Every fall I look forward to the opening of the college sports season: football, soccer, field hockey, volleyball, and so forth. In particular, I enjoy the discussions in the sports press about the choices athletic directors and coaches have made in setting up their schedule of games. Unlike the professional sports leagues, where scheduling is taken care of by the league office and considerations of equity and robust competition are explicitly taken into account, college schedules are under no such strictures.
In scheduling games, college athletic directors face two stark choices. They can make their teams look good by padding their records with early games against lesser opponents, thus ensuring at least a winning record for the early part of the season. Or, they can put their teams through a trial-by-fire by scheduling tough opponents. Why wouldn’t athletic directors choose the easier path, giving teams an early-season break and setting them up with a winning record?
As sports commentators are quick to point out, the danger of taking the easy road early on is that playing against lesser competition lulls teams into a false sense of confidence. Running up the score against weaker teams covers up mistakes and gaps in preparation, such as athletes’ lack of endurance. Players who look like All-Americans against East Overshoe Tech become sloppy, take plays off, and are overwhelmed when they come up against teams in their own league. No matter how much the coaches tell them that the early-season games against weaker opponents are no gauge of their true strength, players may start believing their own press clippings.
The other danger of scheduling easy games early in the season comes back to haunt teams at the end of the season, in those sports where teams are invited to championship competition based on the strength of their schedule. Committees deciding on which teams to include in the playoffs, such as in women’s soccer or men’s basketball, can easily spot the flaws in a winning record based on playing weak competition. Florida State’s overwhelming early season win against the Texas State Bobcats will be heavily discounted!
Athletic directors with their eyes on the future are advised to schedule at least a few tough opponents early in the hope that difficult competition will pay off and prepare the team for its league schedule against stronger opponents. Such planning may also ease a team’s path into the postseason.
I’m reminded of this scheduling dilemma every time graduate students and junior faculty come to me, seeking advice on where to send their papers. As I see it, academics just beginning their careers face the same conundrum: do they aim for the top journals in the field or do they try for the easier route, in journals with weaker review boards and softer selection criteria? Why not try to pad your resume by aiming for the Journal of Lost Causes, which you know accepts almost half the papers it receives?
My answer to the authors seeking advice is the same that savvy athletic directors offer to desperate coaches: if you began by playing down to the weakest level of competition you can find, you set in motion a process that becomes hard to reverse, after a few iterations. Getting into a top journal is hard work, requiring sophisticated literature reviews, excellent research designs, and state-of-the-art analysis, regardless of the kind of data collected. If the paper is a theoretical/conceptual contribution, rigorous analytical thinking will be required, as well as lots of revisions before the paper is submitted.
I tell students that even if a paper is ultimately rejected at a top journal, the experience gained in the process is priceless. Most top academic journals use what they call a “developmental” review process, a much kinder and gentler process than authors faced three or four decades ago. (I hasten to add that I discourage “frivolous” submissions which just clog up the review process – – a senior colleague can quickly tell a junior scholar whether a paper is worth submitting to a top journal.) As a colleague reminded me, you must be prepared to invest anywhere from 2 to 6 months, on average, with every submission. That’s another reason to “start early.”
Recruitment and promotion committees are seldom fooled by resumes padded with acceptances at weaker journals. So, I would turn to the weaker journals only after I had tried the top journals.
Although the odds of acceptance are low, gaining experience with the practices necessary to compete at the highest levels pays off in the long run.