Pay it Forward…Advice from an ASPA Member

The first half of this article appeared in the October 2010 print issue of PA TIMES. Following is the entire piece. Pay it Forward is a regularly appearing column for the print PA TIMES. If you are interested in writing a Pay it Forward piece for print or online, please contact Christine McCrehin at

Advice for an Academic Career

Mordecai Lee

For those of you considering a career in the professoriate and for newly minted assistant professors, the bad news first. Yes, academic success is partly based on merit, but also a little bit of luck. This is not to discourage you, as I think it’s a great career choice. I just want to convey a realistic assessment of it, because getting tenure is both an obstacle course and a marathon race.

My ultimate example about luck: I had submitted a book manuscript to a university press. The two external reviewers just hated it. They couldn’t think of a single nice thing to say. I combed their comments for their few constructive suggestions and revised the manuscript. But the revised text was 99 percent unchanged. I sent it to another university press. The two reviewers couldn’t stop raving about it. Naturally I was thrilled, but also just plain lucky. What our mothers told us is true: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. (More on this later.)

There are two movies that capture, albeit exaggeratingly, what seeking tenure is like. Both, appropriately, are comedic satires. In the aptly named “Tenure” (2009), Luke Wilson’s tenure clock is about to run out while a recently-hired assistant professor is coming up fast from behind. He likes to teach, doesn’t particularly like to write, but knows what he must do to get tenure. (I’d give it 3½ stars.) In “Getting Straight” (1970), Elliott Gould is a TA about to defend his thesis. He likes to teach, but faces the same kind of pressures that a junior faculty member would. (That subplot is only part of the movie. It’s also very dated, truly a 1960s period piece. 1½ stars.) Both movies help convey the contortions that one must go through to please those senior academics who control your future.

So, how to make it up the greasy pole? Planning, publishing, persistence, patience and perfectionism.

Think of your tenure application as similar to what prosecutors and defense attorneys do just before a case goes to a jury. The good ones know that during the trial they have a record underlying what they want to say at the end. They engage in backward planning: “If, in my summary I want to claim X, then during the trial I have to build, piece by piece, the evidence and testimony that will permit me at the end to make that argument.”

So too, for junior faculty. Create a plan by beginning at the end and working backwards.

Take a very, very close look at the tenure standards that are used at your school. Deconstruct them into a checklist of what you’ll need in your portfolio when you apply. Be pragmatic and expedient to achieve the goals in your plan. Remember Herbert Simon’s wonderful phrase: satisficing.

For example, what’s called ‘service.’ That means you being on (just) a couple of departmental committees, institution-wide committees and professional association roles. Not too much (that’s a waste of time) nor too little (that’s a pretext for denial). Be calculated about it. Ask yourself, have I served on enough school-wide faculty committees for that part of my tenure application? If so, stop volunteering or accepting assignments. Remember that a junior faculty member can decline an invitation to serve on a committee precisely because of one’s junior status: “Gee, I’m really sorry, it sounds like an interesting assignment, but with only __ years left on my tenure clock I feel I have to dedicate as much time as possible to doing X instead.” Satisfice and no more. (Related to that, don’t offer opinions at faculty meetings unless you’re absolutely forced to. There’s no benefit to taking sides when tenured faculty disagree.)

The same backwards planning for teaching. (I’m gonna get killed for saying this publicly.) You want to teach a variety of courses, but your teaching record doesn’t have to include a new course (or two or three) every semester. That would be an unreasonable expectation or an indicator that the senior faculty are taking advantage of you. If so, get out as fast as you can. As for student evaluations, don’t sweat it too much. Yes, you want to be a good teacher. But, no, you don’t have to be the world’s best either. As long as you’re in the middle of the pack in your stats, that’s good enough. It is very rare to be denied tenure merely because of mediocre teaching evals. By the way, a handful of workshops on how to become a better teacher go a long way. You’ll have plenty of time after you get tenure to further improve your teaching and evals.

On to the biggie, publishing. First, see if the formal standards or candid comments from senior faculty can lead to quantifiable goals, even if unofficial. Knowing that you need, say, six articles at a minimum is very different from, say, ten. Also, pay attention if there is any official or informal guidance on such vital details as how many can be jointly authored? With you listed first? How many OK as exploratory research? How many using qualitative vs. quantitative techniques? How many in high-rejection-rate journals? And what’s the definition used in your department for a top tier journal: 80% rejection rate? 90%? And so on. The more tangible your publishing goals, the better.

Don’t panic if you get conflicting advice from different faculty members. Either split the difference or trust your judgment. Who’s in the governing coalition of the department and who’s an outlier? By now, I hope you’ve realized that not every piece you publish has to be in a 99% rejection-rate journal nor be sole-authored nor use high-end statistics nor be the lead article.

Some highly idiosyncratic publishing advice, which is out of the mainstream indoctrination of junior faculty. (Warning: free advice is worth what you pay for it. Readers are strongly cautioned.) I’d recommend quantity over quality. Better eight articles in middle rejection rate journals than three in high ones. Better more articles that are jointly authored than a handful that are sole authored. And it’s OK to have a disproportionate number in the same journal (of your specialization). Think of it as academic archery. The more arrows you shoot, the better the chances of hitting a bulls-eye occasionally. Regarding the conflicting advice you’ll get about publishing your dissertation, whether as a book, article or a couple of articles. Something is better than nothing. While it might not count for much, it’s something. It’s a head start that you’ve given yourself. Use it.

Now, persistence and patience. Both apply to research. If your submission has been rejected, that doesn’t automatically mean it’s unpublishable. Revise your piece based on any constructive suggestions contained in the reviews, but only if you agree with their essential validity. Ignore any reviews that essentially say: “I’m interested in this subject, but this article didn’t have the approach I wanted.” Now, submit again. And again. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had an article rejected by three journals. Working my way down the rejection rate ladder, it was accepted by a fourth. Remember, it’s partly the luck of the draw.

Also, some journal editors are little more than mail drops: “I received three reviews, two favorable and one unfavorable, so I’m declining.” Thankfully, there are some editors who will look closely at the reviews and might make a different decision. Once I faced a 1-to-1 vote, but the editor thought the negative review was misguided and off point and said yes.

I’ve had a couple of experiences with journal editors that were truly a nightmare, or at least Alice in Wonderland. Once, an editor nearing the end of his/her term didn’t send it out for review, but also didn’t pass it on to the incoming editor. It simply vanished. The worst was when a managing editor insisted he/she had sent my piece to the editor-in-chief for a final decision. But the editor-in-chief insisted he/she never got it. The managing editor doubled back and couldn’t find it. This went on and on. Every day I was dying a little bit. Finally, the managing editor found it lying face down in a box.

You don’t want the editor to think of you as a nudnik or pain-in-the-neck, but it’s OK to send occasional ticklers. After, say, four months, you can send a status query. That sometimes triggers the editor to remind a reviewer who agreed to do so, but has not yet submitted a review. My worst experience was with a reviewer who submitted a review requesting revisions, but then never re-reviewed to my revised version that incorporated his suggestions. Just permanently AWOL. It was review hell.

In terms of patience and persistence, my opinion is better to publish it in a medium – or even low – rejection rate journal than not at all. Sometimes, waiting for the reviews to come in and the editor to decide can be agonizing. The best advice I’ve ever gotten was from Roger Lohmann at University of West Virginia. He suggested planning and timing for one’s writing projects: “the trick is to keep enough in the pipeline that there is always something starting, something in process, and something finishing.” One of the many reasons that’s such great advice is because it keeps your mind occupied by other tasks instead of going crazy worrying about your submission that’s undergoing review.

Gotta end with another movie. My last suggestion regarding research is perfectionism. Believe it or not, I think this is the most enjoyable part of writing. In “Possession” (2002), Aaron Eckhart is a junior scholar who stumbles on something that may be a breakthrough piece of evidence. At first, everyone doubts him. Again and again. But he keeps at it because running it to the ground is the only thing he can do and be at peace intellectually. It’s an obsession. Another scholar joins and they’re on a quest. They have to find out. Nothing else matters. Hollywood mucks it–mystery! romance! sex!–but the movie captures the thrill of the (research) hunt. Writing the definitive piece on something (or just moving the scholarship forward) is terrific pleasure. So, my final advice: Find a few small academic topics that you absolutely love. Then chase them to the ends of the earth. There’s nothing wrong with a dozen articles on different aspects of one topic.

With a little bit of luck, you’re in for a terrific career. The Rolling Stones got it wrong. You can get satisfaction.

ASPA member Mordecai Lee is professor of governmental affairs at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He received a PhD in Public Administration in 1975, but started his academic career in 1997. He recently published his fourth book: Nixon’s Super-Secretaries: The Last Grand Presidential Reorganization Effort (College Station: Texas A&M University Press).

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