Success and Failure, Part 3: How to Press the Submit Button

Welcome back for Part 3 of my series on success and failure.

To recap: I know from experience it how discouraging it can be to see rejections and failures pile up. But it’s important to keep in mind that just about everyone in academia has a Failure CV as long as yours. It’s also important to keep your CV+ in mind, and know you are more than a list of published articles and funded grants.

I do not claim to have figured out how to crack the publication code yet, so I can’t provide any advice on increasing your chances of getting articles accepted. Instead, in this last post, I’m going to share some thoughts about a very necessary (but not sufficient) step in getting there: getting manuscripts out the door and submitted.

I have come to the realization over the past six months ago that I submit a lot more manuscripts than your average graduate student, both to conferences and to journals. This is not a strategy I adopted to increase my chances. Rather, I think it’s a reflection of a particular set of opportunities I’ve had as well as some of my personality traits. I’ll talk about those a bit below. But first I want to make clear that I’m not claiming that acceptances are random or quality doesn’t matter. The value of a higher number of submissions, in my view, is twofold: (1) More submissions mean more writing, which means more practice; and (2) more submissions also means more feedback, both on your papers and on the way your work suits or doesn’t suit different venues. A lot of my work sits at the intersection of disciplines (math & CS; ed psych & learning sciences; student thinking & teacher thinking, etc.), and if nothing else, the past year of submissions and feedback has helped me learn about where different kinds of pieces might receive the best reception.

So, anyway… I think getting stuff out there is good for a lot of reasons as long as quantity is not pushed to the detriment of quality. Here are three things that I think contribute to my relatively high rate of submissions.

First, I’m involved in three different lines of work with three different sets of collaborators. There is my assistantship work, the work I’m continuing from my previous job, and a line of inquiry I’m pursuing with a favorite collaborator that is outside of either of these projects. This fact alone explains a lot of the reason why I’m able to contribute to so many papers: I have an abundance of opportunity. I know I am lucky this way, and I’m not suggesting everyone should seek to be involved in three projects as if three is some magic number. But I do thinking having at least a couple parallel lines of work can be helpful. More data and more collaborators always lead to more ideas, and it’s nice to have a writing project to work on when a project is at a stage when writing isn’t possible (e.g., during long periods of data collection).

Second, I write a lot and in a lot of different contexts. I write papers, yes. But I also write this blog every week. I write instructional activities for kids and educative materials for teachers as part of my assistantship work. I take a lot of notes as I read academic articles, trying to summarize important parts in my citation manager for better location and memory of the details later. All of this serves as practice that I think contributes to my ability to produce a workable manuscript in limited time when the need and opportunity arises. As I noted above, more manuscripts mean more practice — but my point here is that more writing of any kind is also more practice, and that matters.

Lastly, and probably the most importantly, I judge my own work in absolute, rather than relative, terms. I do not consider myself a competitive person. My upbringing almost certainly contributes to this — in my family, we played games, but we never kept score. My default mindset is therefore to think about whether something is good — not whether it’s good enough for x, better than y, or still not as good as z. I judge my own work by whether or not I feel like I’ve met my goal of writing a good paper worthy of someone else’s time to read. I don’t tend to think so much about whether I think it’s good enough for a particular journal or not as significant as something I read last week. Admittedly, I think this focus on my own standards for worth and clarity does me harm sometimes. More attention to cultural and methodological norms in my discipline, for example, is something I should work on. But my modes of judgement also help me let go of papers and move on to something else while I wait for feedback.

Different styles of research, collaboration, and writing will certainly call for different ways of operating, and so this list won’t work for everyone. But I hope it provides some food for thought.

As always, thanks for reading.

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