Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

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The Professor Is In: Is Writing a Book Review Ever Worth It?

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I have been asked by one of my committee members to write a book review for an anthropology journal. I said “yes” because it seemed like a good way to get something published in an established journal in my subfield. (Plus the book was one I needed to read for my orals.) I've heard you say that grants beget grants, and a $500 grant can open the door for a $1,000 grant. So I thought the book review might operate similarly. But now, having read your advice about the values of different types of publications, I'm wondering if I've made a mistake. Do book reviews carry any professional weight? I can't get out of it, but going forward, should I try to avoid writing book reviews?

First off, let me applaud you for your efforts to think strategically about your career and CV-building. You are asking the right questions.

The answer is: If this is your first book review, it’s a major journal in your field, and it's a book you need to read for your orals, then go ahead and write the review. Don’t fret that it was a mistake.

You are absolutely correct, however, that a book review carries very little weight, and counts for almost nothing toward a competitive job-market (or tenure) record. However, it does show that you are considered legit enough to review a significant book for an established journal—that is, that you have some degree of reputation and visibility in your field. So it will not harm your record, and it may help just a tiny bit, as long as it’s also accompanied by a refereed article in quick succession.

The important thing is that you don’t write any more. The problem with book reviews at your stage is opportunity cost. While you’re writing the review, you’re not writing the peer-reviewed publication that will actually count.

Far too many of my clients mistakenly view the book review as a legitimate “publication.” They also perhaps get caught up in the ego-gratification that comes with being the “experts” who are publicly evaluating and passing judgment on major scholarly works in the field. Whatever the motivation, there is a certain type of client who comes to me with a truly ridiculous number of book reviews—I’m talking 10 or more—which, for someone junior still seeking a first tenure-track job, is a sign of profound confusion and poor advising.

If the book review is in the top journal in your field, does this advice still hold true? Yes, in my opinion, it does. This is because in all things related to the competitive academic record, we go back to the principle of peer review. Things that are rigorously peer-reviewed (journal articles, national grants, and national conference proposals) are the highest-impact elements of your record. Things that are not peer-reviewed rank far lower. A book review is not peer-reviewed. It is solicited, and then it is more or less rubber-stamped, so long as it abides by basic reviewing ethics and conventions. So don’t be misled by the fancy venue. It’s not a peer-reviewed publication, and it won’t operate like one for the purposes of your job search and tenure case.

So how many is the right number? Obviously there is no hard and fast rule on this, but I generally tell ABDs and new Ph.D.’s to have no more than three book reviews on their CV’s. More than that signals a worrisome lack of understanding about the hierarchy of publication values, which in turn raises questions about the candidate’s tenurability and time-management skills.

Dear Readers: Have a question about the academic job market and/or professionalization? Send it to me! I welcome any and all questions related to the job market, preparing for the job market while in graduate school, coping with the adjunct struggle, and assistant professorhood. Send questions to me at gettenure@gmail.com.

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