Students, and early career faculty, often ask about whether they should “go big” or fill up the cv with “smaller” publications. Here is my view: start by asking about the type of program you want to be in and your career stage. Then, apply the following rules:
- High status programs prefer “big hits.” In some programs, AJS/ASR is a prerequisite for promotion and is the most common cv item for ABDs who get assistant prof jobs. If you are at such a program, or aiming for one, this is your first strategy.
- Most other programs will be happy with a healthy number of publications in more modest journals. In fact, one can have an outstanding career in mid or low ranked MA/PhD programs with lots of “small” hits and they will almost certainly help with tenure at teaching intensive institutions.
- If you want to move up (though not laterally), a big hit is often required. Otherwise, people will think you are only capable of small hits.
- The tenure worthy package at most decent PhD programs is one or two “big” ones and other non-embarrassing publications. For other places, about 4-5 “small ones” will often suffice if well written.
- Time: If you don’t have big hits, and tenure/job market is coming up, sometimes filling it up with small hits might work.
- People in unorthodox fields can sometimes get away with specialty hits in “cool journals.” Thus, if you are in one of these fields, you might want to move along the quantity/quality curve.
- Book writers: If your field is mainly books (historical or ethnography), you can get away with a book that counts as multiple big hits. Articles, if well written, may not need to be in top journals.
Bottom line: Big hits will always help. But unless you are at an elite program, there are many plan B’s that work well.
I was recently asked about co-authoring. How does a graduate student co-author? Is it good to do so? What are the rules?
1. In general, co-authoring is a good thing. You’ll see that most successful graduate students publish with faculty or student co-authors. Brian Uzzi’s work shows that co-authorship (vs. solo authorship) is correlated with citations and impact. There are exceptions. For example, many hiring and promotion committees will want to see at least one article sole authored. Of course, much qualitative work is also single authored.
2. How to find co-authors: Usually, people in most fields are used to co-authoring. You can ask faculty for help, they might approach you, or you can recruit buddies. In general, c0-authoring is serious business. Research is time intensive and it can shape your career. So choose partners who are (a) reliable and (b) bring something to the table. With respect to (b), the co-author can have a technical skill, area of knowledge, or simple be a good “sounding” board that writes/co-writes the article.
3. How to do it: This varies a great deal. I’ve done the full range. In some cases, you write most of it and co-authors do a little extra work. Other cases, the work is equally divided. In yet other cases, you do a modest amount. But it really helps to lay it out early. For example, in my work with Michael Heaney, we always jointly work out the argument and data analysis, but the actual writing shifts back and forth.
4. Author order: Every discipline has different rules. These include alphabetical, by seniority, the biomedical model (lead author firsts, senior person last, and fighting for middle sports) and “higher is better” (i.e., the more work you do, the more toward the top you get). In sociology, we do “higher is better” unless it’s clear that it’s alphabetical. So it is important to not get buried as author #6. Though, in some cases, there is such a premium on top journals that even author #6 on an ASR or AJS article will get a huge career pay off.
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:
- Show up. Even if you feel horrible, show up. No matter what. Period. Unless someone died in your family, show up.
- Do your job. Grade the papers. Do the lab work. Unless the work is extreme, take it in stride.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- No excuses: the only thing that matters is task completion. It may be long or short, but everyday should involve a core task.
- 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.
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!!!
Get the entire book – Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know about Academia from Admissions to Tenure – for only $2. You can read it on personal computers, Nooks, Kindles, iPads, and smart phones.
I was recently asked by Simone about publication strategies for graduate students. My response: First, consider your goals and work backwards. Second, there are rules of thumb and mitigating circumstances.
In general, start by asking yourself, if I want job X, what is required?
- Elite research schools: In sociology or management, you usually need your name on a publication in a top journal. If you work in a field where top journals don’t take many articles (e.g., ethnography and ASR), you can get away with a very high quality specialty journal hit. Elite programs will usually scoff at regional journals if that’s your sole publication.
- Most research schools: Once you get beyond, say, the top 20 in your field, you can publish in a wider range of journals and still get a good job. These include the stronger regionals and good specialty journals.
- Liberal arts colleges: This is tricky. Too much publication and not enough teaching can be bad. Yet, you still need publication in respected places. So I think one quality publication and a strong teaching portfolio is good.
- MA/BA prorgams: One or two quality articles non-laughable journals will put you in the zone.
Second, rules of thumb:
- Low ranked PhD program: If you are at a low ranked place, you will need to overcompensate to move up in the hierarchy.
- Elite PhD program: People cut you slack if you are elite. If you can produce a cool project, it doesn’t need to immediately come out in a leading journal. The PhD program’s brand/star adviser’s name will help you out.
- Funky vs. obscure: If you can’t land a paper in a top tier journal because of the topic, it’s sometimes better to place it in a cutting edge journal than in a low status journal, as long as the cutting edge journal really exists in an interesting niche.
- Journal ranking: top general journals > top specialty > respected regionals > low ranked regionals. There are always some journals that are orthogonal and don’t fit in the ranking.
- Discipline crossing: If it’s appropriate, it may be better to publish in a strong journal in another discipline than have the paper in an obscure in-discipline journal.
- Foreign: If it’s appropriate for the topic, non-American journals may be good as well.
- Take more time: If you can’t land a journal article because it needs to be better, sometimes it’s better to take an extra year (if finances permit) and get you article accepted.
- Edited volume contributions and book reviews won’t help your job prospects.
In other words, it’s probably best to shoot for the top journals. The issue is “plan B” and there are many options. It depends a lot on who you are, your goals, and the type of research. Your journal placement should signal that you are interesting as a scholar. Journal placements are part of your professional identity. You don’t need every thing to be in journal #1, but all your articles should make a positive impression.
Get the entire book – Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know about Academia from Admissions to Tenure – for only $2. You can read it on personal computers, Nooks, Kindles, iPads, and smart phones.
I’ve been asked by multiple people about getting jobs outside the academy. How does one go about it? What do you tell your adviser? When do you tell them? I’ve done a little private consulting work, but most of my adult employment has been in education. So I tread lightly here. If you feel I’ve missed something important, please tell me.
First, most professors are programmed to believe that non-academic jobs are a sign of failure. This belief is mistaken and very misguided. There are many great ways to spend one’s life and academia is just one of them. Still, you have to be careful when raising the issue of non-academic jobs. Some professors will be very sympathetic, while others will immediately start ignoring students who aren’t on the academic career track.
Second, you have to be fairly clear about your long term goals. Some students will temporarily go into other areas and come back. For example, economists might work in the policy world before returning to the academy. Engineers might go to Silicon Valley for a while. In other cases, it’s clear the person has no interest in ever working in the academy. If you are in the first group, you will choose jobs that will maintain ties to the academic world. If you are in the second group, you don’t need to do that. If you can’t tell what jobs generate ties to the academy, look at the CV’s of your professors (if any) who have managed careers combining academic and non-academic work.
A few words about job searching. In most areas, employers do not seek out Ph.D. students. They are simply off the radar. However, employers often come to big research universities to scout talent from the undergraduate college and the professional programs. If you are interested in consulting, for example, it’s not too hard to go the meetings held for the MBA’s. Many universities are located in metropolitan areas, so you can also access labor markets with relative ease.
Professional conferences are a good way to make contacts as well. Most of the big annual social science conferences have employers around. The ASA, for example, usually has a booth from the Census Bureau and there are usually other state and policy groups around.
Then there is the issue of timing. There is no set rule here. Sometimes, a student knows early on that they won’t go into the academic track. My advice: the sooner the better. If you still wish to complete your degree, wrap up your work and just give your completed PhD/MA thesis to your adviser. Many folks will be reasonable. If you have a complete work that’s in decent shape, many advisers will sign off on it.
Other students don’t know if the academic market will work for them. So they are judging multiple options. If you still have a desire to go into the academy, my advice would be to “wait and see.” If you have your heart set on the academy, give it your best shot. For many people, this may mean multiple years on the job market. I’ve seen people get outstanding offers after one or two job market cycles. Take the extra year to get more published and increase your chances. Most PhD programs will let you stay an extra year or so if the market doesn’t work out. If you still can’t get a job after a few job market cycles, at least you can tell yourself that you did your best, and that’s respectable.
If you are at the point where you’ve decide to work the non-academic job market, tread carefully. At some point, hopefully after you’ve investigated your options well, you’ll gently tell your adviser that you want non-academic employment. Assuming you have a civil relationship with your adviser, make it clear that you’ve enjoyed your time and that you’ve learned a lot, but that you’d prefer a different career path. You harbor no ill will. I think that if you’ve given it your best effort, most professors will respond well. And who knows? Maybe they can help you find that first job outside the academy.
Get the entire book – Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know about Academia from Admissions to Tenure – for only $2. You can read it on personal computers, Nooks, Kindles, iPads, and smart phones.
A question that often comes up with graduate students on the market is: what jobs should I apply for? I think there is a fairly simple way to figure this one out:
- Go to the job announcement web site/publication of your discipline. Write down every job that you are even remotely qualified for.
- Do the same for related disciplines. For example, in my case, I’d be qualified for sociology, but I’m also qualified for management, education or policy (if it’s orgtheory related).
- When I say “anything,” I mean “anything,” unless it’s clearly nutty. For example, my job was advertised, I believe, as “social psychology” and “culture.” On the other hand, there are clear lines around some specialties. I could never plausibly be a demographer or an ethnographer, so I’d never submit an application.
- Then set a minimal level of happiness for yourself and cross off schools that don’t make it above the bar. For example, if you like research and dislike teaching, cross off liberal arts colleges. If you don’t think you’ll be happy competing for constant journal publication, cross of the R1 schools. And so forth.
This is a time for complete self-honesty. The average job candidate gets one or two job offers and there is no predicting where you will get that offer. So don’t put anything on the list where you suspect that you will be really, really unhappy.
At the same time, don’t be too picky. For example, there are about 200 research oriented universities in the US and each of those has multiple programs that might employ you. If you say “bleh, I hate the Midwest,” then you will miss a lot of great schools. Even if the school where you get a job isn’t as fancy as you had hoped, you can move up if you work hard and maintain a strong scholarly publication record. In the end, more schools are better. Unless you live in some hyper defined niche, you should be applying to dozens and dozens of schools.
What about post-docs? I get asked that a lot. Here’s my view:
- First, figure out if your field requires post-docs. In sociology, you can get an Ivy League position right out of grad school. But in biology, it’s really, really hard, nearly impossible.
- Then, figure out if your family can tolerate moving around a lot. Don’t make your life miserable in pursuit of the perfect post-doc. How many of us are willing to risk divorce over an extra year of funding? Work hard, but respect your family.
- If you can tolerate moving and they exist in your field, then post-docs can be good. But you have to be careful.
- Some post-docs are glorified research assistants. In some fields, you are required to do that sort of work. But in others, you should avoid these post-docs unless you really have no other choice. Sure, your CV may have an extra publication, but as author #10 you won’t get much credit.
- The bottom line is that in post-doc optional fields, some post-docs are worse than assistant professor positions. So be very careful about where you go. The best post-docs are light on teaching and give you some autonomy for your own research.
- To get good post-docs, read the CV’s of successful people in your field. You can also network. A good buddy gave me an excellent reference for a very good fellowship I got. Bug your friends about it.
If you have other questions about selecting schools and post-docs, put them in the comments.
I was recently asked – what are you allowed to say to faculty members? This is an important question. Students should know what is off limits and professors should have a sense of what the boundary is.
First, you have to be a little honest about your relationship with Professor X. There’s a huge range in what people find acceptable. Some professors treat advisees as quasi-family members. They invite them to dinner all the time, socialize with them, and so forth. Others are much more guarded. One friend had an adviser who was extremely guarded. He would show up to the weekly meeting, discuss his research for an hour, and when time was up, he’d leave. After a few years of this, the dissertation was done, but there was almost no social interaction. I’m probably in the middle. I’m friendly and chatty, but I meet students during business hours. I normally don’t socialize with students off-campus, unless we have a genuine common extra-academic interest.
Ok, what can you talk about? You should be able to have a conversation with your professor on the following topics.
- Intellectual matters: Your adviser should be open to any question relating to your discipline. “How do you prove this result? What do people think about this book? What is your opinion of this hypothesis?” All legitimate, even if she says, “Gee, that’s a good question – I don’t know!” The point of being a professor is knowledge. If you can’t share it with the graduate students, what’s the point?
- Evaluation of professional work: You should be able to ask – “how good is this?” and get a reasonable answer. Success depends on producing strong work. Your adviser should be able to give you his/her opinion on how you are doing and convey it in a professional manner.
- Professionalization: There’s all kind of tacit knowledge about how academia works. You can always ask questions like: How does publishing work? What is a “good journal” in my area? How do I get a job? What do people do at academic conferences?
- Major life crises: Once in a while, really bad things happen. I mean *really* bad things happen. At the very least, your adviser should know why you’ve been slow on email. Some people can sympathize, or even help you. At other times, maybe your professor can guide you in the right direction. For example, I once had an LGBT student who had a very serious issue. I am not gay, so I thought it was inappropriate for me to advise this person. However, we do have an LGBT counselor on campus whose purpose is to help students. Some faculty have tin ears, but it’s better to have people informed and maybe you can get some help.
Let’s move on to more subtle issues:
- With most faculty, most small talk is ok. Professors are human beings who watch tv, read the Internet and so forth. Chit chat is ok.
- I’d tend to shy away from the ups and downs of personal life.
- I’d reserve complaining for your friends.
- I’d avoid gossip about faculty and other graduate students. That should probably be reserved for your friends.
- You can always ask how your personal experience might (adversely) affect your career. For example, if you have some family planning issues, speak up.
Criticism. We all need it, but it’s hard for professors to hear it:
- If you have a real beef, float it by the graduate director or some other people you can trust.
- Accusing people is usually bad form. It’s often better to say “Professor X, I appreciate what you’ve done for me, but I was confused by … ” Give people the benefit of the doubt and provide a way for the situation to be peacefully resolved.
The rule of thumb is “be professional.” Unless you have a super touchy feely adviser, you should stick to your research and professional issues.
Update: There was originally a passage that sent the wrong message. The updated post responds to that. If it interests you, the original can still be found in the comments thread.
Maybe you got a job. Maybe you didn’t. Maybe you just decided academia isn’t for you. Regardless, there comes a time when you have to complete the dissertation and move on with your life. This is how you do it.
- Tell your adviser and other faculty mentors that you are ready to finish up. This usually comes up around the time you accept a job offer. If you aren’t going into academia, you will want to have a heart to heart with your adviser. Your professor may not be ready to let you go, but be firm here. If academia isn’t your career goal, there’s no point in wasting time. Just politely say, “I have chosen another career path and I would like to complete my degree before I do so. Can you help me out? What do I need to do?” Repeat as necessary.
- Go to the graduate chair and/or secretary and ask for the university, college and dept rules concerning dissertations. You should have gotten the written rules by now, but if you haven’t get them.
- Ask about the informal norms of the department and discipline. Ask recent grads and profs.
- Prepare a complete draft of your dissertation. Nothing succeeds like success. People will have to graduate you if you submit a competent and complete document, even if it’s imperfect. And if you are a control freak, just let it go. By this point, the dissertation is a pedagogical exercise. Just get it done.
- Give every committee member a complete document, or as close to it as you can. Do this about 2-3 months before you need to file your dissertation with the university. It should also be at least a month or so before the dissertation defense, if your university has one. Directly ask them: “I would like your feedback.” Get this feedback in writing.
- After about a month or so, gather all written and oral comments and make a long, detail memo explaining how you responded to every comment. Then, give the revised & complete document to everyone again, a few weeks before they have to sign off and/or have the dissertation defense.
- Most universities, though not all, will require a committee meeting to discuss the quality of the dissertation and approve it. Start scheduling this about 1-2 months before it needs to happen. Faculty are traveling and have conflicting schedules. It can be tricky to get everyone in the room, or on the conference.
- If you have a defense meeting, then you show up and give a summary of your research. That will be followed by Q&A. If you gave everyone the chance to write comments, there will be little surprise by this point. If you wait to the last minute to give the dissertation, there may be surprises. You will be asked to leave the room. There will be a discussion. When you come back, you will be asked to revise the document. The final revisions are usually negotiated between the dissertation director and the PhD candidate.
- If you don’t have a meeting, then you usually have each faculty member sign off individually. Just make an appointment and get their feedback. If you get conflicting instructions, just ask your chair and it’ll get cleared up.
- Once the final document is settled upon by student and chair, it must be submitted to the library. Yes, that’s right. The library. For the rest of eternity, your dissertation will be available to scholars. With ProQuest, it can be downloaded, just like any book.
- For that reason, the university will not let you graduate until the library has accepted the document. Therefore, you should take at least 3-4 weeks before the deadline just for formatting. Weeks? Yes. Libraries are very, very fussy. They will reject your document on details like margin width, paper quality, and footnote format. They want all documents to look the same. You can do it your self, or pay someone to format it. Either way, it’ll take a few weeks to get it all right.
- Since dissertation submission is very fussy, many university libraries or graduate schools will have an office where you can have the document examined. Take your dissertation in a week before or so. Thus, if you have to fix something, you have time. DO NOT WAIT TILL 3pm ON THE LAST DAY.
- You’re done. Get a life.
Sample time line. Let’s say you settled on a job around Feb. 10. Here’s what graduation may look like for you:
- Feb 15: Thank your advisers and raise the issue of filing your dissertation.
- Mar 1: Start settling on an approximate time for filing. Say June 1.
- Mar 30/April 1: Start giving sample chapters, or the whole dissertation, to the committee. Start negotiations for dissertation hearings.
- April 21: Give revised document w/memo to everyone.
- May 1: The hearing happens. They ask for some final edits.
- May 10: Your adviser gives the final sign off.
- May 17: Bring the final, final document to the library/graduate office.
- May 21: You get a phone call saying you screwed up the margins. You have to redo the whole document.
- May 25: You stay up all night and reformat the whole thing and bring it in. They take it.
As you can see, it’s a very legalistic process. So prepare and give yourself time. Especially in “long clock” disciplines that aren’t used to quickly graduating people after the job search.
- The dissertation defense is a European ritual. The idea back then was that anyone could challenge your work in public. So some departments have public defenses still. People show up. Often your friends and family show up. Other department members show up, etc. In modern times, many universities have private defenses. It varies.
- The modern defense tends to have the same format. Before the meeting, they have a 10-20 minute discussion of the work. Then you are invited into the room. At that point, you usually give a summary of the research.
- After the summary, the faculty speak. Sometimes, it’s critical. Other times it’s friendly. Let them talk. Often, the chair takes notes, as does the student. Usually the discussion starts with the shortcomings of the work as discussed in private. How would the student fix these problems? How does this dissertation push a scholarly agenda? If it’s public, the chair will allow interested audience members to ask questions. Unless they are a specialist in this area, people rarely ask questions.
- About an hour later, the chair summarizes the discussion. In modern times, people rarely “fail” the dissertation hearing. Usually, you are done or you have to do revisions, which can sometimes be extensive. Either way, you’re good. The revisions are essentially a contract that says “if you do what we ask, you are done.” Congratulations, doctor!
- Failure: Even though I’ve never been witness to this, dissertation defenses sometimes go very, vary bad. The cases I’ve heard of usually fall into a few categories. Unseen flaws: If you are doing some sort of very technical work, someone may spot a logical flaw that undermines the whole project. For example, if you are a math student, a flaw in your proof may be spotted in the defense hearing. Goodbye super cool theorem. Shoddy/Rushed Work: The other case is that you didn’t show your work to the committee and you never had a chance to work out the problems. In that case, they are justified in keeping you back. It’s true that dissertations are imperfect student projects. But it’s also true that they must meet the minimal standard of competence in science. If it is just badly done, you can fail. Mean advisers: Some professors seem to enjoy torturing graduate students and tanking them in hearings. No matter how good you are, they will throw up their arms and claim that you haven’t done anything.
- Countering failure: The “unseen flaws” scenario is the easiest one to work with. Yes, you’ll graduate a little later than expected, but you will finish. Just take the summer or the fall to work on another project, or remedy the problem in the current project. You’ll be be done. If you rushed the job, it’s your own fault. Period. By this point, you should have gotten feedback from multiple advisers. You should have given them copies of the work a month or two before hand. So gather up your energy and do things the right way. If you prepare and work hard, you’ll be done. If you have a mean adviser, who just sprung on you, then you will need to be extremely patient. Have multiple meetings with the person. Get everything in writing and revise your dissertation. Send out the revisions to all people on the committee. Get advice from the graduate chair. You can usually deal with the mean adviser with sun light. If everyone knows that you have done all humanly possible revisions, then they will likely over rule the chair and let you graduate.
What if people don’t want to graduate you? There are departments where people take forever to graduate. Rather than seeing the dissertation as a student exercise, it has to be perfect and groundbreaking. So they make students write these endless documents. Other departments are wracked with apathy. Even if you produce the document, professors can’t be bothered to read or respond. In each case, get the rules, follow them, produce chapters, and get feedback. In all cases, document everything and show that you did your best. If people refuse to budge, then you can justifiably approach the chair/graduate dean for grievance and advice. “Look, I gave everyone my revisions and nobody has said anything in 8 months. Help me. What do you think I should do?” In most cases, a well documented grievance can give the chair or dean something to work with and you will get done.
Overall, finishing the dissertation is usually pretty routine. Most of the time, you do the work, they tell you to revise and you are done. But it helps to know about the whole process. You don’t want to pay another semester of tuition because you formatted the dissertation incorrectly. And of course, if there’s a rough patch, you’ll know how to come up with a solution.
These notes were prepared for sociology graduate students. As usual, please adjust for the standards in your own discipline.
The job talk is an example of public speaking. Here are some tips on how to improve your job talk skills and public speaking more generally.
- Do not improvise your talk. Prepare an outline of the talk. If it helps, write out the talk in its entirety.
- How to organize your talk I: Start the talk with the main point. Example: “Scholars tend to think X, but my analysis of the GSS shows that X is not true.” Do not “surprise” the audience by not telling them the major point of your talk.
- How to organize your talk II: Job talks usually have (a) an introduction where you tell the audience what your research is about and what you have proved, (b) a section motivating your research – the “who cares?” part of the talk, (c) a middle that is the “meat” of the talk – your hypotheses, data, etc. (d) conclusion talking about what you might do in the future. Of course, not every job talk conforms to this outline, but if you don’t know what else to do, this will be ok.
- Attitude: When you give your job talk, be enthusiastic and confident. People want to hear about your talk. Show them that you care.
- Practice your job talk: A research presentation is like performing music – you have to practice to do it well.
- Practice I: After you write a first draft of the talk, practice in front of a mirror and use a clock. Your talk should be 30-45 minutes.
- Practice II: Eliminate the “ums” and “ahs.” Practice so that you speak clearly.
- Practice III: Try not to hide behind lecterns, tables, etc. Speak directly to the audience. Look directly at the audience.
- Practice IV: Do at least one or two practice job talks. Get feedback from people. Did I communicate my point clearly? Did I speak clearly? Were my visual aids confusing or helpful?
- Practice V: In addition, to practice talks in public, practice at home. Practice the entire talk so many times that you have the talk almost memorized. Practice until you are sick of the talk. I practiced my job talk (about 35 minutes) about 30 times – no exaggeration.
- Visual aids: In general, I recommend against using visual aids. They distract the audience from what you have to say. However, it’s ok to use a few visual aids to summarize the main points, present a picture or a table of regression results.
- Back up visual aids: It’s often a good idea to have extra slides. During my Indiana job talk, Pam Walters asked me a question and I pulled out an extra transparency that had the answer. Consider your visual aids to be tools, use the right one for the right job – but have the tool box handy in case you need extra help.
- Be yourself: If you are funny, it might help to say something funny. If you are serious, then don’t try to be funny. Don’t do anything that doesn’t feel right.
- Rude interruptions: Sometimes people will interrupt your talk. If you can answer the question quickly, do so. Otherwise, say something like: “That’s a good point. I would like to answer your question at the end of the talk.” If the person just doesn’t stop, then let them ramble and signal to the moderator that you need to continue. In some cases, you can’t do much except let the person go on.
- Questions I: People will often ask tough questions. Fortunately, you can prepare for them. Here are some common questions in sociology job talks. Write down and practice your answers: “Why is this sociology?” “Isn’t this obvious?” “Hasn’t this been done before?” “What did X have to say about this?” “Why did you omit my favorite variable?” “Your method is completely wrong.” “How does this relate to –my favorite topic-?”
- Questions II: Sometimes people ask good questions that are really hard. A few hints – write the question down, ask for clarifications on the question, admit that you don’t have a complete answer, find a related topic that you do know about. If the question was a true baffler, you could also email the person and say: “Nice question this afternoon. I’ve had some time to think and my opinion is…”
- Questions III: Write down questions and look at the person when you answer. This will show that you are engaged.
- No matter what: don’t lose your cool!! Be in control, even if somebody gives you a hard time, just smile and say that they have great questions. As one person says, “loss of control=loss of job.
The nice thing about the job talk is that it is the one thing you can control the most. So be prepared and enjoy the experience.
This post was originally written for graduate students in sociology. The advice applies to other fields, with suitable modifications. E.g., many fields have short interviews at annual conventions during the winter break. Sociology’s job market happens in the fall, so there are no Christmas time interviews.
Initial Remarks: The job search process is harrowing for academics. Unlike other professionals, such as doctors or lawyers, there is little guarantee that a person completing their terminal degree will land a job teaching and doing research in their area. At a top medical school, the question is if you will get the residency of your choice. At a top graduate program, it’s often doubtful that someone will be offered a job at all. Despite this difficult situation, I believe that you can prepare yourself and greatly improve the chance that you will get an academic job. What follows are my opinions on junior level academic job searches, with an emphasis on sociology.
Question 1: Should I go on the job market?
Answer: You get 1 point for each “yes” to the following questions. The more points you score, the better prepared you will be for the job market. As usual, adjust for your field. For example, in short clock fields, where you leave after 4 years, you probably won’t have the chance to publish much.
- 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)
Of course, you should always consult with your committee so that everybody is aware of your progress and you are get feedback on your writing. If you have published an article, make sure your committee knows about it. If you have decent drafts of some dissertation chapters, make sure your committee sees them.
I also note that few people can answer “yes” to the all of the questions. But you need to have *something* going for you.
Question 2: When should I think about the job market?
Answer: In sociology, the job market starts in September. So start thinking and planning the spring or summer before the market. As you will see, there is a bit of paper work, so it behooves you to plan this ahead of time. Many fields have job markets that take off during the winter, so you have to start planning everything in the fall.
Question 3: How does the job market work? Once again, written for sociology. Adjust for your own field.
Answer: It goes something like this…
- In the spring, summer and fall, department chairs and deans will make decisions about hiring. If they decide they need people, they will advertise in the ASA job bulletin and other forums. Some departments will “scout” at the ASA meetings.
- Applications are due in the fall. Many are now due in late August, September and October.
- Your application has to have a cover letter, a CV, writing samples and 3 letters of recommendation. Work on these during the summer, so it’s ready to go in the fall. There are books that give great advice on cover letters and the rest of the paperwork. Ask your committee for help as well.
- The search committee first weeds applications based on very broad criteria by about 50%. This is based on school reputation, research areas and other easy to observe factors. Then applications are weeded by what the department really needs or wants. This produces a “long short list” of 15-20 names. The “short list” is created after close scrutiny and reading. Then people argue over who to invite for a face to face interview. This happens in Fall and early winter
- The candidates are flown out to the campus. Usually, 2-3 candidates per position. You have to give a research talk and meet people so they can see what you are like. It’s very personal at this stage. The visit includes a “job talk” – which is a 30-45 minute presentation of your research in a public forum.
- After everybody interviews, the department makes a final choice. Sometimes they don’t get the first choice and will go after second/third choices. This process can take many months. Some departments will choose not to hire people.
Question 4: How do I write a cover letter?
Answer: It’s pretty standard. Your letter is addressed to the search committee or department chair, as listed in the advertisement. The first paragraph explains who you are and what job your are applying for. “My name is Fabio Rojas. I am a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago and I am applying for an assistant professor position at Indiana University as listed in the ASA bulletin.”
For research intensive schools, the next two or three paragraphs explain your research and publications in terms that people in your discipline can understand. A little self promotion is ok. Mention publications in fancy journals, or that you won dissertation of the year award. Don’t mention people who endorse you (“My adviser is highly regarded XX.”) The next to last paragraph should mention teaching, For teaching schools, it’s the reverse. The big chunk of the letter is about teaching experience. Research accomplishments are second. Overall, cover letters are about 2 pages, sometimes 3.
Question 5: How do I prepare my self for an interview?
- Be prepared. If you are prepared, then you will be relaxed and you will give a better impression.
- People will ask you predictable questions. “What will you teach?” “What will you do after your dissertation?” Prepare some answers. These are obvious questions.
- Learn about the dept. you will visit. Read the web site, look at some papers published by faculty. I’m always fascinated by what other people are working on.
- Be nice. Even if you have an intellectual disagreement with someone’s research, be open and generous when you meet them.
- Humor and demeanor: Be “vanilla” – don’t swear or be sarcastic. Your friends may find you funny, but somebody who doesn’t know you might find your jokes raw and wicked humor off-putting.
- Never badmouth anybody. If someone asks you a question about a professor you hate, like: “I heard Professor X is awful.” Simply say, “Professor X has always been kind and generous towards me.” Or if you can’t say that without hysterically laughing, say, “Professor X’s research is really admirable.”
- Be honest. It’s better to emphasize your good points rather than mislead. If you hate math, don’t say you can teach regression. If you think post-modernism is for the birds, don’t say you’ll teach cultural sociology. Just move the conversation towards your strong points.
- Appearance: You don’t need an Armani suit to succeed but wear nice clothes. Have them dry cleaned. Make sure they fit. Guys should wear jacket and tie. Ladies should wear blouses. In our modern age, the ladies can wear slacks. Have your hair and nails cut, brush your teeth, etc. Simple things go a long way. Trust me.
- Other etiquette. Use common sense – be nice toward people, don’t get drunk during social events, take a real interest in others.
Question 6: See the next grad skool rulz (#26).
Question 7: Bad situations. Sometimes interviews have awkward moments. For example, in the real world, some people will make sexual advances towards others or engage in some form of harassment. If the behavior is mild, it’s probably best to ignore them. Life has bad moments you have to endure. If it’s more serious, then you should definitely say something like, “I don’t think that’s appropriate.” If the behavior is really off the wall, feel free to contact the department chair or to consult with someone you trust. It’s often the case that boorish behavior is part of a larger pattern, and others will know how to handle it, or at least make things tolerable until the end of the interview. The key is to get help and not let things get out of control.
Question 8: Success. After the interview, the department will decide who will get a job offer. This is out of your control – once you’ve completed the interview, it depends on budgets, personalities and other factors. In some departments, the chair makes final decisions and in others, committees make the decision. In most cases, the offer has to be approved by the dean or some other academic manager. The department chair usually does the work of contacting job candidates and formally offering the job. An offer consists of:
- A position (assistant professor, associate prof, etc)
- Equipment (computer, transcriptions devices, etc)
- Eesearch assistance (money or assistants)
- Other goodies (summer support, course releases, research funds, etc.)
Get this in writing! You can negotiate a lot of stuff and ask for more, but you might not always get it. Ask your committee and other job seekers what the market will bear. Get everything in writing. You usually have a few weeks to a month for negotiations. When you are done negotiating, sign the contract and mail it back. Now finish your dissertation!
Question 9: Failure. Sometimes you fail to get a job – and this is a real possibility in the academic market place. Unlike the other professions, there are relatively few academic employers and excellence in research does not always translate into success. There are two possibilities you must consider:
- You have done everything right but suffered bad luck. This is quite common. The average academic job seeker only has two or three interviews and gets a single offer. This single opportunity could be thwarted by events beyond your control. An unexpected budget cut could mean your job was eliminated at the last minute. Maybe there is an unexpected conflict over the hire. There are a million other reasons you don’t get an offer – and you will never know why!
- You are screwing up. This is also a real possibility. Ask yourself how you might have given a bad impression or otherwise made a mistake. Here are some common errors: (a) poorly prepared/delivered job talk; (b) you are no where near completing your dissertation and everybody knows it; (c) you are rude towards people when you visit and they are insulted – this is quite common; (d) your research is hard to sell; (e) you are “packaged” incorrectly – for ex, your committee thinks you are God’s gift to quantitative research but you barely understand regression; (f) you flubbed basic questions such as what you will teach and what your future research will be like. Fortunately, most job search mistakes can be fixed and you will improve your odds the next time around.
Overall, the academic job search is a dragged out, often arbitrary process. The bright side is that you can still prepare and fix your mistakes if things don’t work out. You do have a great deal of control over what happens to you.
The previous installments have addressed the issue of how to get through graduate school. But how do you know when you are done? When should you go on the job market?
You have to figure out what kind of discipline you are in. Some disciplines kick people out in 4-6 years. I call these “short clock.” Engineering, economics, and biomedical sciences fit this mold. Others are more extreme. In many cases, you can stay in graduate school for ten (!) years and still be considered “fresh.” I call these “long clock.” My own discipline, sociology, is somewhere in the middle. Some folks graduate in 5-6 years, but others are allowed to stay quite a while. The culture of your discipline determines how it is that you go about graduating.
Before moving on, I should note that staying too long can have dire consequences. Students can become unmarketable, dissertations are out of date, departments may cut funding. Students who have spent too much time in graduate school will be seen as folks who can’t get stuff done, which makes it hard to get a job. If you knew some was in grad school for 12 years with one modest publication, wouldn’t you be a little suspicious? It behooves you to figure out the norm in your field and stick to it.
Short clock disciplines: In these fields, graduate school is about two years of course work, an exam or two, and maybe a masters level paper. There is very little teaching, compared to other fields. Then, at the end of year three or four, you produce a “job market paper” which demonstrates your potential as a researcher.
Short clock disciplines do not expect much from grad students. You don’t need a long list of publications or even a terribly well developed paper – because you’ve only been working on it a year or so. These disciplines tend to rely heavily, almost exclusively, on adviser recommendations and PhD program reputation because there is not much else to go on. The bottom line is that most students who make it to candidacy will soon be kicked out, whether they like it or not. So get smart: get an adviser with a good track record and make sure your job market paper is great.
Long clock disciplines: In these fields, people take many years to complete and there is no “normal” time to degree. The humanities are notorious, as are some sciences. What happens in these fields is that you do the course work and the doctoral exam, but then you either (a) drift into massive teaching loads or (b) begin conceptualizing this vague, broad dissertation or. Either way, no one expects you to finish quickly. Six years might be considered fast.
Unlike short clock disciplines, you will not be kicked or nudged out after X years. You will be allowed to drift indefiinitely. If you don’t finish your dissertation, no one will remind you. If you dedicate all your time to teaching, no one will care. Even if you do finish your dissertation, people will sit on it for semesters and nothing will happen. To blunt, the graduate school system is not designed to help you graduate in a reasonable amount of time. It’s designed to waste your time.
So how on earth do people graduate in departments where no one lifts a finger to help you? A few paths:
- Get published: Once you get published in real journal, then many faculty will let you graduate. Why? Publication is often a prerequisite for a job. If you are published, no one feels bad about letting you go on the job market. It also shows that you are serious about your career. The higher ranked the journal, the better.
- Demand it: Sometimes you simply have to be pushy. I’ve seen cases where a person has published, written their dissertation, and still nothing happens. You just have to say (politely) “what else can I do complete my degree?” If that fails, see the graduate chair or dean. Be a jerk. If people aren’t letting you graduate, they are costing you money and wasting your time.
- Get a job: In some programs, they don’t let you graduate until you get a job. If that’s the case, graduation is actually simple. Publish first (or write a good job market paper in short clock fields). Then go on the job market (see the next rulz installment). When you get the job offer, you’ll see that the dissertation hearing gets scheduled fairly quickly.
In other words, long clock fields require that you make the active choice to graduate. You simply need to will it to happen. Scout your area and figure it out, even if it takes a year or two. May seem odd, but is it not like the rest of life? You’ll never get anywhere until you take the initiative.
Eszter recently had a good post on the role of conferences. Here’s Eszter’s other professional advice columns. I think we’d agree on many points, but not on others. Here’s my take on the conference world. Previous grad skool rulz.
First, you have to figure out how important conferences are in your discipline for publication. For example, conference proceedings are the primary publication venue in computer science. In contrast, most social sciences assign no value to most conference proceedings. Lesson: If conference proceedings matter for your discipline, you had better show up!
Second, find out the informal rules of your discipline. It’s often the case that specialized conferences and department workshops are where work gets vetted. It’s often the case that the people at these venues will be the reviewers at major journals. If you have already responded to their criticisms, it’s more likely that they will help you in the review process. In contrast, panels at national conferences are populated with a random assortment of folks. These people need to hear your ideas, but it’s not likely that it will help with regard to professionalization.
Third, there is no replacement for working hard on your research. Yes, it is good to get feedback, but too many conferences can take time away from data collection, analysis, and writing. There is definitely a trade off. One solid journal hit is more important than attending dozens of conferences.
Fourth, there are important indirect effects of conference attendance. People meet you. They can put a face to a name. You get invited to visit places to speak, even grad students. You might get invited to submit to a journal or edited volume. You might also meet people and make new friends. This is all important.
Fifth, there is conference etiquette. Most conferences have an informal dress code. Nothing fancy, but if you are giving a talk, nice slacks/jacket/dress are good. Also, people expect you to talk about your research. It’s a conference after all, so people want to hear about your work. So have a 1 sentence summary ready to go. Push your cookie!
Sixth, remember that conferences are business meetings. It’s ok to approach people for business purposes. At ASA, there are job placement services, data sales people, book editors, college deans, and people who give money out for foundations. It’s totally ok to meet these people and start a conversation – it’s the reason they showed up.
Seventh, you can go on the cheap and save money. Drive instead of fly. Student registration fees or one day fees are lower. Double up on hotel rooms. Many colleges and universities have student travel funds. Ask around. Heck, ask your mom for money.
To summarize: Conferences are useful, but not a make or break deal. You should definitely go, but don’t let it crowd out your research or teaching. When you do go, be aware that it’s a business meeting and plan accordingly.
A few weeks ago, I wrote on the importance of publishing in graduate school and how one might do it. A few folks asked for a post that describes the publication process in more detail. Here it is:
- Let’s assume that you already have a manuscript that you’ve circulated and presented multiple times. Let’s assume that it’s a journal article, and not some other form of publication. Now you want to take the big step and get it in print.
- Choose a target. As I wrote before, you probably want to start with a top journal, a respected specialty journal, or a respected regional journal. Ask around if you don’t know the hierarchy of your field.
- Go to the journal web site and make sure the paper is in the right format. Social Science Quarterly, for example, is very insistent on short papers. AJS, for example, routinely publishes longer papers. Editors will tolerate a little fuzziness about length, but they will return a paper if it is way too long (e.g., the limit is 30 pages and the paper is 60).
- Write a cover letter that briefly explains the purpose of the paper. If you are in an unusual field (e.g., Eskimo linguistics), you might want to provide names of possible reviewers.
- Should I suggest reviewers? If you are asked, it might help. But otherwise, don’t do it. Why? You have no idea who is a speedy or fair reader. Why recommend someone who might tank you? Sleep better at night by letting the editors choose reviewers. Remember, that’s their job.
- Upload/send it out once it’s in the format.
What happens next? Journals vary a bit, but it usually goes something like this:
- The journal is run by a bunch of folks: the editors who make the final decisions; the associate editors, who help the editor but usually don’t have final say; the editorial board – a few dozen scholars who agree to review papers but do not formulate decisions; the managing editors, a secretarial person who does all the paper work. Most editors/editorial board members are scholars/scientists/professors. Managing editors can be a professor, student, or a clerical person.
- The managing editor is the person in charge of shepherding the paper from submission to final decision. This is the person you contact for normal questions like “Did you guys get my paper?” Smaller journals may not have a separate managing editor.
- The journal editor, associate editors, and the managing editor may look at the paper and make a snap judgment about whether the paper fits or is good enough to be reviewed. Soc journals will review most papers if it at least looks plausible, while biological journals will often “bench reject” about 50% of submissions.
- Once the paper is deemed reviewable, the main or associate editor will assign reviewers. How does that happen? A few ways – people who are well known for work in your area may be asked to read the paper; perhaps an associate editor or editorial board member will write a review; they may look at the references and say “if person X is cited, they must be an expert.” If the paper is deemed to be of low quality, a graduate student may be asked to review it.
- Mix of reviewers: Varies a lot. Some journals will rely heavily on the editorial board. Some may mix between a famous person and a new person.
- Once the reviewer agrees to read the paper, they get a hard or electronic copy and a form they have to fill out. Usually, they are asked to grade the paper on some scale, provide comments for the author, and confidential comments for the editor.
- Number of reviews: Varies a lot. If a paper is atrocious in the eyes of the editor, they may simply wait for one review and reject. Most journals will try to get 2-4 reviews. If a review is incompetently done, they may try another reviewer. As a former managing editor and student editor, my belief is that it usually takes about 5-6 requests to get 2-3 decent reviews.
- Once the editor or relevant associate editor reads your paper and the reviews, they make a judgment: accept (with possibly require revisions); revise and resubmit; and reject.
- How do they decide? In most cases, it’s obvious. At the most competitive journals, a lot of papers get 2-3 negative reviews, so it’s easy to make the decision. If the reviews are truly ambiguous, the editor may read the paper herself, or ask for additional advice from associate editors or other scholars. Then, they just have to be the decider!
- What counts as good? In general, well written articles that work within the mainstream do well at many journals. Thus, you should try to show mastery of contemporary ideas and methods. There’s also luck – some reviewers may have a soft spot for your ideas. Connections matter as well – scholars and editors may be more generous to friends. And of course, there will always be editors who just have a special gift for identifying what’s truly original and innovative and they’re willing to go with a cool idea, even if the reviewers didn’t get it.
- The author receives a letter with the decision and copies of comments written by reviewers. Some editors will write a long explanation of the decision, while others will stick to short form letters.
- How long does this take? In many fields, about 1 month to process the paper, 2-3 months to wait for reviews, 1 month for make the final decision. About 4-6 months is decent. Some journals fall into disarray each stage can take forever. Editors don’t have time to read papers; managing editors are lazy about getting reviews; etc. In some areas, it can take a year or more to get a decision.
Eek! I just opened my journal decision letter! What does it mean?
- Accept or accept contingent on revisions: This is good news! Take the afternoon off! Just do the revisions ASAP and get that guy into print.You’ll have to format the paper in the way demanded by the journals and correct the proofs. You’ll see paper copies (if they still exist) in about a year. An accept on the first round is fairly uncommon in most fields.
- Revise and resubmit: Technically, your paper has been rejected, but the editor thinks it might be publishable if certain changes are made. We’ll talk about R&R’s in some detail below. But this is good news!!!
- Reject: :( Don’t feel so bad. Everyone has rejected papers. It’s actually the most common outcome in most decent journals.
Let’s get into detail about R&R and reject. Let’s start with R&R:
- With an R&R, you’ve been given the option to revise. What should you do? In most cases, you should revise the paper and give it another shot. Why? With the current journal, you have a decent chance at getting something out of the process. An R&R means that the editor finds *something* valuable and is seriously considering your paper. If you go to another journal, you usually have to start all over again with no promises.
- Once in a while, you decide that revision isn’t a great idea. For example, if you are persuaded that the revisions are literally impossible, or completely stupid, you might try another journal. If the editor acts strangely, then maybe it’s not worth the effort. But this is rare. You should almost always revise.
- After you read the letter and the comments, put it away for a few days and try to mellow out and develop some distance.
- Read the comments, both from the editor and the reviewers and try to summarize them. Then make a “to do” list of specific recommendations (“you have to cite this,” “use robust standard errors,” etc.). Then do as many of these things as possible.
- Then think again about the gestalt of the paper and the reviews. How does it all fit together? How can you rewrite the paper so that it will still be readable and offer a coherent argument?
- Once you’ve shown the paper to people and you feel that you’ve put in 110%, write the revision memo. That’s a document where you explain in detail what you changed. In general, I recommend extreme detail so that you show reviewers that you took what they said seriously. Also, sometimes you simply can’t do what everyone asked, so explain why and do so clearly and in detail. Write a new cover letter with a paragraph or two explaining how the new paper has addressed the reviewer comments.
- Then send the whole bundle back to the journal.
- The R&R process varies. Some journals have editors read the new paper “in house.” Others will send it back to the old reviewers, some will mix, and some will (frustratingly) send it back to completely new reviewers. You really don’t have control over this.
Reject – what does it mean? Here you have to be brutally honest and ask why you have failed. A good piece of advice is that nearly any paper can be improved. But aside from that generic advice, here’s more detailed ideas:
- Maybe the paper is good, but not a good fit for the journal. You can tell if this is the case if the reviewers says “this is a good paper and it’s a solid contribution, but to another field.” Solution: Do a few minor revisions, and send it back out immediately to a new journal.
- Maybe the reviewers just didn’t get it or they are incompetent. It happens. Sometimes you have an idea that the readers just didn’t dig. Once again, send it out ASAP to a new journal.
- Maybe your paper has some real issues. Read the reviews. If they raise a lot of good points, then maybe your paper isn’t ready yet. So be honest with yourself. We can all improve and the reviewers are doing you a favor. If three reviewers all say, “Y needs fixing,” then they’re likely right. So go back to the woodshed and do the recommended fixes.
- Maybe your paper is just bad. It happens. We have a cool idea and our friends agree. But reviewer X points out a devastating logical flaw. Suck it up and put it to sleep.
- Appealing decisions: Once in a while you feel that something just wasn’t right. If you can logically explain why the decision was in error (and not just vent), an editor may change her mind. Doesn’t happen often, but it’s worth considering in extreme cases.
- When can I send a rejected paper back to the same journal? In general, once a paper is rejected, send it to a new journal. But in some cases, you may want to go back. For example, if it’s a flagship journal, an acceptance can be a career maker. So here’s my advice: send it back if the paper has been truly revised and is really different. If you did all the changes and it’s way better, then send it back.
- Mixed reviews. Sometimes the reviews are all over. In that case, just do what seems reasonable and send it out ASAP.
- Bottom line: Keep sending them out. If you work hard at revising your work, you’ll get accepted sooner or later. And volume is often the key.
Finally: Where should I send rejected papers? The rule of thumb is: start at the top and let the editors decide where it lands. Some scholars, especially at elite research departments, will only bother with the top. Here’s my view: unless the paper is logically flawed or just lame, the paper was written for a reason, to bring knowledge. Who says that the top 10 journals have a monopoly on knowledge? We should all aim high, but we shouldn’t let career ambition impede our core mission: generating knowledge. And we sometimes have to go to small outlets to make that happen.
Here’s the bottom line: modern academia is about publishing. Even if you intend on working at a teaching institution, most respectable programs will require that you publish and maintain your active involvement in the scholarly community. Furthermore, if you wish to compete for a research oriented job or top liberal arts college, you must demonstrate an ability to publish in well regarded journals.
So let’s start with an easy question: Who has to publish?
- If you want a good job in most disciplines, you will need to publish something while in grad school.
- Exception 1: Some technical fields have a short time to degree and it is impossible to do anything except complete coursework and write a job market paper. Econ and engineering fit into this mold. It’s all in the unpublished job market paper and sponsorship by disciplinary elites.
- Exception 2: In some qualitative areas, books are the norm, so hiring committees are a little less obsessed about early publications.
- Caveat: Even if you are in a field that is an exception, you will benefit if you can get a good publication.
The harder question – what counts as publishable?
- Learn by reading books and journals in your area.
- Read what your adviser and professors publishes.
- Usually, it has to be a contribution to knowledge. In other words, it has to tell us something that we didn’t know before.
Next question: where should I publish?
- Every discipline has an informal, but well known, ranking of journals.
- Every field has around 2-5 top journals (In soc: ASR/AJS and many people see SF and Soc Problems as close behind).
- Every field has journals that serve specific specialties. (Org Studies: ASQ. Education: Soc of Education).
- There are well regarded “regional journals” run by professional associations (Soc Quarterly, Soc Perspectives).
- If you want a good job, you will sooner or later have to publish in one or more of these journals. People who get fly outs for good programs usually have one or two pubs in these venues.
- It’s also cool to publish in the journals in related fields – but only if you can persuasively argue that it’s appropriate. E.g., an applied stats person might try to land a piece in JASA. A population studies person might try Demography.
- If you are in a book intensive field, you might try to get a contract in your last year or so of grad school.
- In general, I’d avoid smaller more specialized journals until you get at least one or two higher profile hits in top tier, specialty or good regional journals.
How do I actually get published?
- What counts as publishable is a topic that deserves its own post. But suffice to say that it varies from area to area. Read a lot and talk a lot to figure it out.
- Once that you’ve produced a manuscript, go to the journal website. Now, you can submit through the web site or just mail it to the editor. A few “old school” journals will require paper copies.
- In general, start with more prestigious journals and work your way down. Why? High prestige journals will draw more attention to your work and they have more resources for fast review. They also tend to have better reviewers. I don’t necessarily mean start with journal #1, but start with a journal that most people consider to be highly regarded and bounce around. Then move to smaller journals after that.
- Get a thick skin. Every academic has piles and piles of rejection letters.
Should I work solo? With a team? What about authorship?
- Working with a team: Pros – teams produce things faster and benefit from a division of labor. Team members (older faculty) may have the connections and knowledge to make the project get published. Also, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There’s a lot less risk. Cons – easy to lose your identity and not get credit. Remember, there’s little reward for being author #8 on four articles.
- Working solo/small team: Pros – more freedom to design your own research. You get the lion’s share of the credit. Cons: Since you’re charting unknown waters, there’s a lot more risk.
- In general, the higher the author’s name in the list, the more credit. After three or four authors, no one notices your name and people may assume your an RA on the project, rather than a contributor. If you are working with faculty or on a team, have a discussion with the team leader/faculty member about how you can get the proper recognition for your contribution.
Let’s talk about some myths:
- Do I need a million publications to get a job? Not really. If you have one or two good ones, that’s enough.
- Is it all an insider’s game? Academia, like any job, has its fair share of gaming the system. All older academics will regale you with stories of “such and such got published because the editor was a friend.” So what? That’s life. But academia is also remarkably open. In soc, we have our four lead general journals, about 5-10 high quality specialty journals, some excellent regional journals, and many more respected journals that don’t fit the mold (i.e., Theory & Society, Poetics, etc.) If you try really heard and put out your best work, I promise you’ll get good results
If you have more ideas about publishing as a grad student, please put them in the comments.
Few weeks ago, I dedicated an edition of the grad skool rulz to the subject of when to quit. The comments were good and a number of questions were raised. Fellow blogger and awesome culture researcher Jenn Lena wrote:
A whille back, I was asked to give a talk about life as a professor to minority undergraduate students who were contemplating the academic career. Of course, I recommended that they read the grad skool rulz. I gave them the basics of academic life – it’s about knowledge production, being professional, etc. But I also threw in additional comments for students of color. Here’s what I wrote:
- The era of overt discrimination has ended. Seriously. It is extremely rare for people to be denied admission to graduate school, or appointment to the faculty, because they belong to the wrong ethnic group. Nobody will stand up and say “we don’t hire X here.” People now understand that is unethical. It is also illegal.
- However, people of color often have to counter certain misconceptions. I honestly believe that most people in academia know racism is wrong. Most people will treat you fairly. At the same time, certain people may have prejudices that affect their judgments of individuals. It may not even be conscious. Unfortunately, students of color may be seen as inferior and you might have to prove yourself twice over to get the same reward. Be prepared to go the extra distance.
- Treat your graduate career as a job that deserves respect. If you are lazy, late, or otherwise show poor performance, you will be penalized, often more so than others. Even if people let you slide, you will get a bad reputation that can be hard to shake. As a person of color, you might not get a second chance. Get your act together.
- Do not depend on affirmative action. Its importance is exaggerated. It is true that many graduate programs have affirmative action in admissions, but that’s the end of the game. While a few professors are hired to fill quotas, almost every hire I have seen at the faculty level was debated on the merits of the person’s research, especially in competitive universities. Few get promoted at any decent school without some serious record of publication.
- Affirmative action colors people’s perceptions. Ironically, a lot of people think the faculty is filled with armies of affirmative action hires. Strangely, these critics fail to notice that most major university departments, except for area studies (e.g., African Studies), are not filled with minority faculty members. Despite that fact, you will still be seen by many as an affirmative action case. You will have to prevail over this misconception.
- Do not work with a professor just because they are black/latino/female/etc. Why? The most important trait of a faculty member is that they have a track record of helping students publish and land good jobs. There is no benefit to working with an African American professor if they are a jerk, or if they haven’t published anything decent in years. Just as you wouldn’t want your ethnicity to affect how people judge your work, you shouldn’t judge potential advisers based on their ethnicity. Go for quality.
- Be nice to people. For some reason, students of color sometimes get the idea that they have to be abrasive and act tough. There is no reason for you to do this, even if some faculty don’t treat minority students well. Instead, be courteous. Without being unctuous, you should return email, say hello to both students and professors, and be a decent person. Don’t let people take advantage of you, but if you can lend a hand to someone who needs a little help, do so.
- Finally, understand that this is the beginning of your career. It’s not longer about getting good grades – it’s about research output. Everything you do in graduate school should be about getting you closer to working on research. Read the big journals, catch up on all the current theory, build networks with other scholars, and submit your work to those leading journals. Don’t wait for things to happen. Make yourself into the person you want to be!
As usual, please feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments section.
Graduate school is tough for everyone, but in different ways. A few weeks ago, I asked female scholars and graduate students to share their thoughts for the benefit of women working their way through the academic system. Here’s what they said….
- Spouses: A common theme was that women have to really work extra hard to manage their partner’s expectations. Sadly, a lot of men seem not to support their spouses in the academic track: “My talks with others and my own experience suggests that, in general, male non-academic partners are somewhat less supportive of grad school than female non-academic partners. For everyone, being partnered to someone who is not in grad school is difficult but women grad students seem to struggle more with this.” I think this really underscores what I wrote here about family before. Women have to go the extra mile to make sure that their partner knows what an academic career is about and they have to be willing to stand by you 100%. If they don’t “get it,” then you have to sit down with the partner and have a serious talk.
- Family Planning: The unfortunate truth right now is that having children is a career penalty (see this ASA report). So when should someone have children? The ASA report says there is no “right time,” though multiple people have suggested to me that the time is between course work and the job market. I’ll leave it to the readers to assess this claim for themselves. However, what can be agreed upon is that the career hit can be lessened with the use of institutional, social, or financial resources. So seek out your university’s policies regarding funding and children, look for inexpensive quality child care, import relatives for help. Maybe your country, state, or city(e.g., Europe) has child care resources. Resource planning seems to be the issue here.
- Confidence: Numerous respondents addressed this issue. Academia is often a game of seminar room aggression. Many scholars said that women graduate students need to learn that they are not “impostors” and that you have to assert yourself in class and at conferences. Good words: “Women often walk a fine line between being considered too nice or sweet and being pushy, arrogant or bitchy when giving critiques. Graduate school can be an excellent laboratory for figuring out how to be assertive yet constructive.Use seminars and talks as a chance to watch how others give constructive feedback and express their opinions.Figure out how to assert yourself without being arrogant/condescending or without backing down when someone disagrees with you. This is not an easy thing to do – but it’s worth spending some time on.”
- The Old Boys Network: Another issue that men are much more common in many in subfields and it can lead women students to feel out of the loop, even if it is unintentional. Sometimes, women will be excluded from social activities because it might seem inappropriate (e.g., going drinking after seminar). First, as one respondent wrote, it doesn’t mean that you’ll be left out of everything. UItimately, you are judged on your research and teaching. The person who raised this issue even commented that she has succeeded quite well, but it was extremely awkward for her. Second, you can actually show up to these events most of the time. Unless it’s a personal 1 on 1, you can crash most quasi-academic events (snacks, drinks, etc).
- Being the Listener: Students treat their female instructors like their moms or like a free therapist. One correspondent wrote: “Female teachers are more likely to get students who tell them very personal stories about themselves and, in general, look to the female faculty member (or TA) for nurturing. This is really strange if you’re not expecting it and difficult even if you are..” I’ll actually add my own strong opinion here. You don’t have to become the department therapist. Many campuses actually have paid therapists students can go to. It’s not your job. I’d suggest that you kindly listen to the student’s issue, wish them the best, and if they need more help, ship them to the right office.
- Harassment: I’ll add my own view here because it’s actually pretty cut and dry. The university department is like any other workplace. Co-workers and bosses should talk respectfully to each other and keep their hands to themselves. If a student is harassed (rude talk, quid pro quo for sexual favors, a nasty work environment), document it immediately and talk to a knowledgeable third person who can help you. Do not tolerate boorishness and, if possible, truncate relationships where one person is clearly expecting something other than academic work. Also, do this in a respectful way so that you can continue and complete your degree. You’ll learn by consulting with other trustworthy people. Finally, exercise some judgment – sometimes it’s best just to ignore the person if the behavior is harmless.
- Paternalism: A number of people mentioned the fact that many older men will still call their adult female students things like “honey,” “sweety,” etc. I really don’t know what else to add, other than to say that you should beware. If that’s all, maybe you can let it slide. But if it’s coupled with other behavior, you should avoid them.
- Your team, network and Mentors: Many people emphasized the need to build networks and find a mentor. Get more than one friend or mentor to give you a variety of opinions. One person emphasized that it’s important not to insulate yourself with your network. A cohort of supportive female doctoral students can help each other deal with the program, not become a substitute for the program. Help and support are what’s needed, not isolation.
I’ll end with these insightful words: “You didn’t get to where you are because you played according to gender stereotypes, which, as you know, are socially constructed and wrong even if they have a pervasive, pernicious lingering effect. Read bell hooks and Paolo Freire (critical pedagogy), and Power, Race, and Gender in the Academe by Shirley Geok-Lim. Feel empowered. Feel (some) responsibility. Be a good student and institutional citizen by speaking up in class, going to office hours, going to paper talks, presenting your own work, forming the networking connections you know you’ll need now and later, and competing for those plum teaching assignments and fellowships and post-docs. Try to ignore the imposter syndrome. You deserve it, and you owe it to yourself to believe in yourself. That said, recognize that you are human, that sometimes institutional factors and lingering stereotypes and subtle discrimination can hamper even the best of our efforts. So, don’t blame yourself if you can’t get everything, can’t get everything done, and can’t do everything. You don’t have to be a super human, much less Superwoman. You don’t have to believe yourself responsible for all of womankind in ___ discipline.”
I’ve only been on the other side of the PhD for five years and I haven’t had chaired any dissertations, but I do feel that I should at least mention what faculty can do to help grad students finish in a reasonable time, barring a Skocpol style incentive system.
Grad students have lives and they need you: It’s easy for professors to get wrapped up in their own publications and promotions and forget that grad students need your time if they are ever to proceed with their own lives. I am not saying you should martyr yourself and spend all time on graduate students, but you should periodically ask “what can I do *this* semester to help my students move along in their career?”
Expectations: Like all ventures, explain to your graduate students – over and over – what you expect. From the beginning. Write it down. Also try to gauge their expectations. If they want an R1 career, make it clear what they will need an exceptional dissertation or a top journal hit. Teaching colleges require less spectacular research but a big teaching portfolio. Be clear on what kind of support you can provide, both socially and academically.
Timeliness: This is real important – respond to dissertation drafts and letters of recommendation in a timely manner. Don’t you hate it when reviewer C takes a year to read your paper? Well, guess what? Your students feel the same way. Every semester you fail to graduate someone because you couldn’t take the time to read a chapter literally costs a grad student thousands of dollars in lost income.
Calm Criticism: It’s entirely legitimate to tell a student that they need to work hard and do better. However, it’s never useful to do so in a way that demoralizes the student. Be stern and demanding, but be nice, constructive and uplifting. On a related note, avoid changing the goalposts or providing ambiguous advice. Consistency is a virtue.
Stability: Academia is full of divas. Don’t be that way. You should be the stable coach who taps into the right emotional pool to help students move on with their lives. Don’t turn mentorship into another stage for acting out your bad side.
Reasonableness: Set research goals that your students can acheive and where there can be a reasonable time table for the completion of the project in a few years.. Also be prepared to help students work to acheive those goals, instead of letting them figure it out for themselves.
Match students with goals: Notch expectations to ability and career goals. The student gunning for R1 needs an advisor who will demand good work, but the person aiming for community college teaching merely needs to produce a satisfactory dissertation. Also, remember that if you have PhD students, you are probably a respected, if not leading, member of your academic community. You are the best. In contrast, your students may not be. Most will not engage in the research career that you have. Your talent and career may not be theirs. Set goals that both produce quality scholarship and allow them to work toward goals that match their ability and desires.
Gentle Triage: This is tough, but needed. You have to really see which graduate students are willing and able to complete the program. Help people make the decision to pursue academia or another career. On the other hand, don’t “write off” students just because they aren’t perfect. Remember, many leading scholars failed a grad school test or acted like morons 30 years ago in that seminar. Give people second, third and fourth chances. Tolerate people who work differently than you do and don’t automatically dismiss them.
Selection: Accept students who you think you can have productive relationships with based on research focus or personality. It’s ok to turn down students if the fit is bad. This is the flip side of grad skool rulz #7.
Face to face time: Get ’em in the office. Frequently, at least a few times a semester. Take ’em out to lunch. Anything to keep them on the wagon.
Let them shine: It’s often the case the students apprentice on the mentor’s projects. That’s great, but make sure they complete their own work as well so they don’t look like they’re just your research assistant.
They are future professors: Above all, these are adults who have begun a career. Treat them with dignity and respect.
R1 faculty, please add your own advice in the comments, especially if you have a solid track record placing PhD students.
A few months ago, I asked about grad school and family life, which resulted in a very useful discussion. Here’s my summary of what people said, with a few of my own comments thrown in, about family and graduate school.
Communication: Your family probably doesn’t understand that graduate school is a job. You have to show up and do work every day, or you will never get done. It’s not like undergraduate school, where you can wait till the last minute to do stuff. Passing exams and publishing your first papers can take months, even years, of prep work. Your family has to fully understand that.
Boundaries: Becoming an academic is about acquiring skills and you need time to yourself to work on your materials. Thus, your spouse/partner needs to give you the space to do that. Therefore, schedule “work time” or “alone time” where the partner does their own thing or watches children while you get your job done.
Expectations: Explain to your family what needs to be done and what the likely outcomes are. Explain early on that you will probably have to move after graduation, perhaps to a small college town. If you tell your partner and family well in advance, then they can adjust and have reasonable expectations.
Give back: Don’t let grad school completely consume you. Make time for your spouse, kids, and friends. Not only is it fair for them, but you’ll feel better, too.
Tell your mentors: If you have a sick family member, or other serious family issue, tell your mentors and friends. Even if they can’t directly help, the moral support is needed. Then, of course, a few of them might be able to help in concrete ways.
Don’t Wait: I thank Chris Uggen for making this point. If you want to start a family and you are ready, “now” is usually the best time to start. You only live once and you will have the rest of your life with your family and kids, while the bumpiness of grad school is temporary. With good work habits and an understanding family, you’ll get through just fine.
Pay for help if you can afford it: A few people, off line, said that you should pay for help if you can. This can include house cleaning, take out food, baby sitting, day care, have someone mow the lawn, etc. It’s good advice. First, you can concentrate on quality family time instead of house work, and it will free up time for your academic work. Second, while you can always get more money, you can never get back time. And if you have that spouse who’s already making money, this is easy advice to take.
There is much more to be said here, please add your own comments.
Yesterday’s post generated some good discussion:
1. My point is that you should minimize the number of grad school teaching gigs and try to be as efficient as you can with your time. Be smart with time spent teaching so you can complete articles and books. Being efficient is not an excuse for poor teaching or ignoring the obligation to our students.
2. Both Jessica and Jacob raised the question: is it not good to get *some* experience teaching in graduate school? I agree that there is something to be said for exposing students to teaching, especially for people oriented towards liberal arts. I also agree that having at least one course prepped can be a life saver on the tenure track. Perhaps this is best summarized as “teach only if it has a direct and concrete benefit.”
3 . Mike3550 had some good advice that I quote at length:
….Be sure to meet with the professor of record BEFORE classes start to get a sense of the class and to figure out where the bulk of the work is going to come (e.g. midterm assignments, tests, quizzes, etc.). You often have the advantage of not having to prep a course, but it also means that you don’t necessarily have control over when major workloads occur. But, if you meet before the syllabus is handed out, many professors are willing to work with you on the scheduling.
…Refer questions that do not relate to your TA duties to the professor of record — kind of like shifting basic skills to the appropriate department, shift questions about the reason that content was added, departmental requirements, etc. to the professor (”You should try and meet with Prof. X. His office hours are 1-3pm on Fridays and, if you can’t make that, I’m sure he’d be willing to schedule an appointment).
Have all students use a header in their e-mails to ask questions [e.g. SOC 100 – Subject] and create an e-mail filter to filter those e-mails. Then, schedule time to respond to e-mail. Student e-mail, more than any other area for me, was a HUGE time-suck. It was easy to say, oh this will only take 5 minutes and respond. But, those 5 min chunks add up. And, often, I ended up spending those 5 minutes repeatedly answering the same question. If I had waited, I would have realized that I was getting the same question and sent an e-mail to the entire class list.
Also, I had a very clear e-mail policy. On week days, expect a 24-hour turn-around on e-mails and anything sent on Saturday or Sunday would not be answered until Monday evening.
4. What about job hiring? Don’t teaching records matter? It’s about context. At the liberal arts schools and other teaching intensive institutions, teaching matters a lot – but not until you have demonstrated research competence. That makes teaching efficiency even more important – you have to complete a few articles *AND* get solid evaluations. Manage your time!
At research intensive schools, teaching is important, but not until you have shown productivity in decent journals. And to be honest, I have seen a number of people hired with little or no classroom experience, but I have never seen someone hired at a leading school with good teaching and no publications. Research justifies teaching, not the other way around.
5. Finally, am I saying, as Mike Netzley suggested, that we shouldn’t strive to be both excellent in teaching and research? Not at all. However, there are times where you have to make a choice. For leading liberal arts and research schools, you have to focus on the bottom line – getting that crucial first publication. That means being stingy with time and doing exactly what is needed (and nothing more) to become a good instructor. Once you get the job and get tenured, you can do all the things that will win you best campus teacher honors. But until then – treat your time as more important than money. At least you can get more money, but you can’t buy more time.
Click here for previous grad skool rulz.
Here’s all you need to know about teaching as a PhD student: Don’t teach in graduate school, unless you are targeting the liberal arts college market or it’s a requirement for the degree or financial aid. If you teach, do it well and commit the smallest amount of time and resources.
Shocked? You shouldn’t be. Ask yourself the following question: what justifies a professor’s position in a university?Teaching the subtleties of Attic Greek or Durkheim’s social theory to 20 year olds? No, you justify your position with your research reputation. No research university has built its reputation by finding the best intro French instructors around, though some research faculty develop exceptional teaching skills. If you are serious about the faculty track, research output is the name of the game. Teaching is a bonus and departments often assume that if you can do research in an area, you can usually teach it, even if you have never done it before. Actual teaching experience is usually not a major factor in hiring, aside from the liberal arts schools. In most cases, teaching is inferred from research.
What about the liberal arts colleges? Well, if you look, top liberal arts faculty usually have distinguished publication records, especially in the humanities and social sciences. It’s the international reputation that motivates the $30k+ tuition at these schools. Teaching skill compliments research output, it doesn’t displace it.
The question is: how do you teach well but efficiently? Here’s some tips:
- Students care that you deliver real content; treat them nice; are speedy, fair, and reasonable in grading; and provide a good classroom experience. Therefore, your work is a waste if it’s not addressing these points.
- Students don’t care how much you prep the class. They can’t tell the difference between a person who spent 5 hours and 5 minutes on a test. Once you get the hang of lecture notes and hand outs, write them quickly and efficiently. Make sure all lectures have one or two solid take home points. They care about class time experience, not how hard you work.
- Spend a little time thinking about at least a few fun and memorable topics in your class. Good evaluations are based on people’s positive memories of learning.
- Spend a little time thinking about the context of the class and what you can do to make it work for both you and the students. An intro soc and senior seminar are way different and you’ll run into problems if you treat them the same. You’ll save a lot of time if you invest a little in figuring what students are looking for and how you can efficiently meet that need and deliver quality content.
- Optimize grading. If the department can provide a grader, that’s great. If you have to do it yourself, optimize. For example, I can’t find out what a student has learned in 5 questions, but I can usually find out with about 30 questions. Therefore, I never write exams that are longer than 30 questions. The students also feel better that I am not wasting their time with endless tests or assignments.
- In the humanities and social sciences, you can usually mix in some speakers, project presentations, and films. These free up time and they actually help students learn if they are well chosen.
- Provide as much as you can online. Personally, I put everything online such as lecture notes, answer keys, syllabus, assignments, and announcements. Helps reduce the # of students who eat up time with mundane bureaucratic matters.
- Grant all reasonable student requests. If you are efficient with class prep and grading, it will be easy to accommodate the occasional student request at almost no extra cost to yourself. You will also buy good will with all those folks and reduce complaints.
- Shift all basic skills students to appropriate units in the university. If the person does not have basic English or math skills, don’t take it upon yourself to teach them (unless it is your job). Simply tell them that you aren’t qualified as a basic skills teacher and it is their responsibility to go to office X and sign up for remedial skills tutoring. Most universities have offices now addressing such issues.
- Re-use and recycle. Borrow other people’s syllabi and other materials. Use old class materials for next semester’s class. Sure, you will be bored once in a while, but that hour spent writing new lecture notes after class can be spent doing research. Once you are tenured, you can try new and creative ideas in class.
- Time budget: Once a week, have class prep time where you complete any teaching work that was not done in class or in office hours (which are often empty). If you do teaching work outside that time slot, then you have to be more efficient.
In a nutshell: prep and grade quickly; deliver real content and create a positive class experience; and do anything reasonable to create good will among students, long as it doesn’t make more work for you. Once you master these ideas, you’ll see that you will enjoy teaching more. You can spend that hour with a student talking about Foucault instead of worrying about grading that marathon 85 question short answer exam.
Click here for previous grad skool rulz.
Your dissertation committee has to approve your dissertation before you graduate. They can also serve as mentors and coaches who can help you reach your professional goals. Therefore, it’s crucial that cultivate a strong working relationship with them. Here are some guidelines:
- You should have the most contact with your committee chair. That is the person whose opinion of your dissertation will matter the most. Most of the time, if they approve your work, the rest of the committee wll go along.
- You should give your chair *frequent* drafts of chapters and if possible, give them an entire draft of the dissertation way before you expect to defend. No semster should go by without the chair getting something substantial from you.
- Follow these rules even if you live far away from campus and you are doing field work. Get in the habit of sending material to your chair with some frequency. Do not be silent for a year or two and then show up with a complete manuscript. Of course, it’s better than not completing at all, but give people a long time to read you work.
- In general, give the rest of your committee frequent drafts way before defending the dissertation. Perhaps not as many as you would give your chair, but every person in your committee should get at least one draft of all the key chapters before they get the final product before the defense. Every committee member should feel as they have had a chance to help you at least through one version of the manuscript. You can talk with your chair to get a sense of how well developed the work has to be before you ask other folks to read it.
- Face to face action is important. Show up to the department and let people you know you live. When you talk with people, give them a sense of when you want to go on the job market.
- Keep writing while you wait for responses! Work on an article or other dissertation chapter. Don’t waste your time waiting. be constructive.
What can you expect from people in return for all this effort? In general, the chair should return some comments to you within a couple of months. It’s kind of like a journal article review. It’ll take a while. You might expect the same from a second reader, but expect little in return from “outside” readers unless they really, really, really like you. Few third readers will spend much time, unless their expertise is genuinely needed.
Hopefully, you will have a committee of helpful people. But sometimes there are some difficult issues.
- Tardiness: If a person takes more than a semester to get back to you, they may need a gentle reminder. Often, a friendly email or office visit will work. It’s quite often that a non-urgent dissertation chapter draft gets lost when emergencies pop up.
- Complete non-response: Sometimes gentle reminders get no results at all. Some professors simply abandon their responsibilities to students. Sadly, I’ve seen it happen a little too often. What you should do is (a) document that you actually gave the person the draft and (b) start working with someone else who will help you. Why? Basically, there is little a graduate student can do to make a professor do anything. If they are unable or unwilling to help, through hostility or simply being overwhelmed by life, you aren’t going to change that. Start getting help with your research from someone else. Sometimes, no comments at all on returned work may indicate that the person has “checked out of the hotel.” And if you have documented that you actually gave them the work, then any later complaints have no basis. Bottom line: if you have an AWOL adviser, document it, suck it up, and move on. Complaining rarely solves anything.
- Hyper-criticality: One issue is that some advisers are devastating. They seem to have a special ability called “crush student confidence.” Sometimes, they enjoy it. Other times, they don’t even know they are doing it. What I am *not* saying is that advisers should refrain from pointing out student errors. But there is no reason that any well adjusted student should ever leave a professor’s office in tears or in a rage. Instead, a good instructor can say “I appreciate what you are doing, but I got really lost here.” Or, “Are you aware that this argument has been made before? You can really improve this by working on the lit review.” Sadly, some profs just say things in the wrong way, and when your main coach is telling you that you are completely lost, it can be aggravating. But as usual, you’ll probably just have to suck it up and move on.
- Conflicting advice: A touchy topic is when prof X and Y gives you different advice. Luckily, the response is simple. Do whatever the chair tells you to do. Usually, solves the problem.
- Adviser divorce: Once in a while, you get to a point where an adviser has completely abandoned you or they are so hostile to you and your work that no progress has been made after you have seriously tried. Normally, I’d say “suck it up,” but in some cases it so extreme that it can hamper your career. For example, it is nearly impossible to get fellowships and jobs without letters from your chair, but this may not be possible if your chair is completely non-responsive. At this point, (a) ask yourself if there is anything you can do to improve the situation, sometimes you need to get your act together academically, sometimes students can annoy profs! Be considerate; (b) consult with other friendly profs, ask if they can help out or give you advice; (c) if you decide that your academic skills are fine and that you have been acting in good faith, then you might consider “adviser divorce.” I strongly recommend against this course of action because a new adviser might require totally new material, and you would have to start from scratch – a very bad outcome. But sometimes, the student-advisor relation becomes so toxic that it’s better just to move on. I had one friend who did exactly that. His adviser was hyper-critical and he wasn’t really able to deal with it. Solution: adviser divorce and he completed the entire dissertation two semesters later with a more normal committee chair. I don’t recommend it, but it can be justified in some cases.
- Non-responsive outside readers: On the other hand, I do recommend dumping any outside committee member who goes AWOL on you or is just a jerk. You really want to salvage your relationship with your chair and other “core” members of your committee. It’s very, very important. However, what’s the point of keeping on reader #7 from the linguistics department if they are rude or undependable? Answer: None. Just ask your grad secretary or grad director about dumping jerk outside readers. It’s usually no harder than an email from you to the grad chair.
You’ll find that being friendly, persistent, and open to fair criticism will usually lead to a good relationship with your committee and good progress toward your degree. Now that you’ve wasted your time reading this post, get back to work!!
Dissertation writing and weight loss share one thing in common. People tell you that it’s easy to do in 15 minutes a day. Well, I’m here to tell you that dissertation writing and weight loss actually do share one thing in common. They both require a great deal of persistent and dedicated effort. It’s not to say that dissertation writing should be a ten year project. Rather, successful dissertation writing, like all writing, means that you sit down everyday for a while and just work. It’s just like any other job. Here’s some things to keep in mind to help you actually create the final product:
- Most dissertations are built from smaller chunks, which aren’t that hard to do. Therefore, you should write a fairly detailed outline of each chapter, and a sketch of how the chapters fit together. For example, most dissertations have a chapter, or section, that describes prior work on your topic. That’s a pretty easy thing to do that you can work on before you get to harder topics. Even the hard parts can be assembled from easier small chunks.
- Schedule. Once you have figured out the bits and pieces of your dissertation, establish firm but reasonable goals for each month. For example, a reasonable goal for a semester might be to write one or two good chapter drafts and prepare one for submission to a journal.
- Daily workout. Prepare a time and place where you can work everyday uninterrupted for many hours, at least 4-5 times a week. At Chicago, the computer lab in the basement of the policy school served this purpose for me. Make sure that you have all the tools you need to work – dictionaries, software, games for relaxation, etc.
- Breaks. Schedule off time. Most people work in a cycle of high and low intensity, where you recover your spent energy. Go to a movie, play games, hang out with your kids. Also, eat well and exercise. Sustained writing is often an isolating activity, take care of yourself.
- Learn that every good paper started out as a pretty bad paper. Therefore, don’t worry about how horrid the first draft is. Just do it. Once you have something, you can always revise it. If you haven’t written it, it can’t be improved, and if it can’t be improved and finished, it won’t ever help you graduate!
- Follow the basic rules of writing you learned in freshman comp. Avoid wordiness, have a clear thesis, avoid passive sentences, etc.
- Hang out with people who are progressing well on the dissertation. You need all the support you can get. Avoid people who discourage you or distract you. Your friends should be a help and inspiration, not a hindrance. Create a social environment of people who reinforce the right habits and attitudes.
- Minimize time spent on teaching, committees, etc. All your time at work should be spent working on your dissertation. Even if college teaching is your main goal, you still need to finish the dissertation, which means limiting paper grading, office hours, and the like.
- Learn that the only good dissertation is a complete dissertation. No matter how bad you feel, keep working and just get it done!
Now that you’ve relaxed by reading this post, I strongly suggest you get back to work! Chop, chop!
Last time, we discussed the importance of knowing your dissertation’s genre. Next step: internalize the following advice:
- You are the only one responsible for your dissertation. While a few advisers will write your dissertation, it’s usually a lonely job. If you fail to produce, you alone will suffer the consequences. Why? If you fail to write, you loose jobs and you will have wasted your time. And what happens to the adviser? Nothing. Thus, you are solely responsible for your dissertation. If you ever wonder why your dissertation isn’t done, I strongly suggest you look in the mirror.
- Dissertations are *not* masterpieces! Sure, a few dissertations are home runs, but 90% are, at best, rough drafts of promising work. Many are simply useless pedagogical exercises. Even Einstein’s first dissertation draft was junky. Therefore, you should write a well crafted, competent work. The goal is to show you can actually complete competent research within a reasonable time period. You can write a masterpiece later in your career.
- The only good dissertation is a complete dissertation. Seriously. The overwhelming majority of dissertations are not read, published, or cited. In fact, if you submit your unrevised dissertation for publication, the reviewers might reject it on the grounds that “it reads like a dissertation (= tendentious student work).” Therefore, once you have mastered the basics of research in your field, just get it done! You can always revise it later. There is no benefit at all to spending extra time on a scholarly product that no one will read. Exception: If you are in a field where the dissertation functions as a first draft of your book, you should probably spend more time on it so it looks good to editors. A lot of them will review dissertations, if they are well developed and already “book like.”
- Write a *decent* dissertation. Does that contradict my previous advice? No – I just said that you shouldn’t expect your dissertation to win you a Nobel Prize. At the same time, the dissertation is often a pedagogical exercise and if your adviser is worth anything, they will expect a serious attempt at real science, not junk. It doesn’t have to be a masterwork, but show you’ve learned something and how your dissertation might lead to important future work. Also, employers might ask to see your dissertation. It’s in your interest to make sure the dissertation is in good shape. And heck, if you try your darndest, you might actually accomplish something!
Next installment: Can you really write your dissertation in 15 minutes a day?? Answer: Probably not.
Ok, here’s the biggie in the grad skool rulz series: how to actually write your dissertation! I’ll break it up into two posts. This post is about a very subtle point – what a dissertation actually does for your career. The dissertation works very differently across departments, subfields and disciplines. You should get a grip on what it’s about in your area before you start writing. Here are some options:
- Dissertation as useless distraction. At some programs, the faculty have taken the attitude that it’s much more important to author articles than work on the dissertation. Thus, some students may not write a single word of the dissertation until after they get the job. The dissertation in some cases is just a slightly altered version of the published articles that got you the job.
- The “job search paper” model. In some fields, like economics, there is less expectation of publication pre-PhD. Placement depends mostly on faculty recommendations and a single writing sample called the job market paper. This is sometimes a published article or a strong dissertation chapter, so you need to show some progress on the dissertation, but few people expect much progress beyond one or two strong chapter drafts.
- The dissertation as article drafts model. In this model, you don’t worry about pre-PhD publications. The dissertation is supposed to be a handful of essays on a topic, which are then sent to journals soon after graduation. In this case, you need to have extremely strong samples, or even a complete draft, upon entry into the market, so people can be pursauded that you are worth betting on.
- The dissertation as book draft. This is the model in the humanities and qualitative social sciences. You might publish an article or two in grad school, but your real mission is to write the first draft of the book that will rock your area. When you enter the market, you need to have a lot of it worked out and if you want a top job, a contract with a good press. Otherwise, no one will believe you can actually publish anything.
- The “sui generis dissertation.” As you will learn in the next installment, the dissertation is a pedagogical tool designed to help people master the research techniques of their area. Therefore, it has lots of stuff that you would never publish. In some departments and fields, you are expected to go through the motions and conform to the genre, even if the result is essentially unpublishable. Think of the “sui generis” dissertation as a very ugly car you are required to build and then completely reassemble.
Once you understand the model you are working with, it will help you develop a healthy attitude towards your dissertation and you can formulate a rational game plan. If you are doing #4 (diss as book draft), you are probably looking at a multi-year project and it has to be good enough to attract the attention of a major scholarly press – before you go on the market. You should really just concentrate on the diss and getting funding to see you through. You might even spend some time chatting with editors to get a sense of which presses might like your work.
If you doing #1 or #2, you might be looking at less than a year of work. Once you place an article or two in decent journals, you immediately become a plausible job candidate. You might not even bother with a formal dissertation proposal unless the school requires it. If you are living in situation #5, just do your best to go through the motions until the committee approves the final product and be prepared for a complete rewrite soon as you finish. Work from “sui generis” dissertations is often rejected, or if it’s published, it’s relegated to journals and presses that specialize in quick dissertation conversion (names ommitted to protect the guilty). You don’t want that.
What you should learn from this post is that “dissertation” can mean very different things. To get the most out of your graduate experience, compare the dissertations from your program with what is actually published and highly valued in your area. If you don’t, you could expend much effort on work that is completely useless.
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!
After exams and choosing your committee, the next big step is your dissertation – a lengthy project on a topic of your choice. It’s a crucial decision because your career depends on completing the dissertation and publishing from it. As usual, there is no perfect choice. There are trade-offs in choosing any topic.
Let’s start with a basic question – where do you get ideas? Here’s a couple of sources:
- Big obvious problems – These are well known problems in most areas. For example, in population studies, a big question is when birth control becomes a widely accepted practice, leading to plunging fertility. Pro: You’ll be a star if you make progress. Con: Big, unsolved problems are big for a reason – they are hard. You might end up with nothing.
- You invent your own problem – You identify an unanswered question based on your own understanding of a field. Pro: This can lead to some creative, engaging stuff. Cons: You may be seen as weird or irrelevant.
- Your adviser gives you a problem – It’s common for advisers to have “problem lists” for people to work on. Variant: you work on the adviser’s project and get a piece of the action. Pro: Senior advisers usually have a good sense of what’s important in the field and what’s a tractable issue. Con: You may be seen as unoriginal and derivative of the adviser.
Other issues that are worth considering:
- Passion – You had better like your topic because you might be working on it for years. It has to be something you can stick with in the face of skeptical advisers, relatives, editors and students.
- Compatibility – Choose a problem that fits your intellectual style. If you like models, then choose something more mathematical. If you can do narrative, choose qualitative research.
- Difficulty – Don’t choose a very simple problem, or one that is beyond your scope. If you tackle a tough one, get the skills that you need.
- The research cycle – If you move first, you will get a big pay-off. Come last, and you will be seen as an imitator. Come way too early, people may literally not understand what you are talking about. Example: Social capital – super hot in 1995, not so hot in 2005, unless you have a really original insight.
- Solvable – You have to have a realistic approach to tackling the problem. Time travel is a great problem, but no one has any idea about how to solve it!
- Size – If you completely succeeded, how big would the result be? You don’t need to write a Nobel prize winning result in your dissertation, but you need to show that you are on track to bigger things.
- Novelty – There is safety in numbers, but if you are too similar to other researchers, then you won’t get much reward. If you are too original, then no one will get your point. So learn to strike the balance.
- Popularity – The topic needs to be able to attract the attention of the academic audience you wish to target. Remember, proving Fermat’s last theorem won’t get you points in the soc program!
- Publishable – Is this something that might appear in the journals/presses that figure prominently in your area?
- Time horizon – Can you solve the problem within a reasonable time limit? Unless you are willing to incur serious personal costs, any project that takes more than 2-3 years should be avoided by graduate students.
As you see, you will almost certainly have to sacrifice along some dimension. For example, an easier problem (low difficulty) may already have been addressed, which means you will be on the tail end of the research cycle (very bad). By considering these issues, you will make an informed choice that can help you get the most out of the dissertation process.
A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article brought my attention to the fact that many graduate students conclude their studies with significant debt. My general feeling is that a little debt is manageable, but more than, say, $20k total is probably a very bad idea. Why? It’s simple – academic salaries tend to hover from $40k to $80k, unless you are in a field with a large non-academic demand like medicine, law, economics, business, or computer science. Furthermore, many schools are concentrated in urban areas with tight housing markets. Thus, you will have to pay mortgage/rent while paying a similar sized monthly student debt payment. Acheiving a tenurable record is hard enough, but add a $1000 mortgage payment and another $500-$1000, then you have a real problem. And if you have children, it’s a crushing burden.
Here are some rules of thumb:
- Do not go to any graduate program that does not offer a tuition waver for the first 4-5 years, especially if it’s a private school. If they don’t offer some sort of assistance, decline the offer. There are always other programs. With a few exceptions, there is simply no salary you can make as a professor that will allow you to live comfortably and make your monthly payments on a loan that covers private school tuition. If a department is unable to support entering graduate students with fellowships, assistantships, or teaching, then it’s a bad sign.
- Do your utmost to finish your requirements in a reasonable amount of time. Why? Many universities reduce tuition for graduate students who are doctoral candidates (i.e., dissertation writing phase) or living far away from campus.
- Message to advisers: Don’t mess with your students. Every time you delay a student’s advancement through the program, you increase the chance that a student will have to pay a significant amount of tuition and/or fees later.
- Investigate as many fellowship opportunities as you can. You may get rejected a lot, but if you can get a single award that covers you for a year or two, it will save you much pain down the road. Even if you have a fellowship now, still apply for more – you never know when you will need the extra support.
- If you are in the position of having to pay tuition, complain a lot. Contact the graduate chair, the dean of graduate studies, or whoever is in charge of advising students. Even if you need a loan to cover this semester, you might be able to get some help to cover next semester if you whine. A teaching assistantship might open up and they might give it to you becuase you complained, you never know until you ask. Remember, the squeaky wheel is greased.
The key insight is that academia is an enormous subsidy. American society knows that it is vauable to have a pool of experts on a range of fields that don’t have a lot of market value. Therefore, it is absurd for you to pay for your training because everybody knows you can’t pay it back. In exchange for specializing in academic topics and teaching young people, at a heavily discounted price may I add, society should make your training very low cost. Readers who know about grad student financing are encouraged to add their own thoughts in the comments.
The last installment was about choosing your dissertation adviser. This week’s topic is how to select the rest of your committee. As with the adviser, there is no “perfect” committee, but you should try to choose people that have some positive traits (see grad skool rulz #7 for the list of good traits). You should also follow these rules of thumb:
- Compliment: If your adviser is weak on topic X, choose committee members to fill in the gap. For example, if your adviser is kind of slow with the letters of recommendation, choose someone who is very professional and does things efficiently. Aloof prof X can be complimented by emotional & supportive prof Y. If prof X isn’t up to date on statistical technique, get someone who is.
- Compatibility: Professors are human beings – they have their own disputes and you don’t want to get caught up in the tussle. Most profs will keep dept politics out of graduate training, but you should still be careful. So choose people who will get along with each other. If you have heard that profs X and Y have it out for each other, do *not* put them on the same committee. If you must, consult with your chair or the graduate chair to make sure it will be ok.
- Transaction Costs: Remember, getting people to agree on anything is hard. Thus, you should minimize the number of committee members. Get the dept rules (see grad skool rulz #1) and figure out the minimal number of people you need on a committee. And stick to that minimal number! There is rarely any benefit to having reader #6, and there’s a chance they could mess you up.
- No block heads: It can be hard enough working with your dissertation committe adviser – so don’t stack your committee with block heads. Choose people will work with you and your adviser, not against you. These people are often easy to identify – they make all kinds of crazy demands on qualifying exams or oral exams. They make students cry in office hours. They seem more interested in ritualistic torture of grad students than professional development. Do not, under any circumstances, put these people on your committee.
The dissertation committee is a team that has two goals: training/advising students and helping the student get a job. Most of the work is done by the chair, so make sure people can work with that person to help you develop as a professional and get a job.
In previous installments, I’ve discussed how to get through the first half of grad school – courses, exams, friends, etc. The next bunch of “rulz” will be about the second half of grad school – dissertations, advisers, articles, jobs, etc.
This week’s topic: how to select your dissertation adviser, the person who will head the committee that must approve your dissertation. This is very important because it is very difficult to change advisers once you have begun your dissertation and you will need their professional support for a *very* long time. So choose wisely.
Advice in a nutshell: No adviser is perfect, but they need to have at least a few strong suits. Also, the dissertation student-adviser relationship is like any other relationship. If your work style/ professional attitudes don’t match, you should consider other options.
Here is a list of desirable adviser traits. As I said, no one is perfect, but you need *something* to work with. In no particular order:
- Placement – A track record of placing recent students in schools you would like to work in. For example, if you want to be a liberal arts teacher, don’t work with someone who disdains undergraduate teaching.
- Reputation – A reputation within the profession as a competent and accomplished researcher [Note: I didn’t say “super star.” Just respected within his/her field.]
- Authorship/ Co-authorship – A track record of publishing with graduate students in reputable books/journals. The adviser encourages students to publish their own work during the PhD program or shortly thereafter.
- Funding – A track record of helping students with funding via grants/research projects.
- Usefulness – The ability to offer constructive criticism and praise. One without the other is usually a recipe for emotional disaster.
- Accessibility – they are actually around campus so you can consult with them.
- Craftsmanship – the ability to see that academic research is a craft that can be taught and developed.
- Professionalism – the ability to complete administrative tasks such as writing letters of recommendation for jobs and fellowships.
- Boundary control – the adviser does not overstep personal boundaries and treats you as a colleague in training.
- Expertise – the adviser knows and/or cares about the are in which your are working.
- Personality Match – Make sure your adviser can tolerate your persona. For example, if you are very chatty and need feedback, make sure your adviser can deal with this. They don’t need to be chatty, they only need to be able to tolerate chattiness in others.
- Intellectual Style Match – Make sure you can handle the “style” of your adviser. For example, if you are going to write a tightly argued statistical dissertation, don’t pick the guy who reads Foucault all day. A loner shouldn’t work with an adviser who does all group projects. However, if you are willing to learn, you can get a great deal from somebody with a different “style” if you can make some compromises.
- Social match – Make sure your adviser has a reputation for liking/tolerating people with your social/intellectual characteristics. For example, some folks really feel more comfortable working with people of a certain gender, or they prefer only ethnographers. Don’t be on a crusade to change other people’s personalities. But be open minded – some people only appear rigid on the outside and can be rather open minded when approached with a smile.
- Rational expectations – does the adviser think the dissertation is a perfect object to be carefully worked on over 20 years, or a project with fixed objectives that can be done in 2-3 years?
There are other desirable traits and remember that no adviser is perfect, but you need to choose someone who has at least a few very strong traits. Here are a few other good rules of thumb:
- Super Star prof isn’t always the best adviser. Stars are often asked to go to a million conferences and serve on fancy committees. A lot of people don’t handle graduate education and these other tasks well, and grad students are often abandoned.
- Ask around. If Grumpy Prof has been teaching for 25 years and has only placed one student, there’s probably a reason. Ask and you will find out. And don’t think you’ll succeed where others have failed – that’s what the other students said!
- Appearances can be deceiving. Some folks may be great lecture hall instructors, but awful dissertation advisers, or vice versa. Once again, ask around.
- Dig deep. Is the great placement record of Prof X’s students dumb luck? Did people succeed despite the awful behavior of Prof X? Get a sense of how Prof X helped out.
- Avoid junior faculty. In general, most junior faculty are still figuring out the academic game. Also, they tend to move around a bit, especially if they are hot (in the academic sense). Exception: In fast moving technical field, like computer science, a junior adviser may be the *only* person who is on top of things.
- Don’t use stereotypes. Just because Prof X is of the same gender/race/political persuasion/etc as you, it doesn’t mean they will be a good pick. Don’t let these sorts of characteristics blind you to their weaknesses. What matters is that they can help you become the scholar you want to be. And remember, if you read closely, I said the adviser has to tolerate people like you, not actually be like you. As long as someone can be tolerant, they can usually have a strong work relationship with some one who is very different than themselves.
- Be prepared for rejection. Some good profs may be overloaded with students, too close to retirement or may not like you. So if you ask to work with them, you might get rejected. It’s ok. Just ask someone else.
Finally, have reasonable expectations. Faculty members are just middle aged men and women with their own careers and families. Don’t expect miracles, but if you do your homework and ask around, you will probably find someone who is professional and helpful.
My advice in this installment is simple: make some grad school friends. Your ultimate success in grad school depends on the creativity and effort you invest in your work, but having a good set of friends is important. Here’s what your friends can do for you, and what you can do for them:
- Offer emotional support. Grad school isn’t easy and it’s hard for your family or non-academic buddies to really empathize. It’s good to have people who understand what you are going through.
- Offer information. Your friends often have important “local knowledge” about how things work in your program. Advanced grad school buddies can be very useful in helping you find an advisor and other dissertation related topics.
- Offer academic help. I have been helped many times by people who know how to format a table, or fill out an application, or run a regression. Have a decent set of friends means I have more people to ask about my problems.
- Start a project. You can team up with a buddy to write a paper. It is often better to be co-author #2 on a grad student paper than be author #8 on mega-team paper lead authored by super-famous advisor who gets all the credit.
- Have fun. One of my favorite moments in grad school was when Millsaps political scientist Michael Reinhardt (electric guitar) and I (trumpet/flute) helmed the “Hyde Park Jazz Unit.” Fun, and we actually got paid a few times. [Other personnel: Minnesotta Geographer Frank Shockey on Alto Sax, New York hipster/Columbia musicologist Paul Steinbeck on bass, Leon on drums, with Chicago soc grad student music/culture ethnographer Nick Dempsey occasionally on tenor… The Chicago Maroon once described the HPJU as a weird funk/ Thelonious Monk hybrid.]
You shouldn’t be a complete social butterfly and spend all your time socializing, or pretend to be everyone’s friend. But do realize that having just a few good, dependable friends can make a big difference in the quality of your graduate education.
This week’s “grad skool rulz” topic is the graduate exam. Every PhD program has tests you have to pass. There are two questions that naturally arise: How do I pass the exams? and What should I take away from the exams?
On the first count, it is important to remember that social science graduate programs usually have two sorts of exams: sit down tests of memory and skill & take home essays. The sit down tests are probably the trickiest ones but luckily there’s a simple piece of advice you should follow. Most graduate programs have old test. Get as many of them as you can and then sit down and do every single exam. Then redo them with the time constraints. Of course, check your sample answers with samples from the department (if they offer them) or with faculty and/or advanced graduate students. Like anything, you will find that practice leads to mastery. You will be more confident and relaxed during the tests if you have seen similar tests before and are ready to answer them in the time allowed. Also, practice with previous tests means that you won’t be surprised.
The take home tests are a bit different. It’s hard to take a week off just to practice test taking, but you can still prepare. Departments often keep old qualifying exams so you can read these and sketch out answers before hand. You can also write extensive summaries of articles and books, which is a way of practicing the craft of writing. In these exams, it’s also important to be succinct – don’t write 100 page qual exams! – and show you have a well founded opinion on a topic. It’s about synthesizing and expanding ideas.
What should you take away from these exams? My opinion is that sit down exams are really best for making students learn technical skills (like regression) but these exams also tend to have lots of idiosyncratic topics thrown into them. In field like economics, there is a lot of “cramming” for the test and forgetting all the weird & useless stuff once you pass. Thus in the long term, they may not be as important as the take home essays because in that case you have to really learn a literature. The take home essays simulate the actual work of the academic much more than a timed three hour exam on French.
Also, and this is very important, graduate exams are the classic case of “not much credit if you pass, but a disaster if you fail.” That is, the test is a hoop and jumping through it won’t get you published or get you a job. But failing the test can easily end a budding academic career. Not only do programs eject students who don’t pass after a few tries, but your confidence and esteem can take a serious hit, which makes it harder to carry on. So treat these exams seriously. There is a technique that will maximize your chances of passing. If you do it, you will probably be ok. Then immediately move on to the next stage of your career.
Let me conclude with a few words on failure. If you don’t pass an exam, you should ask why you didn’t do well. Get an explanation from the graduate chair or exam committee chair. It’s their job to explain the exam. In some cases, it may be a case of knowledge. You simply didn’t know what was on the test, or maybe you were nervous. In that case, just take a break and then follow the regimen described above and you’ll be ok. It’s not the end of the world.
It might also be the case that you were thrown a curveball – maybe there was a truly unusual or hard question that caught people off guard, or maybe there was unusually harsh or arbitrary grading on the exam. It happens. Maybe you can appeal, but you will probably just have to retake the test and you will be fine. In either case, don’t panic. Lots of stellar academic careers started with not so great exams! Hang in there!
But once in a while, a student realizes that they didn’t take the test seriously enough to invest the time and effort needed to pass. If this describes you, then you have to ask yourself a serious question: why don’t you care? Is it that you think academia is boring or silly? This is the time to really think hard about you career goals. My view is that most graduate students have the ability to pass most exams. But if you can’t muster the energy to read a bunch of articles and write a 5 page essay in exam, then how will you write a Master’s paper, or a dissertation, or a 400 page book? The purpose of raising this issue is not to discourage students, but to encourage people to follow careers that they actually like. Exams can be an opportunity to think about what matters to you the most.
This edition of grad skool rulz focuses on course work. First, you should know that course work is highly ambigous at this stage of your career: In the short term, courses are extremely important. Fail and you will be ejected. Even if the program keeps you, you might be tagged as a loser. Also, fellowships often depend on having good grades. In the long term, courses are irrelevant. Nobody was ever hired for a competitive research position because they got an A+ in a seminar. You are hired because of your dissertation, your articles, and in the case of teaching colleges, your teaching record.
Given the different perspectives on course work, what should you do? Well, when it comes to taking courses, you should probably use the following rules of thumb:
- Take a course if it is required or fulfills an elective slot. If the instructor is horrid, you might petition for a substitute in another department.
- Take a course if you will learn a concrete valuable skill (e.g., statistics, foriegn language, interview technique).
- Take at most one or two courses on topics that are fun or deepen your knowledge. Any more than one or two, you are wasting your time. You should be able to learn on your own at this level anyway.
- Learn diminishing marginal returns: the first course might be useful, but the 10th or 12th probably isn’t. Learn to say no to courses.
Then there is the subject of how much effort you should put into course work. My personal view is that effort expended learning real skills is probably good, but there is a point of diminishing returns. One or two semesters of multivariate statistics is probably good, but unless you are training to a statistician, any more than that is probably a waste. Also, do well in any required course. If you are mediocre in a required course, then the faculty will probably know and it might be hard to recuit them to be on your dissertation committee. If you do real bad, you won’t be allowed to continue. In other circumstances, you might justifiably decide that a course really isn’t relevant to your plan of study, that you will never deal with that lame instructor ever again, or it’s just a really bad course. In that case, the minimum non-embarrassing effort level might be appropriate. Finally, unless you are in the 1st or 2nd year doing required courses, effort in courses should *never* crowd out effort learning the craft of research. Research should be your main activity, and after the first year or so, courses should be your extra-curricular activity.
To summarize my view on courses: they are important in short term, but irrelvant in the long term; only take them if you have to, but you can indulge in one or two fun courses; don’t bomb in any course and thus jeopardize your self, but you can probably scale back your effort in courses that don’t directly benefit you; and in the long term, courses are not as important as your research.
My last post on gettting through graduate school (grad skool rulz #2) triggered an interesting email exchange between Omar and myself. Omar pointed out that many top programs have a “survival of the fittest” attitude. This made me think of the following rule. Controlling for program prestige and other factors, you should choose the graduate program that scores highest on the following scale:
- Toxic Graduate Program – Some departments provide no support for students and seem happy pitting students against each other in zero sum games (e.g., grading exams on a x% fail rule). Signs of the toxic graduate program: nobody has graduated in a while; placement is bad; low morale among students and faculty; etc. Only go here as a last resort.
- Benign Neglect Program – This characterizes most graduate programs. A few good students get support from the faculty, but otherwise, it’s “every man for himself.” Signs of benign neglect: program has no consistent record of grduation or placement, but you see the occassional success story; people talk about individual supportive faculty, not about any system for helping students.
- The Workshop System – The program has a clusters of scholars, who work with “apprentices.” This is common in areas like demography (UNC), orgs (Stanford, Northwestern) and medical sociology (IU, Florida State). Not a bad deal, but if you aren’t in the workshop, it can be lonely and tough. Signs of a good workshop system: faculty routinely publish with students; leaders in specific areas (like orgs) frequently produced by the dept; big grants to support research and grad student assistants.
- The Supportive Overall Program – The program has a well thought out set of courses that exposes most students to what they need to know to survive in the academy. Or they have so many workshops that they can absorb most serious graduate students. Signs of the overall system: few involuntary drop outs for failing exams or fighting with faculty; strong placement in multiple specialties (not just the ones tied with workshops); consistent publication by grad students in good journals; high morale in a broad cross section of the grad student population; support for different career paths (research, liberal arts, private sector).
Like I said, there are other factors that should go into your decision (e.g., program prestige, financial aid, intellectual fit, etc), but this four point scale should clarify a major issue for you. Also, as with any career decision, the quality of the person matters the most. Some fantastic persons have survived highly toxic programs because of intelligence and persistence. Similarly, a flaky person will definitely fail in a supportive program. Last comment: these situations can be short lived as faculty enter and leave a program. A program with a few solid workship may degenerate into a toxic program when the most active faculty retire or leave. A toxic program may turnaround with a cohort of new professors ready to make things work. So get current information and make sure that there will be effective faculty at the school for the next 5 or so years so you can work with them.