Most Sociology PhD programs include a paper requirement such as a “second year paper” or a “Master’s paper.” This paper serves, in part, a practical purpose of making sure PhD students have an empirical manuscript drafted early in their program that they can mould into a sole-authored journal publication before they go on the job market. This is an essential part of professionalization as today’s tenure-track job market is so competitive that ABD applicants need at least one sole-authored publication to land a tenure-track job. This in and of itself is a practical and useful part of the professionalization process. However, many programs pair this with unreasonable expectations on where early scholars should publish: top tier journals. “Failing” to land a top tier journal publication can make graduate students feel a severe version of imposter syndrome, that they aren’t cut out for academia, even though all well-established academics frequently receive rejections from these journals as well.
As a graduate student, I frequently heard that my goal should be a publication in one of the two highest ranked sociology journals: American Journal of Sociology (AJS) or the American Sociological Review (ASR). If that didn’t work out, a publication in the next two in rankings, Social Problems and Social Forces, would also be acceptable. The last resort was to submit to a subfield journal, but only if submitting to the first four journals did not lead to a publication. There were certainly faculty who suggested subfield journals over generalist, but the overarching narrative in the program was “top tier or bust.”
I’m pretty sure this is not a unique feature to Berkeley Sociology as you can see this type of advice in some of the recent Sociologica articles about publishing, which you should read all of if you haven’t already. Along with other helpful advice about publishing, Fligstein notes: “After putting in hundreds or even thousands of hours, your published work can go completely ignored if it appears somewhere where audiences are sparse. Given this problem, it is important for young scholars to find their way into the best outlets they can. Journals like the American Sociological Review have over ten thousand potential viewers while edited volumes may sell as few as 300 copies that mostly end up in libraries.” Similarly, Lamont says: “At the start of a career, you have no choice; if you want to be a part of the disciplinary conversation you have to go for the journals that have the most visibility.” Both Fligstein and Lamont make similar arguments that junior scholars need to enter the literature in highly visible spaces.
Junior scholars of course need to be seen and heard to help them land tenure-track jobs and earn tenure, but I have two gripes with this advice. The first is that this advice makes it seem as if young scholars should always target the top tier journals, which in sociology are “generalist” journals. But even the most established scholars never only publish in generalist journals. Check any CV for a big name in your field and you’ll see a wide range of placements including subfield journals, edited volumes, and top tier journals. In disciplines where the top tier journals are meant for a “general” audience of that discipline, this advice is particularly fraught since not every paper is meant for a generalist audience. Some conversations are most relevant to the subfield and make important contributions to advancing how a subfield thinks and works, so why spend the time and energy trying to convince a general audience that a subfield conversation is interesting? It is definitely a useful skill to be able to frame your research for both generalist and specialist audiences, but it’s also useful to know when a specialist framing is a better approach than a generalist framing.
My second gripe is that this advice is often given to early graduate students, as was my experience. That early in a graduate career, students are still learning to write for an academic audience and to write for their discipline. To set the expectation that these students place their first (or maybe second) academic research paper at a top tier journal is a stretch at best. Top tier journals are at the top in part because they are exclusive. They get a lot of submissions and accept very few. Setting the bar that high can mean students who “only” place in subfield journals feel like they won’t make it in academia despite that subfield publications are a valued contribution to the field.
While some graduate students are able to accomplish top tier publications, it is often students in more privileged positions. Placement at this early career point is only possible with a combination of a lot of support, guidance, and feedback from one or more faculty members, and the graduate student having a lot of time to analyze, write, revise, and edit. Programs that are small and have generous funding not attached to teaching tend to have more graduate students who can accomplish this.
So what advice would I give instead? Make a list of all of your works-in-progress and ideas. Think about what audience each paper is engaging and decide whether each is best suited for a generalist or specialist audience. It is always good to have at least one paper in the works or in mind that would be well-suited for a generalist audience. If all the others are really for specialists, that is both fine and normal!
Next, think about the paper that is the closest to going out the door and make a list of the journals that match the paper well. This should be a list of 4-8 journals, all of which you would be happy to have your work published in. When your paper is ready, submit it to the best journal on that list and work your way down in prestige as you get rejected. Since every journal on the list is one you would be happy to see your work published in, you’ll be happy with your placement when it happens.
Finally, always remember that rejection is a normal part of the publishing process. The only people who aren’t getting rejections are the ones who aren’t submitting their papers to journals. When it happens, it doesn’t mean your paper isn’t worth publishing ever. It just means it’s either not a good fit for the journal you sent it to or it needs some more work before it will be publishable. Make revisions, get more feedback, and submit it again. Don’t give up!