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"Scholarly" Book Publishing-- Is the PhD Necessary?


incognegra
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Hello all,

I graduated with academic distinction from one of the most highly-ranked liberal arts colleges where I studied Sociology with an emphasis on cultural sociology, theory, and black cultural studies. I also participated in a fellowship program for students preparing for careers in academe, though I realized prior to my final year that I needed to take a break from the academic world to reassess. After graduation, I found myself in the field of academic administration and am now pursuing a professional degree (MSW) that will enable me to work in college mental health counseling and psychotherapy.

Though I am very glad that I took this break to re-evaluate my priorities and develop a marketable skill set, I have a strong desire to write books of a scholarly nature concerning today's prevailing educational discourse and related visions of Black uplift from an anarchist perspective. However, I am wondering whether I can really "have my cake and eat it, too" and am curious about how I will fare in today's publishing market without the PhD.

Based on the little internet research I've done, it seems that even for those with PhD's today, academic book publishing can seem a near impossibility since the academic presses rely on library purchases to stay afloat and the libraries have diverted much of their spending to expensive online journal subscriptions. In speaking with friends and acquaintances currently battling with the injunction to "publish or perish", I worry that more and more PhD's will turn to non-academic presses and effectively crowd-out those without the degree. Perhaps this concern is completely unwarranted (or simply symptomatic of the global decline in book sales) but I would be glad to know whether this is indeed occurring or on the horizon. Additionally, though I imagine that there is a great range, I am curious about how non-academic publishers respond to scholarly submissions. Do they require authors to water-down their work into the pop sociology lining the shelves of Barnes & Noble? Will self-publishing on Lulu.com be my only recourse? Would a PhD provide my only hope of publishing on the abovementioned subject today without having to "dumb down" the content?

Though it seems that completing a PhD in Sociology might help me share my ideas more widely, I am primarily interested in independent scholarship and community engagement rather than working toward a tenure-track professorship. Though I'm hoping this changes in the next 5 to 10 years in response to the dwindling academic job market, it seems that most programs are still focused on socializing their students for non-existent professorships above all else. As a result, I am concerned that many programs would feel like a waste of time for me and that advisors and others would perceive me as a waste of (academic) space.

Is anyone aware of top (i.e. fully-funded) PhD programs that would welcome students who explicitly state out front that they intend to pursue careers as scholar-practitioners outside of the academy?

Thanks for reading!

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The tenor of many common-press books can be quite high. And if you're interested in community activism and anarchy it's strange that you hope to limit your circulation to academic circles (which are mainly where University Press books get passed around). I would consider talking with publishers who have published common-press books you like.

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I would look into something more along the lines of AK Press or PM Press. As far as PhD programs, highly unlikely. There are plenty like that, but funding is basically non-existant.

Edit: Also, the "top" funded PhD programs are really not having trouble placing students. While you're right in suggesting that the job market is rough, the top programs still do fine. While I doubt the prospects job wise will get much better in the near future, the fact that many top programs are now taking much smaller cohorts with guaranteed funding should ease the pressure for jobs over the next 10 years, at least a little bit.

Edited by xdarthveganx
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If you're interested in a "different kind" of sociology programs, there are some applied sociology PhD programs (or applied anthropology), though many won't be right for you, some might be. There's also Cornell's development soc program, but I don't really know what the deal is with that. I honestly don't really know what the deal is, other than PSU is trying to start one (in health and...education I think?) and Baylor already has one (in religion and... something else).

That said, a few people have managed to publish academic books based on their non-dissertation work with only an MA (Philipp Gorski, Matt Desmond, Adam Reich), but all the ones I can think of were superstars in the making and all published while enrolled in elite schools. There are people who are taken seriously in sociology who do not have advanced degrees in their fields--Barbara Ehrenreich has a PhD, but in cellular immunology. (I didn't think bell hooks had a PhD but she totally does--in literature, and Angela Davis obviously has a philosophy degree from Humbolt). But yeah, for the most part scholarly writing happens within academia, and if not in academia, at least by PhD's (there is a slight exception for this in history, and journalists who write about social science). It's a process of credentialing--a PhD is the way to get past the velvet rope, proof that this person has "really thought about these issues", but also, being in academia is a place where people have time to write and to research.

Here's the thing: you don't need to tell your conventional PhD program you're applying to or attending that you don't want to be an academic. It will of course mean hiding part of what you identify as. First semester, one of the junior faculty members comes to us and is like "Yo, some of you might not be pushing for an R1 tenure track job. That's fine. Don't tell us. Until you're ready to go on the job market. You can tell your peers discretely , but never tell us because we won't pay attention to you. We, like most people, are interested in social reproduction--we think we made the right choices and want to produce little versions of ourselves. We want to help you, honeslty, but even with our best intentions we'll pay less attention to you if we know you're going to be going out of academia." This is probably true of almost every (top) sociology program in the country. That said, one of my colleagues has told me that he wants to go into journalism, that's been his goal since day one, (Fareed Zakaria, editor-at-large of Time, has a PhD in Poli Sci) and another wants to go into film making. They're working on department requirements and working on "side projects" that they want to do for the rest of their lives. It probably won't be the easiest thing for you, because you'll have to jump through all these hoops that won't matter for you, but it is an option.

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This is a side comment from the OP's post but @darthvegan. A student from a program ranked in the top like mine came in to give a job talk at our business school and when we met with him, he told us that his program "just wasn't placing" (in part because of their strength in social psychology--there are a limited set of universities that hire sociologists trained in social psychology--but also in part because of the expectations of their PhD students so even a lot of the other students weren't getting jobs) and that our program was placing well. We asked him what he meant by that. By placing well, he clarified, he meant "getting jobs at all". I don't know if he's right or not, but he gave us the clear sense that many top programs don't place all the students who want academic jobs in academic jobs. There's this one guy with similar research interests to mine who had three publications when he got his degree (two peer reviewed articles, one in a regional journal, one in a specialty journal, and a chapter in an edited volume. Neither of the articles were stunning but neither were bad). His research topic was potentially interesting, depending on what he did with it. I've been secretly stalking him once every semester for the past three years and he, though he has graduated from a top five program, has never had an academic appointment (I don't know what his story is--how far he looked, if he had geographic limitations or what, if he decided not to work in cademia) but he, as far as I can tell, has never had a job in ademia and I believe he is/was looking for one. My adviser's last student has been bouncing around visiting professorships and adjuncting gigs for the last two or three years (apparently, he'll probably have better chance at academic stability once he can get his dissertation published, is the understanding, but who knows).

Academic jobs are not guaranteed with a PhD from a top program, let's be clear. Top graduate programs have no trouble placing top students into top universities, but don't necessarily place all their students. A lot of smallers programs have better records of placing all their students, I would imagine.

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This is a side comment from the OP's post but @darthvegan. A student from a program ranked in the top like mine came in to give a job talk at our business school and when we met with him, he told us that his program "just wasn't placing" (in part because of their strength in social psychology--there are a limited set of universities that hire sociologists trained in social psychology--but also in part because of the expectations of their PhD students so even a lot of the other students weren't getting jobs) and that our program was placing well. We asked him what he meant by that. By placing well, he clarified, he meant "getting jobs at all". I don't know if he's right or not, but he gave us the clear sense that many top programs don't place all the students who want academic jobs in academic jobs. There's this one guy with similar research interests to mine who had three publications when he got his degree (two peer reviewed articles, one in a regional journal, one in a specialty journal, and a chapter in an edited volume. Neither of the articles were stunning but neither were bad). His research topic was potentially interesting, depending on what he did with it. I've been secretly stalking him once every semester for the past three years and he, though he has graduated from a top five program, has never had an academic appointment (I don't know what his story is--how far he looked, if he had geographic limitations or what, if he decided not to work in cademia) but he, as far as I can tell, has never had a job in ademia and I believe he is/was looking for one. My adviser's last student has been bouncing around visiting professorships and adjuncting gigs for the last two or three years (apparently, he'll probably have better chance at academic stability once he can get his dissertation published, is the understanding, but who knows).

Academic jobs are not guaranteed with a PhD from a top program, let's be clear. Top graduate programs have no trouble placing top students into top universities, but don't necessarily place all their students. A lot of smallers programs have better records of placing all their students, I would imagine.

Is there any chance that job selectivity plays a role in this person not being able to find a job? For instance, because this person is coming from a top 5 university, it could be that they don't want to take a job outside of the top 20-40, and therefore aren't applying to all open positions available. To be sure a candidate like that could at least find a job at a liberal arts college, or even a state school without an impressive PhD program (or a PhD program at all). Maybe not, I realize the market is rough, but if the case is actually that PhDs from top 5 schools aren't getting jobs (given that they aren't being super selective about where they apply), then that's pretty rough.

I know everyone wants to get a job at an R1, but there are plenty of non-R1s out there that provide faculty with plenty of opportunities to conduct research.

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I agree with you. I think three things come up.

1) Like you said, candidates not applying to anything but USNWR's top 100 universities and the top 50 liberal arts colleges.

2) I think some professors and programs are really bad at helping candidates navigate anything but the R1 job market. Which means a lot of people fall through the cracks.

3) More anecdotally, a non-elite teaching intensive school isn't necessarily looking for someone who potentially thinks of themselves as an unclaimed superstar. I think twhose places want a good teacher. I don't know if this is true in sociology, but my sister's friend who got a degree in history from a top, top program at a top, top private university couldn't find a job (history job market, obviously, in shambles). But one of the issues, she thought, was that a lot of places she was applying to assumed she couldn't handle teaching a large lecture and that's what they ultimately needed, not someone whose research was pathbreaking. I don't know the details of the story because I heard it second hand, but she ended up getting two job offers eventually: a very temporary, visiting assistant professor at another elite private university and a one year but if you fit in here and can do the teaching, we will probably give a TT job offer from a non-flagship state school. I had never heard of the latter arrangement before, and maybe it was unique or got lost in the retelling, but it wouldn't surprise me if a teaching focused department wanted focused teachers, not people who saw this as a stop-gap until they could break into the top 100 universities.

This isn't always true--a lot of top schools end up placing a lot of people with big name degrees more locally (probably because of spousal things). Look at teaching focused departmetns in the midwest--lots of Michigan and Wisconsin people. Anyway, this is highly anecdotal and all the research I know about placement from academic graduate programs looks at who places their students at top programs, which definitely says something, you know?

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To get back to the original question, for a moment:

From my understanding, publishing and doing research as an "independent scholar" is very difficult. That said, it's not impossible. I'd highly recommend you check out the Chronicle of Higher Education Forums, there are a few discussions there on access to resources, how to get your name out, getting into conferences, etc. as an independent scholar, and you might find them quite useful.

It would also be a much better place to ask about the realities of the publishing market, as a lot of the faculty and researchers there have first hand experience with the process, many of them on both the editorial and author sides of the table.

Some particular threads of interest:

Independent Scholars Support Thread

Independent Scholar- possible?, Writing for a popular audience, and Independent Scholar Label

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I think you're going to have a hell of a time without an affiliation to some kind of academic institution, whether that's a job in journalism, at a think tank, the research department of an NGO or State bureau, or even a community college in North Florida. There are also distinguished adult continuing-education programs like Graham School at Chicago, and another at Harvard, that won't expect you to go for an academic job.

I don't know what you mean by "community engagement," but it seems unlikely that you'll have the time to research a book that's nearly academic in quality and serve soup at the same time.

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Basically, you need to be an academic with a phd or someone who has a strong record in journalistic famous, or somewhat famous in broadcasting/political pundit circles. To the OP, are there people out there that resemble a kind of career you want? Is it along the lines of a Michael Lewis or Malcolm Gladwell (both who didn't go to graduate school but found successful careers in journalism)?

Also, I think OP's characterization of publishing is a bit off.. right now the trend is for certain disciplines (such as history) to push their scholars into non-academic publishing since that is where public "impact" and sales are greatest... but non-academic publishing is dominated by non-phDs from either the journalism side of things, or from famous people. However, you don't see this push into non-academic publishing at all for sociology phDs. The discipline is divided into article people and book people (the former being more utilized by quantitative scholars). Essentially, in sociology, if you are a book person, and you get 2-3 books from top academic presses by the time you go up for tenure, you should be fine. I don't see any reason to worry that sociologists are now moving en masse into non-academic publishing and that will leave others out.

Basically, if you want to publish academically, get a phD -- if you really want to only do mainstream publishing, follow a career into journalism or land a political talk show -- as this where current people who do each one seem to be. (With the exception of historians who seem to be publishing more and more in main stream presses but I don't think its something they want but just something they are being pushed into).

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  • 3 weeks later...

Thank you for your helpful input, magicunicorn. Though this is probably not the best place to raise this question, does anyone have any advice about how to break into journalism without the PhD as you mention today? It seems that some people have been able to build a web presence and following through a blog and then pitch their material to online publications as a start but I am curious about other tricks for entering the trade.  I do have a few reservations, though. As much as I might enjoy journalism and as pretentious as I know this sounds, I usually end up rolling my eyes at most of the social/political analysis that I find in newspapers/magazines and feel that it might kill me to have to water down my ideas to make them more palatable to a mainstream readership. Though I know this is not an equivalent scenario, I distinctly remember being reprimanded by my high school journalism teacher for trying to publish content that was, in her view, inaccessible to my peers. Though I think that may have been the case for some of our community, I found her perspective infuriating and incredibly patronizing in its presumptions about what people can and cannot understand.  As I reflect upon all of this more, it seems increasingly obvious that I should seriously consider pursuing the PhD if academic writing is this important to me. On the other hand, maybe first trying my hand at journalistic writing could help me to clarify my priorities. Do readers here think that a MA from a top Ivy would be sufficient to help someone break into journalistic writing related to the subject or should I just suck it up and realize the importance of the PhD?

Edited by incognegra
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@incognegra.  I actually considered this long and hard too..  and realized that the phD route was better for me.  I could get my training paid for by a top 10 research university, and then eventually blog and "dumb-down/de-academize" my scholarship for the masses.  Part of my decision was that journalism was perhaps an even harder route.. it was highly unpredictable.. I don't have the charisma of Rachel Maddow (nor her delightful on air wit), and I don't have insider connections that have allowed other journalists or raw talent to succeed as name-brand stars (in the likes of Lewis, Gladwell or Levitt, etc).  During my time questioning "my route" -- some sociology students did bring up Matt Desmond and Adam Reich as examples..  grad students who managed to publish "non-sociology" books while graduate students)..  and this actually gave me some encouragement.  I was actually really surprised at how open some of my advisors now in graduate school have been to me trying to publish outside of sociology as well.  Their suggestions have been to publish a few "sociology" type things in journals, and then to rewrite the material into more general articles/possible book chapters -- they seemed to understand the crossover that happens a lot now in the sociology field with that of the general interest one. 

 

It just seemed a safer choice for me -- I could get paid getting my phD, learn and read and have famous scholars read my writing that I do for their classes/dissertation -- while at the same time, exploring other routes to share my research (blogging etc).  The other choice - sitting at home, freelancing on various journalism gigs, blogging, networking and trying to be famous, seemed like it was too unpredictable and hard to pull off financially.  At least the phD route gave me more of of a safety net (and health insurance!).

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I'm in the same boat as magicunicorn.  If I haven't shown my cards enough already, here goes nothing. (Removed at Users Request)

 

I have said and believed a mountain of unbelievably stupid and misinformed things in my life*.  And getting It Right is, ethically, Job Number One for me -- becoming a competent professional academic is my way to do that.  There's no guarantee I won't still end up a partisan hack; lots of older scholars when making their foray into policy entrepreneurship and op-editorial land end up reaching way outside of their expertise and saying stupid things.  But I'm at least going to amass serious evidence for my arguments before turning them into kitschy popular press books (but I think like a lot of people, I'm already writing chapters of those books in the back of my head).

 

*Edit: hell - even last week!

Edited by Eigen
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If this still characterizes your goals: "though it seems that completing a PhD in Sociology might help me share my ideas more widely, I am primarily interested in independent scholarship and community engagement rather than working toward a tenure-track professorship," I would advise against getting a PhD.  

 

A PhD will in most scenarios actually only help you share your ideas more narrowly -- that is with your subfield colleagues.  To many of us that is a Pareto improvement over not sharing them at all.

Edited by econosocio
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I appreciate your comment, Econosocio. It's definitely true that a TT position is not my ultimate career goal and perhaps that is reason enough to skip the PhD altogether. On the other hand, I think that the PhD could help me to achieve my long-term goals related to community engagement. My research interests are centered, in part, around the contemporary educational discourse and I would like to have the option of eventually starting my own experimental educational project or crossing over into educational leadership in an alternative learning community. Though I know that the actual PhD training is primarily about socializing grad students for academe and emphasizes communication in language used exclusively in that domain, I do have a desire to publish straight up academic writing as well as writing serious nonfiction for a more popular readership but I am concerned that I will struggle to publish the latter without the PhD (or a strong background in journalism). Though I often try to convince myself that it doesn't ultimately matter, it seems difficult to deny that I would be better able to circulate my fairly radical ideas with that academic stamp of approval. The disturbing politics aside, I'm aware that most people in this society will be more apt to listen to someone with an Ivy League PhD even though the Ivy League is principally an athletic organization. As I'm thinking about it now, these points feel like reason enough to pursue the degree even though I've been told (and often told myself) that the PhD is only for someone sure they want that coveted TT job. The more I think about it, the more I realize how important writing and speaking are to me and I'm concerned that I'll set myself up for an endless uphill battle if I attempt to do so without the credential, however shallow that might be. On the other hand, maybe what you would want to suggest is that the PhD process itself is such a soul-crushing uphill battle as to warrant extreme caution and enrolling only if one's future career goals absolutely require the degree. In view of the things I've elaborated on in terms of my goals, how do you think I should proceed? Thanks!

Edited by incognegra
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I understand you're good an confused about your future, and I've been there, with lots of big dreams of influencing the world socially etc.  At this stage your goals are diffuse enough that a PhD is not for you though.  It is not a booster credential to writing op-eds and eventually common-press books.  Very few people finish the PhD.  Very few of those land tenure track jobs at R1's.  And an even smaller subset of that set become successful public intellectuals.  

 

Since you're in education and considering community engagement, I'm not entirely surprised you find the prospect of counseling college kids uninspiring and not-world-changing.  Go volunteer at an alternative high-school in a major city.  Or you could Teach for America (though that program has gotten extremely competitive, and they're not going to want theoretical aphorisms in the application -- they want hardened dedication and realistic teaching plans).  "Community Engagement" is in most respects disheartening, obnoxious, impoverished (for the client and the practitioner both), and generally depressing.  Most of my friends are social workers, teachers, etc.  These people make about $25,000 a year dealing with nearly insurmountable social problems, bureaucracies and bosses that are a constant uphill battle, and often times completely ungrateful clients -- in usually decrepit facilities.  Teaching at alternative schools can be inspiring (and so can social work), but more often than you would like, the job will be getting the students to treat you and one another with a modicum of respect, and kicking the smartest kids out of the school because they're the ones leading the gangs and selling the most drugs.  

 

At the end of the day most of these people would give their left arm to continue doing the work, or do it for free.  Add to that, that a lot of this work is not especially high-skilled, and that therefore there are a lot of people flooding the market -- and you see where the wage comes from.  

 

I don't want to discourage you from trying to impact the world around you.  I would suggest you get a slightly more focused idea of which social issue is the most important to you, and how you think you can influence the most people regarding it, and give that path a try.  What you're discussing as "community engagement," and a PhD are mutually exclusive paths.  And journalism is just about disjoint from getting a PhD as well.  

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  • 6 months later...

I somehow missed your message until now, Gilbert. Thanks for taking the time to share so much insight. I've had some experiences over the last 8 months that have helped me to clarify what is truly important to me. Though I intend to complete my MSW program and psychotherapy internship in the interest of having a professional degree to fall back on, I've realized that I spend most of my time reading academic titles, imagining how I would extend/challenge them, and wishing that I had a community with which to share these ideas. Though the idea of publishing work for a popular readership and "community engagement" remain, admittedly, appealing to me on some level, the uninspiring and anti-intellectual professional world in which I've been working and living is truly suffocating me.

 

Despite my frustrations about the hierarchical and popularly inaccessible nature of academia, I feel sick of being in social and professional environments where I'm routinely chastised for being "too intellectual" or "thinking too much" about the issues at hand (even though I actively try to avoid taking up space in conversations and speak fairly little in work settings). I even recently had a Psychology PhD-holding supervisor pathologize me for supposedly "putting on" a performance in the "overly intellectual" way that I speak and carry myself. Apparently, the way that I embody blackness did not meet with her expectations.

 

The idiocy of that supervisory relationship aside, I know that I won't be long for this profession because it feels much too lonely and depressing to have to suppress my candid thoughts and alter my manner of speech just to avoid intimidating (and, apparently, confusing) supervisors and other practitioners. As you mentioned in an earlier reply, I'm realizing that, for me, sharing my ideas with a community (any community, however "exclusive") would feel infinitely better than attempting to repress those passions and "fight the good fight" in politically correct ways.  Thanks for helping me to come to terms with the reality of the situation. My GRE preparation book calls!

Edited by incognegra
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That's a really solid line of thinking, and it sure sounds like you've got a straight head to go right at the PhD.  Best of luck.

 

Your comments about acting too smart for your skin color and your boss not liking it (if I'm reading your comments correctly) are interesting to me.  As a white guy, with mostly black and brown friends, I actually find myself posturing-down around them -- limiting my vocabulary, avoiding making the conversation too intellectual, and so forth.  But I also find myself catering a lot to the context I'm in as well, for instance getting a lot more folksy with my speech and friendly when I go back up to Wisconsin.  I think there's something to be said for translating and speaking the language of those around you, but I encounter a lot of situations where I'm expected to keep my mouth shut and don't, so I totally feel where you're coming from.  I think you should definitely get where you feel comfortable, and you likely possess the skills to navigate there.

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