Sunday, 23 February 2014

Publishing an Archaeology PhD part 2

Following my post a couple of days ago I've been thinking about this quite a bit, and thought I would get some other opinions to add to my own. I had a chat with some senior academics I have worked with who have been involved in the hiring process of postdocs and academic staff, 1 from a science-heavy background, 1 who is a straight archaeology/regional specialist and 1 who is a bit of both. I asked a series of questions regarding publications, and the answers were pretty interesting. Largely they reflected my own perceptions, but there were a few noteworthy points that I hadn't considered.

1. What do you look for in terms of a candidate's publication record?
As we know, peer reviewed journals are important, followed by books in the sciences, with the quality of the book publisher being important. Being an editor of conference proceedings was also noteworthy, but the quality of the papers mattered, and also where it was published. However the overall message was that good quality publications were stressed, in terms of their significance to the field, as well as originality and future potential. It was also noted that the candidate needs to show they are working in areas beyond the PhD.

2. To what extent does the number of publications matter?
This one was a little surprising but the actual number of publications did not matter a great deal, though one respondent did give an estimate of 6 papers for a candidate 2 years after finishing their PhD. But even those who said the number didn't matter said that if the number was 'very few' then this might be a concern. I will emphasise here that this is based on expectations in the UK system, where the Research Excellence Framework asks for 2 papers from ECRs, whereas there was an impression that quantity mattered more in the US. Any US readers have comments on that?


3. Quantity or quality? Would you advise the average new PhD to aim for 1 excellent publication or a handful of average-good ones?
Quality is prized over quantity and it is important that the candidate is the first author. One really excellent publication for a new PhD outweighs a handful of average ones. However indications of productivity are also important, which translates to number of publications! As with some of the other questions, this is based on the experiences of the panel and subjective to a degree, but it is judged relative to the candidate's career stage. I suspect this means that if you are have recently graduated, then a single high quality publication is enough, but the further away from graduating you get, the more likely it is that quantity becomes important. So basically, keep up with the high quality, high impact papers, but also do a handful of smaller ones. My opinion on this is that if you write something that could be published, then publish it. You already did the work when you wrote a whole PhD thesis! You should aim to get one major paper from it, but maybe there are smaller papers, e.g. an improvement on an existing methodology, that you could also write up.

4. If a candidate does have for e.g. a Nature or Science paper, do you take this at face value, or do you consider the role the candidate played in the research i.e. if they helped with sample processing rather than conducting the research project.
Now this one was interesting. I always assumed that a paper in these journals is a guarantee of success, but it was pointed out that if the candidate is buried somewhere in the middle, especially as part of a large author list, then it wouldn't really be counted. That makes sense, but another suggestion was made that even in cases of being first author, if the candidate is part of a major lab or research group, the selection panel would be wary of how much of the research was driven by the candidate. The panel wants to know what your contribution to the paper is - it's all about your potential. Can you generate independent research or do you just play a supporting role? My feeling is that, even if it's just a supporting role, having this sort of thing on your CV gets you noticed, and that's only going to help your chances. Just make sure you have a first author paper too and that you have your own ideas rather than just working on someone else's project.
5. How do you judge publications outside your area of expertise? (e.g. the journal the article is in, citations, other metrics, asking opinions of colleagues)
Science folk as suspected do look at number of citations especially for older articles, and where they are published for newer ones. The quality of where they are published seems to have a degree of subjectivity, based on experience, and deferring to the most qualified member of a committee.This is also how I tend to judge journals, but as I said in the previous post, I'll say more on 'which journal' later. I think citations and whatnot are less important at the early career stage where it is all about your potential.

6. How important overall are the publications compared to other factors such as grants, teaching and future research plans (for a new PhD, 1-2 years within obtaining the PhD) 
So we are very focused on publications, but I stuck this question in as a reminder that these are only part of the picture. Candidates are judged as a 'package', and other things that came up as being very important are research grants, as this shows that a candidate is able to structure an argument and convince their peers to give them money.  However, if you don't have any grants yet that's not a problem, just make sure you have clearly defined plans on how you will fund your future research, with specifics. Future research plans were stressed, with teaching being considered but not essential - one respondent said if teaching scores and feedback were good then this would really help a candidate. All the academics I talked to stressed that 'it depends', it's all about the specific mix, but that you shouldn't be really very weak in any of these areas. And when it comes down to it, you could be an absolutely stellar candidate with a great publication and grant record, but you might not fit in with what the department needs, either to strengthen a research group or to cover gaps in teaching. So there really is a big element of luck, or right place right time. I probably should stick to posts on soil and poop, they are much more cheerful!

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