How important is publication at the master's level? I have a few colleagues that are worried about it. Is that something I should pursue?
I don't always turn my emails into blog posts. But when I do. I ask permission first.
A bit of background: My friend is entering a top U.S. program with interest in New Testament studies. I assume that his question stems from conversations he's had with his peers, meaning other MA-level students.
I have a few thoughts on this and they're not all pushing in the same direction. I'll try to argue in the affirmative first and then in the negative. This order should tell you where I'll probably lean in the end.
Toward a "yes, try to publish at the master's level" answer:
1) It's never a bad idea to publish a well-argued essay in a respected journal. I recently supervised a master's level thesis that was eventually condensed into an essay for a peer-reviewed journal. In fact, both examiners (myself included) insisted that this student publish his ideas. It was a freakishly good master's thesis.
2) It's a good idea to get some early exposure to the way the world of publishing works. If you hope to make a career of publishing, you might as well learn how.
3) Sometimes a few journal rejections will be the best education you get on your chosen topic. Good rejections come with detailed critiques of your essay and (if heeded) these criticisms can become a checklist to strengthen your thesis. You might also learn that your idea is not worth pursuing. No shame in that.
4) It might (might) help with your application to PhD programs. Publishing books, Huffpo articles, essays in volumes, etc. probably will not help (and might hurt) your chances. Publishing an article or two in Biblica or other journals of a similar ilk probably won't hurt. Book reviews in good journals are a good idea - but be fair always and kind wherever you can.
Toward a "no, don't try to publish at the master's level" answer:
A) It is very rare that something you wrote when you were at the master's level will be something that you're proud of your whole life. If I could punch my MA thesis-writing self in the face... I probably wouldn't - because I'm a pacifist - but I might flash a very aggressive peace sign and then write him a strongly worded facsimile.
B) Too many publications, too early in your career can hurt your job chances later on. This is going to seem anathema to many of my older colleagues, but it is the reality of the present job market. I have a friend (typical of many, many of my colleagues) who has landed nine book contracts, five essays in top-tier journals, served on SBL steering committees, won grants, post-docs, etc. and he couldn't land a lectureship in six years on the job market. This might sound like a cautionary tale, but it's not. It's just the real world. At one point this guy decided to get some CV help from a scholar of senior standing. Her advice to him was that his CV was much too strong to be considered by many hiring committees. She told him that if his CV came across her desk, she'd throw it away. Better to be a young scholar with one or two journal articles and tons of potential (who will rank low in the pecking order of the department) than an established scholar, with a CV ready for tenure review. This is not how all hiring committees think, but many do. My friend was lucky enough to land a job outside the field of his study, but not every person is so lucky. On a personal note, I have often seen junior colleagues land really plum jobs with nothing but a contract to publish their PhD dissertation (i.e. without a single original idea in print). Knowing the right people, having the right profile, having the right topic at the right time... these factors are much more important than any publications you might have.
C) Pedagogically speaking, it might be just as good to submit essays to regional conferences and acquire professional feedback from these venues. Presenting a portion of your eventual thesis at an SBL meeting is good practice and can provide you with good lines on your CV. Moreover, you can incorporate this feedback and (hopefully) change your mind on a few things here and there. Once your words are in print, that nasty little ego-devil will whisper in your ear, "You better stand by your ideas." Once that demon has possessed you, you'll be that much less receptive to new ideas at the PhD level. Perhaps not. Some of us hold our intellectual property more loosely than others. But my experience is that this is not something that folks learn until they are quite securely stationed within the guild.
D) Vanity, vanity! All is vanity!
In sum, there are probably dozens of things that will serve you better than publishing when you're at the MA level. Learn German and Modern Hebrew. Watch the 1975 film "The Man Who Would Be King". See if somebody will let you kiss them on the lips once or twice. Read every word attributed to Homer. These are just a few ideas.