say this not to cast aspersions on the motivations of grad faculty, as though they don't want their PhD students to get jobs. Rather, the point is still relatively innocent--namely, that in PhD programs there may be many faculty and grad students who perceive R1 jobs as more desirable, and therefore tailor advice and publishing strategies toward those jobs while perhaps unwittingly not giving due thought to how a broader, "mixed" publishing strategy (trying to publish in both high-ranked and lower-ranked journals) might be more advantageous for teaching jobs.
In any case, given how long grad students spend in grad school, and how much they have riding on whether they get a tenure-track job anywhere, I think it is important to question the conventional wisdom that I once received, and which (or I'm told) some grad students still receive today. As I have detailed in this post, I think there are many converging reasons to think that an "only publish in top-journals" approach to publishing may be myopic, putting candidates who successfully publish in those journals in a good position to obtain an R1 job, but not necessarily a teaching job at a non-elite institution. Given that high-ranking publications plausibly improve one's competitiveness for R1 jobs, and lower-ranked publications plausibly improve one's competitiveness at non-elite teaching institutions, it seems to me that the most advantageous advice for grad students is the mixed strategy: "Try to publish in top-ranked journals and lower-ranked journals, as are both likely to serve a job-candidate well in different ways."
[**Note: when I refer to "lower-ranked journals", I mean established journals with a legitimate peer-review process, not "vanity journals" that will accept anything you send them]