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grad skool rulz #32: don’t screw up graduate skool

I strongly believe that graduate education in America is exploitative and structurally flawed. The system requires cheap teaching labor and lab assistants, but provides no incentives for quality training or professorial accountability. But still, that doesn’t mean that students should abrogate responsibility for their careers. Here are some simple (though not easy) things that can help you to make sure you aren’t screwing up:

  1. Show up. Even if you feel horrible, show up. No matter what. Period. Unless someone died in your family, show up.
  2. Do your job. Grade the papers. Do the lab work. Unless the work is extreme, take it in stride.
  3. Be completely realistic about how you will be evaluated from day #1 – acquire a teaching record and a record of publication. Don’t have the fantasy that you will magically get the job of your dreams sans publications. Time spent on other issues is “out of pocket” – do it because you care, not because it will help you.
  4. Hang out with winners. These people are actually pretty easy to identify – they do well in teaching and publication and they have a track record of placement. Also, ask around to see if people are nice. Where there is smoke, there’s fire.
  5. Be constructive. It is easy to criticize people, but it really doesn’t accomplish much. Instead, if you actually offer to help and present a solution, then you’ll make a difference and people will appreciate it.
  6. Say yes (unless it is a crazy person). In other words, join teams and accept projects, and say yes to grad school buddies. Once you get a few projects going, then you can say no.
  7. No excuses: the only thing that matters is task completion. It may be long or short, but everyday should involve a core task.
  8. Submit, submit, submit. Got rejected? No problem – just resubmit tomorrow. If you thought the reviewers were right, take a week and then resubmit. The key to success isn’t submission – it’s resubmission.

Some problems in academia are truly hard, but, on the other hand, there are a lot of simple things you can do from day #1 to increase the chance that you get through the program promptly and you get the career outcome that you like.

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

Written by fabiorojas

February 3, 2014 at 12:01 am

28 Responses

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  1. Fabio, I read grad skool rulz, and I’ve genuinely appreciated your advice on how to be successful in grad school. These sorts of posts keep me coming back to orgtheory. Solid, solid advice. Thanks.

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    Doc Student

    February 3, 2014 at 2:03 am

  2. Thanks! Glad I can help.

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    Fabio Rojas

    February 3, 2014 at 2:05 am

  3. #s 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8 I endorse without reservation. Well, OK actually I don’t want you to show up and infect me with a disease. #4 seems creepy. #6 can be problematic depending on who is asking and what your position is.

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    olderwoman

    February 3, 2014 at 2:26 am

  4. OW. #4 sounds creepy but it is not. There are many people in academia who, frankly, drain grad students’ emotional energy and time. They end up 4 years after course work without a dissertation or pubs or a job, asking “Why?” Well, duh, you signed with Crazy Adviser, or Brain Dead Advisers, or what have you. And you may have turned down Respected Senior. I’ve seen it happen too often.

    It is also social networks 101. Make connections with people who are good at what they and learn from them.

    #6: Of course, we can always come up with a situation where you shouldn’t accept. But let’s be honest – the modal grad student shouldn’t go off by themselves and figure out the system by themselves. That’s a recipe for disaster. Instead, you should do what is normal in every single other profession. Join a group, learn from others, learn from the geezers.

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    Fabio Rojas

    February 3, 2014 at 2:40 am

  5. If you are sick with something contagious through normal contact or respiration, don’t show up. Please.

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    Elizabeth

    February 3, 2014 at 4:11 am

  6. I think in both cases, I was imagining more peer relations and you are thinking more about the more senior people, either faculty or more advanced grads who have been around long enough to know which end is up. So it sounds less creepy that way.

    But what I was thinking is that grads (and everybody else) should be willing to help others and be supportive of people who are struggling, and not just be looking out for themselves or only make time for the “winners.” I do agree that spending too much time hanging out with people who would rather complain than do something can be a downward pull.

    And some people’s ideas are either bad or bad for you. But I guess being willing to talk to people and explore an idea rather than dismissing out of hand is good.

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    olderwoman

    February 3, 2014 at 4:12 am

  7. OW: It may not be polite to say it, but some people lack the maturity to effictively work with others or to learn how the academic system works. We should cautiously warn people: “Yes, be nice and open, but if someone simply can’t handle being an academic, or they’ve stopped being effective, don’t work with them.” In other words, don’t suffer fools gladly. Seek winners.

    In my experience, the overwhelming majority of successful doctoral students have hooked up with other students or profs who have a track record of success. I rarely see successful grad students make it when they are working with Brain Dead Prof or 12 year grad student or About to Be Denied Tenure Cuz They Publish Nothing. We should always respect others in our community, but that doesn’t mean we should devote resources to people who have repeatedly shown an inability to get stuff done.

    And now I am old enough to practice what I preach – I now have successful placements, who worked on successful articles and that can be used to assure others that working with me is not a spin of the roulette wheel.

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    Fabio Rojas

    February 3, 2014 at 4:19 am

  8. It works very differently in India , But still at macro level , I think your advice helped me to pick the right thread. Precisely the reason , I keep coming back to these posts again-n-again. Thanks and keep it up.

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    Santosh Sali

    February 3, 2014 at 6:33 am

  9. Submit, submit, submit. Got rejected? No problem – just resubmit tomorrow. If you thought the reviewers were right, take a week and then resubmit.

    I disagree with this as general advice, at least for the sociology job market. I don’t think the sociology job market really rewards sheer productivity that much, and instead people can get very far having one or two exemplary papers. These require thought and revision.

    I do think it makes enormous sense once a paper has exhausted its most-hoped-for outlets, or if a paper has had a short gestation period, or under a few other conditions that seem more the exception than the rule for sociology.

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    jeremy

    February 3, 2014 at 12:03 pm

  10. […] grad skool rulz #32: don’t screw up graduate skool. […]

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  11. Reblogged this on Undergraduate Research Blog and commented:
    Grad school tips from our friend Fabio over at orgtheory.net

    Like

    Nicholas

    February 3, 2014 at 2:02 pm

  12. Jeremy: I agree and don’t agree. In our part of the job market (the elite schools) you are right. Lots of small publications are less valuable than a few really good ones that require more thought and revision. But our part of the job market is a tiny fraction of jobs. In the rest of the market, sheer volume of productivity matters a lot. For students reading this (and their advisors), this means you have to do some strategizing. Are you likely to have a shot at a top-20 department? If yes, you need to produce high-quality high-impact work. If not, focus on getting publications.

    One should also strategize specific articles. Some are inherently small projects that are never going to have high impact and should be published as quickly as possible. Others are projects you have abandoned, and you should either give up on them or seek to place them in a friendly is low-status home. Others are potentially big high impact projects that deserve more time and attention and response to reviewers’ suggestions for revision.

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    olderwoman

    February 3, 2014 at 2:55 pm

  13. Generally sympathize with this advice (including the controversial elitist point, sorry OW) but #6 could be paraphrased as “spread yourself too thin and develop an unfocused identity.” I say this as the kind of person who did say yes a lot in grad school and ended up with a bunch of edited volume chapters and unpublished papers from doing so.

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    gabrielrossman

    February 3, 2014 at 4:43 pm

  14. @OW: +++++1 – we have to be strategic. Some jobs requires top hits exclusively but most will be happy with volume and letting the “market” decide what is important in the long run.

    @Jeremy: Notice I didn’t say “publish, publish, publish.” I said SUBMIT. In other words, if indeed you are shooting for R1s, better to focus on top hits. But still, most people don’t know how to write for these journals and need the review process. Also, most articles (except maybe yours!) will bounce around before settling, so people shouldn’t waste time.

    @gabriel: I say combine #6 with #4 – the successful people will clue you in to how things work and winners tend to have complete projects. One person I work with (who shall remain nameless) noted that the difference between my work team and others is we actually complete projects and send to real journals – which can’t be said for some people.

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    fabiorojas

    February 3, 2014 at 5:09 pm

  15. I think Fabio’s advice to resubmit is relevant for most sociology PhD. Realistically, unless you are in an upper echelon (though not necessarily elite) PhD program even the faculty are not publishing in top journals(e.g. ASR, AJS, SF and SP), or do so rarely (like maybe once or twice in a career).
    I’d also add #9: find faculty to publish with, and make sure you talk about publishing early in the research process. Its quite possible to do #6 (join research projects) and then end up without your name on relevant publications. Sociology lacks the institutional norms of some of the “natural” sciences in which it’s a mentor’s job to publish with their grad students. We don’t have clearly established norms about what constitutes the right quantity and type of labor to get included on a publication, so its really important to discuss these issues. I would also amend #4 to say “hang out with the winners……who publish with grad students and are good mentors”. I can’t speak from experience, but I imagine a fair share of “winners” (e.g. people who get top publications) might not necessarily be the most nurturing mentors.
    As always, the advice and discussion here is informative and much appreciated.

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    Silly Wabbit

    February 3, 2014 at 7:40 pm

  16. I think being constructive is underrated. Too many grad students train to become professional critics w/o learning how to create for themselves. You can see this in the writing process. A lot of early career stage authors begin their papers with layers of criticisms of past scholarship but then offer little theoretical or empirical substance in return. I understand the instinct to criticize, but Fabio is right – it doesn’t get you that far, and you certainly can’t build an intellectual contribution based solely on critique.

    Liked by 1 person

    brayden king

    February 3, 2014 at 8:07 pm

  17. “you certainly can’t build an intellectual contribution based solely on critique”

    You are probably right, but Evgeny Morozov would be a prime counter-example. And I would say Lessig too. Maybe you mean contribution to academic sociology?

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    Austen

    February 3, 2014 at 10:22 pm

  18. I find # 8 misguided to the point of disrepute. When you submit a paper to a journal, you are asking for a minimum of two hours (and usually more) of brain-heavy work from three or four people. You have an obligation not to waste this scarce resource. This means spending more than five minutes, or even a week, thinking through the generous feedback you have received. Peer review is not a lottery (it may sometimes seem that way, but when it does it is a sign of failure). Reviewers are encouraged by journal editors to remember that 90% of submissions will be rejected while more than 10% are worthwhile, and thus to use their reviews as teaching opportunities; this is quite an ask, and this advice is an insult to those who spend may hours each month trying to meet it. We all have to be instrumental and strategic and teach our students to be as well. But the baldness of this advice is too cynical for my taste, and those who follow it should know that at least one frequent reviewer and R1 department chair will turn you down flat for publication and for a job if he suspects that is the kind of scholar you are.

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    Curmudgeon

    February 3, 2014 at 11:01 pm

  19. “and thus to use their reviews as teaching opportunities”

    This is everything that is wrong with the peer-review system in sociology right now. Reviews are supposed to serve the purpose of vetting research to protect the quality of the articles published in journals. They are not supposed to be for work shopping papers.

    This being said, I do often put considerable time into incorporating reviewer comments into my revisions after a rejection – not always, though. Sometimes I think the reviewers are wrong and I have no problem ignoring their advice. Other times a paper is rejected for reasons of fit rather than because it is fundamentally flawed in some way.

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    JD

    February 3, 2014 at 11:17 pm

  20. I agree that the expectation of a “developmental” review is problematic. But that is in fact what many editors ask for. And to be sure, there are bad reviewers who clearly miss the mark (though I’ve seen this happen upside as well as downside); one should consider as well that one source of bad reviewing might be the volume of bad submissions. At any rate, it seems unlikely to me that one cannot find more than a week’s worth of things to think about in 3-4 referee reports if one is treating the process with respect and is not unbearably arrogant. The fact that most barely adequate things can get published someplace is not, in my opinion, a cause for celebration or a basis for one’s career plan. It’s one reason so many journals in our field can be so dreary.

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    Curmudgeon

    February 3, 2014 at 11:35 pm

  21. @Fabio: In other words, if indeed you are shooting for R1s, better to focus on top hits. But still, most people don’t know how to write for these journals and need the review process.

    I don’t get it. It seems like you’re saying that your advice to resubmit someplace new quickly (i.e., don’t spend much time revising) is aimed at students who haven’t learned how to write great papers and need the review process to learn — but how are they supposed to learn from the review process if they don’t take the time to really mull over what the reviewers tell them? What am I missing or misunderstanding?

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    Elizabeth

    February 3, 2014 at 11:49 pm

  22. So I withdraw my full endorsement of #8, which I read too quickly as just “submit, submit, submit.” Because I do think you should read and think about reviews. But as JD and others say, then you have to triage the reviews and decide what to do about them. It is important to turn things around and not sit on them. This is especially difficult if/when the reviews suggest a whole new data set, a whole new analysis, a whole new paper.

    Regarding Curmudgeon’s comments about weak papers, I am torn, because I prefer quality work. BUT I agree with JD that trying to turn reviewers into advisors and editors is creating a broken review system. AND I know that there are lots of less-elite jobs out there that count publications and not their quality, although in some cases they may count citations. I don’t think employers ought to evaluate scholars that way, but if they do, it isn’t fair to young people to tell them otherwise. However, as these exchanges indicate, young people (and senior people) should be aware that there is a sector that is not just counting lines on a cv and for which “publishing just to publish” is a negative, not a positive, in your record. Back to strategy and understanding market segmentation.

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    olderwoman

    February 4, 2014 at 1:13 am

  23. So… we can probably agree that if a graduate student is on a job interview, she might not want to announce in mixed company anything like, “My rule is I never spend more than a week revising a paper. Half the time, I don’t revise at all.”

    I do agree with the underlying principle that graduate students need to be oriented toward getting stuff out and need to approach the matter with some sense of urgency.

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    jeremy

    February 4, 2014 at 1:38 am

  24. I have a very simple heuristic for what kinds of comments people (especially grad students hoping to have some publications before they go on the market — tick tick tick) need to incorporate before submitting a rejected paper to the next journal:
    * Any issue, regardless of its merits, mentioned by two or more of the reviewers. If two reviewers at the last journal mentioned something, at least one will at the next journal
    * Things that are mentioned by only one reviewer but that you think about and realize, wow, that’s a really good point. I’m thinking things like “you’re using OLS but your dependent variable is a Poisson” or “you rely heavily on Smith (2013) as your key citation but as shown in Jones (2014) that paper doesn’t replicate.”
    * Any trivial but objective mistakes — spelling errors, cites missing from the biblio, etc.

    On the other hand I think the spirit of Fabio’s comment #8 is to not drive yourself crazy rewriting your paper in a Quixotic attempt to handle every one of the “I’m just brainstorming here” comments as you might do for an R&R. That is, you probably should ignore reviewers when they say “hey, this kind of reminds me of a cite that’s not really that closely related” or “your paper gave me an idea for a completely different study” and if reviewers feel unappreciated that authors ignore these kinds of suggestions then there’s a simple solution to that.

    And as for the idea that the “just turn it around quickly” model is about placing quantity over quality, I dispute the premise that gavaging irrelevant cites into the lit review or tangential mindfarts into the footnotes actually makes papers stronger.

    Like

    gabrielrossman

    February 4, 2014 at 1:38 am

  25. Austen – a few people, like Morozov, can make a career out of trolling

    Like

    brayden king

    February 4, 2014 at 6:10 pm

  26. brayden king, I think a lot of sociology’s race/class/gender scholarship is basically critique. Nature of the problem(s), and not a bad thing.

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    Austen

    February 4, 2014 at 6:13 pm

  27. “The decisive development of the modern character of science as ongoing activity also forms men of a different stamp. The scholar disappears. He is succeeded by the research man who is engaged in research projects. These, rather than the cultivating of erudition, lend to his work its atmosphere of incisiveness. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Moreover, he is constantly on the move. He negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses. He contracts for commissions with publishers. The latter now determine along with him which books must be written.” (Martin Heidegger, “The Age of the World Picture”)

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    Thomas

    February 4, 2014 at 8:05 pm

  28. These are brilliant. I am sending them to my former undergraduate student who just got into Cambridge’s PhD program

    Like

    Siri

    February 7, 2014 at 5:37 pm


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