If you look at my publications list, you’ll see that it doesn’t look up to date. The most recent paper on it came out in 2015. And it’s true that it’s not up to date–but only because I’m a co-author on a couple of papers that got accepted in the past week.
Which means that in terms of publishing papers, I went 0-for-2016. I went almost two years between acceptance letters.
That’s for a few reasons. In the fall of 2015, I spent a few months focusing on other things besides writing papers. I’ve always worked best that way; I like having various irons in the fire so that I can switch between them as the mood strikes me. But in retrospect, I probably should’ve forced myself to sit down and write papers in fall of 2015.
Then, when I did go back to writing papers, they all got rejected, in a couple of cases more than once. In some cases, that was just bad luck with reviewers. It happens. But in retrospect, I probably thought too highly of one of the papers concerned and aimed too high with it. Then I stubbornly continued to aim too high with it after the first rejection. Repeatedly aiming too high is the “failure mode” of my approach to publishing. I never intentionally “reach” with papers hoping to get lucky, or try to “sell” my work as more novel or important than I honestly think it is.* Rather, I try to do good fundamental research that will be of interest to a broad range of ecologists and then publish it in good, selective journals read by a broad range of ecologists (what Brian once called “slow science“). That’s in part due to my own preferences. It’s in part due to me playing to my strengths.** And it’s in part due to the fact that I’ll never have the resources to have a big lab, particularly a lab with postdocs. The bottom line is, if you’re going to do shopkeeper science, your “shop” has to make up in quality what it lacks in volume. Which means that, when I do misjudge how good one of my papers is, it’s invariably by aiming too high.
I’m not too worried about having a blank year on my cv, though of course I’m not thrilled with it either. It helps to know I’m not the only postdoc or prof to whom this has happened (blank years are of course common for grad students). I just did a bit of casual googling of Google Scholar profiles, and in a few minutes found seven friends of mine in EEB who had blank years as postdocs or faculty members. None of the blank years were associated with parental leaves or other extenuating personal circumstances. They’re all very successful tenured profs at top research universities now.
I would’ve been more worried had I not gotten those two papers accepted, because at that point I would’ve been running a serious risk of a second consecutive blank year. Fortunately, it’s still a couple of years before my grant comes up for renewal, at which point I’ll find out how much NSERC Discovery Grant reviewers care about that blank year.*** But I’m trying not to worry about that blank year because it’s water under the bridge now.****
In future, I’m planning to adjust my approach to publishing a bit so as to cut the risk I ever have another blank year. Try to crank out a few more small, incremental papers targeted at less-selective venues, so that my bets are better hedged. But really, all I can do is all anyone can ever do–the best I can.
So if you have a blank year on your cv already, or you have one in future, know that you’re not alone, and that in the grand scheme of things it’s probably not that big a deal.
UPDATE: To forestall a possible misunderstanding that came up in the comments, I am not saying that you can get and keep a faculty position in ecology without being productive, or that you can slack off after you get hired or get tenure, or anything like that. All I’m saying is that, in the context of an overall track record of sufficient productivity (where “productivity” is defined more broadly and holistically than just “publication count”), one year with no publications probably isn’t a big deal.
UPDATE #2: To forestall a possible misunderstanding that came up on Twitter, which I discuss at greater length in the comments: I’d have written exactly the same post if I’d been posting unreviewed preprints of my manuscripts. Preprints and peer-reviewed papers are complements, not substitutes. Yes, posting preprints would allow the public to see preliminary versions of my as-yet-unpublished results. But to the extent that I’d worry about a gap in my publication record, it wouldn’t be because the public hasn’t yet seen a preliminary version of my as-yet-unpublished results. Nothing in this post has anything to do with preprints as far as I can see, but if you think I’m missing something on that front please do comment. Always happy to get comments disagreeing with the post.
*And you shouldn’t either.
**For instance, in contrast to someone like Brian, I’m not great at working groups. I’d publish more papers if I was better at it.
***I think and hope they won’t care much, and don’t think they should care (they should care about my record as a whole). But I don’t really know and would welcome comments on this from anyone who’s served on an NSERC Discovery Grant panel.
****Plus, through a combination of being good and being lucky, I’m a tenured full professor. Going forward, even the worst-case career scenarios for me aren’t that bad in the grand scheme of things. The worst-case scenario for me is probably that my grant doesn’t get renewed, in part because of that blank year, and gets rejected again when I reapply. At which point, it would be unlikely I’d ever be able to reapply successfully. I don’t think that scenario is very likely, and of course I’m going to do everything I can to make sure it doesn’t happen. But if it did happen, I’d probably dial back my research program, and voluntarily take on more teaching and administration so that I continued to pull my weight within my department. I wouldn’t get fired, though I’d probably cease to get raises. And none of that would affect the wonderful personal life I’m blessed with outside of work. Further, even if I were pre-tenure or still looking for my first faculty position, I wouldn’t worry too much about a blank year per se. The people who evaluate you for hiring and tenure should, and mostly do, look at your record holistically (see also).