advice for students in low ranked doctoral programs
As the author of an advice manual for graduate students, people ask me about strategies for students in low ranked doctoral programs. Specifically, how does one start an academic career in a department that doesn’t have a track record of placement? Here is what I advise:
- First, accept what you cannot change. Sadly, there is a lot of evidence that there is a halo effect in academia. For example, there is a well known experiment where some psychologists resubmitted published papers to journals and randomly changed the names of authors to see if status mattered. Answer: yes. There is little one can do about this, so don’t waste precious energy worrying about it.
- Second, learn about overcompensation and counter-signalling. In other words, people don’t expect much from individuals in low status positions. Actively show that they are wrong. For example, if you work in an area that is low status, actively try to get published in a high status journal. My own example: much of my work has focused on ethnic studies and its history. That is really low status – trust me, I wrote a book on it! What I did was worked extra hard on getting it into mainstream social science journals (see the next step).
- Third, persistence. Often, the only difference between moderately successful and really successful people is persistence. You don’t know how many times I have wondered, “Why on earth didn’t that person resubmit that great paper?” If you take the reviewers’ advice seriously, you will improve and place well. When I ask people with unusual research, “how on earth did that get published?” The answer usually involves submitting it a million times.
- Fourth, choose your allies carefully. If you are in a high ranked program, the damage suffered from a bad dissertation adviser can be mitigated. Even an incompetent Princeton adviser can place the occasional student. A bad adviser at Yahoo State can doom your career before you get started. Be completely cold blooded and unemotional in how you choose faculty. Choose advisers who publish and place students.
- Fifth, show mainstream competence. Often, low ranked programs are the home of heterodox scholars. That is not intrinsically bad, but often that becomes an excuse for rejecting the mainstream or not seriously engaging with it. It also means that the faculty may not have the best connections. So if you do unusual work, do it in a way that shows a real understanding of the mainstream and shows multiple marks of excellence. That Ivy League grad can get away with doing a post-modern rational choice auto-ethnography of snowball fights, but you won’t. Show that you “get it.”
The next two apply to all students, but even more so to students in low status positions:
- Apply widely. My experience is that a typical grad student in an elite program might need only 15-20 applications for a single fly-out during “good year” – which, by the way, is still a 95% rejection rate! In contrast, students at places of more modest reputation might need conduct a multi-year search and increase the number of applications. So, large N – that’s your strategy.
- Move sideways. Academia is a very rigid system and people will be quick to peg you into a slot. One way to avoid that is to apply for quality positions outside your area. It is often the case that your virtues will be appreciated by someone outside your group. If you have an arts and sciences PhD, you can often do much better in a professional school or an interdisciplinary area than within the older arts and science departments. Look at growth areas instead of older areas that are stable and crowded.
To sum up: accept what you can’t change; strive for signals of quality; avoid deadwood; apply widely; and consider career building lateral moves. Please use the comments to post your own advice.