One of the first things we hear upon entering graduate school is that publishing our academic work is of the utmost importance. We are pushed to aim higher, and higher in this context means publishing a higher volume of publications in higher impact journals. Under this “publish or perish” structure, our success is made contingent upon sharing our research with the academic world as quickly and as frequently as possible. This structure poses unique challenges for qualitative researchers, given the time, energy, and vulnerability necessary for this kind of work, all of which can feel antithetical to the rigorous publishing demands of graduate school. We write this post to shed light on the various complications we have encountered in navigating publish or perish as early career researchers whose work is primarily qualitative.
In the work that we do, we believe in locating ourselves in relation to our research, teaching, and writing. We are both young, White, heterosexual, cis-gender women who benefit from able-bodied privilege. We name this not to discredit our experiences, but rather to identify that though we have experienced some challenges, we have not been subjected to the micro- and macro-aggressions faced by many minoritized scholars also negotiating this challenging and constraining system.
The use of qualitative inquiry stretches back throughout the history of science and spans disciplines. In psychology—the field in which we both primarily work—qualitative inquiry seems a natural fit, allowing us to explore the nuanced and situated experiences of those experiencing a phenomenon of interest. Qualitative data is often, though not always, produced in interaction, and its analysis requires us to understand and think critically about who we are as people within the context of the work we do. This process, reflexivity, allows us to move beyond the assumption of researcher as a purely objective curator of knowledge and insight and affords us the opportunity to consider our research questions in relation to ourselves, to the world around us, and to theory. Quality qualitative research requires deep researcher engagement with topics that can range enormously and “data” that are sometimes profoundly personally meaningful. Engaging deeply with people and their stories has been perhaps the most rewarding aspect of qualitative research for us. Yet, this process, along with the various other time-consuming steps required of good qualitative research, prolongs the completion of qualitative research projects, potentially limiting the number of studies we are able to publish in a short period of time.
That this slow, emotionally-laborious work is often regarded as less scientifically “valuable” and can be more challenging to publish than other methods of research further complicates experiences of conducting qualitative research in graduate school. There are fewer outlets for publishing qualitative research studies, and the high-impact factor journals in which we are encouraged to publish generally will not consider (and certainly do not prioritize) this kind of work. While qualitative research can actively disrupt the doing of normative research practice, this can feel particularly risky as early career researchers, as intentional decisions that go against the norm might be misinterpreted as clumsy mistakes or sloppy oversights. Challenging convention may further stymie our publishing potential, and under publish or perish, anything that threatens our potential to publish our work is self-sabotage.
Given these complexities, how do we as qualitative researchers survive in this treacherous terrain? Do we cut corners and take shortcuts, relying on the traditional and sterile tactics of mainstream psychological research? Do we continue to engage in the painstakingly slow process of authentic qualitative research, hoping the time and money we have devoted to our graduate education will not be jeopardized by our lower publication count? Do we drive ourselves into the ground, sacrificing our mental and physical health in the process of trying to balance our desire for veracity with the demand to keep pace in this field? Or do we simply drop the dream altogether and stick to quicker, more mainstream methods and conventional populations?
The pressure to publish or perish can limit our potential, our creativity, or our mental and physical health and forces us to sacrifice truth and knowledge in our pursuit of career success. Given the conditions laid out for us by a neoliberal academy that demands productivity at the expense of both health and creativity, we may resolve this dissonance in a number of ways; one perhaps increasingly popular one is to decide not to do this research at all—a shame, given the value and promise of quality qualitative work. Graduate school is the time when we develop our skills as researchers and hone the tools necessary to conduct high-quality research. If we don’t take the time to learn and practice these methods during graduate school, we likely never will.
Perhaps because of the time- and resource-intensive nature of qualitative work, we have found support and solace through collaboration. We have been fortunate to find communities that support qualitative work, including our advisors and other early career researchers interested in discussing and co-mentoring around qualitative research. In a digital age, we’ve found the possibility of reaching out to others who share our interests has been facilitated by virtual spaces—indeed, this is how we met each other. We are indebted to those who are doing work that makes qualitative approaches more visible and legitimate in the eyes of, for instance, “high impact journals.” Building these communities has helped to bolster us against what sometimes feels like an uphill battle in which we are encouraged to sacrifice quality for quantity. Indeed, as early career researchers engaged in qualitative research during a time of publish or perish, developing a strong sense of community has proven to be an essential survival skill.
We would like to thank Dr. Carla Rice, Dr. Katina Sawyer, Dr. Olga Smoliak, and Dr. Rachel Calogero for their ongoing support, scholarship, and friendship. Among others, we are inspired by the work of Dr. Virginia Braun & Dr. Victoria Clarke who continually advocate for the valuing of qualitative work in psychology and health research arenas.