How to Be a Productive Scholar

Not every academic wants to be as productive as the late G Michael Pressley. A professor of education and psychology at Michigan State University, Pressley had published more than 350 articles and books by the time he died in 2006. But most scholars — emerging and seasoned alike — do look for ways to boost their productivity. What can we learn from the super prolific? How do they do it?

To find out, we interviewed 20 of the world’s most productive scholars in educational psychology over the course of five qualitative studies — two in 2021 (here other here) and also in 2018, 2013and 2000. our latest study Sought to unearth the roots of success by interviewing six academics whose work had won early-career awards from the American Educational Research Association or the American Psychological Association.

What follows are examples and suggestions for producing more and better scholarship, culled from our interviews. Academics work in different ways and at different paces, but perhaps some of these ideas can help you, whether you are early in your career or already established.

Productivity starts with a good mentor. All six scholars emphasized the importance that mentors played in their early success. Logan Fiorella, an associate professor at the University of Georgia, said that his mentor (Rich Mayer at the University of California at Santa Barbara) had “the biggest influence on my professional life.” Mentors were instrumental in helping these scholars to:

  • Discover fruitful research topics.
  • think like a theorist.
  • Pursue and answer meaningful research questions.
  • experience the benefit of collegial writing groups.
  • choose the more challenging and fulfilling professional path when two options beckoned.
  • access career opportunities (such as Mayer cowriting a book with Fiorella while the latter was still a graduate student).

In addition, the best mentors provide crucial insights about the research process, such as how to write and secure large grants and “how to carry out the lifecycle of a project,” as Sabina Neugebauer, an associate professor at Temple University, put it.

Three of the scholars also touted postdoctoral fellowships for sparking their early and sustained productivity. “My postdoc really set me up for success,” Neugebauer said. “Postdoctoral fellowships,” she said, “provide new scholars with a large data set that they can quickly mine and turn into numerous publications, rather than put off any publishing until they have collected their own data.”

Work hard but work smart. Erika Patall, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, said she was often consumed by work, sometimes starting at 4 am and routinely working 10 to 12 hours a day. Likewise, Ming-Te Wang, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said that for the first seven years of his career, he “worked like a dog,” logging about 60 hours weekly. Doug Lombardi, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, said he “works all the time [because] I love what I do. A lot of my writing is done while taking a shower or on walks … because I think about this stuff all the time.”

Others we interviewed pulled normal hours but emphasized efficiency in their work routines. For example, three of the scholars reserved their mornings for research activities because that was when they felt most alert. They pushed more mundane tasks, such as meetings, to the afternoons. “I try to work on the most important task, such as writing a manuscript, for the first two or three hours,” Fiorella said. “If I do that, it’s already a productive day.”

Rebecca Collie, an associate professor at the University of New South Wales, maintains a steady focus throughout the workday. “When I’m at work, I have to work, and I just get on with it,” she said. “There can be no procrastination, no wasted time, because as soon as my children get home from school or daycare, I need to be a mom.”

All of the scholars said they were guided by daily to-do lists:

  • Collie uses a to-do-list app that helps her organize and prioritize her multiple research projects and tasks as well as set due dates and reminders.
  • At the start of each week, Patall plans which projects she will tackle and sets accompanying timelines. Each day, she focuses on simple tasks first, such as correspondence, to clear the deck and build momentum for the harder tasks on her list.
  • Neugebauer sets daily planning goals and timelines. Once at work, her habits are regimented and efficient. For instance, if she completes a task early, she might allow herself a five-minute break to visit The New York Times homepage.

Another work-smart strategy involves avoiding certain activities. Wang illustrated this when he turned down opportunities — early in his career — to become a journal editor and to submit grant proposals. Editor positions, he said, “are difficult and time consuming; I didn’t want to become an editor until I was a full professor.” As for grants, Wang said, “solely focusing on writing grant proposals or chasing money is not a wise use of time for junior scholars. You can always find a home in a second-tier journal (for your research manuscripts), but grant writing can easily go nowhere because the acceptance rate might be just 10 percent.”

Collaborate a lot. Contrary to the myth of the lonely academic toiling away in isolation, these scholars have collaborated on 96 percent of their published works. They see collaboration as stimulating and productive:

  • “I really enjoy the rich intellectual collaborations where we are co-constructing knowledge together,” Neugebauer said. “So I reach out to other scholars.”
  • Lombardi sees research as a team effort: “When I talk about my work, I need to talk about ‘we.’ By ‘we,’ I mean my research team, the people I work with, my mentors and collaborators. ‘We’ really typifies a lot of the research that I do.”
  • Fiorella continues to collaborate with his doctoral adviser because, he said, the pair is of like mind and is productive, even though American universities often frown upon early-career scholars continuing to publish with their graduate-school advisers. Such is not the sentiment in Germany where Heinz Mandl published more than 200 works with three protégés at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, including many publications coming after the trio attained professorships. Fiorella said he and his mentor “work really well together. I have no plans to stop.”

Still, one of the scholars found that collaboration was not always in a budding scholar’s best interests. “Early on,” Wang said, “I focused on my own work rather than get lost exploring different collaborations with different people. I was highly cautious about what collaborations I accepted or pursued, only choosing those I found promising and doable. In general, I chose to avoid multiple collaborations during my pre-tenure years to raise productivity.”

Build a solid support network. In our interviews, all six scholars emphasized the importance of support, and not just from colleagues and collaborators. They also valued:

  • writing groups and nonacademic organizations. Neugebauer participates in two female writing groups that enhance the methodological rigor and idea clarity of her work. She said that writing groups “play an enormous role in my professional development and productivity.” Besides a writing group, Wang joined a person-of-color group and a Christian fellowship group that have helped him “cope with stress and anxiety.”
  • family support. The academics we interviewed said family support was imperative to scholar productivity. In every case, there was a supportive partner sharing child-care and household chores. In one case, there was even scholarly collaboration. Lombardi and his wife are both academics. They take daily walks together and share office space. She is his chief collaborator and confidant.
  • institutional support. Good support is more than receiving a good salary from your university. It also means helping to pave the way for research success. For example, the University of Georgia has supported Fiorella by providing a manageable course load, reducing his service obligations, and nominating him for awards. At the University of Pittsburgh, Wang’s dean established a new center and appointed Wang its director — a position that helps him seek grants, partner with other institutions, and fund research positions.

Practice writing and rewriting. To be successful, Fiorella realized he had to be “a stickler for writing” and work at “telling a coherent story” that is “clear and concise.” He works at his writing every day: “It is important to develop a writing habit, doing it at the same time and place day after day,” until it’s second nature. What helped Collie improve as a writer, she said, was “hours and hours of writing practice.” She admitted that writing her first literature review was like “getting blood from a stone.”

The scholars also value feedback — even the harsh kind — to improve their writing. “Receiving feedback is sometimes painful,” Wang said, “but you just need to get over it because no one is a perfect writer and feedback is what makes you better.” Neugebauer also depends on the critical feedback her writing groups provide: Their criticism “fortifies you for submitting your work to journals and for addressing the difficult comments you get during the review process.”

The scholars also offered occasional not writing as a strategy. Most step away from their writing for a time to gain perspective and to see their work with fresh eyes. “Write early. Then think about it,” Lombardi said. “Let it incubate, percolate, and then come back to it.”

Except with the initial draft. The scholars we interviewed try to maintain momentum through the first draft before stepping away. When he puts an incomplete manuscript aside for a few days, Wang said, “it’s really difficult for me to find the thread and pick back up.”

Frame failure. For all six scholars, failure was inevitable but necessary for success. Fiorella was not initially accepted to graduate school following college. Years later, when he completed graduate school, he landed only one job offer from 20 applications. Collie dropped out of college while an engineering major before returning later as an education major. And of course, all of these scholars have experienced failure with their research and publishing. Rejection, Wang said, is “something all scholars must live with and learn from, no matter how senior.”

Inviting and accepting critical feedback, Neugebauer said, is what helps scholars learn and “build the tough skin needed in the academy.”

If failure is unavoidable, then the goal is to learn how to frame it in a positive light so that you can learn from it, rise above it, and continue your quest. As one of our own graduate advisers used to say: “Learn to live with failure; just don’t live with it too long.”

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