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.

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

Written by fabiorojas

December 3, 2014 at 12:13 am

12 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this post.

    I’ve got a question about thing — what are your thoughts about non-academic work that requires sociological expertise? I’m thinking here about work like blogging about research, writing op-eds, and doing consulting work.



    December 3, 2014 at 1:58 am

  2. Honestly, these have merit but won’t do much for you job wise until they compliment a strong research record. Do it for fun but do not let it distract you from what will help.



    December 3, 2014 at 2:28 am

  3. “That Ivy League grad can get away with doing a post-modern rational choice auto-ethnography of snowball fights, but you won’t.”

    Hah, thanks for the laugh as well as the good advice.

    Liked by 1 person

    orgtheory lurker

    December 3, 2014 at 2:52 am

  4. Fabio, I think this is good advice if research university is the goal, but plenty of students in low ranked doctoral programs are specifically interested in working at teaching-focused institutions. This advice isn’t exactly *wrong* for that — I wouldn’t say “go find a deadwood adviser” — but some of it (e.g. the focus on demonstrating status) seems less appropriate for them.

    Liked by 2 people


    December 3, 2014 at 2:59 am

  5. I think another aspect of low-status PhD programs is what Burton Clark called “cooling out.” While he focused specifically on community colleges and their students, the process works in similar ways in low-status PhD programs. Generally, cooling out in low-status PhD programs is where faculty know the reality their students face on the job market and basically temper their expectations and sometimes even career goals in various ways to avoid some form of failure–such failure is both for the student (personally/career-wise) as well as for the program (let’s not forget how much of an investment each student is for a program, especially low-status PhD programs). You can have a student with the skills and drive to pursue research, who also wants to land that awesome research TT line somewhere, but given that the student is at a low-status PhD program, faculty will “advise” them away from such pursuits toward “more realistic” career goals. Also, students may not be dissuaded from pursuing that snowball ethnography Fabio mentions in their class/conference papers, or even their dissertation, as the faculty have lower job market (and publishing) expectations of their students. So, it’s not necessarily that students at low-status PhD programs want to land a job at a more teaching-oriented institution, but that the program “cools out” the expectations of students all while suggesting that their best fit is, in fact, a teaching institution. In the end, some of the outcomes of low-status PhD programs is how signalling in academia (including sociology) works with the “brand-name degrees”, but also partly self-fulfilling prophecy by some low-status PhD programs that try to handle the reality of the field and its job market.



    December 3, 2014 at 1:09 pm

  6. I think Fabio is pretty dead on here, as someone who went to a “lower status” if not “low status” grad program [CUNY Graduate Center]. Though I must admit I did do the semi-equivalent of an auto-ethnography of snowball fights by studying human-pigeon interaction! While publishing in mainstream sociology journals [ASR, etc] is not easy, the great thing about it–I found personally, anyway–is that it is *more* meritocratic than non-blind methods of evaluation. Even though all my articles got rejected the first time out, the reviews were thoughtful and respectful on the whole and allowed me to turn them around and get published in other good venues. Start doing research and writing papers early, and get those bad boys out. Oh, and aim high–I know Fabio said this already, and this goes for any grad student but I think perhaps especially for those not at high-ranked programs. Your best chance, full stop, of jumping to a higher status place is to get an article in a top journal. And this is where hillbilly sociologist is insightful–a “mid tier” institution may not provide a context for thinking that this is possible, or at least will not expect you to do this. I remember being in an open student-faculty meeting where I commented that we were not mentored enough on how to publish, particularly how to frame our research in ways that can get it published in general sociology journals, and another student commented, “Well, it’s ridiculous to think that any of us would get published in a place like ASR.” No one spoke up to disagree. As the conversation went on, a number of students made the point that epopp made that they did not in fact want to “get a job at Harvard” so they did not have to worry about publishing in the same way; but I then asked faculty present who taught at other CUNY colleges [Hunter, City, Brooklyn] about the people they were hiring lately, and even at these teaching-oriented schools it was common for applicants to have an AJS, Social Forces, or Social Problems article. Some of my student peers seemed stunned, because they presumed that having a lot of teaching experience would make them attractive to a place like John Jay.

    Liked by 2 people


    December 3, 2014 at 3:30 pm

  7. People who work at research institutions too often write about teaching jobs in a cavalier way, implying that those jobs are a) unattractive and b) relatively easy to get. In general, neither of these assumptions is true. Departments with good jobs at institutions less oriented to research turn away plenty of qualified applicants. Fabio’s posted advice applies for all sorts of positions.
    The challenge for students at lower status institutions is to figure out ways to do everything (research, publish, present at conferences, read) their counterparts at higher status institutions do–without comparable resources and without getting distracted by, uh, despair. It’s extremely difficult, but doable.
    It’s helpful to focus on whatever intrinsic appeal the work had in the first place, the attractions that lured someone into graduate school. Ultimately, the academic work has to provide some kind of personal sustenance, not only a vehicle for getting a job.


    David S. Meyer

    December 3, 2014 at 3:44 pm

  8. These are really interesting comments.

    On rereading, I take back my initial comment about the advice being less on target for students wanting a TT teaching job. Maybe reflecting my own bias, I read the opening reference to “placement” as meaning “placement in a research university” rather than “placement in a TT position” and that colored my reading. I agree that the advice itself is good for a range of TT jobs.

    But. While you can read the advising process at lower-ranked universities as “cooling out,” a lot of what happens at universities at all rankings is selling everyone on a status game in which the most desirable outcome is a TT job at top-ten research institution, followed by a series of successively less “desirable” jobs. Most readers of this blog have probably bought into this game (myself included), but it’s kind of a stupid game. I’m not convinced that telling students they don’t have to play that game — which is *not* to say they don’t have to do what it takes to get the job they want — is doing them a disservice.

    Finally, any school that is not making it clear what it takes to get hired at various sorts of institutions, including teaching-focused schools, by the end of year two is not doing its job. All you have to do is make students go download CVs of recent hires at places they’d like to work, and places they think of as “fallback options.” Better to be shocked early. On the other hand, while expectations are high, there are still a finite number of AJS/ASR slots, and people without those absolutely get TT jobs.

    And it would be great to hear from people who do the hiring for teaching jobs. Is Mikaila out there?



    December 3, 2014 at 4:28 pm

  9. Very pragmatic post and interesting discussion. @Fabio I am curious as to what constitutes a high status research topic. I would have thought that ‘ethnic studies and its history’ linking in a novel way to the institutional logic of the university as a organisation would have been incredibly marketable. If one is researching a niche area, how does one elevate oneself from the low status puddle – is it by framing the work as being in conversation with more mainstream literature and debates?


    New grad student choosing a topic

    December 3, 2014 at 4:53 pm

  10. Thank you for the informative comments. A few brief responses:

    – Epopp is right: I didn’t mean only research intensive. Still, the only difference is that I would emphasize developing evidence of effective teaching. That is by no means trivial, but it doesn’t mitigate the advice I posted earlier.

    – New grad: You are right. It’s not the only way, but situating your work in a larger conversation is usually a plus. My topic was less marketable than I imagined. The reason is that sociologists want race research to either be about stratification or social psychology or about the civil rights movement. If it doesn’t fall into one of those three categories, people see it as weird. My solution was to move lateral, even though I was lucky to get 1 soc pub out of it (out of 7 peer reviewed articles). If had relied on the publication outlets in soc, I would have a single pub and be out of a job. Lesson: move sideways can be a good move.



    December 3, 2014 at 8:20 pm

  11. I would like to add to the “show mainstream competence” bit by also suggesting a- playing to your department’s strengths (plenty of low ranked departments have one strong specialty) and b- becoming a specialist. One of the things that happens at lower ranked departments is that they are not as big as the prestigious ones, which in turn makes it easier to become a generalist. Something which might be personally rewarding, but at the end of the day a graduate student with a publication in culture, one in race and ethnicity and another in economic sociology will not be competitive enough for a position looking for a sociologist of culture, a race and ethnicity scholar, or an economic sociologist.

    There are some unranked sociology departments that have a pretty good track record placing students (though not at top research universities) because those students had distinguished themselves through stellar work with a fairly narrow focus.

    Of course, doing all that may still not matter. Especially nowadays, since as Paul Oyer’s 2006 paper shows, graduating during a recession has a lasting, negative impact on academic careers.



    December 3, 2014 at 10:17 pm

  12. My undergraduate told me that I had been summoned to this conversation (sorry, I read the initial post before there were comments!). I would point out that “teaching-focused institution” is too broad of a category to be able to say something sensible about. There are really four different categories (or maybe more, but I think 4 ideal types gives us the most parsimonious classification system) of teaching-focused institutions, and the way to approach each differs.

    1) Selective Liberal Arts Colleges, and less-selective private liberal arts colleges or public honors colleges who wish they were/are trying to become SLACs: Here, you MUST come from a top program, or at least from a very prestigious university even if the soc program is maybe a little less fantastic. You must have top publications, though books tend to count a little better. You must have teaching experience. In particular, it is extremely helpful to have been an undergraduate at a SLAC. The right candidate might be able to get away with not meeting all of these requirements, especially if the institution has an esoteric need. At these jobs, faculty do a lot of teaching, advising, and service, but have phenomenal research resources (sabbaticals, funding, undergrad RAs, etc.)

    2) Research institutions in name only: This is where I would put the CUNYs and many similar public institutions, as well as some privates which are in the midst of playing the status game. These are institutions which typically offer a significant number of graduate programs at the MA level and at least some at the Ph.D./professional level, though any given department may not have a graduate program. Faculty here have significant teaching loads, but can buy them out with grants; are expected to publish in quantity (quantity is often the key metric); and have low levels of research support though they do have graduate students and often good grants offices. These positions are the ones Colin was discussing. As a job candidate, someone told me not to work at a CUNY pre-tenure because of how intense the demands are. Hiring requirement may include teaching experience, but pubs and grants will be more important, and you need to be able to signal that you will achieve quantity in your pubs.

    3) Truly teaching-focused institutions: This category would include community colleges and other low-prestige teaching institutions with very high teaching loads and low research requirements (note that I do not say no research requirements–one or two peer-reviewed pubs and some conference presentations may still be required, but it is unlikely to matter what the prestige of the pubs is and pedagogical pubs are highly valued). These institutions value teaching experience (at institutions with student bodies similar to their own) well above research experience and tend to be fine with low-prestige Ph.D. programs.

    4) Comprehensive colleges: This is my type of institution. Teaching, advising, and service are far more important than research, and strictly speaking, official research requirements are fairly low. We hire people with strong teaching backgrounds in a variety of courses who have worked with non-elite students, but we expect them to be able to demonstrate an active research agenda, and promotion (which is somewhat decoupled from tenure at my institution) is not likely without ongoing research productivity. Prestige of publications, or of graduate degree institution, is not a central qualification, though I can’t say we ignore it entirely. People with great research but little teaching experience do occasionally get hired, but will find the transition miserable and will often voluntarily or involuntarily leave.

    So, I think the advice in the OP is very helpful, but I would emphasize that if you want a job at category 3 or 4 institutions, you need teaching experience, preferably at a less-selective institution, preferably to include some online or hybrid courses, preferably to include some smaller courses, and preferably to include a variety of course titles. Research topics do not matter as much, especially if you can claim to teach the stuff we need (in sociology, you should be able to teach criminology and probably research methods, but your research need not have anything to do with criminology). It helps if you have an ongoing research agenda that you will be able to continue at the new institution without much in the way of research support, and if you have at least one or two peer-reviewed pubs out already. And if helps if you actually like teaching. If you want a job at a category 2 institution, teach a couple of courses, but focus on your research and follow all the advice in this post. And if you want a job at a category 1 institution, and you won’t have the right names on your CV, you need to readjust your plans.

    Liked by 1 person


    December 4, 2014 at 7:45 pm

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