books versus papers [for PhD students]

Before I run out of time, here is my answer to the ISBA Bulletin Students’ corner question of the term: “In terms of publications and from your own experience, what are the pros and cons of books vs journal articles?

While I started on my first book during my postdoctoral years in Purdue and Cornell [a basic probability book made out of class notes written with Arup Bose, which died against the breakers of some referees' criticisms], my overall opinion on this is that books are never valued by hiring and promotion committees for what they are worth! It is a universal constant I met in the US, the UK and France alike that books are not helping much for promotion or hiring, at least at an early stage of one’s career. Later, books become a more acknowledge part of senior academics’ vitae. So, unless one has a PhD thesis that is ready to be turned into a readable book without having any impact on one’s publication list, and even if one has enough material and a broad enough message at one’s disposal, my advice is to go solely and persistently for journal articles. Besides the above mentioned attitude of recruiting and promotion committees, I believe this has several positive aspects: it forces the young researcher to maintain his/her focus on specialised topics in which she/he can achieve rapid prominence, rather than having to spend [quality research] time on replacing the background and building reference. It provides an evaluation by peers of the quality of her/his work, while reviews of books are generally on the light side. It is the starting point for building a network of collaborations, few people are interested in writing books with strangers (when knowing it is already quite a hardship with close friends!). It is also the entry to workshops and international conferences, where a new book very rarely attracts invitations.

Writing a book is of course exciting and somewhat more deeply rewarding, but it is awfully time-consuming and requires a high level of organization young faculty members rarely possess when starting a teaching job at a new university (with possibly family changes as well!). I was quite lucky when writing The Bayesian Choice and Monte Carlo Statistical Methods to mostly be on leave from teaching, as it would have otherwise be impossible! That we are not making sufficient progress on our revision of Bayesian Core, started two years ago, is a good enough proof that even with tight planning, great ideas, enthusiasm, sale prospects, and available material, completing a book may get into trouble for mere organisational issues…

2 Responses to “books versus papers [for PhD students]”

  1. Another problem is that some editorials (such as Springer-Verlag) send offers via email to graduated students (master and PhD) from top universities for publishing their thesis as books.

    As you may well know, not all of them have enough quality but the editorial review is not exactly diligent and many of them are published.

  2. I can’t even imagine spending my time writing an entire book early in my academic career. I’ve done a chapter for a book written by my research group but the thought of spending my time writing a full blown book? No thanks. I’ll stick to writing papers.

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