May 18, 2008

The Young Professor: How To Get Published

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC + Kind of a Young Professor

Dear Young Professor:

Congratulations, you’ve been hired by a Top 20 business school… well, it WAS a Top 20 business school, but you know how these things go. So let’s just say, congrats, you’ve got a job with health insurance!

But now is no time to rest on your laurels, because first of all, newbie, you have no laurels. You have to earn those. And around here, you accomplish that by getting published…

Sorry, your letter to the editor in Forbes doesn’t count. In fact, nothing in Forbes is worth even thinking about… except maybe those ads with models in form-fitting business suits. Those you can think about. But to advance your career, you must strive for publication in those exalted tomes of intellectual discourse known as “academic journals.”

How, you ask? What, you didn’t learn that in post-doc? Oh, you were buzzed on peyote buds in post-doc. Well, fear not, Young Professor, we’re here to enlighten and edify. First, let’s reveal some truths about academic journals:

  1. They don’t really care about your ideas.
  2. They don’t really care whether your ideas really work in real business situations.
  3. They don’t really care about you. So you went to Harvard — get in line, rookie, and no, we don’t validate parking for anyone whose last name isn’t Kanter or Porter.

So what is the key to getting published? One word: METAPHOR. Choose one nice, fat metaphor to shape your entire article — indeed, your entire premise. The best metaphors evoke physical structures, like Bridges, Pyramids, Diamonds, Pools, Streams, Chains and Curves. But those have already been used. So as a public service, we’ve compiled this list of fresh metaphors you may use freely:

Vestibules
Rivulets
Trapezoids
Gazebos
Jacuzzis
Lemurs
Soupcons
Bundt Cakes
Nimbuses
Butter Pads
Archbishops
Bacon Strips
Water Closets

True, catch phrases like “Sustainable Competitive Advantage” pack greater staying power than metaphors, but they’re also harder to craft and say. So for your first article, we recommend sticking to the literary bunny slopes.

Now here’s how it works: If you concoct a memorable metaphor, business reporters will steal it from your executive summary. No, they won’t read the entire article — remember, these are business reporters — but that’s OK, because being published is all that matters.

Your metaphor will then be shanghaied by corporate middle managers who will bandy it about to impress senior managers and nubile flight attendants from Tulsa. And if it’s a bona fide killer metaphor, it just might appear in “Dilbert” — The Holy Grail of business publishing — or in MBA programs. “Dilbert” is better because it has a larger audience (at least one that’s occasionally sober).

Now how do you turn that metaphor into an actual article?

First, the more obfuscation the better. Obfuscation obscures the fact that you have nothing truly original to say. Don’t be offended — we’re talking the study of business here. How much undiscovered knowledge is left out there? Your article merely needs to convey the impression of brilliance, so follow these…

Top 10 Steps To Academic Writing Excellence

  1. Change all active verbs into “be” verbs (am, is, was, were, etc.).
  2. Use passive voice, as in, “passive voice should be used.”
  3. Insert all references and notes directly into your writing to prevent any danger of “flow.”
  4. Use at least three prepositional phrases per sentence.
  5. Clog all sentences with empty phrases like “in order to,” “in the event of,” and the classic “needless to say.”
  6. Use grandiloquent words where simple ones will do.
  7. Subordinate-clause the hell out of everything. The ideal: a sentence consisting entirely of subordinate clauses. This should baffle most business students, who think “subordinate clauses” are Santa’s little helpers.
  8. Never assert, just propose. As an academic, you’re not allowed certainty about anything. Everything is theoretical: globalization, business cycles, your sex life. So soften all statements with qualifiers like “maybe,” “might,” “possibly,” and “theoretically.”
  9. Eschew all humor. Attempts at levity will result in eternal banishment from academia. As everyone knows, the study of business mandates greater seriousness than cancer research. If an urge to be creative arises, pretend you’re from the University of Chicago and it will go away.
  10. Create lots of Top 10 lists. They make your theory appear layered, and give students something else to memorize. Remember, memorization is the most important skill taught in business schools. That, and how to make a Goldschläger martini.

Here is an example of sentence butchery, i.e., academic prose:

Original: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

Revised: “The dog (Canis familiaris, from the Old English docga: The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 1973, p. 422), in a state of prostrate indolence, is being hurdled in an alacritous manner by a specimen of the genus Vulpes (ibid, p. 562) that is, in this case, a particular shade of the color most often, but not always, described as ‘brown,’ depending on one’s perspective, native language, and the nature of light at the moment, since color, strictly speaking, is a function of light-wave refraction, at least according to widely accepted scientific theory, or so we believe.”

You’ll notice that academic style imparts girth. And that’s critical. Succinctness is the antithesis of obfuscation. (Say that three times fast.) And you don’t want that. To make your article publishable, you need to SUPERSIZE it. Obesity is the American way. So make like a Wonderbra and pad, pad, pad…

Size Matters Tip 1: Quote liberally from other articles. Plagiarizing — er — quoting several other articles turns your article into a tower of babble. And if you quote tenured professors, they might subcontract their research to you.

Size Matters Tip 2: Use at least three long business anecdotes. These anecdotes don’t have to prove anything except that you know the names of actual companies. Of course, your students must perform multivariate regression to substantiate their hypotheses, since anecdotal evidence is worthless. But you need to get published. So tell random stories about the MBA standards — Wal-Mart, Dell, Southwest Airlines, Wal-Mart, FedEx and Wal-Mart — then twist them to fit your argument.

Size Matters Tip 3: Should a publisher offer to turn your article into a book, add more girth by interviewing CEO’s. This also enhances your odds of landing fat consulting gigs.

NOW DO THE MATH. Nothing makes common sense look like a science more than quantifying it and putting it into a graph. Economists mastered this years ago. To illustrate, let’s quantify the saying, “Birds of a feather flock together.”

flocking formula

Tell your readers to take the first derivative of this formula to find the maximum propensity to flock. This means absolutely nothing, but it sounds like you’re dropping mad science, you beautiful mind, you.

Now graph it and remember to curve your correlation line, since straight lines appear naïve. Then draw a line from the origin to a point tangent to that curve. It doesn’t matter that this point has no point — having to calculate and graph it will make former liberal artists curse your name, and since they have actual communication skills, that constitutes additional publicity.

To wrap up your argument, emasculate it with qualifications. Qualifications add girth and protect you from critical eyes (most likely, your rival junior professors). The following qualifications appear in 98% of all academic journal articles:

  1. This recommendation must be personally implemented and supervised by senior management.
  2. This recommendation must be adapted to your company’s needs.
  3. This recommendation must be supported by clear and open communications.

These cover-your-ass caveats apply to any corporate activity, from solitary confinement of marketing executives, to compensation of new hires with onion bagels. And since no American corporation is capable of executing all three recommendations simultaneously, your theory can’t be proven wrong.

Finally, stew all the above into a badly typed article. Mail the finished piece to the home of any journal editor with a cashier’s check for $300, and within months you’ll be published. A few dozen of these later, and you’re on your way to academic stardom. Mmmm, catch a whiff of that new-consulting-firm smell…

And that, dear young professor, brings us to a critical phase in your career — a phase we’ll cover next time in a post entitled “Gluteal Osculation: The Fine Art Of Getting Tenure”…

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

8 Responses

  1. F = μCK…that pretty much says it all…

    I totally agree on the bloated nature of so many things out there…thats why I love blogs! (also why I’d much rather work with a small business than a big one)

  2. Good stuff!!

    Thanks for the comment. Peace!

  3. “Now graph it and remember to curve your correlation line, since straight lines appear naïve.”

    Could not stop laughing!!

    Fascinating to note that “telling it like it is” is so funny. Freddy do you know any companies that have tried to do this in order to appeal to customers?

    Freddy’s comment: Hmmm… none come to mind. The 1990 movie “Crazy People” starring Dudley Moore and Daryl Hannah was about insane-asylum inmates running an ad agency, and they succeed by telling the truth. (“You may think phone service stinks since deregulation, but don’t mess with us, because we’re all you’ve got. In fact, if we fold, you’ll have no damn phones. AT&T – we’re tired of taking your crap!”) Unfortunately, the film devolves into a bad romantic comedy, but the advertising bits are hilarious.

  4. Despite being a no-longer-so young professor, I appreciated your final example, but you missed one critical piece of advice.

    If a person disputes the validity of your mathematical derivation of the social behavior of avians, you should recommend to them an empirical test of the theory: they should go and flock themselves!

  5. Sorry guys, you are talking about a stereotype of academics which is so easy to target with select examples of convoluted thinking and poor writing. Those examples would not stop me from achieving the highest level of education within my means. I received a Ph.D. from a R1 school in May 2009 at age 52. I learned later in life how to write scientific papers and now my research is about advertising, consumer behavior and the promotion of prosocial causes. Sure some of the language is unique to the academy, however the audience is trained to make sense of it. I love to learn and now love to teach. I attempt use words in the lecture that is common to the discipline. I learned to teach from thoughtful and sensible professors. I suggest you go back to school and give it a try if you have the aptitude…maybe you can help make science more accessible to others.

    Freddy’s Comment: Good points. Note that I’m teaching now at the collegiate level — and helping make marketing more accessible to others — all without a PhD. (I also read academic journals, so this example is not an isolated case.) True, without a PhD, there’s no tenure track for me, but from what I’ve been reading, tenured positions are an endangered species in America. Most PhD’s are having trouble finding them.

  6. Apparently, I’m not the only one who finds academic writing laughable. The University of Chicago has created an academic sentence generator — including a Virtual Academic who will do your writing for you.

    Example: “Pootwattle’s informal sketch of the relationship between the authentication of pedagogical institutions and the de-eroticization of collecting as a cultural practice resituates Finklestein’s argument in a linguistic context.”

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