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How much does the publication record of your prospective/current supervisor matter


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I have been looking for some more insights regarding this question, but as I get different opinions, I wanted to ask this in this particular segment of the forum.

Whether you're still applying or already are a phd student, how much does the publication record of your (prospective/current) supervisor matter? 

I'm asking this specifically, because someone I know recently encountered this scenario:

The person found a possible supervisor at an ivy league university and history program, but the supervisor in question hasn't published much (perhaps even very little) in the last 10-15 years, despite his tenured position. The supervisor is most known for some works that were published around 2000, and it is also not clear if there were any other relevant collaborations or projects after that.

Some people are advising to work with the supervisor anyways because other benefits such as a strong social/academic network, future employment possibilities, and funding. Some would even ask back whether your supervisor's publication track even matters at all for your own research.

Others would advise to look for different supervisors with more publication -  perhaps at less prestigious but nonetheless good universities - because those supervisors would be better known in the field and be "more up to date" (?). 

(I'm obviously leaving aside questions about whether or not you are überhaupt able to get into top programs etc)

What are your thoughts, experiences or what kind of advice would you give, in the context of being/preparing a history phd student?


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The name of the university does not really matter in this case. A sixth-year TT Assistant Professor in History who is approaching the tenure consideration has, in general, published one monograph, usually growing from the dissertation. Exceptionally, some has two monographs already (might be opt for early consideration), or one monograph and one edited volume, and for some others, their book is being printed later the year. Nevertheless, the university recognizes their scholarly contributions hitherto, believes their capability as decent lecturers and researchers, and sees their potential of doing further research (kind of like a Hab. in Continental Europe); thence, the tenure is granted. However, nobody in the Tenure Committee could accurately predict if the candidate will be as productive as when he is an AP. Besides the basic teaching duties and university responsibilities, a tenured associate professor can do whatever he wants and decide how much he does. Strictly speaking, he does not have to publish anything. The only consequence of being a slacker is no promotion to the full professorship, which is a very competitive process in its own right (that's why many associate professors stay in the status quo for thirty years until they retire). So why bother publishing? And indeed, for some PhDs, their dream is merely to get a steady/tenured job in the university and teach college kids (already very hard to achieve at this day). My point is that they see themselves as college-level teachers rather than cutting-edge researchers. They just don't want to write more. This is common in third or fourth-tier programs but also not uncommon in first-rate universities. (Well, you cannot blame them for that because they may, at some point of their career, prioritize families, child-raising, non-academic involvement, free time, or at least teaching, over doing research).

Nevertheless, even if an associate professor is continuing publishing, it also differs according to the kind and the quality of his work. As a convention in Humanities, monographs weigh more than book chapters or journal articles. Some historians publish a fabulous monograph to get the tenure, but afterwards, don't write any book but only short papers (those people usually fail in the further promotion). Some do write books, but few of them have a great influence in the subfield or receive a prize from the relevant academic associations (the worst scenario: more than one top scholar from your field harshly criticize your work in the review, saying the book is a crap). 

To answer your question directly, the publication record itself cannot necessarily determine whether or not he is a fine historian and an ideal supervisor. But he has to publish, publish at least a number of monographs, ground-breaking and mind-blowing monographs that have a far-reaching impact and possibly can somehow change our understanding of a certain history. He thus can climb up to the top of the field and become recognized as a so-called "worldwide leading historian." Then, he can stop writing books (the majority still write though). But really look carefully at what he has been doing in the past fifteen years -- to determine if he is still being "active" in the field. Is he taking an executive position or the presidentship in any academic association? Is he organizing international conferences, or giving speeches in different countries? Is he writing book reviews, or editing papers for academic journals? Is he compiling an encyclopedia or working on a decade-long project? Is he preparing for multiple book projects at the same time? Is he supervising PhD students?

In most instances, the Full Professor title can be a good indicator of one's scholarship. Word of mouth also works. Who is regarded as the top historians of the day? Ask your professors and friends of the field, and if they don't know or raise their eyebrows on the name you mention, you should avoid studying with him.

All in all, in my opinion, you should either find a productive mid-aged associate professor regardless how much he has published, or an active distinguished full professor regardless how much he is publishing. But at the end of the day, he must be someone that you are happy to work with.


(P.S. You sure "he hasn't publishd much"? Professors may not update their publication record or provide a full CV on the internet. Check Google Scholar or World Cat.)

Edited by VAZ
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First, has the person contacted the POI to get a sense of his/her current research projects?  If the POI has nothing heading for publications right now, I'd beware.  

I would give more leniency to Associate Professors as they are doing far more than they did as Assistant Professors.  They now are being asked to serve on more committees within the university and the field and sought after for tenure reviews and reviewing articles for journals.  Within all that, the professor him/herself has to make choices how s/he wants to build up the portfolio for full promotion.  Some want to focus on building outstanding, creative syllabi and teach those courses and gun for awards (unfortunately dependent on students and peers to make the nominations!).  Others want to get more of the research for the next project done.  It also depends on what is needed for the portfolio for full professorship for that particular department/university.

If a Full Professor is doing none the above and sitting pretty, move on.  However, if s/he has been supervising graduate students who are producing excellent work and receiving solid dissertation fellowships and getting academic jobs (if going into academia is what you want), then I would not be as concerned.  The person has clearly developed a reputation for being a solid dissertation adviser.  Part of being a strong dissertation adviser is keeping the exam reading lists up-to-date and that means being forced to read new books in the field (and thus learning new information, theories, and methodologies).  If the students' reading lists don't include books from the last 5 years in addition to classics, I'd steer away. 

Having written all that, your friend should be asking about the POI's on-going research projects and doctoral students.  A good POI should be able to brag about his/her doctoral students' accomplishments and research (hopefully breaking some ground...).

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On 16/07/2017 at 0:04 PM, ignoredfab said:

it is also not clear if there were any other relevant collaborations or projects after that.

Has your friend scoured Worldcat or reached out to current graduate students to ask about what the prof is currently working on?

On 16/07/2017 at 0:04 PM, ignoredfab said:

Some would even ask back whether your supervisor's publication track even matters at all for your own research.

It does, but maybe not in the way that your friend expected. The lack of recent publications could be a warning sign, or it might not be. It depends on the person and the kind of work s.he has been or is doing currently. Field also matters. Some fields just publish more than others. Anecdotes to illustrate:

  • A tenured prof at an Ivy League school with an impressive publication record given his age – 2 monographs before 50, multiple articles in prestigious journals, a couple of edited volumes – but he's not around much for his graduate students, and his placement record is not what it "should be." Graduate students attribute that to the fact that he has taken on too many advisees given his professional responsibilities and personal research goals, and is therefore less available to them when they need someone to pick up the phone and call committees on their behalf.
  • A tenured prof at another Ivy League school with a shorter publication record to above, slightly older (mid-50s), but who has an excellent placement record (the majority of her students have gone on to TT positions or prestigious post-docs followed by TT positions). She is known for being hands-on when it comes to career development. 
  • A much older, tenured prof at an Ivy League school who publishes like a house on fire and is somehow also highly engaged in his students' careers. The great majority of his students have gone on to illustrious careers – not just because of his name – but because he is a born pedagogue, and seems to take genuine pleasure in helping his graduate students professionally. 
  • A very recently tenured prof at a highly regarded school (not Ivy League, but in the top-15) with a shorter publication record than the three above, but a similar pace of publication. By the time he's their age – he's currently pushing 40 – he'll have a similar record. As a young prof, he's experienced the pain of the current job market and is highly aware of what his students need to do to get themselves into the best possible position by the time they graduate (doesn't mean, of course, that all of them will get jobs at the end of it). He's a 5-year plan kind of guy (in this case it seems to be a good thing). His first student just graduated and got a prestigious post-doc. 
  • Another young, recently tenured prof at another highly regarded, non-Ivy League school, has been flirting with the idea of moving to the Ivy League for a couple years now (he's been described as a "hot commodity" that many schools have been courting). Similar publication record to above. By all accounts, he's a great teacher – when he's around. A recent student of his got a prestigious post-doc, but his current students are worried about what the future will hold if he decides to leave the school and dedicate more of his already limited time to his research career. 

I could go on… In the end, the message is: consistent publication record does count for something – it's an important part of why the folks above teach at top programs – but what matters (even more) when it comes to choosing an advisor is their reputation as teachers and career advisors/advancers. That prof your friend is interested in might have a great placement record, despite a thinner publication record.  

As I considered different programs, I talked to lots of graduate students. They're the ones with the inside scoop. I also looked at the AHA's Directory of History Dissertations to get a sense of the placement record of advisors I was considering. 

Edited by laleph
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I think you should also pay attention to how far along they are in their second book. It can make a difference if your advisor publishes a landmark book that boosts his or her name recognition a year before you go on the market. On the other hand, some associate professors never seem to get that second book out.


i'd also like to point out that some scholars become well known solely on the reputation of their first book. In my department, the most successful advisor in terms of placement has written one book. Sometimes the amount of publication is not a good way to evaluate reputation.

Edited by AfricanusCrowther
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