Archive for the ‘grad school rulz’ Category
As you well know, I think the PhD program is a terrible choice for most students. Quite simply, the PhD program is risky (only 50% completion rate), costly (5+ years), and many disciplines have poor job prospects (e.g., most of the humanities, many biological sciences and many social sciences). Furthermore, a lot of students think it is a credential that is needed for non-academic jobs, which is not generally true.
But still, maybe you weren’t phased by the “don’t go to grad school speech.” Maybe you really have a passion for teaching, or interpreting Foucault. Or maybe you simply don’t care about the negatives associated with academic careers. I welcome you to academia. I pity you as well.
So, then, what sort of PhD should you get? Here’s an argument for the sociology Ph.D.:
- Low barrier to entry – you just need a solid academic record, not extended training in math, foreign language, or other rare skills.
- You learn solid research skills like survey design, regression models, and interview technique that have non-academic labor market value.
- You can study a wide range of topics and do so almost immediately. No need to engage in endless post-docs.
- Policy relevance.
- Decent academic job prospects compared to most other fields. The sociology market is tight, but soc PhDs frequently get jobs in lots of other programs like education, business, policy, social work, and occasionally in adjacent areas like American studies, ethnic studies, political science, and anthropology.
- Broadly defined topic – if you have a real passion for a topic that is genuinely social in some way, you can probably find a way to write a dissertation on it.
The one big downside is that sociology programs adhere to the humanities model of long time to PhD. There is no need for this. If you focus on a dissertation topic early on, choose your dissertation chair wisely, and insist on getting published at least once, there is no need for your degree to take longer than 4 or 5 years.
One of the most important things you can teach a graduate student is how to publish. While students can teach themselves the material, or learn through osmosis, most people need concrete instruction on the professional side of academia. And they need to publish early and (in many cases) often.
And it matters – a lot. A new article published in BioScience looks at the careers of academics and it shows that early publishers do the best later in the career. The article is called “Predicting Publication Success for Biologists,” and it is authored by William F Laurance, Diane Carolina Useche, Susan Gai Laurance and Corey J. A. Bradshaw.
Summarizing their work in the website “The Conversation“:
We attempted to predict the publishing winners and losers, focusing on biologists and environmental scientists on four continents, using five easily measured variables. Our findings seem surprisingly unequivocal but are already provoking strong reactions of agreement and disdain.
Here’s what we concluded.
It doesn’t matter whether you got your PhD at glittering Harvard University or a humble regional institution like the University of Ballarat. The supposed prestige of the academic institution has almost no bearing on your long-term success, once other key variables are accounted for.
Secondly, if you’re a woman, or if English isn’t your first language, you’re going to face some minor disadvantages in publishing. The differences are not huge, on average, and there’s enormous variability among different individuals, but men who are native English speakers do tend to have half a leg up in the publishing game.
Finally, by far the best predictor of long-term publication success is your early publication record – in other words, the number of papers you’ve published by the time you receive your PhD. It really is first in, best dressed: those students who start publishing sooner usually have more papers by the time they finish their PhD than do those who start publishing later.
The take-home message: publish early, publish often.
This reinforces what we already know. In sociology, the lesson holds as well, but qualitative people need worry less about volume.
The implication for graduate training is obvious. If you aren’t actively cultivating scholars who are trying to publish, you’re screwing over your PhD students.
Once you get a faculty job, you are confronted with many requests to be on committees. These requests should be handled very carefully. Turn too many down, and the work of the university will be left undone. And you’ll miss out on the nuts and bolts of academic policy. Accept too many, and you can wreck your productivity and possibly undermine your career.
So how do you deal with these requests? A lot of it depends on your career stage:
- Doctoral students: You should only do a single, important committee. For example, some departments allow students to sit on job search committees. At Chicago, I worked for the AJS and that was my contribution to department governance. It’s perfectly acceptable to completely avoid administrative work during this phase of your career.
- Junior faculty: You should avoid most committees, except those tied to your department. Then, if your chair gives you a choice, select, or ask, for the easiest committees possible, like the library committee. “Heavy” committees, such as admissions or job searches, should be left until you are well on your way to promotion.
- Senior faculty: Depends on what you want out of life. If you see yourself moving into administration, you’ll probably want to dabble in planning committees, tenure and promotions, and other high impact committees. If you see yourself focusing on teaching and research, you’ll probably want to limit yourself to committees that have an immediate impact, such as tenure and promotions.
A problem with many faculty is that they can’t say no, or they are too scared to say no. You have to shake this attitude for the following reasons. First, unless you are a complete shirker, no one will care if you turn down the occasional invitation. Second, your quality of life will be severely impacted by too many committees. Your schedule should only look like “committee Swiss cheese” if you are paid for the inconvenience (e.g., you are a chair of some sort). Third, is this what really drew you to academia? Seriously?
When judging committee invitations, I usually employ the following criteria:
- It is really important. For example, tenure and promotions is a core function. Study abroad committee probably not so important.
- I have a compelling personal interest. For example, I have a strong belief that more women and under-represented minorities need better support in the academic career. Thus, I will serve on committees that address this issue. Building committee? Important, but I’ll let someone with more expertise take that one.
- The committee is not bull—-. Honestly, a lot of committees exist to make people look good, or to do the hard work that should be done by administrators. Avoid these committees. For example, when it comes to women and under-represented minority issues, I will only do it if the committee actually has some power to do good, or punish evildoers. So, if we are handing out financial support, I help out. If you want another hand-wringing report, I’ll pass.
- Somebody will owe you a big time favor. ’nuff said here. Sometimes we do bull—- just to buddy up to others. That’s life in an organization.
- I’m paid/part of the job. Right now, I am director of undergrad studies, so I say “yes” to all undergrad issues committees. It’s my task, even though it makes me nauseous. And yes, curricular reform committee induces illness in me.
To sum up this post, you should only do committees if there is “value added.” Do it if it matters and realize that a lot of committees don’t matter. Don’t just say yes to everything. That’s crazy.
In giving advice to graduate students and untenured faculty, I start with the obvious. Show your work to people, get feedback, and submit to well respected journals in your field. Often, this is enough. Through peer review, we often (though not always) get feedback on what is good about our work. We improve and eventually, stuff gets published. But sometimes you learn something else. There is something about your work that just makes people uncomfortable. And it’s fundamental to your work. No amount of revising will change that.
Tanya Maria Golash-Boza, at the blog, Get a Life, Ph.D., has a good post about parents and academia. Be nice to them! A few clips:
- Tip #1: Introduce them to other parents
- Tip #2: Keep their schedules in mind when planning events or meetings
- Tip #3: Never Insinuate That Being a Parent Makes Professors Less Valuable or Productive
Good stuff. HT: Karen Nakamura.
Occasionally, people ask why they should pay for a book that already exists as a series of free blog posts. My response:
- The Grad Skool Rulz is an amazing bargain. $3 is a pittance for extensive, blunt, and detailed advice based on 20 years working in the academy.
- It is readable on just about any device – tablets, smart phones, nooks, etc.
- Table of contents hyper-linked – easy to find stuff.
- Snazzy & controversial color cover, specially commissioned.
- Last section on getting tenure.
If $3 is still beyond your budget, please email me.
I am now at the age where I actually have PhD students working with me. In other words, I need to apply the grad skool rulz to my own life. In the spirit of discussion, I outline my philosophy as a teacher of PhD students:
- Be firm but nice. No need to make people cry.
- My discipline has norms and standards for research that can be taught. I will teach this “normal science” to my students.
- I will be flexible. Though most students have to master the “meat and potatoes” of research, some can work on more idiosyncratic projects.
- I will be in my office a lot. Students can drop in or make appointments for the short term.
- I will provide concrete directions when possible.
- I will provide specific detailed advice on professional issues, like article writing, the job market, and teaching.
- I am hands on – I want people to contact me a lot.
- I will help students develop projects they can complete in a timely fashion. No need to produce that 100 page dissertation proposal, a shorter one will do.
- I will not tell you what to research, but I will give you lots of advice on how to execute it.
- I will give you ample opportunities to co-author.
- I will get paperwork done on time.
- I will accept any student, unless they have shown gross academic incompetence or they are working on a topic that I simply can’t help you with.
Consider this an open thread on graduate student mentoring.
I boil down a few arguments, my own and from the last round of comments, in favor of three essays as the default for academia:
1. In all sciences, most professional fields, and most social sciences, articles are standard. There are even humanities areas, like philosophy, where articles are standard. Even for book writers, articles are important. Most book writers do an article or two before jumping to the book.
2. The purpose of the dissertation is to show the ability to conduct research. Creativity is great – and should be rewarded with a degree – but the standard is normal science and competence.
3. The purpose of the graduate program is professional training – not an extended multi-year post-doc.
4. Standards actually protect students. It is too easy for faculty to hold students to unattainable standards, and drag them out for years. Moving goal posts is a real problem in graduate education. I’ve seen it happen too often. If there is a concrete standard, both students and faculty will know when “enough is enough.” There is a basis for appeal if professors are being unreasonable.
5. Three essays is a default, not a requirement. But still, in sociology, for example, the overwhelming majority should probably start with that unless they do ethnography. In other words, try a few articles. If your ideas *really* require more space, ok. But try the basics first.
Bottom line: Doctoral programs are about professional training and most academic professions focus on articles. That doesn’t mean that we should not allow more ambitious dissertations, but that should be reserved for a small minority of cases.
One of the problems of graduate education in many fields is that the requirements for the dissertation are vague. Another issue is that the dissertation is a book length treatment, even in fields where articles are standard. This leads students spend years writing overly long documents that have little value. For that reason, I encourage all my students to use the “three essays” format as the default. It’s simple, it works, and they’ll get done. If they have a good reason for deviating, then we can talk about it. But most folks should really stick to “three essays.”
There is now more systematic research showing that this advice is correct. A recent AER paper authored by Wendy Stock and John Siegfried shows that economists who use the “three essays” format do better in terms of academic job placement and subsequent publication. The abstract says it all:
Dissertations in economics have changed dramatically over the past forty years, from primarily treatise-length books to sets of essays on related topics. We document trends in essay-style dissertations across several metrics, using data on dissertation format, PhD program characteristics, demographics, job market outcomes, and early career research productivity for two large samples of US PhDs graduating in 1996-1997 or 2001-2002. Students at higher ranked PhD programs, citizens outside the United States, and microeconomics students have been at the forefront of this trend. Economics PhD graduates who take jobs as academics are more likely to have written essay-style dissertations, while those who take government jobs are more likely to have written a treatise. Finally, most of the evidence suggests that essay-style dissertations enhance economists’ early career research productivity.
My take home message? We should drop the pretense of the sprawling dissertation. All departments should require or strongly encourage the three essay format as the default. If the student wants something else, they need to make the argument.
Hat tip to our evil twin, Organizations and Markets.
In a past installment of grad skool rulz, I offered advice for choosing a dissertation adviser. The idea is simple. Nobody is perfect, but you want someone who has at least a few good traits and no horrible traits. As I was thinking about this post, I wondered – how do graduate students actually choose their advisers? Do people actually methodically try to find a match or do they just “fall” into it? Why do people get stuck with horrible (or good) advisers?
In my own case, I just fell into it and it worked out. I worked with to faculty based on similar research interests (education) and style (both normal science types). But what about people who choose poorly? Part of the issue is that there simply isn’t enough information. Unless you are in a large program, most faculty won’t have more than one or two students in their career. In other cases, students don’t have much choice. For example, if you want to study sociology of science at Indiana, there’s really only one choice. Yet, I still see some students choose advisers who have well developed reputations for being difficult, or advisers who have really slim track records in placing students. My guess is that students believe that they’ll be the exception to the rule.
Consider this post an open thread on how to effectively find an adviser in graduate school. What are you considering as you choose an adviser?
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.