The ‘Out The Door’ rant

I’ve been writing a chapter draft over the Easter holidays, which prompted me to think about finishing.

I don’t know about you, but I love the editing stage because it means my article or chapter is nearly done and I will shortly have another achievement to list on my CV. I know that sounds boringly pragmatic and instrumental, but there it is. While I have a deep love of scholarship and a healthy interest in ideas, my urge to write is driven by an interest in career maintenance – pure and simple.

In his superb book “Writing for social scientists” (which should be renamed “Writing for everyone”), Howard Becker talks about the importance of being the kind of writer who can get stuff “Out The Door”. He suggests writers need to think more like companies who make gadgets like phones and computers. Electronic consumer goods companies have similar problems to writers, but they have shipping schedules they must stick to if they want to stay in business.

The engineers will want to delay shipping until the product matchs the vision in their heads, but the marketing people will be happy with ‘good enough’. Even if the new gadget is rough around the edges, the marketing people will still make the engineers get it Out The Door. According to Becker the logic of the marketing people is simple: if it sells, there will be money for to build the next version. The next version will be be better, but, meanwhile, this one will do (some companies are great at doing this and still turning a massive profit).

Your success as a ‘company’ who can get that writing Out The Door will be affected by your temperament as a researcher. If you are the kind of researcher who has a curiosity problem, as I talked about a couple of weeks ago, your ability to get it Out The Door can be hampered by a tendency to get bored. I have a friend who struggled mightily with her Masters degree because she hated working over what she called ‘cold cases’ – her chapter drafts. Once the ideas were on paper she claimed her curiosity had been satisfied and she was ready to move on. This is where your marketing department needs to call you in for a performance review: that attitude is not going to shift enough product to keep the company afloat.

Sometimes however, boredom is not the dark side of a creative turn of mind, but a lack of commitment to seeing the idea through. Just like the idea of having a baby is different from the reality of wiping its bottom 6 times a day, thinking about ideas is a lot less work than writing about them. The problem with intellectual labour is, although it can be hard, the effects of the struggle are not visible. My very favourite scene in the sitcom “Big Bang Theory” is where two of the characters, Sheldon and Raj, are collaborating on a physics problem. The scene consists of jump cuts of the two scientists, staring at equations on a whiteboard, while the theme to the movie ‘Rocky’ plays. The scene perfectly captures the inner experience of intellectual struggle vs the outer appearance of … well, pretty much nothing.

For all our labouring in the footnote salt mines, there will be no callouses on our hands, so it can be hard to see your commitment problem for what it really is: work avoidance. If you realise your will is flagging, your inner marketing department has to call in pizza for the engineering department and get them doing overtime. Promise yourself a reward for completion – chocolate, TV, a walk in the park –  whatever it takes to keep Mr or Ms Bottom in chair town long enough to get it Out The Door.

If you couple a lack of commitment with a tendency to excessive self critique you will be in real trouble. I have seen some of the brightest people fail to get a PhD because they measure their efforts against the best The Literature has to offer. Unfortunately the best work is often written by academics with years and years of experience of their craft; no matter how hard you try, you will never catch up with them. These people are the most likely to fall victim to the seductive whispering of the inner engineering department: “Just one more week and it will be perfect – we promise”. This is when your marketing department needs to step in, take the project out of your hands and ship the bastard anyway.

For some lucky people doing a PhD is an intellectual luxury, but for most of us plebs it isn’t. Many of you will soon be out there with a newly minted PhD looking for work; some of you will be there already. We can rail against the quality and quantity metrics which dominate academia as much as we like, but they are a fact of life for now. In my opinion it’s only going to become increasingly competitive. As Becker points out: people will judge you on what you have done – not the ideas you have in your head. Finished theses, chapters and journal articles are the only tangible proof of your invisible labours in the footnote mines.

So remember: your inner engineering department does not always have your best interests at heart. You may not like your inner marketing department, but when they do their job properly you won’t go broke. Repeat after me: “Perfect is the enemy of Done”. Speaking of which – I’m off to finish editing that chapter now. The marketing people are nagging at me to “ship it already” 🙂

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26 thoughts on “The ‘Out The Door’ rant

  1. I have been sitting on a paper for a good year and have been so against bothering with it because I’d much prefer to move on to the more exciting things I’m thinking of now. Thanks for that post, I definitely needed it!

    P.S. I love that episode of big bang theory!

  2. For once I disagree Inger!

    Of course there is no point not getting anything done, but academia conforms to the A-list/B-list (or for most of us, the C-list) properties of the film industries that Richard Caves described so well. You’re either perceived as one or the other, and value accrues accordingly. Whatever you put out with your name on it has your name on it for a long time.

    My inner marketer might say “Don’t dilute your brand.” To take one capitalist example, Jobs-era Apple have not been afraid to kill a product that was very close to production if it looked like it wouldn’t meet the expectations of the market for a leading product.

    I’ve seen too many “plebs” in humanities and social sciences find their way when they find their voice, so I can’t advocate for the “get it out there” position. In the sciences I think it is a different matter, because first carries a much stronger weight. In the softer disciplines, it’s all about the acuity you bring to the frame, and in that respect the inner critic needs to be nourished (and protected from external critics!)

    • Fair cop Danny – I was amping it the ‘hard ass’ position slightly for effect 🙂
      I think we would be on furious agreement on most of what you say – part of career maintenance is not publishing crappy papers for the sake of it, even in the sciences. I guess my central point is that some people can sit on their work too long because they can’t do the last 10% or their internal standards are too high. The value of Becker’s analogy is that thinking about it more pragmatically can help get over the anxiety about getting it out there. Have a read of the original – he goes through just the arguments you raise in a more interesting way than I can.
      But I stand by my point that we must work to publish as often as possible if securing a position in academia is our aim because quality and quantity measures are a fact of life. As to the value of them… it’s one of those issues I have mixed feelings about. As someone once said “You have to know a lot about something even to be undecided sometimes”. I understand the politics of this kind of policy position and as a researcher who gets into A* journals it works for me career wise. However I see the problems with how the process of ranking journals marginalises certain researchers and areas of study.

      • Fair enough Inger, though my reading of Becker is that he made a career out of choosing good subjects and writing about them in an authoritative and somewhat reductive way to establish a career when Chicago sociology would bring that power through its own name. That strategy that might have been effective in the much smaller academic market of the 60s and 70s but IMO does not have much of a future today at the beginnings of rationalisation through the sector. I’m seeing researchers even with high outputs being marginalised in favour of the more famous – twas ever thus, but I really think at this point (particularly in light of the ERA model as you allude to) climbing the quality ladder is much more important than publication counts. If one needs to get something out there for the internal motivation to keep going that’s fair enough (I know enough people who would fall over if they stopped) but I’m not sure that’s a marketing model, more an HR model.

        My basic contention is that all an emerging scholar has going for them is their reputation, which is usually not aided by quality concessions. Citing Marlo from that sociological classic The Wire: ‘My name is my name’ :).

      • You raise very interesting points Danny, Becker talks a lot about his fortunate timing and who he was able to work with in relation to his career.
        Do you know of any research on the connection between impact factors and promotion or hiring practices? I agree that the quality metrics are going to be the ones to watch – but at the moment this is only my hunch. There’s very little literature analysing the ‘market’ for academics – at least that I can find. I could be looking in the wrong places though – it’s not my primary area of interest.

        My other hunch is that the changing nature of academic publishing must have an affect on hiring practices – at least eventually. For instance, I wonder how things like blogging and social media presence might affect employability? Would it help or hinder your prospects to have an online profile?

  3. Sorry, a little off topic but… “plebs” in humanities and social sciences??? My research area is education and I’m doing it to do my bit to help facilitate quality education for all children, not just the wealthy and privileged. If people like me weren’t researching to raise the quality of high school education, the scientists of the future would only come from the schools that a small percentage of the country are lucky enough to afford! Geez, now I’m cranky!
    Thanks again for a thought provoking post Inger 🙂

  4. My supervisor said to me the other day that he sees most of his job in the last months of my thesis development as focusing on telling me when it’s ‘good enough’ for submission. And I think that often people need to think about something as ‘good enough’ for peer review, rather than it being perfect for publication. Nothing will ever be perfect; there’s always more than one way to write something. The art of judging when a piece of writing is ‘good enough’ to go out the door’ is a fine one to cultivate.

    • That’s right – because a peer review will usually mean change anyway.

      It’s good you have a supervisor who is totally comfortable in his judgment. There’s the mark of long experience in the trade… Not everyone has this: I was the first completer for both my masters and PhD supervisor. This was stressful for everyone – I think they were even more relieved than me when the reports came back!

  5. love the post, am seriously attached to polishing that probably adds miniscule amounts to what i have written, when further writing would be a better use of time in terms of payoff.

  6. btw I used to be a cold cases person, although for me it was more reactive, hot and fiery and lacked patience. I’d want to move on to the next shiny thing soon as i had it half way sorted in my head and a quarter down…no publication though… Ive learned in my phd endeavours that getting it down is where it is at…sometimes tedious…sometimes detailed…sometimes built up to slowly…problem now is i have vascilated to the opposite extreme…I’m sure I will find a middle ground…oneday.

    • It’s so true – often recognising a problem can send us too far in the other direction. It sounds like a banal example, but I had this exact problem with commas… when I learned I was using them wrongly I banished them entirely. Now I have welcomed them back into my writing. I have learned to be more relaxed about them as I get more comfortable with myself as a writer.

  7. I have a huge difficulty with “Good enough” – it must be a perfectionist tendency. I hated my Honours degree being “not quite good enough” for a First; would settle for nothing less than Distinction for my librarianship diploma, and for the past 18 years, have struggled to accept the principle of being a “good enough” parent.

    I imagined I’d have similar difficulty with getting my thesis to be “good enough”. Certainly I worked at it obsessively, and the time I spent on footnotes and bibliography suggests a closet OCD mindset. But at the end of the day, I concluded that I was quite happy to submit a “good enough” thesis – once you’re “Doctor” whatever, no-one is ever going to ask how good your doctorate actually was!

    As for papers being “good enough” – all you can do is your best. Your peer-reviewers will help you with the fine-tuning, after all!

    • @ Karenmca. Maybe I’ve been lucky but my experience with peer reviewers has been that their comments have been extremely constructive and helpful and this has helped me get papers out the door without too much obsessive fine tuning. No point sitting on something forever when the peer reviewers will want to fine tune the focus anyway…

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