How Many Papers per Year Should a Postdoctoral Fellow Publish?
Among the many benefits of becoming a postdoctoral fellow at a university or laboratory is the opportunity to conduct valuable research and publish significant findings. Both sides of this opportunity are vital to laying the groundwork for a successful academic or scientific career. While the research is certainly primary, the publications serve as the formal record of that research and they, not the work done in the library or lab, are what hiring committees and funding agencies can see and assess. A researcher may be considered unproductive if he or she achieves no publications during a period of postdoctoral work, and this can be the case even if the research is incredibly time consuming and cutting edge. On the other hand, a postdoc who submits or presents a paper every few months might be accused of focussing on less than substantial research topics or of salami slicing the work too thinly to mount up extra publications. What, then, is the perfect balance? How many papers should a postdoctoral researcher aim to publish each year to prove competitive in a challenging job and grant market?
The answer depends, of course, on several factors, such as a postdoctoral fellow’s field of study and area of specialisation, the length of the postdoc research period, the availability of equipment and resources, the possibility of collaboration, the amount of technical and other assistance provided, and the kind of publications expected. In some fields, ten, fifteen or even more publications might be needed each year to stand out as exceptional, though most if not all of those are likely to be co-authored; in others, a single publication a year is impressive. In more than one research area an average of about three peer-reviewed publications per year is recommended for postdoctoral fellows aiming to become tenure-track assistant professors. The actual productivity patterns of early-career scholars suggest that one publication a year is far more realistic, with many postdocs achieving only half that number. The best approach for determining what will work best for you and your situation is to learn all you can about exactly what kind of publication patterns are expected of successful postdocs in your field and at your institution.
More generally, the best advice is to try to publish as many papers as possible because early publication tends to be (and to be understood as) a reliable indicator of future productivity and influence in academic and scientific careers. The activities of writing and publishing provide hands-on training for more writing and publishing, and a long publication list usually looks very good to hiring committees and funding agencies. Circumstances remain central, however. It may prove, for instance, extremely difficult to conduct the necessary research, produce a single paper and have it accepted for publication before a one-year postdoc is over, whereas it may be quite feasible and even ordinary to publish seven papers in a seven-year position. In scientific fields where researchers work in teams with a variety of specialists, assistants and co-authors, many papers or conference presentations a year might be expected from postdoctoral fellows, whereas a single published book at the end of a three-year postdoc may be outstanding for a literary scholar working and writing alone.
Considering only the number of publications is therefore not the answer. Quality is also a central concern, so prioritising the rapid production of publications at the expense of research excellence and accomplished writing is never the best approach. The significance and value of your research matters to hiring and grant committees as well, and so do the citations your publications earn among your peers and perhaps your h-index, which is based on both the number of publications and the citations they receive. Publishing your work through reputable academic or scientific publishers or in peer-reviewed journals, particularly those with high impact factors for your field, is always preferable, so much so that one or a few such publications are worth far more than dozens of papers published through a vanity press or predatory journal that does not uphold scholarly editorial and review practices. Finally, although co-authored papers can be excellent publications and demonstrate your ability to collaborate successfully, it remains a definite asset to be the only author or the first or last (senior) author of at least one and ideally half of your publications.
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