7 Years Later Excerpt #6: Approaching Publication with the 2/2/2 System
7 Years Later Excerpt #6: Approaching Publication with the 2/2/2 System




By Trevor Hedberg

Well, it has been quite a while since the last entry in this series, folks. The last academic year had a combination of personal challenges (highlights include my car being stolen and wrecked due to a pernicious TikTok challenge and battling COVID for 2 weeks despite having all the shots) and professional obligations (mostly making good on commitments made during the pandemic or tied to my first year of employment here in Arizona) that made it difficult to blog with any consistency. But I have returned to working on this guide to graduate school and hope to release a full draft for community feedback before the fall semester begins.

Not so long ago on the Cocoon, there was some discussion about how important publications are for improving one’s job market prospects. My general impression is that they matter a good deal, particularly if your PhD-granting institution is not distinguished. Publications are one of the main ways you can distinguish yourself despite lacking prestigious origins. So in this excerpt, I discuss the approach I used to secure several publications in peer-reviewed journals while in graduate school. It is certainly not the only viable strategy but one that worked well for me.

After 2 or 3 years of graduate school, you will have developed many papers while completing your graduate coursework. Not all of them will contain publishable ideas, but some will. At this juncture, you should revise those papers with the aim of getting some of them published. Unfortunately, trying to revise all of them while simultaneously developing new material (which you will be doing throughout graduate school) is not a preferable strategy.[1] A better strategy is to balance the development of new ideas with the refinement of old ones. There are many ways to strike this balance, but I favor a method I call the 2/2/2 system. The goal of the system is to meet 3 conditions:

Have 2 papers under review at journals or (if applicable) at other stages of the publication process (e.g., awaiting editor feedback, awaiting proofs).
Have 2 papers fully drafted and undergoing revisions.
Have 2 paper ideas in development.

Ideally, when a paper finally reaches the end of the publication process, you will be in position to finish revisions on another paper and send it off for review. And shortly thereafter, you can hopefully develop an idea into a working draft, and slot a new idea into development for a future paper. In practice, it will rarely work so cleanly. Papers often get rejected, which means that they stay under review for a long time. Some ideas do not materialize as planned and result in poor drafts that are not publishable. After reviewer comments are received, you may determine that the paper needs more time at the revision stage before you send it back out for review. This is all fine: the important thing is that there is some deliberate balance you are seeking that involves consistently sending your work to journals for review.

One of the most common mistakes graduate students make with regard to publishing material is waiting too long to send their work to journals. Often, this practice is conjoined with concerns that their work is not yet perfected or that they simply are not good enough philosophers to get material published. Striving for perfection in your work is a recipe for never publishing anything – even the most influential philosophy papers have problems with them. So you must be willing to send your work out when it is good enough, even though it will not be perfect. The 2/2/2 system demands a consistent practice of sending at least 2 papers out for review, so aiming for perfection with one’s revisions is generally not compatible with this approach.

While this system does require sending papers out for review with some frequency, some may object that this approach does not involve sending out enough papers for review. Some philosophers will advise graduate students to send as many papers as they possibly can to journals for review – even if that is 10 or more. The reasoning behind this approach is that the rejection rates at good journals tend to be near 90%, so if you have 10 papers under review at the same time, the odds are that 9 of them get rejected. Furthermore, review times can be significant (i.e., 6 months or more), and journals require you to refrain from submitting your manuscript elsewhere while it is under review with them. Thus, according to this line of reasoning, graduate students should be submitting as many papers as possible to journals so that they can maximize their chances of getting publications.

I am sympathetic to this perspective, but I will offer two caveats. First, producing a publishable paper is hard. I suspect many graduate students attempting to follow this advice will end up producing poor papers that (as expected) get rejected at many, many journals before being revised enough to get published. That process is far less efficient than writing a better paper initially (even if it takes more time) that stands a much better chance of getting published.[2] Second, if you take the time to craft an excellent paper and send it to a journal that is a good fit (i.e., in aims and scope), you will almost surely have an acceptance rate higher than 10%. If your strategy is simply to send it to the most prestigious journal possible (in order of perceived prestige), then you will certainly experience a lot of rejection. But that is a poor strategy since all journals – whether generalist or specialized – have specific philosophical approaches or subject areas that they are more likely to publish than others. Prioritize sending your material to journals more likely to accept it. If you have trouble identifying what journals would be good fits, ask the faculty in your graduate program.

One important fact about graduate school is that you only have about a 3-year window to publish material before going on the job market. Because journal review times can be substantial and because you can only submit a paper to one journal at a time, converting a quality paper to a published one can take years. Moreover, you are unlikely to be able to produce publishable work in your first year or two of graduate school, and you need publications on your CV before the fall of your last year in the program so that you can be competitive on the job market. Usually, you will run out of funding in your PhD program after Year 6 (at the latest). Additionally, few people finish their PhDs in less than 6 years. (As the title of this guide suggests, it took me almost 7 years to get it done, which is about average for Humanities PhDs.) I would caution against expecting to finish your PhD faster than 6 years, but if you are hellbent on finishing within that timeframe, then you will need to accelerate your publishing timetable accordingly.

If you put the facts from the last paragraph together, you can deduce that the ideal window to produce publishable work in graduate school begins near the end of year 2 (after you have written some good term papers for seminars and spent some considerable time honing your writing abilities) and ends a few months into year 6 (when you will start submitting job applications). So the ideal window for publishing material is slightly longer than 3 years. To maximize this window, the latest that a graduate student should start sending material to journals is the fall semester of their third year in their PhD program. Waiting any longer substantially increases the likelihood that you will be forced to enter the job market with few (if any) publications. And once you begin submitting material to journals, that should be a consistent habit for the remainder of your graduate studies.

[1] No doubt there are some people who can revise a half-dozen papers while writing a half-dozen others from scratch, but even if doing so is possible, I do not consider it desirable or realistic. Such a work schedule is a recipe for abrupt and substantial burnout.

[2] While there is some arbitrariness in peer reviewers’ judgments of a paper’s quality, it is not just a crapshoot at credible journals: unclear, inadequately researched, or weakly argued papers are more likely to get rejected. So rushing to send out half-baked ideas to journals is not often the optimal strategy for getting the maximal number of publications.

Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More