Forsyth, On Writing and Tenure

Guest post by UCLA alum Ann Forsyth, the Dayton Hudson Chair of Urban Design and director of the Metropolitan Design Center at the University of Minnesota. Her 2005 UC Press book is Reforming Suburbia: The Planned Communities of Irvine, Columbia, and The Woodlands (blogged on here.) Reproduced from JPER 10, N. 1, pp. 98-105, 1999, and not previously available on the web.*


Author’s Note:
In 1997 I was invited to talk about writing and tenure at a student-sponsored workshop for doctoral students in planning. After that talk several members of the audience asked me to publish it in a forum, like JPER, that would be fairly accessible to their doctoral colleagues. As I showed it to other doctoral students I received a similar response. After more deliberation than it probably needed, I decided to go through the process of getting it in wider circulation. While it is not the kind of scholarly research or education article that I promote in the main text, there seems to be a great need of at least some doctoral students and new faculty to have an accessible starting place for thinking and talking about issues of writing, scholarly communication, and tenure practicalities. It is in that spirit that I offer it.

* * *


For many people approaching today’s tenure track, writing for publication is both a mysterious process and yet essential for their job. This paper demystifies the process of academic writing in the tenure process. For those who have become successful writers these questions, concerns, and tips will seem obvious. Many people have advisors who offer perceptive and up-to-date advice on these matters; others come from, or become part of, academic social circles where such matters are part of commonsense knowledge. However, this information frequently does not reach a significant group of doctoral students and even new faculty.

This paper is structured around three questions.

  • How important is publishing?
  • How does a scholar develop a publishing strategy?
  • What are some potential pitfalls for new scholars?

Overall, I propose that writing is a job and not a mystery. It involves a practical set of activities both in terms of the bigger picture of scholarly communication and contributing to understanding and the short-term goal of tenure.

This article is based on the experience of being on tenure track at a university undergoing substantial changes in faculty expectations. From this experience, I had to figure out how I felt about those expectations and if I could work within them to make a difference in the world–the thing that brought me to planning in the first place. This made me particularly interested in the biographies of scholars, in how they created a place for themselves within their specialty areas and how they had managed to balance research and writing with the other aspects of life. I read lists of publications, resumes, and acknowledgment sections in books–and I talked with a number of scholars–in order to find out how they had charted paths. I also found published biographical pieces although these were mostly from outside planning (e.g. Bernardo 1993). This comment reflects that ‘research.’1

How important is publishing?
How important is publishing? Publishing is very important, but publishing is important for different people in different ways. Publishing is a significant means toward the end of getting tenure. However, there are other ways to show excellence or strength in research and creative work–like getting awards for professional projects–and different schools, although rarely saying so in any printed document, have very different expectations for writing. Middle-ranking schools give tenure with four to eight refereed articles and reasonable performance in other areas. The big schools want twice that many, up to twelve articles or two books along with significant recognition in the field, but have lower teaching expectations with smaller classes, fewer classes, and more chances to teach electives. This allows time to write. In contrast, many teaching-oriented institutions mainly want teaching. Thus, for many people, publication is only one aspect of getting tenure.

Instead, for a substantial proportion of planning academics, publishing is about much more than tenure. For the vast majority of people in smaller programs, and many others, publishing is important in itself in that it is part of the process of building knowledge in the field and reaching out to others doing similar work. Publishing is a communications lifeline; a way of creating the kind of scholarly interactions that most people were seeking when they decided to take jobs in universities in the first place. It is a way of talking with others, contributing to knowledge, and making a difference in the world, something that has implications far beyond the tenure track.

Most planning faculty are the lone person interested in a particular field out of a six- to eight- member faculty, and. In this situation, both publishing and the blind review process provide an important means of meeting those people who you want to interact with. Senior people in the field who might never glance at you at a conference are forced to examine your work while reviewing it. If and when your article is published they will frequently reveal themselves–and this can start really significant interactions and collaborations. Although from time to time a reviewer will be plain nasty, the kind of person you won’t want to meet in person, or will act in a way that you feel is a negative example of “gate keeping,” the benefits of communication do outweigh these costs. This kind of communication can then build into a network of those also trying to shape the part of the field that you care about.

This is not to say that publishing it easy in schools with more modest expectations—in fact it can be very hard to fit publishing in among all the other activities expected of faculty. My point is that publishing is not only done for tenure. To publish merely to get tenure is likely to be a lonely and frustrating task.

How does a scholar develop a publishing strategy?
Although some people including even some very successful publishers do so without a strategy, for many people it is helpful to have an overall plan for publications. One way to make that plan is to base it on research into people you admire and who are in your sub-field of planning. These are the people who you think have shaped or reshaped important areas in planning, the kinds of people you could aspire to emulate in the long-term. Of course what you consider to be “reshaping” and “important” will be a matter that is quite subjective–and it is meant to be.

It is possible to find out a lot about people’s publications and awards from electronic databases and the WWW. All electronic databases are incomplete, and many do not separate refereed and other publications, however Uncover–the database of journal tables of contents–is useful for general publications. In many fields this will need to be supplemented with other sources of information such as the Avery Index for design. Many schools either place faculty resumes on the WWW or have lists of publications: for example, MIT and Berkeley have such lists, with Berkeley’s seeming to be the most complete (Berkeley 1998; MIT 1998). (However, don’t throw yourself into a panic by expecting to be Manuel Castells.2)

Although there are a number of approaches to this kind of analysis, the following strategy can yield a realistic approach tailored to your specialty within planning. The following five items are important to consider: quantity, quality, pacing, focus, and balance.

First, starting with those people you admire as scholars and researchers, look at the volume or quantity they produce. Volume is important in tenure decisions however, much more crucially, research on creativity shows that many people who produce important work produce a lot of other stuff along the way. They are “productive every day”, or in some regular cycle like a week, and some of these products turn out to be good (see Gardner 1993; Simonton 1987, 75). But how much is a lot? How much of this gets published and how much is, thankfully, filed? It is comforting to know that in planning even the highest producers have limits, with some variation by specialty. Many of those known as writers tend to produce around two refereed articles per year, or write a significant book every three to five years along with a lesser number of articles. Those few that produce more do so for brief spurts, or are in areas like transportation where there are many short papers and much co-authorship (or they are just unusual). Some people known as writers take longer between publications, particularly if they are established, and rely on achieving high quality. This slower strategy can work well in the longer-term. Examining the work of those you admire can help you find your own perspective on quantity.

Second, look at the quality or character of articles and books. How do people you admire craft their very best articles and books including such issues as their relation to previous research, the amount of data, and the character of analysis? What does it take to make a difference in your part of the field–is it about new data sources, new analytical methods, new theoretical approaches? How do they relate to the existing literature? These issues are issues of the craft of scholarly research, and of audience.3 As planning is such a small field most prolific writers also relate to at least one outside discipline or area–from political science to remote sensing–both to find an additional audience, and to draw work from these related fields into planning. How do the scholars you admire do this?<4

In terms of communication pacing is also important. Experienced writers try for an even flow although only a few can manage it in the short-term. Sometimes you may have three things under review and sometimes none, but over a year try to get one, two, or (even) three manuscripts out. This is not always easy. New faculty will have a hard time getting papers out if they jump straight from a fast-paced PhD into a smaller program without any articles on line for publication, and start teaching four or five introductory courses while running a couple of programs and raising grants. Some departments nurture their new faculty, giving generous leave, and providing mentors and other support; some doctoral advisors link their protégés to grants and writing projects in their early years. However, this kind of faculty development is not at all universal and many new faculty struggle without mentors and with high teaching and administrative loads and so organization and pacing early on is crucial (see also Smith 1997).

This is exacerbated by the situation that articles can easily take six months to be reviewed and–as most articles have to be “revised and resubmitted”– review can be much longer at nine or even twelve months. It can then take between six months to two more years for the article to be actually published. This of course has practical implications: the tenure track has a limited time–mostly six years which means that in fact your file goes in at the end of year five. However, more crucially, actually publishing articles, or at least being able to distribute manuscripts that have been accepted for publication, is an essential step toward starting scholarly interactions in the fields that you care about.

There are many ways to achieve this flow. Make timelines and lists; give yourself deadlines; get support. In particular, the ACSP Faculty Women’s Interest Group manual on “How (Not) to Get Ahead in Academia” has very many fabulous tips from pasting lists of this year’s articles on your refrigerator or over your computer to strategies for publishing “interim” articles (Irrepressible Women Planners 1989, 27-40). There is a small industry in books and articles on writing strategies and they are often quite useful (see Boice 1997; Goldberg 1986). All of them emphasize just getting down to write: as Sue Ruddick points out in the introduction to her first book “the only way to break a writer’s block is to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair” (Ruddick 1996, x).

The fourth issue is more subjective but increasingly important as the sheer volume of scholarly production increases. It involves making your overall focus clear, and being seen to be answering important questions, without sounding repetitious, flimsy, or narrow. On one hand you do not want to write completely different kinds of articles in seven different sub-areas of planning and be seen as too superficial (Irrepressible Women Planners 1989, 31). However, you also do not want to be like some people who seem to produce essentially the same article 12 times. And finally, while less of a problem, it is important to not be so narrowly focused that no one else can get interested in your work. So you want coherence within a small number of areas–while having each piece be unique and sophisticated. It takes a few years for this to get built up–and it is worth examining how people you admire have done this. Importantly, people seem to take quite different amounts of time to hit their stride in terms of focus–a fortunate few have it straight out of the doctorate but for others it can very easily take a decade to develop a coherent area, particularly if they are in an unusual part of the field.

Finally, is the issue of balance. What exact aspects of research and creative work brought you to an academic position in planning? For example, do you want to continue practice? If so, how can you develop an excellent and innovative practice and get credit for it? For those in colleges that incorporate architects and landscape architects, proving excellence through gaining awards is a well established process. Many design programs have established criteria for incorporating awards into the tenure process, for example judging that an award equals a refereed article of a certain caliber. However, that said, those academics that have achieved national prominence generally do some amount of publication and high-profile presentations on their work. A similar kind of balance can be achieved with teaching–using it as a base for publications in order to have interactions with others who will use those publications to find out about your work.

Most academics also want to, or must, balance writing with a life that is outside their resume, and this is increasingly difficult now that most academics do not have wives-to-do-all-that. Children, elderly parents, spouses, commitments to religious practices, work with activist and service groups, illnesses, divorces, and ones creative or artistic life all make claims. This can involve difficult tradeoffs. Recently some authors have pointed out that employed academics are experiencing overwork (Wills 1996). Wills cites a British weekly diary-style study of a random sample of “over a thousand” academics showing average academics working 53.5 hours per week, with professors working 59 hours per week and, within that group, women professors working 64.5 hours (Wilson 1996 in Wills 1996, 295). Wills’ own survey of 130 academics at the University of Southampton found 89 percent of respondents thought their workload had increased in the last five years (1996, 296).

However, it is important to remember that academic jobs usually involve research and creative work (where writing is mostly done), teaching, and service and it does not necessarily have to be research that is cut down or forced into the time when you are also looking after a sick child. In fact in Wills’ study of workloads administration was the most important source of increased hours, with faculty spending around 17 hours per week on administration during the semester. This poses some difficult dilemmas–as administration is work that needs to be done–but it does point out that there are areas apart from writing where hours could be cut and that at least in some places the academic time crunch comes not from research but from other expectations.

What are some potential pitfalls for new scholars?
Given these issues about writing and publishing, what can go wrong in a practical sense? The first part of this article has focused on publication as a means of scholarly communication and making a difference in the field. The following ten tips try to help you avoid potential pitfalls in terms of tenure so you can keep your focus on this bigger goal of communication and innovation in the field.

It is important, however, to see them as tips and not as a recipe for success. They are lessons that can show how quite a lot of the academic world works, but they are not hard and fast rules. (For a more general overview of academic life beyond writing see Irrepressible Women Planners 1989; Smith 1997). However, given that many institutions like to keep their expectations somewhat vague, and criteria at other institutions keep changing, they are at least a start toward understanding the basic system.

  1. In many departments what counts in terms of tenure are refereed articles. Resist book chapters before tenure unless they are reprinting a refereed article. Regard publications for practitioner magazines as outreach.5 These departments like refereed articles because the peer review process is more arduous than the review process for book chapters or other articles–double blind, with lots of reviewers, and presumably less chance for favoritism (see Irrepressible Women Planners 1989, 27-40). Of course this process is not perfect–editors can see their areas of interest narrowly; you can strike punitive and bad tempered reviewers; people can seem to be acting as aggressive gate keepers to their domain; and journals can keep you waiting for years to see your work in print.6 However, given no one else in the department is likely to be an expert your area, for many departments they are seen as the best way of judging quality. While outside reviewers’ letters do count at tenure time and can give a more nuanced assessment of your work, even outside reviewers often notice refereed articles and use them as a criteria for judging your impact on the field. 
  2. Be careful about relying solely on books for tenure. Book publishing is increasingly becoming a business, even for academic presses. The publishing industry has changed dramatically in the last three to five years so many academics who have not recently published are out of date in terms of their advice (Howerly 1997; Orlans 1996; Pascal 1997). In small markets, like planning, even marvelous studies will be rejected unless they can fit as a text in an undergraduate class, or are by a big name. So case studies of individual projects are generally unacceptable unless they are something as big as the London Docklands; studies of individual countries apart from the US and major newsmakers are out. Even with a dissertation on a hot US topic you may well be faced with a massive rewrite to position it in a new market, and a wait of several years to see it in print. It’s a situation to do with the financial picture at academic presses and it is phasing out small print-run, academically-oriented books on specialized subjects (known as scholarly monographs). Editors of refereed journals, however, generally have to read almost all the articles they receive and although some reject topics they don’t like, they are much more likely to at least review work by unknown scholars, from less prestigious schools, and on obscure subjects. One certainly sees many less than stellar books around, even by respectable presses, and this makes book publishing seem easy, but this is part of a larger story of editorial preferences and marketing. However, in the long run, books are useful in terms of scholarly communication as they show a sustained argument and can make connections between the various parts of your research. They can also increase your visibility in the field which can, again, help you make connections with others. This means they are worth doing, although risky as the sole strategy for tenure. And for a few programs, and in some specializations like planning history (where there is more of a tradition of book-length publication), a book really helps.

    This discussion has also been about books you write and not edit.7 Editing can be a nice way to get known, to meet people, and to help define an area of study, but editing a book gives you few tenure points (in many programs) and can take a lot of time. You certainly can edit books–it can be an extremely effective component of your strategy for scholarly communication–but make sure you are doing other things as well for tenure.

  3. Think about the quality of the journal, but don’t get completely caught up with having to find the number one ranked journal. Getting things out is more important than finding the most elite venue–besides while one department ranks may rank the Journal of the American Planning Association as number one, other places would value Regional Science or the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research much more. On the other hand, publishing most of your work in journals that are known for having substantially “lower” standards means you do not get the benefit of high-powered reviews–and they are worth it in terms of improving your work to make a more significant contribution to the field. From time to time these journals may be useful to give you a chance to publish something unusual or risky, but these journals also make it much harder for people outside your specific area to judge the quality of your work at tenure time. This can be extremely confusing when you first start out and you should ask several senior people for advice on journals in your area and carefully examine which journals get cited a lot (and citation is at least partly related to impact). There are also studies of such things as citation rates but they are only guides and may not be relevant for your sub-field within planning –and they also generally discount the impact of newer journals (see Stevens 1990; Wheeler 1997).
  4. Be strategic about where and how you publish. Think about the journals you publish in as a strategy for avoiding marginalization. If your research is on Zaire or Luxembourg but you want to get tenure in the U.S., make sure you publish in at least some U.S. journals (or “international journals” that have a very high profile in the U.S.). If you are a planner, but want to relate to geographers, publish in geography journals. In this case the journals are part of a strategy for having influence outside planning. If you do postcolonial theory, and want to get tenure at a mainstream planning school and for your work to influence mainstream planning, write at least some of your articles for mainstream journals like JAPA or JPER so that your colleagues can clearly see that at least part of what you do is “planning”. This is not easy, as it involves the slow work of translation from one scholarly language to another while you will also be busy with teaching and service.8 Finally, although departments vary widely in their attitudes to co-authorship, most also want at least some work to be by you alone so at least some of your work probably needs to take that form. Whatever the case, be strategic. 
  5. Strike a balance between perfection and getting the articles out for review. Once you start reviewing you will realize that many people send in very bad articles and this takes a lot of time as they wait up to six or even nine months for a review only to be rejected. However, reviewers are often unpredictable and your perfect theoretical argument may seem irrelevant to them, while they will want you to expand your empirical section. For this reason, many writers aim for a “revise and resubmit” as they consider it the most time-effective publishing strategy. So do your best. Get at least two colleagues or senior graduate students to comment on the piece before you send it out, but send it. Remember, everyone gets rejected. Read the letters, figure if you can salvage the article, ritually burn any particularly irritating and spiteful reviews (after writing down their basic contents), phone your best friend and ask for sympathy, and then get on with your writing. 
  6. Be realistic, and optimistic, about what you can do given your teaching load. At MIT, faculty teach maybe three classes a year; several well-known planning schools expect faculty to teach three classes a quarter. There is a world of difference in terms of what can be done in terms of writing for publication. 
  7. Expect standards to change. This is a time of fairly rapid restructuring in the university world. Standards for all kinds of activities–teaching, research, and service–are going up. Many universities are getting to be harsher places to work and rising standards, coupled with falling resources, hit hardest at the bottom of the faculty ranks. While you should be familiar with standards at your institution–through asking to see previous tenure files, for example–be prepared for publications standards to change quite dramatically the year you go for tenure. An institution that has required a large amount of basic teaching in large classes and then suddenly expects your articles to have changed the field by tenure time can feel quite unrealistic. Be prepared by tracking your institution and field and this can help with teaching and service standards as well. 
  8. Grants are not research, but they do help out in some departments. In many departments this has a name–the “K factor” (or how many thousands you bring in) and it helps. 
  9. Travel to conferences is not research. While it may be tempting to travel–especially when you can get a subsidized trip to a foreign country–it is important to use conferences to further your research and publishing agenda. Present new research; network with others in your field; but don’t see a presentation–even in an exotic locale–as equivalent to publishing significant pieces. It may well be better for your long-term scholarly communication to stay home in front of your computer or be out collecting data. 
  10. Talk is not research. Going to parties, having dinners at with senior people, talking about your current research over coffee, and going to committee meetings where you discuss some research issues are good things, and they can help you think through some ideas, but they do not equal either research or publications. In the long-term publications are the way you will generate the most significant communications.


Finally, none of this advice is true in all times in all places. But it is true in many places and it is quite surprising how infrequently it is passed on to students and even new faculty. Of course, most people make a lot of mistakes and they still survive. However, knowing these basic points can help you keep your eye on the big picture–scholarly communication, innovative work, answering important questions–while keeping the practical requirements of the contemporary tenure track under control, and even keeping a sense of humor!

Berkeley faculty publications. 1998. and Accessed June.

Bernardo, Felix. 1993. Scholarly Publication: A Career Retrospective. Marriage and Family Review 18, 1-2: 59-74.

Boice, Robert. 1997. Strategies for Enhancing Scholarly Productivity. In Writing and Publishing for Academic Authors. Second Edition. Joseph Moxley and Todd Taylor eds. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 19-34.

Bondi, Liz. 1998. On Referees and Anonymity: A Comment on Symanski and Pickard. Progress in Human Geography 22, 2: 293-298.

Diamond, Robert. 1994. Serving on Promotion and Tenure Committees. Boston: Anker Publishing.

Gardner, Howard. 1993. Creating Minds. New York: BasicBooks.

Goldberg, Natalie. 1986. Writing Down the Bones. Boston: Shambhala.

Howerly, Carla. 1997. Conference Held on Future of Scholarly Monograph. Footnotes [American Sociological Association] 25, 9: 3.

Irrepressible Women Planners. 1989. How (Not) to Get Ahead in Academia: A Guide for Women Planners. Unpublished.

MIT faculty publications. 1998. Accessed June.

Moxley, Joseph. 1997. If Not Now, When? In Writing and Publishing for Academic Authors. Second Edition. Joseph Moxley and Todd Taylor eds. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 3-18.

Orlans, Harold. 1996. Will the Public Vote on Tenure? Change 28, 2: 6.

Pascal, Naomi. 1997. University Presses: In and Out of the Ivory Tower. In Writing and Publishing for Academic Authors. Second Edition. Joseph Moxley and Todd Taylor eds. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 141-150.

Ruddick, Susan. 1996. Young and Homeless in Hollywood. New York: Routledge.

Simonton, Dean. 1987. Genius: The Lessons of Historiometry. In Frontiers of Creativity Research. Scott Isaksen ed. Buffalo: Bearly, pp. 66-87.

Smith, Edwyna. 1997. The Tenure Labyrinth. Black Issues in Higher Education 14, 17: 120.

Stevens, Garry. 1990. An Alliance Confirmed: Planning Literature and the Social Sciences. Journal of the American Planning Association 56, 3: 341-349.

Wheeler, James. 1997. Scholarly Trade Volumes and Flows in Urban Geography. Urban Geography 18, 5: 377-381.

Wills, Jane. 1996. Laboring for Love? A Comment on Academics and Their Hours of Work. Antipode 28, 3: 292-303.

Wilson, T. 1996. Lessen the Load. AUT Bulletin, January: 6-7.

* Note to 2006 web edition: This is close to the final copy edited version of the original article but it likely to have some small differences. The original drafts are from 1997. I received tenure in 1999.

1 This is obviously not, however, a systematic scholarly study.

2 However, you can check Castells’ publications at

3 There are, of course, more generic ways of assessing scholarly quality. For example a Syracuse University group came up with a six part set of “criteria for scholarly quality” involving: work “requiring a high level of discipline-related expertise”; innovation; potential for replication or elaboration; documentation; peer review; and significance or impact (Diamond 1994, 17 in Moxley 1997, 5).

4 Doctoral students thinking about this can read work on the craft of research. In addition such students could to get hold of review checklists from different journals to see how scholarly articles are judged–however it is important to keep in mind that these checklists are about articles meeting a certain standard, and you will need to think about additional issues.

5 Book reviews are similarly not articles, but show an engagement with the field.

6 For a review of some of these issues from an editor’s perspective see Bondi 1998.

7 There is an interim kind of book–the text book–designed for classroom use and not as a contribution to knowledge. In planning pure text books are comparatively rare.

8 My thanks to an anonymous reviewer for this comment.

Sunday, October 22nd, 2006
randall Crane
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