grad skool rulz #11 – while you’re working on that dissertation…

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This edition of grad skool rulz focuses on the murky period after the dissertation defense but before the job market. It’s often called “dissertating.” In addition to the data you promised to collect and analyze, here’s some rules of thumb about what you should do during the dissertation period:

1. If you haven’t done so already, this is a really good time to try to get your first article published. Your adviser should have told you, but let me remind you as well: publications = jobs. The publication process deserves its own post, but you should know that it can take a while. Therefore, you should have at least one or two pieces under review while you are working on the dissertation. Ideally, one, or more, will hit while you are working and then you can go into the market with a record of research and a dissertation in progress. What should you publish? How about brushing off that MA thesis? Or asking a senior faculty member if they can help you write an article. Lots of opportunities if you look around.

2. Minimize teaching obligations: Let’s get this straight – you are not rewarded for teaching, except if you are at a liberal arts college. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t advocate bad teaching. Teaching should be adequate and competent, but you don’t have to be great at it. Wait till after tenure to pile up those teaching awards. Teach only if you need to make ends meet and be ruthlessly efficient in running your class. Time spent grading papers is merely a distraction from your main work. Exception: liberal arts schools place a huge emphasis on teaching, so if that’s your career goal, get the extra experience and do well. But even then, these schools now expect publications, so don’t ignore your research.

3. Work: Same as teaching. Only take a job if you will otherwise starve. Ideally, take a job that will lead to more academic opportunities. For example, working at NORC might put you in contact with survey people, which might lead to publications. In contrast, student counseling, while important, won’t get you closer to your career goal (unless you want to be a student services administrator!). Same as above – work only if you have to & try to do work that leads to academic opportunities.

4. Grants/fellowships: I am of two minds here. Obviously, getting money is great and a fellowship can you bring prestige. But it’s not as important as publishing. Thus, if you feel crunched for time, work more on dissertation and pubs. Remember, a grad school hit in a top journal is often the first step to good jobs, while no one was ever hired because of a fellowship.

5. Don’t move. Seriously. Faculty are overworked people. At the R1 schools, they usually teach 2-2, have grad students, grants, committees, etc. They also have children and families. Thus, if you move away from the campus, they can easily forget you exist. It’s not malignant, just human nature. Therefore, if at all possible, stay around campus. Also, if you move away from an academic environment, you might easily get off “the wagon” and spend too much work time on non-academic issues. Exception: field work. Even then, stay in touch (see #6 below). Send them field work updates.

6. Be in frequent contact with your committee. You don’t have to visit everyday, but keep close contact with your adviser. Send chapter drafts to the adviser and other committee members who have agreed to help out. You can also email questions to folks while you work. Your committee should know that little by little, you are accomplishing something, even if it is a crummy first draft. It also creates positive expectations for your work.

7. Keep track of all comments/suggestions provided by the committee. Be consistent so that later drafts of your work reflect the suggestions of the committee. If the suggestions conflict, just ask your adviser for his/her opinion about the best way to go. Also, if Prof X contradicts themself, you can gently remind them that you only tried your best to revise the work they way they suggested last time.

Next grad skool rulz … how to write that dissertation!


Written by fabiorojas

June 25, 2007 at 1:54 am

16 Responses

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  1. As someone who’s seen both good and bad instances of #s 5 & 6, let me contribute an Amen.

    It’s easy to get sick of having people ask “So, how’s the dissertation coming?” but it’s far worse not to have anyone asking it. Staying around campus keeps a committee responsive to the dissertator, but it works in the other direction as well. Regular contact also helps minimize potential #7 problems as well. If I don’t see or hear about a project for several months between drafts, it’s far easier for me to forget how I’ve responded previously.

    Great entry!



    June 25, 2007 at 4:04 am

  2. The move-away is an absolute killer. I can remember more examples than I can count of this effect: student is “ABD”, student interprets ABD as meaning “done with grad school” moves away, and forever procrastinates on a dissertation that is either (a) never finished or (b) finished in a completely sloppy and harried manner which (c) ends up diminishing the student’s job prospects. One thing that appears to be underestimated by the focal person is the effect of the “academic environment.” When looking at ourselves, we tend to engage in what social psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error” that is thinking that we work hard because we are “hard working people” rather than thinking that we work hard because we are surrounded by people who work hard. Remember part of being rational consists precisely of establishing linkages to environments that will induce the behavior that you desire, even when such a linkage is “forced” or undesirable in the short term. While the prospect of being “finally done with grad school” can be enticing, it is much better to remain tied to that environment until the bitter end, when you are really done with grad school. So listen to Fabio: don’t move!



    June 25, 2007 at 2:25 pm

  3. Let me second #5 and Omar about moving. I moved — my other half got a job — but I commuted back to Princeton for three days each week. If the job hadn’t been within driving distance (it was in New Haven) I’d have stayed in Princeton. And, as it turned out, I moved back to Princeton for the last six or seven months of writing up anyway, as Laurie went to Australia. Moving away is generally death to a finished dissertation, as is starting a job without being done.



    June 25, 2007 at 3:28 pm

  4. I too think it’s not very smart to take off before your dissertation is finished, but I wonder if there is some spuriousness in our observations. The people who tend to start jobs or leave town before they finish those dissertations are also the kind of people who will find it difficult to complete work on their own, get pubs out the door, etc. We all know people (my co-bloggers for example) who are perfectly capable of leaving town and finishing that book or getting those articles done without tons of socially productive people around them. I’d bet that if you put Omar in a remote cabin in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness for the summer with nothing but a pile of books and an internet connection, he’d finish 4-5 articles, two of which would be groundbreaking! You don’t need a committee breathing down your neck to do those things. If you did, you’d probably find it difficult to get tenure.



    June 25, 2007 at 6:12 pm

  5. Hey, Brayden, I see your point, but I would add that I am talking about the average graduate student. Most people really do need the structure to help them out. Also, remember that there are always people who break the rules – the Ivy league job with no pub record; the brilliant dissertation written while living on a chicken farm, etc. That’s why I tell people: here are the odds, judge for yourself if you are an exception or not. Usually, people come to the right conclusion if you give them the facts.


    Fabio Rojas

    June 25, 2007 at 6:57 pm

  6. I’ll throw in my general agreement with no. 5. It’s tough to finish away from campus. It’s also really not fun at all (the two are probably mutually reinforcing).



    June 25, 2007 at 7:16 pm

  7. Fabio’s grad skool rulz can absolutely live up to that book I got “surviving your dissertation”. While I would agree with rules # 1-3, #4 is tricky because of the paradigm change in recent years, but it has become more important in recent years. On # 5 I would disagree (in the context of Germany). On the contrary: Take the biggest city with the largest universities you can find, they have the most libraries, and you find many more books than you would otherwise, and you get out of the machinery of the university. Maybe geographical distances do not make a difference because Germany is not large enough. # 6 and #7: The commitee does not really care if you are around or not. There are cases where he or she rarely showed up, but the result was fantastic.



    June 25, 2007 at 8:31 pm

  8. But I don’t think the people in this blog invalidate the generalization that environment matters. I think that the people that appear to be exceptional (that is that appear to have some inherent disposition which seems to cut across contexts) are the people that are good at transforming their environments so that they look like grad school (yes that famous D x E interaction). My guess is that if you look at a lot of successful scholars, you will see that they are surrounded by an environment with lots of people around them that working hard. If that environment is not locally available, then the person that appears to be productive no matter what will tend to re-create it using the wonders of modern telecommunications technology (thus the key is “internet connection” and not Alaska).

    However, during the writing of your dissertation, it is unlikely that you’ll have the inclination, time, energy or capacity to really surround yourself with a high quality social network from long distance. Grad school provides that as a ready-made environment and in a certain sense it is irreplaceable, especially when you are in that crucial “framing” stage of a dissertation project.



    June 25, 2007 at 9:57 pm

  9. […] Grad Skool Rulz over at always provides great reading, and the points raised in his latest post on ‘dissertating’ strike me for the most part as absolutely correct. Based on my first […]


  10. after the dissertation defense but before the job market

    Just a note that “dissertation defense” is an ambiguous phrase, meaning very different things in different institutional settings. At some places, the defense is a defense of the proposal; at some places it happens about a third of the way through dissertation writing; and at some places it refers only to the final oral/ public defense once the dissertation is complete.

    Fabio’s referring to models 1 or 2. Don’t take him to be telling you to start thinking about publications after your final public defense! That’s too late.


    Jacob T. Levy

    June 26, 2007 at 1:38 am

  11. Good point, Jacob. It even varies within a single program. My advice assumes there is a serious stretch of time between the proposal and the job market/diss completion.


    Fabio Rojas

    June 26, 2007 at 1:43 am

  12. Omar, I think we we agree that it depends on valuable input from a cool heterogeneous social environment (citywise, librarywise, resources-wise, peoplewise etc), and if the university does not deliver that, it might be better to move sooner rather than later. Looking forward to grad skool rulz #11.



    June 26, 2007 at 11:15 pm

  13. I mean #12



    June 26, 2007 at 11:19 pm

  14. I like the advice, which is very good, IMO. But isn’t calling it “grad school RULZ” a little (unintentionally) demeaning….connotes visions of muppet babies playing in clubhouses more than 30 year old scholars pursuing PhD’s and professional development.



    July 19, 2007 at 12:09 am

  15. […] Grad skool rulz # 11 – while your’e working on that dissertation […]


  16. I had to make the mistake of moving away from my college town – actually to my home country. The U. cut down the yrs of TA-ship, I was an international student with those SEVIS people breathing down my neck, no social benefits if I get sick or end up on the street with no money. I had no other way than to return to my home country in EU, meaning not much done in terms of diss since then. And my English writing skills are getting worse the longer I live in non-English-speaking environment.



    October 8, 2008 at 1:57 pm

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