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advice for students in low ranked doctoral programs

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As the author of an advice manual for graduate students, people ask me about strategies for students in low ranked doctoral programs. Specifically, how does one start an academic career in a department that doesn’t have a track record of placement? Here is what I advise:

  • First, accept what you cannot change. Sadly, there is a lot of evidence that there is a halo effect in academia. For example, there is a well known experiment where some psychologists resubmitted published papers to journals and randomly changed the names of authors to see if status mattered. Answer: yes. There is little one can do about this, so don’t waste precious energy worrying about it.
  • Second, learn about overcompensation and counter-signalling. In other words, people don’t expect much from individuals in low status positions. Actively show that they are wrong. For example, if you work in an area that is low status, actively try to get published in a high status journal. My own example: much of my work has focused on ethnic studies and its history. That is really low status – trust me, I wrote a book on it! What I did was worked extra hard on getting it into mainstream social science journals (see the next step).
  • Third, persistence. Often, the only difference between moderately successful and really successful people is persistence. You don’t know how many times I have wondered, “Why on earth didn’t that person resubmit that great paper?” If you take the reviewers’ advice seriously, you will improve and place well. When I ask people with unusual research, “how on earth did that get published?” The answer usually involves submitting it a million times.
  • Fourth, choose your allies carefully. If you are in a high ranked program, the damage suffered from a bad dissertation adviser can be mitigated. Even an incompetent Princeton adviser can place the occasional student. A bad adviser at Yahoo State can doom your career before you get started. Be completely cold blooded and unemotional in how you choose faculty. Choose advisers who publish and place students.
  • Fifth, show mainstream competence. Often, low ranked programs are the home of heterodox scholars. That is not intrinsically bad, but often that becomes an excuse for rejecting the mainstream or not seriously engaging with it. It also means that the faculty may not have the best connections. So if you do unusual work, do it in a way that shows a real understanding of the mainstream and shows multiple marks of excellence. That Ivy League grad can get away with doing a post-modern rational choice auto-ethnography of snowball fights, but you won’t. Show that you “get it.”

The next two apply to all students, but even more so to students in low status positions:

  • Apply widely. My experience is that a typical grad student in an elite program might need only 15-20 applications for a single fly-out during  “good year” – which, by the way, is still a 95% rejection rate! In contrast, students at places of more modest reputation might need conduct a multi-year search and increase the number of applications. So, large N – that’s your strategy.
  • Move sideways. Academia is a very rigid system and people will be quick to peg you into a slot. One way to avoid that is to apply for quality positions outside your area. It is often the case that your virtues will be appreciated by someone outside your group. If you have an arts and sciences PhD, you can often do much better in a professional school or an interdisciplinary area than within the older arts and science departments. Look at growth areas instead of older areas that are stable and crowded.

To sum up: accept what you can’t change; strive for signals of quality; avoid deadwood; apply widely; and consider career building lateral moves. Please use the comments to post your own advice.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

December 3, 2014 at 12:13 am

orgtheory and elizabeth berman in the LA Times

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The LA Times has an article expanding on Elizabeth’s post on airline inequality:

Over at the OrgTheory.net blog and Crooked Timber, sociologists Beth Berman and Kieran Healy spin a couple of neat fantasias about how today’s cabin configurations match up with income inequality in society at large. Their findings hit us where we live, having just completed a 12-hour flight from Asia in United Airlines steerage. (Preliminary finding: You can book an aisle seat and board with a neck pillow, noise-reduction headphones, and a fully-stocked Kindle, and it’s still a killer flight.)

Berman calculates that in the usual configuration for a United transatlantic flight on a Boeing 777, the richest (or highest-paying) passengers account for 21% of those on board and take up 40% of the place; the mid-level (Business Class) comprises 27% of the passenger list and takes up 20%, and the bottom 52% get 40% of the space. As in real life on the ground, the middle gets squeezed the most.

Check it out!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

December 2, 2014 at 7:35 pm

Posted in fabio, inequality, sociology

the sociological approach to politics

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When I started graduate school in the last century, my approach to political analysis was very close to an old school rational choice model. People had interests and ideological tastes. Then they asked government to defend their interests or enforce their tastes.  In the last 15 years that I’ve been working on institutions, movements, and related issues, my views have changed. With respect to politicians, I still adopt a somewhat standard rational choice model. Elected leaders have fairly intuitive utility functions, it’s just that the political environment is stochastic in nature and suffused with ambiguity.

However, my approach to voters and “retail” politics is completely different. For example, I no longer believe that people (even fairly educated people) have consistent ideological beliefs. Public opinion research and everyday observation shows that people hold contradictory views on policies, when they even have any knowledge at all. I also don’t believe that many people have terribly stable material interests that are expressed at the voting booth.

So what’s left? The big drivers of politics are group identity and individual self-image.  Basically, my current position is that a lot of mass politics is some version of group identity writ large. For example, a great deal of partisan identity in the US is driven by being pro or anti-black. Foreign policy makes little sense until you understand that a lot of it has to do with fighting outsiders (e.g., Islamists, communists).  In many nations, party coalitions are defined along class lines, linguistic lines, and ethnic lines. In fact, Lipset and Rokkan have an old book that succinctly argues that multi-party politics is really easy to understand once you take all these social categories into account.

While most sociologists appreciate group identity, they tend to under appreciate the role of self-identity, which is really appreciated by psychologists. For example, it is certainly true that the Democratic/Republican cleavage rests on racial attitudes. But that doesn’t explain why Democrats would be less into the military. Theoretically, you might imagine a party that combines pro-black and pro-military attitudes. Once you accept that unrelated identities  can be bundled, it is easy to see that attitudes toward defense probably reflect an individual’s desire to be seen as tough, which through historical accident can be bundled with racial attitudes.

Now, when I try to understand polls or parties or policies, I do consider interests, but I also use the lens of group identity and self-image. It clears up a lot of things.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

December 2, 2014 at 12:02 am

“chicago economics,” “chicago sociology,” and “chicago anything else”

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Near the end of James Heckman’s lecture on the scholarly legacy of Gary Becker, Heckman argued that Becker was a fine addition to the legacy of “Chicago economics.” He didn’t mean that Becker was a monetarist – the “Chicago school” of Friedman and his followers. Instead, he meant that Becker fit in well with the long tradition of great Chicago economic thinkers including not only free marketers (like Friedman) but also liberals (Paul Douglas), socialists (Oscar Lange), and weirdos (Thorstein Veblen). But what does that mean? Here is what it means:

  1. People know the whole field of economics, they aren’t just narrow specialists.
  2. Economics is not a parlor game. It is important.
  3. Empirical work is important and it is not devalued.

Thumbs up. But let me extend it. This Chicago attitude should extend to the whole of social sciences. People ask me, for example, why I was so damn harsh on the critical realists and the post-modernists. Why? Because what I do is important. It is empirical and it reflects what I’ve learned from absorbing the hard earned lessons of my predecessors. So when I see scholarship sink into a miasma of words, or the toy tinkering with cuteonomics, I can only conclude that the person is here to play games, not figure out how the world works. Excuse me while I get back to work.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

December 1, 2014 at 12:01 am

eden ahbez(nature boy)

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50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power  

Written by fabiorojas

November 30, 2014 at 6:27 am

non-punishment for sexual assault at virginia?

There is a serious crisis at the University of Virginia after Rolling Stone published an article that, unsurprisingly, argued that the administration failed to punish sexual offenders on campus. Soon, the University president, Teresa Sullivan, announced a suspension of fraternity activities until Jan. 9 but otherwise defended the school.

This is very disappointing. It has become increasingly common knowledge that universities are unable to handle rape allegations, they have almost no control over fraternities, and national fraternity organizations have set themselves up so that they are not liable for student violence. President Sullivan’s punishment is especially disappointing because the suspension only applies, essentially, when VA is out of session. Literally, the suspension applies now (Thanksgiving break), final exams, and the winter break. UVA is out of session until Jan. 12. Some “punishment.”

Here is the difficult discussion that universities have to have if this horrid situation is ever to end:

  • Rape is a felony. It’s something you go to prison for. Thus, colleges are not in a position to investigate or handle these claims. Student/faculty juries for felonies are a joke. All rape allegations should be immediately transferred to the police.
  • Develop new procedures for victims. Instead of going to the dean (who should be supportive in any case), all victims should go to the health clinic or local hospital *immediately* for medical attention and collection of physical evidence. This is especially important as research shows that violence is committed mainly by a small group of serial offenders who exploit the party scene. Even charges are never filed, physical evidence and documentation is needed to expel people suspected of violence.
  • Universities should divest themselves from fraternities because they are extremely dangerous and unaccountable. How bad? Essentially, insurance companies in America won’t ever cover claims related to fraternities any more. It’s that bad.

Sadly, we will always be faced with the challenge of sexual violence. However, universities have allowed a hot house environment for violence to grow on their campuses. Allowing large groups of unsupervised young men to throw alcohol drenched parties with no liability is a recipe for disaster. This has to end.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

November 26, 2014 at 12:01 am

a comment about agent based models in sociology in response to freese

About a week ago, Jeremy stopped by ye olde alma mater to give a talk on some new work. I was at SocInfo 2014, but my spies told me he made a quip about me. He mentioned that I thought that computer simulations were on the decline, even though his talk was about simulations. Of course, haters being haters,* the whole thing got blown out of proportion. Maybe, but it almost came to fisticuffs.**

Still, there remained a basic point – was I wrong? First, it helps to clarify. I never said that simulations were declining overall. In fact, simulations are a core technique in engineering, biology, physics, and computer science. Simulations also have a long history in *some* social science areas. Demographers, for example, have used them for population projections for decades. So, I fully admit (and have always admitted) that outside sociology, simulations are alive and well.

My point is specific to sociology. Simulations are honestly quite rare. Sure, a few folks do them. James Kitts, Kathleen Carley, and Peter Bearman are card carrying sociologists who have routinely used simulations. But how frequent is this? Not very, I’d hazard that less than 5% of papers in our main soc journals (top 4 + regionals). And yes, a few famous papers have been simulations (the 72 Cohen, March, and Olson comes to mind), but that generally doesn’t trigger a wave of simulations *IN SOCIOLOGY.* For example, how many authors in the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation  have been tenure track faculty in sociology programs? Some, but not that many. How many readers of this blog have ever read JASSS?

I’d love to be wrong. I would love for their to be a large and growing contingent of social simulation in sociology programs.But right now, it’s niche area. Why? My guess is that there is a lot of inertia and there is a selection effect. I hope that changes.

* Hater = Fabio looking for twitter action on a Sunday night.

** How old people fight.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

November 25, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, mere empirics

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