A question arose recently about an early career scientist* who has been slow to publish results from their PhD research. Now that this person is on the tenure track (TT), they have to make decisions about how best to spend their limited time: pursuing new research vs. finishing old projects.
(*someone completely unrelated to my research group, just in case anyone is getting paranoid)
I am not talking about unreasonable expectations by former advisors regarding post-graduation or post-postdoctoral publication; i.e., I am not referring to cases in which someone published the key papers from their previous work but their advisor would like them to publish even more. In that case, new work clearly must rule.
The tricky cases are when there are still major papers that should come out of the pre-TT years, but these have not yet been written/submitted.
Yet, if a TT professor spends time writing up old projects, there is less time for the new projects. There are only so many hours in a day and there are only so many years until the tenure evaluation. And there are an infinite number of important things to do in that time.
Factors in the decision about how to apportion time between old and new work include:
- It's important to initiate and publish results from new work that is identified specifically with the time at the TT institution and that does not involve the TT professor's PhD advisor(s) or postdoctoral mentor(s).
- It's important to finish what you started, especially if your PhD and/or postdoctoral research was particularly interesting. Your visibility and reputation derive from the totality of your work, not just what you accomplish in your TT years.
Ultimately, I think that new work (research done entirely at the TT university) is more important than old work (research done during a PhD and/or postdoc), so if you have to choose one over the other, the new work is what the TT university will want to see at tenure evaluation time. Some people do get tenure based primarily on work done with their famous PhD and postdoctoral advisors, but this is not a good strategy for getting tenure and for establishing a respected research program.
As an advisor, I am not objective about this matter. Although I can write -- and even convince myself to believe -- that new work should prevail over the old in terms of publication priority -- I also feel that it's very not cool to leave advisors and other colleagues in the lurch with unpublished work, even if that was never the intention. Also, some institutions request letters from former advisors and postdoc mentors for tenure evaluations.
When I was a postdoc, I had published a few papers from my PhD, but I had some more to write. I spent most of my postdoc time on my postdoctoral research, but I systematically carved out some time for writing up the rest of my PhD research, so eventually it was all published. This turned out to be excellent preparation for being a professor and working on multiple projects at once; i.e., many of us, as professors, always have some projects in the writing-up stage and some in the data-gathering stage and some in the idea development stage and some in the glimmer-in-our-eye stage. It should therefore be possible to finish the old work without sacrificing the new work.
How's that for a mixed message?: In reality, you have to prioritize your time and probably should favor the new projects over the old projects, but, ultimately, you need to get everything done, old and new.
10 years ago