On productivity and expectations of productivity

By some accounts, this year in research was a failure.

One of the challenges of being at a teaching institution is that there is an expectation of research productivity, but the exact/precise expectation is not always clearly articulated. There are good reasons for this, of course. Different fields, and even different subfields within the same field, can have very different ideas of what constitutes “scholarly activity”. Additionally, leaving the expectations a bit vague allows for more freedom for individual faculty to define or explore various scholarly activities, whether that’s pedagogical research or, particularly after tenure, exploring new subfields. But it does often lead to angst, especially among junior faculty, who are not sure where exactly the research bar sits.

When I was junior faculty, I dealt with this uncertainty by coming up with heuristics for my research productivity. I looked at what my peer scholars produced in a year and calibrated this for my teaching load and service responsibilities to come up with my own “research productivity rules”. My rules: (1) at least one publication every year, approximately (journal or conference paper); (2) one journal publication every 3 years. So far, these heuristics have served me well.

Now, of course I don’t expect to hit these exactly every year, and if you look at my CV, I have years with zero pubs and years with several pubs. So they do tend to average out. I recognize this, and when I have an “off” year I just assume I’ll have multiple pubs the next year (which is usually the case). And so much of this is dependent on other factors, like whether reviewers like or abhor my work, what point a particular project is at, family/life circumstances, etc. (Although looking at my CV, I tend to be very productive around big life events, like the birth of my daughter or when my son joined our family. Go figure.)

This year was a zero pub year. I submitted a journal article (rejected) and a grant application (also rejected) and started a new research project, so it’s not like I was sitting around eating bon-bons. I recognize this, and on one level am proud of what I was able to accomplish given everything else that was going on in my life this year. (Particularly submitting the grant, which was a huge personal step for me). And last year I had 2 pubs, so again, it averages out. Still, when I look at my CV and see nothing marked with the year “2013”, it does disappoint me a bit. (OK, more than a bit.)

I am my own worst critic, sometimes.

The bright side to this—and there always is a silver lining—is that I tend after less-productive years to focus more closely on developing a publication plan for the next year. And that’s what I’m doing now: re-evaluating things that are in the queue that I never finished writing up, thinking up new experiments that should lead to quickly-publishable results, etc. This is also a great way to get my confidence back up and to drive back the panicky feelings of I’ll-never-publish-again. It’s also made me recognize how much I’ve missed my interdisciplinary writing/gossip group—we’ve not met recently because our schedules are way mismatched, but we have managed to meet a few times this break and are hoping to continue into the winter term and beyond.

Wherever you are, and whatever you did or didn’t accomplish this year, I hope you have a merry, restful, joyful, and productive holiday season!