Revisiting the Lost Opportunity

I remember the first time I submitted a research paper to a peer-reviewed journal. It was in 1998, at the tail end of my doctoral studies at the University of Chicago. I had worked over the past four years to conduct and analyze a survey of parents (primarily women) who were receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC, the precursor to "TANF") benefits in 1995 in Cook County, Illinois. With the help of three amazing master’s students, we drove all over the county, interviewing these mothers in their homes, asking them questions about their lives and struggles, and importantly, their strengths. 

Although not the main focus of my dissertation, it was apparent from the survey interviews that there was a high rate of intimate partner violence victimization (IPV) among the sample members. There was also a complex relationship between IPV and a measure designed to tap “self-efficacy,” or the belief in one’s ability to accomplish goals and tasks. I compared scores on the self-efficacy scale among women who had experienced IPV victimization (a) in the more distant past, but not in the past year, (b) recently, but not in the past, (c) recently and in the past, and (d) never. Any guesses on which group exhibited the highest scores on the measure? Group A. Women who had successfully left abusive relationships had high levels of self-efficacy relative to their peers who had never experienced abuse, or who had recently experienced abuse, suggesting that accomplishing something very difficult (i.e., leaving an abuser) may lead to increased confidence in one’s abilities. I wrote a paper using a social cognitive theoretical framework and submitted it to a social science journal known to focus on family violence. It was summarily rejected, and I never resubmitted it anywhere again.

There were undoubtedly flaws in the paper, but at that point in my career, I was still unsure of my abilities and I wrongly assumed that my work simply wasn’t good enough yet. Several years later, still early in my career, I wrote a paper on the housing trajectories of low-income families as predictors of future homelessness, comparing families living in rural and small town regions of Illinois to families living in large urban centers. I thought the rural-urban differences in the pathways to family homelessness were fascinating. This paper was also rejected by a journal I deeply respected. I did not pursue another submission.

I think about these two papers with some regularity, and with significant regret. The analytical approaches and frameworks that I used did not differ from subsequent manuscripts, ultimately published, on slightly different topics. In other words, I don’t believe now that they were so off-the-mark as to be unsalvageable, or devoid of any scientific contribution. They represent lost opportunities, not only for my career but for the advancement of knowledge, however incremental. 

I also reflect on what might have changed the outcome for me in these two instances. Perhaps if I had asked a few senior colleagues to read these papers, I might have received encouragement to keep at it. Perhaps if I had been part of a peer support network, I could have discussed reservations about my scholarship and realized that it was unfounded self-doubt driving my reluctance to resubmit. I could have, at the very least, posted these manuscripts somewhere as discussion papers, where I may have received useful feedback leading to additional improvements. I should never have just let this scholarship die.

There is another set of lost opportunities about which I harbor much disappointment. In my career, there have been numerous examples of scholarship, in the tradition of E. L. Boyer (1990), that I failed to view as just that: scholarship. I’ve collected data on student learning related to specific classroom activities over numerous years, administered pre-post tests to practitioner audiences related to several professional trainings that I’ve developed, and documented behind-the-scenes efforts to reform and implement new policy in state agencies. I’ve also neglected to write about my research (as distinguished from writing up my research for the scientific community).  As I’ve progressed in this career, I see much more clearly that the translation of one’s research to policymakers, practitioners, and the general public is what generates true impact, not simply the acts of conducting the research, publishing in scientific journals, and presenting to academic audiences at annual research conferences. The same translation argument can be made for writing about one's teaching, administrative, and service work. We have so much to learn from each other that would improve our effectiveness as scholars and teachers.

So why am I writing this post? To encourage scholars, especially those who are early in their careers or who feel they are on the periphery of academia, to swallow self-doubt and rebuke the imposter syndrome.  Seek support from peers, develop relationships with mentors, seek advice from colleagues. Find a way to promote your work, even if it is not immediately accepted by the legacy journals in your field. The infamous Reviewer #2 lurks there, and will unexpectedly appear with any given manuscript submission. Take his or her feedback with a grain of salt and pay attention only to the reviews that help you move forward. See scholarship in a broad light, and recognize opportunities for publishing case studies, science related to teaching, translation pieces, and implementation research, among many other things. You have invested significant time and money, and borne large opportunity costs, to obtain your degree and cultivate your expertise. It deserves to be shared with the rest of us. 

Author: Kristen Slack, PhD

Photo copyright: Ivankmit Image ID: 14034410

Trash can with crumpled wads of paper scattered on the floor.