Archive for the ‘grad school rulz’ Category
I am one of those people who thinks that we should not encourage people to enter the academic profession unless they are extremely committed to scholarship and they show exceptional promise. This advice often triggers a reaction that is summarized as: “You are evil! You want to exclude poor people/minorities/women/others from academia!”
My response: encouraging an expansion of graduate education does not address most aspects of inequality and might make it worse in many cases. For example, there is a large scale gap between whites and blacks in terms of education, income, and wealth. Sending people to graduate school will not address this gap. There are many reasons: lots of people don’t finish the degree; huge opportunity costs; low paid adjunct work after graduation; accumulation of burdensome of debt; and the tenure track pays modestly compared to other professionals with similar qualifications. These trends suppress mobility.
In contrast, there lots of other professions that are much more likely to lead to good income and mobility. If we want to genuinely shrink the income gap between people of color and whites, for example, we are much wiser to encourage engineering and health science careers. You’ll get the degree in a few years and almost immediately jump higher in the income distribution. Way, way, way easier than going for that anthropology PhD and hoping for a tenure track job 12 years later.
If we want to address inequality within academia (ie., increasing representation on the faculty), we should reserve our efforts for getting people through the PhD pipeline and into jobs. We shouldn’t cram more graduate students into the pipeline. We should actually ask the logical question: What can we do to ensure that students acquire the right skills in academia? How can we make sure that they develop the right networks, that lead to publication in the “right” journals, and thus lead to the “right” jobs?
Sadly, very little effort goes into this side of things. It’s easier to count minorities and women and yell, “not fair! we need more!” It’s much harder to confront tenured faculty (like myself), and say: “Why haven’t you co-authored with women (or minorities) so that they may have a shot at a good tenure track job?” Let’s put the brakes on enrolling more students into doctoral programs and take up the less glamorous, but more important task, of making sure that the ones in the system will actually have the best careers possible.
Recently, sociologist Tressie McMillam Cottom wrote a column titled: “Does Blanket ‘Don’t Go to Graduate School!’ Advice Ignore Race and Reality?” It’s a nice article and worth reading. She makes the case that it is a mistake to tell people “Don’t Go to Graduate School” as a one-size-fits-all piece of advice. It’s the advice contained in chapter 1 of the Grad Skool Rulz ($3 - cheap!!). Specifically, she argues that graduate school represents an important avenue of mobility, especially for people of color who face disadvantages in the labor market.
A few responses from someone who advises a lot of students, in person and through my writings. Firsts, I don’t believe in advice that fits everyone. In the introduction of the book, I write: “I trust that you will be resourceful enough to adjust the advice for your own situation.” Human action is defined by circumstance, which is always variable and complex.
However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t offer advice aimed at typical students making typical choices. When it comes to graduate education, “don’t go to graduate school” is a sound starting point for discussion because graduate school is a bad choice for most people who have recently completed their B.A. Why?
- First, most students think the Ph.D. is needed for getting good jobs. Yes, there are some jobs that require a Ph.D. But most jobs do not require a Ph.D. degree, aside from university teaching or scientific research in the physical sciences or engineering.
- Second, most students do not understand that doctoral education is built around producing scholars. When people say, “I want to get a Ph.D.” I answer: “Do you want to be a college teacher?” The answer is usually no.
- Third, graduate education entails more risk than almost any other kind of professional education. As I’ve written before, the average Ph.D. doesn’t get the degree,while most students in other professional programs get the degree.
- Fourth, job prospects are very, very limited in many academic disciplines. Sociology’s market isn’t that bad, but it’s horrible in the humanities and the sciences where there is no external market.
- Fifth, academia entails great costs, even if you get the degree. You have limited geographical mobility. Partners may leave you. You make less money than other professionals with similar training.
In other words, academia is a neat place to work, but it is a very risky career and many people simply aren’t suited for it.
Cottom justifiably raises the issue of job market signalling. Perhaps the advice I just gave applies less to students of color because they’ve been stigmatized. They need to overcompensate through educational credentials in order to experience mobility.
Two responses: First, doctoral training is only one option. If one wants to signal intelligence on the labor market through credentials, you would probably be better served by other forms of education than the typical PhD program. For example, most engineering programs have master’s level work that leads to jobs. Other professions, such as teaching and business, also have short post-graduate courses of study that more directly lead to well compensated career tracks.
Second, there are serious opportunity costs. If one wants a job outside academia, it might better to work in a non-academic job to build experience. You earn a normal salary and get to know your field. While you spend 8 years on that Ph.D., you lose a lot of money and experience.
Let me conclude with an attempt to clarify my point. I am not trying to drive away people who are genuinely interested in the academic career. What I am doing is trying to sort between people who want to be scholars and those who seek training or credentials for employment outside higher education. The Ph.D. program is a very inefficient and risky way to pursue these goals.
How should you pick a graduate school? Well, start by purchasing my book – The Grad Skool Rulz, the best grad school advice book you can get. But if $3 is too much, or you’re just lazy, here’s the way you pick graduate school. If you want a decent academic career, follow these steps in order:
- Rank – Don’t fuss over minor differences (#6 vs. #12), but a lot of your early academic career depends on your PhD institution. There are roughly 2.5 zones: the top five (“elite”); the top twenty; and some discipline give credit for the top 4o or so. If you don’t want an academic career, skip this step. In most private industry, PhD program rank doesn’t matter much.
- Toxicity – A lot of PhD programs burn out students. This is extremely important to know. I have successfully recruited to Indiana from higher ranked schools with a speech that starts: “What good is a Chicago PhD if you never get it?”*
- Intellectual fit – If you get into a decent ranked school and students actually graduate with decent jobs, then you can ask about fit.
- Financial support – You aren’t in this business to make money, but be sure you will leave without debt.
Remember, follow these in order!
* I pick on Chicago because it is my beloved alma mater. I love you guys, but you are known as the “PhD graveyard” in some parts – and for good reason!
On June 3, 2011, I said that I was ending the grad skool rulz. Totally wrong. People keep asking me about things I hadn’t thought of before, so I kept on writing! This week’s question: What should I get from the campus visit after I have been accepted to a PhD program?
Usually, the campus visit is a brief one or two day trip where you show up to campus and with current graduate students and faculty. The visits vary a great deal in quality. For example, when I visited Chicago, I had to pay my own way and it was very hard to make appointments to meet people. During one appointment, I asked about graduation rates and this senior professor simply said that such statistics weren’t important. Now you understand the genesis of the Rulz. In contrast, Indiana has one of the most highly organized graduate programs around. Students who visit meet with professors, grad students, and they go to seminars. And of course, we have a great record of placement and publication with students that we freely talk about.
So what should you expect or demand from your visit?
- Ask for money. A lot of graduate programs will provide funds for air fare and the like.
- Accommodations – Don’t pay for hotels, most programs will have a current student host you.
- It is normal for faculty to meet with potential students. If no one is around to meet you, it is a bad sign.
- Meet with the graduate chair. At the very least, you can get some information on the mechanics of the program. Also, ask for placement and graduation rates.
- Meet with current graduate students. Often there is a lunch attended only by students. The idea is that students can candidly talk about their experiences.
- Attend a class or seminar.
- Meet with senior faculty, the folks who mentor most graduate students. Ask them about current research and current students.
Now, how should you evaluate your visit? A few rules of thumb:
- You can safely ignore about 90% of what people say. The faculty all say that their program is the best, even if students fail to get jobs. It’s rare that graduate students openly admit how much they hate life and how their friends in older cohorts are being weeded out and failing to get jobs.
- You should closely pay attention to what people actually do. Did the faculty take the time to meet with graduate students, many of whom will not matriculate? If so, it shows commitment. Can your graduate student host point to a master’s paper or dissertation chapter that was promptly read? Or a paper that the faculty helped him/her publish?
- Pay very close attention to the total number of people that the program places in an average year. My rule of thumb is that a program is effective if # of tenure track jobs = 50% of incoming cohort size. The reason is that 50% of people won’t graduate for a variety of reasons. The issue is what happens to the 50% who manage to finish.
- It is a bad sign if the faculty will only talk about the one guy who made it to an Ivy league position. It is a good sign if they can point to multiple students who made it to R1′s, Liberal arts, and good regional universities. Don’t look at a biased sample.
Consider this an open thread on grad school visits. And of course – buy the GRAD SKOOL RULZ!!!
Ok, that’s a bald faced lie. Unless you’re my dissertation student, I can’t give you your PhD. Even then, you’ll have to do it the old fashioned way – do some research. But you know what you can get for $3 that will get you your PhD? The Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know About Academia from Admissions to Tenure. And the title is no joke. In 59 short chapters, I cover everything from “Should I go to graduate school?” to assembling your tenure dossier.
Why did I write this book? I think graduate education is a mess. People expect you to just learn through osmosis. Imagine if we ran medical schools the same way. Meh! So I wrote this book to help people know how the system works. For real – from a dude who succeeded (and failed, at time) in graduate school and the tenure track.
- A well explained and written overview of academia that is helpful for anyone in or considering a profession in academia. A great sociological analysis of the process. Well worth one’s time. (JL Howell).
- This book is an excellent representation of the mainstream in professional sociology. It’s especially valuable for my advisees, as our department is a historically critical/activist one. I wish I’d had it when I was in graduate school. (JL Shiao).
Check it out.
Once or twice a semester, I am contacted by an instructor who wishes to buy the Grad Skool Rulz for an entire class. People assign it to senior or graduate students who need blun, but good, advice on graduate school. One way to do it is work through the book’s distributor, Smashwords.com. But if that is an issue, there is another way. Simply send me a check for as many copies as you want, then I’ll send you a PDF that you can distribute to your students.
This post is about publication strategy. In general, the advice one gets is to shoot for the top but what happens if that doesn’t pan out? What should you do then? Well, as usual, a lot depends on your discipline, department, and specialty. A few strategies:
- In all except the top programs, you can compensate for journal prestige with quantity.
- In general, you get more credit for publishing in quality specialty journals than in regional journals.
- Sometimes, it is better to move “laterally” from one discipline to another. That is a strategy I have used. Rather than let an article “fall” to a journal within sociology that doesn’t get a lot of credit, I’d rather try a higher reputation journal in a related field.
- If you are in a discipline that values both books and articles, it may help to switch formats.
- There are sometimes “hip” journals. They aren’t the most cited, but they get respect. Recently in sociology, we’ve seen two hip journals pop up in areas that I follow – Mobilization and Poetics. Not the “top” journals in terms of impact scores, but sociologists really like them.
Also, don’t forget to work on your numbers. Even the most prestigious academics have their papers routinely rejected. Therefore, it is important for most people to have two or three papers under review, if you need one accepted. That also entails a schedule. For you to produce the volume, you have to be good at getting projects done in a timely fashion. Dithering = death. Wait too long, and you won’t have time for your plan b.
How many years should a PhD program take? Let’s assume that you are well prepared and that you finish exams and courses in a brisk pace. First, you have to realize that some disciplines (like engineering) have short clocks. You have no choice. You will graduate in about four or five years.
Now, for the rest of academia, you choose how long to stay in. Previously, I talked about how you can nudge your committee into letting you finish. Roughly speaking, once you publish, you are done. But when should you do this? To figure this out, consider the following:
- There are many strong arguments for *not* staying an extra year. Every year you are in graduate school, you loose a lot of money. Your potential salary – graduate student stipend >> 0. Also, there’s an argument for “growing up” and being a professional with a real job and office.
- There are a few arguments for staying in. If you have no publications, spending a year to get a paper accepted can have a huge impact. There are some specialties that simply require a long time. If you happen to be in a horrible job market, it may help to wait a little.
My argument is that there is a presumption for a shorter period of time. Most people should aim for “short” of 4-6 years unless you have a really, really good excuse.
I was recently part of an online discussion about the issue of graduate students and networking. The topic is important and deserves a general discussion. The basic question is: “should graduate students network?” The answer is clearly yes. Most of us get through our professional lives with help from our friends and colleagues. I certainly have. That’s why most of us need to build a network of people who know us and can help us out. (And of course, you should buy the best grad school advice book – The Grad Skool Rulz).
Roughly speaking, you should buddy up to the following folks:
- your adviser
- your dissertation committee members
- grad school buddies
- people who hang out at the same conferences and panels as you
- scholars in your specialty
- other people in academia who seem to have their act together
- book and/or journal editors
- non-academics who are interesting
Now, by “buddy up” I don’t mean “slimy.” Rather, just “fly casual.” At conferences, ask people about their work. Ask profs at your program questions about their work, or even just daily life. Email questions to scholars about their research. If people reciprocate, send copies of your research. Heck, a lot of folks may appreciate it if you just sent them your work. Be cool and folks will be cool back at you.
A second issue is how much you should network. As usual, it’s relative to other things you could do. If you haven’t submitted a paper for publication, don’t be a social butterfly. Get back to work! But if you are doing well – your dissertation is coming along and articles are coming out – then by all means, hang out and meet people.
In giving this advice, I want to remind the reader about the relative importance of networking. Most of the time, networking isn’t that important. Over the long run of your career, your publication record will say much more about you than who your friends are. When faculty look at job applications, they go straight to the publication section and the prestige of the school. Even in the short term, you are better served by submitting a dissertation chapter than by schmoozing at a conference. Think of networking as providing occasional benefits that help you out.
Finally, a few words for faculty. Aside from telling graduate students about the importance of networking, you can also help students. Take the time to tell colleagues about students. Write papers with them. Set them up at conferences. Even a little bit of help might make a difference.
Next summer, I will revise the best PhD advice book you can get: Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know about Academia from Admissions to Tenure. One topic that will be revised is the section on liberal arts colleges. I’ll probably add something more on grants for faculty.
But I am still puzzled about one topic – advice for European academics. Consistently, I’ve been told that the Rulz aren’t very relevant to European academia. So I asked for advice. I got some good feedback on the differences between the US and Europe, but the comments didn’t provide concrete strategies of the type that make up the Rulz. If you are a successful European academic, I’d love to hear about your experiences.
Nicholas Poggioli has a question about which orgtheory program he should attend:
I’m especially interested in hearing which programs might be best suited to my own research interest, how organizations “digest” novel information. I would like to focus my doctoral studies on how managers of organizations decide whether and how to respond to climate change, a category of information that is constantly shifting in meaning and public opinion. Lessons learned from this could be more widely applied, I think, to how organizations respond–or don’t–to new kinds of information. Any help on this question would be greatly appreciated.
I’ve been very lucky. People enjoy the Grad Skool Rulz and they say it helps them. The readers have been very generous in taking a few moments to write some nice words about the book on Smashwords, the e-book website. These reviews signal to potential readers that the Rulz are worth their time. If the Rulz have helped you in your academic career, please click on the link above, go to the website, and write a review and recommend the book to others. Thanks.
In a recent tweet, Brayden wondered if he would have gone to graduate school had he read my advice book, Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know about Academia from Admissions to Tenure ($2 – cheap!). That got me thinking. Brayden is a cool dude and an amazingly successful scholar. Is my book, whose first chapter is called “Don’t Go to Graduate School,” too harsh if it would have discouraged someone like Brayden?
I don’t think I’m unduly harsh. I’m being scary in the book so that people will understand how tough academia can be. People won’t get the picture unless you yell a little bit. Consider the following. Roughly speaking, only 50% of doctoral students complete the PhD within ten years. Many take 7, 8 and 9 years to complete. The job market is atrocious. Only about half of PhD’s will ever get tenure track positions, some only after years of low paying post-docs. Of course, a significant number will not be promoted with tenure even if they do get a tenure track job. I would have told the younger Brayden is that these are the odds and that he should go forward if he is willing to take the risk and put in a lot of hard work.
Idealistic students will only confront these questions if you are blunt. Really blunt. That’s not pessimism. It’s honesty. It just means that graduate school is real life. You can’t pull an all nighter and get a nice piece of paper at the end. Graduate education takes effort, planning, and a lot of luck. And even then, it doesn’t always work. Grownups take this sort of calculus into account when choosing a career.
Finally, let me gently chide my friend Brayden for not reading the whole book. Near the end, I actually view the Rulz as a positive, affirming text:
I also wrote the Grad Skool Rulz out of a sense of optimism. For all its imperfections, and there are many, the academic system is a truly amazing human invention. Evolving over a period of nearly a thousand years, universities embody the knowledge that humanity has created. I am very lucky to be part of this exciting enterprise. The Grad Skool Rulz are designed to help people get past the bureaucracy of higher education so they can actually enjoy a career of research and teaching.
A reader asked me if I had received any feedback from students in European doctoral programs about the Grad Skul Rulz book. I have not, which is odd considering that many excellent sociology and management programs are in Europe. From out stat counter tool, we know that people in Europe and Asia regularly read the blog.
So, dear Europenb reader, what do you think the Grad Skool Rulz should say about doctoral education outside the US/Canadian context? Remember, the Rulz tend to be blunt and pragmatic.
A few days ago, Katherine wrote a very thoughtful post on spouses and the academic job market. (BTW, buy the Grad Skool book!). In the comments, a commenter, “Silly Wabbit,” wrote:
In another post Fabio recommended avoiding publishing in journals other than the top journals for PhD students; I’m not sure this is good advice. If a grad student can get papers into a regional or specialty journal I can’t imagine this hurting their career prospects especially over the possible alternative of no publications.
Am I off base here?
Let’s clarify the record. If you read the Grad Skool Rulz #25, I recommended that students count their job market “points.” I wrote the following checklist:
- Have I finished my dissertation proposal?
- Have I completed the data collection for my dissertation?
- Have I completed at least one polished chapter of my dissertation?
- Do I have more than one chapter of my dissertation completed?
- If I get a job, can I complete the dissertation by the summer before I have to start?
- Do I have a published article in a reputable refereed journal?
- Do I have multiple articles?
- Are any of those articles in the top journals?
- Do I have a book contract? (this often counts for two points)
- Do I have the support of my committee? (counts for multiple points)
- Do I have teaching experience? (counts for more if you want a liberal arts position)
It is obvious from the list that publishing in a top journal is only one attribute for a successful job candidate.
However, the importance of your publication varies greatly, depending on what job you want. If you want a job in a top R1 school, then the journal matters a lot. The modal assistant professor in a top 20 schools has authored or co-authored an article in AJS, ASR, Social Forces, or Social Problems. If not, they almost *always* have an authored or co-authored article in a well regarded specialty journal such as SPQ, ASQ, or Sociology of Education. Don’t take my word for it. Just look at the assistant professors and job candidates in the top 20 or 30 programs. The pattern is obvious.
Of course, there are exceptions. For example, book writers, such as ethnographers or social theory types, will sometimes publish in journals that the rest of the profession has never heard of. Or they get a job an a contract, or in a few cases, a complete book. Another exception is when someone is in an unusual specialty, like critical race theory, where it is very hard to consistently place articles in AJS or ASR. In that case, hiring committees are likely to recognize less prestigious or off-beat journals.
If your goal is a strong R1 program, then the strategy is obvious. Go for AJS/ASR/SF/SP and the well regarded specialty journals. Submit multiple times until you get a hit and go on the job market. There are other ways to succeed, but they entail more risk.
If you are targeting other kinds of institutions, then you have a lot more choices. Once you get past the top 20 or so, then people will seriously consider other journals such as the regional journals, or lesser known specialty journals. Liberal arts colleges prefer respectable articles but also strong teaching records. I’ve seen some students get excellent jobs with a single edited volume chapter on the CV, mainly because the person had a compelling dissertation and a solid teaching record.
Bottom line: The higher up in department prestige you go, the more you need to be associated with high prestige journals. Not a perfect correlation, but it’s there. Non-elite schools are more willing to look at people who publish in regionals or less well known specialty journals.
The Grad Skool Rulz has 55 chapters on academic life ranging from admissions to tenure. Four chapters deal in detail with the mechanics of the job market, such as CVs and job talks. If you already have a copy and enjoyed it, please write a review or pass the link to others.
If you read this blog, you’ll know that I obsess over professionalization. Academia is a tough, competitive business, but I also want it to be efficient and a positive experience for students (buy my book – it’s cheap). But there is one aspect of the academic job market that I remain uneducated about – the liberal arts colleges. I didn’t attend one, few of my friends did, and IU soc doesn’t place many folks in the most competitive LA colleges. Neither does my alma mater, the Chicago soc dept.
What advice would you give to a graduate student who wants a career in a environment devoted to excellence in undergraduate teaching? Are high evaluations enough? Do people need to signal their dedication to teaching in other ways?
Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment: A New Approach to the Firm is $99 at Amazon, and my library has not ordered a copy. I don’t own a Kindle since it won’t accept books, like the Grad Skool Rulz, from independent distributors. How might a man on a sociologist’s salary get a copy of this fine volume?
When it comes to doctoral students, there are two issues for faculty: 1. Should you agree to be an adviser? and 2. How should you train people?
Agreeing to be an adviser: Overall, my opinion is that every student who can demonstrate that they can finish a dissertation should have an adviser. The student needs to show an ability to independently generate competent work. If the student can’t do that, the department needs some clear signals early on – a failed qualifying exam, strong criticism of the master’s thesis, and so forth.
If a student is in good standing, then you should accept a student as long as you aren’t overburdened. Even though I am still early in my career, I feel no problem accepting any student who asks for help. My belief is that as long as I am qualified and not overextended, I have an obligation to help a student complete their degree.
Even though I have an open policy, that doesn’t mean that just anyone can sign up. I expect students to treat their doctoral dissertation seriously. So I usually make most students do some task, like a literature review, or prepare some of their own data for analysis before I officially sign up. My experience is that if you can’t do that simple task in a timely fashion, it’s unlikely that you can finish the degree.
Technique: I train graduate students in the way that we would train anyone else: repetition. I encourage frequent meetings that are focused on doing specific tasks, like prepping data, making a table, or writing up field notes. I also encourage the completion of concrete tasks like preparing a paper for journal submission.
Philosophically, I believe that a lot of doctoral training is ritualistic. The real test of academia is blind peer review. The faster you get to it, the better. The implication is that I place little weight on proposals, defenses, and so forth. If a student can push a paper through the arduous publication process, the dissertation and its rituals will take care of themselves. This doesn’t mean that I’ll accept a junky dissertation. What it does mean is that I encourage publication first because it is the core skill of the academic profession.
Finally, I make sure to have a constant, non-stop, conversation with students about their career goals. If they are interested in a teaching intensive career, then I don’t worry too much about journal placement. If they want to compete for research or elite liberal arts positions, they’ll need to focus early and hard on publication.
That’s my formula: focus on publication quality research from the get go; constant interaction; and pegging outputs to career goals.
Experienced advisers are encouraged to relate their training strategies in the comments.
Got a recent email from Ben. He bought the Grad Skool Rulz and is seriously thinking about graduate school. He is curious about what it’s like to be a working academic. Smart guy. Ask now.
Here’s how I’d describe it. There are three stages to being a tenure track professor professor: trainee (grad student), probate (tenure track), and zombie (tenured prof). It’s important to recognize that this does not describe the majority of academics. These days, the average college instructor is an adjunct (part time) instructor). Some people like this arrangement, especially clinical faculty, such as lawyers, who are hired to teach the occasional course in a professional school. For most, however, the adjunct career track is low paid work that requires “freeway flying” between far flung campuses.
But let’s stick to the tenure track because that’s what Ben is shooting for:
- Trainee: Graduate school is uneven. The first two years are courses, then you have an extended period of self-directed study and research. You also have to learn to be an adult. Learn to do your work without a boss or deadline. Don’t get published and you’ll get a career failure. Don’t do your dissertation and you have nothing to show for your work.
- Probate: Assistant profs are paid and have a high stress level. It usually takes a long time to execute a project and get it published. You may have five or six years, but it goes by quickly as you work on these big projects. The difference between trainee and probate is quality. The dissertation is a student exercise, so a competent work will get approved. In contrast, the competition is tough for journals and publishers. Top publishers routinely reject 90%+ of submissions. The other big difference is teaching. Research faulty teach 4 courses a year, though they can buy some out. Liberal arts faculty do more.
- Zombie: You have enough experience with publishing and you’ve managed to balance teaching and research demands. The killer here is committee work. If you are in a research department, you also have graduate student training.
My days are usually divided into teaching days and research days. Personally, I try to cram all classroom time, office hours, and grading into a few long days. It’s about minimizing transaction costs. So a few days a week, I roll into campus late in the morning and teach these long seminars and meet with students. Since I pack a lot into a few days, this may go into the evening, especially if I have afternoon/night classes.
Research is a bit different. Since I am a multi-method researcher, doing research can mean very different things. Currently, I am involved in some surveys. So I spend time writing grants. At other times, I do ethnography. So it’s about making travel arrangements or deciphering field notes. Then, at other times, I may be programming. But unless I am traveling, research usually means reading current research,,working with data, and writing papers/book manuscripts. That entails sitting in front of computers for a long time.
Teaching and research are interrupted by committee meetings. This is utterly boring. Sometimes the meetings are boring and crucial (like hiring or promotion), or boring and not crucial (listening to an administrator tell us about the latest mission statement). Regardless, they are a necessary evil of the academic profession. I am lucky to be in a program where meetings are kept to a minimum.
At the zombie level, you also do a lot of evaluation. Senior professors are asked to review papers for publication, book manuscripts and write letters of recommendation, including tenure letters.
Finally, Ben asked about research topics. This is easy. Just pick up the journals, books, and recent dissertations in your area. Read them and see if they inspire you. If they leave you cold, then academia probably isn’t for you.
April 15 is tough in academia. The professors file their taxes, the undergrads must make a final choice for graduate school. On Friday, I started an open thread on the topic of choosing a graduate school. Here, I’d like to offer some more concrete views.
The idea is called “backwards induction.” This is an idea from game theory. If you want to win, you then ask what you have to do to win. If you want to achieve X, then work backwards and figure out what leads to X.
So, the “final stage” of the grad school choice is the type of job you want. Here, you have to be honest. What do you want out of life?
- Private industry/consulting or policy
- Junior college teaching
- Liberal arts/teaching intensive
If you want a private sector or policy job, it *usually* doesn’t matter where you go as long as you go to a legitimate program. There are exceptions, of course. But non-academic employers are a lot less interested in status.
If you want a junior college job, you may not even need much graduate education. It’s changing, surely, but many j.c. teachers have BA or MA. Many also have professional degrees or work experience.
If you want an academic job, then rank is important because employers are super-sensitive to prestige. What it comes down is that universities sell/rent prestige. Intro physics is the same no matter where you go, but people pay $$$ for the prestige of taking the course from a leading scientist.
Prestige can be had in two ways. The first is research excellence. Publish a famous paper and you can probably get a decent job. But most fresh PhD don’t have great papers. If they are lucky, they may have a paper or two in good journals, many which will be forgotten. So the main signal is PhD program prestige. To get into the right pile of applications, you need to be in a highly ranked program to start with.
The other countervailing factor is department culture. Departments that undermine students cancel out the benefits of prestige. The big indicator of a functional culture is placement record. That’s why the way you should judge a program is “prestige + placement.” One can compensate for the other. But it’s not a good idea to go to a place that that’s bad on both counts.
Finally, there are teaching intensive institutions. Here, prestige is also important. While they aren’t so focused on publishing in the right journal, these schools still need prestige. The private liberal arts schools charge a lot of money and it’s harder to do that if you are staffed with people from PhD programs no one has heard of.
Bottom line: Prestige is the great driver in academia, but you also need competence in graduate training. That’s the default in the business. Outside academia, prestige is much less importance.
It’s that time of the year when people have to choose a PhD program. Here’s my original post on how to choose a graduate program. Of course, you should buy a copy of the Grad Skool Rulz, which tells you what you need to know about graduate school. Bottom line for grad skool selection: rank + placement record. Consider this an open thread on graduate school choices.
A few months ago, a graduate student asked why I was charging for the Grad Skool Rulz e-book. First, much of the rulz are still free and can be accessed from this website. Furthermore, if someone needs the book and finds the $2 price burdensome, I will give them a free copy. Second, I enjoy getting a reward for my work. Third, the $2 e-book is much better than the blog posts. Color cover image, hyper linked table of contents, and you can read it on just about any device (iPads, Kindles, smartphones, PDF for the desktop, etc.) There’s also lots of stuff for junior faculty. $2 for advice derived from a 19 year career in the academy is a good deal.
This is a post about how senior faculty should judge people coming up for promotion. Now that I am about two years past the assistant rank, I’ve begun thinking about the standards applied to people coming up for promotion. How should academics judge each other?
Let me articulate the Jeremy clause. In judging graduate students, he notes that while there is a lot of disagreement, the process does seem to work. The same goes with faculty. I bet we’ll disagree on some issues, but we end up making decent choices anyway.
I think a lot of successful tenure cases in research oriented programs go something like this:
- Have they published anything?
- Have they successfully published their dissertation research?
- Have they published anything beyond the dissertation?
For most departments, the farther along the scale, the better off you are. Remember, most departments aren’t super picky elite programs. Some reasonable publications will help you out in most cases. Picky programs will likely demand publications in high prestige journals.
In less elite programs, volume is enough to make people happy. In more competitive programs, people will likely ask about impact. That’s tricky. It can mean citations, public discussion of work, or professional awards. It can also rely the judgment of the voters. People are free to say, “I don’t care where it was published, this is garbage.”
My view is that I respect the profession’s judgment first (but not exclusively). Someone who has produced a string of publications in the right journals has earned my vote. If nothing else, they indicate that other experts think what they say is important, even if I have my doubts.I would have to have serious reservations about the work for me to overturn the profession, but that’s very rare.
Second, I’m willing to let my judgment of quality act as a compensating factor. If someone writes something that I think is amazing, I’m willing to go to bat for it, even it it isn’t published in high status outlets. Ultimately, we’re here for the truth, not the journal status hierarchy.
A lot of people told me that tenure votes are a “forward looking decision.” That sounds right to me. If someone can show that they will be working on good stuff in the future, I am open.
Teaching is extremely important, but it deserves another post. Especially, since teaching in a liberal arts school is treated differently than teaching in a research program. Finally, all I’ll say about service and collegiality is that I have very low standards. If you harass people or you are disruptive, you won’t have my vote. But as long as you are above that admittedly low standard, you’re ok, even if I think you are a bit of a jerk.
A few readers have expressed frustration with the Smashwords website. Well, it turns out that you have multiple options for buying the book that are really easy. If you have a Nook, you can search for it directly (see above). You can get it directly from the Barnes and Noble web site. It’s on the iPad, simply search the iBook store. If you have a Kindle, you have to go Smashwords, buy the Kindle version and download it. Then click and drag.
The reason I stay with Smashwords is that they are extremely generous with royalties and the let authors retain power over the marketing of the book. Outstanding resource for indie authors.
A question that is often asked goes something like this. “I am working in an academic career. However, my record isn’t so great. What can I do to improve my position?” For example, last week, a student asked the following question:
The first half of my college career was atrocious and my GPA suffered tremendously, which led to being put on academic dismissal. After three years I came back to school and I have been doing well, even making the Dean’s List last semester. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be able to raise my GPA up to 3.0 by the time I graduate, even if I continue to have 4.0 semesters. Is there any hope for me to get into a Grad program?
The analogous question for faculty and graduate students is “how do I move up even though I am at a low status place?”
Overcompensate. If you had an atrocious year as an undergraduate and you have a bad GPA, then work double hard to maximize your GRE. Get into an MA program and write a really innovative MA paper – and get it published. If you are in a low-status PhD program, then get published in a well known journal. The same advice goes for faculty.
Of course, this isn’t easy. That is why so few people pursue this strategy. But it does increase your chance of success. If you look at most (but not all) top 20 programs, you will see some faculty with PhDs from non-top 20 programs. If you look at graduate students at top programs, many come from not so fancy undergraduate institutions. What these people have in common is that, at some level, they moved on from the fact that there was something “imperfect” about their academic record and focused on being excellent.
Let me finish with an observation about academia. It’s a system that combines inertia and prestige chasing. That’s why being at the bottom of the pecking order can be frustrating. At the same time, the farther you get into your career, oddly, the less status matters. The rewards go to those who publish.
The truth is that very few people are consistently publishing quality material and few are consistently good teachers. While I have personally known a few good publishers who had tenure problems, most people with good records get promoted. Graduate students with publications do better on the job market than those who have none. Consistent publishers have an easier time moving to desirable jobs. Easy? Not at all. But excellence is the solution most likely to solve your career problems.
Readers know that I decided to self-publish The Grad Skool Rulz ($2 – cheap!). It’s an advice manual for people in PhD programs. It also contains advice for assistant professors as well. I want to share what I have learned about self-publishing.
First, you need a decent plan if you want to succeed at self-publishing. Any decent editor will tell you that your book depends on getting the message out to the right people. So, when I decided to make the jump and self-publish, I only did so after realizing that the blog provided a great advertising for the book. The Grad Skool Rulz had a consistent following and three of them have been reprinted on the website “Inside Higher Ed.” I had an audience and a product that people liked. As long as I gently reminded people about where to find the book, I knew I could get people to consider getting the book.
Second, if you are used to executing your own self-managed projects, self-publishing isn’t so bad. To publish the Rulz, I had to do the following: produce a text, edit it, format it, create a cover and open an account. This, it turns out, is a fair amount of work, but still way, way easier than getting tenure, writing my dissertation, or dealing with the crises that pop up in my life. In other words, if you can actually write and you have self-direction, it isn’t that bad. There are even books and websites that tell you how to do it. And of course, I had lots of help. A friend designed the cover, orgtheory fans helped me edit the text, and so forth.
Third, self-publishing can be profitable. Once I realized that the Rulz had a notable audience, then all I needed to be profitable was for a small handful of people to shell out $2 a pop. Orgtheory links really help there. It adds up.
Fourth, self-publishing can be more successful than regular publishing. At the current rate, which is much lower than the weeks after initial release, my self-published e-book will likely sell more copies in one year than my physical book has in almost five years. Some of it is due to content. An academic monograph has a much more limited audience than an advice manual, but it shows that with the right product and strategy I can get a better outcome from self-publishing than traditional publishing.
Five, this is a format for retaining control over the content. The Grad Skool Rulz are opinionated and not suitable for peer review, but I knew from reader response that the Rulz were valuable, Thus, self-publishing is a good choice.
I don’t recommend it for everyone and it isn’t suitable for all texts, but I can say from personal experience that self-publishing works.
Over the last year, I have been asked this question at least three times:
What advice do you have for graduate students at low status programs? I’m publishing, I’m working with faculty who are publishing, but I feel like I’m at a disadvantage. What should I do?
A few responses:
1. You have to come to grips with the fact that academia is status oriented. People from more prestigious schools will get breaks that you won’t get. Once you have accepted that fact, move on with your life and stop thinking about it.
2. Overcompensate. Fortunately, there are a lot of good journals. In soc, we have 2 (or 4) lead journals, a number of specialty journals, and good journals in related fields that will be acceptable within sociology. Submit enough times and you will succeed.
3. Choose your mentors wisely. Lower ranked schools have heterogeneous faculty. Some professors are just as accomplished as those at elite schools, while others have not kept up. Choose advisers who remain active. Hang out with the winners.
4. Think long term. In a low information environment, people rely in status. In a high information environment, people rely less on status. As you progress in you career, you will find that people who are quality researchers and teachers are rare. And if you can bring in grant money, even better. Thus, there are chances to rise to the top if you are consistently good. Check the directories of leading programs and you’ll always see some graduates of non-elite programs.
5. Don’t do anything to reinforce negative impressions. Don’t settle for book chapters or publications in obscure journals until you have at least one or two publications in more highly regarded places.
Overall, there is an uphill battle to be fought, but there is a plausible long-term strategy that you can execute and it has a reasonable chance of success. Now get back to work – and buy the grad skool rulz book!
I was recently asked about how graduate students should prioritize your work. Should dissertation writing come before or after article writing? It depends on a number of factors:
- Where are you in your program? Early in your graduate career, you’ll probably need to focus more on courses and tests. Later, all revolves on publications.
- Are you in a “short clock” or “long clock” program? If you are in a short clock, your only activity post-course work activity be your job market paper. Any spare time is a luxury. In long clock fields, you should switch to article writing.
- Are you in area that’s all about team work? If so, you might be expected to start at the bottom and work up. In “lone wolf” fields, you are free to do your own work.
- If you are post-job offer and pre-job, you should do nothing except write your dissertation. Starting a job without the degree can be the first step towards disaster.
Ultimately, to make the successful jump to the faculty, you will need to demonstrate independent work. Thus, you should prioritize projecs that will one or another show that you aren’t just a research assistant.
In a field like sociology and early in your graduate school career, you might agree to co-author an article with faculty as a training exercise. Get that done ASAP. If that isn’t a possibility, then you should immediately consider authoring your own work. This should take priority over dissertation writing.
Many advisors – the wise ones in my view – de-emphasize dissertations unless the genre requires a book. Even then, a book will have an article worthy chunk that you can publish before hand. Thus, the default position is: your articles > articles where you are clearly second banana > dissertation > other work.
PS. Buy the Grad Skool Rulz. It’s only $2 and it has a lot of great grad school advice. Forward the link to all your grad skool buddies.
Viewer mail! With her permission, Valerie from New Hampshire wrote the following:
I’m a reader of orgtheory and I enjoy the grad school rulz stuff from your blog (I love professional development type things). I have a question to pose for a next edition– how do you find and hire good research assistants? I’m particularly interested in non-PhD student RAs, but I assume there are similar principles. Basically, if you have a resume, writing sample, and time to interview, how would identify people who are bright, hard working, can finish tasks in a timely manner, have a good nose for research, etc? I’m finding myself at a loss, since you can’t exactly get much out of asking, “So… are you hard working?”
Good question. Here is what I wrote back:
For undergrads, I use the following rules: They need to have taken a course from me and get a B or higher, or they need a reference from another prof and a 3.0 GPA or higher.
The thresholds vary. Then, I usually assess the student. I give them some simple task to do. If they do it well, they move on to more ambitious things. Otherwise, I phase them out by giving them very easy tasks.
I find people by talking about RA’ships in my courses. I have lectures, so many potential recruits. The undergrad coordinator also knows I need people. That brings 2-4 people a semester.
Another tactic: I look for students who have done “nitty gritty” work of some type, like working in a biology lab. They know profs are looking for hard working people who need boring work done. If they are willing to do it again, they’re probably good workers.
Write your own tips in the comments and don’t forget to check out the Grad Skool Rulz book (it’s cheap).
Smashwords has accepted Grad Skool Rulz into its premium catalog, which means that it is now distirbuted to vendors like Barnes and Noble and iBooks. So check out the Barnes and Noble website if you want to read the Rulz on your nook.
A great thing about self-publishing in the Internet age is that you can update as much as you want. On Smashwords, all you do is prep the new document and hit the “upload” button. Book shoppers will never notice the difference.
Over Winter break, I’ll clean up the document some more and update. I may take a little time to add more material. What do you think the Grad Skool Rulz book needs? If you’ve read the originals or you bought the book ($2 – cheap!), what was missing? Remember, the Rulz book has lots of materials for junior profs, so professor life is fair game.