Trying to publish ‘T-Shaped’

This post is a stimulus for thinking differently about publishing during your PhD, but also a story based on my own thoughts and experiences in equal measure. The story begins two years ago when, as a fresh and naïve postgraduate student, I attended a talk from a visiting Professor on the topic of ‘building an academic career’. The advice of this speaker, as part of a generally quite good but rather pessimistic talk, was to publish as much as possible on the narrowest range of topics possible, to make your time work for you by getting as much out of your writing as you could. This, for our speaker, essentially meant trying to publish as many different articles from the same ideas as possible.

Although I am eternally grateful to our head of history for giving us a very good idea of the realities of the PhD job market during our orientation, I imagine other postgrads can think of That One Time when it all become depressingly clear. This was what I had to do? Although I could not deny that the talk was filled with good common sense, it somehow seemed wrong for me. Maybe it was the nature of my research and maybe it had something to do with my disciplinary interests (interdisciplinary, and a mixture of intellectual history, textual criticism and some philosophy), but I felt that following this advice would somehow act counter to my interests. Although I wholeheartedly believe in ‘strategising’ one’s PhD experience to best advantage, the approach that our speaker put forth seemed to be lacking in the passion required as fuel for the academic.

I asked our visiting speaker “but what about new directions? is there room to explore other topics as a means to publishing?”. The answer, as you might imagine, was “no”. I cannot to this day fault the logic of this advice, but at the same time find that it does not work for me. I am curious about so many subjects within academia that at first I struggled very hard to gain the clarity of focus to devote my attention to my thesis. And devote my attention I did. But at the same time, I somehow listened to the little voice that said to me “you should submit an abstract for this conference related to your Honours dissertation which has nothing to do with your thesis,” “digital humanities, sounds great!” and “I love that philosopher, i’ll write an article about him!” I find myself now, in my third year, with potential opportunities to publish in a wide variety of topics, and I can’t complain. It has proved to be stimulating and engaging, added renewed flavour to my primary doctoral project and proven invaluable to my teaching. It has so far led to publication opportunities which, at first glance, could look chaotic and unfocused.

How does one manage a diverse collection of interests such as mine? The logical thing to do would be to put them all aside and devote all of my time to my thesis, but this is not my style. I have had a few thoughts on the topic that have developed into a nascent publication strategy. Just because I have a lot of interests, I propose, does not mean that I must have a lot of distractions. Having a lot of interests leads to a lot of points of synergy, helps with your teaching immensely and keeps it all feeling fresh.

The answer, for me, is not to see a wide range of interests as a lack of discipline or focus, but as an abundant resource for publishing. In a world where three articles (and preferably a book deal) are being touted as the optimal amount to remain competitive after submission of one’s PhD, I feel that it is time to think fresh. My plan is to think of myself as ‘T-shaped’, a description I recently heard to describe someone who has a deep disciplinary focus (the vertical bar on the T) and a broad set of widely applicable skills (the cross-piece). My intuition is that if I deliberately cultivate a T-shaped publication profile, I can explore a wide range of potential topics and still show that I have the discipline to manage my projects and see them to completion. For publishing, the cross-piece of the T represents the incipient shoots growing from the tap-root of one’s thesis. The root keeps you anchored firmly in the soil of your area of expertise, nourishing the shoots of new research. Conversely, the spreading leaves of new projects provide an opportunity for the root to serve its purpose: as a substrate. I’m not saying that you should try and go every direction at once, but I do believe that there is room for expansion in several directions from a shared core.

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