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Expert Advice

Expert Advice

December 16, 2009

Today’s column will be a real treat. I had the chance to interview two experts on getting your doctoral degree and succeeding as a faculty member. Paul Gray and David E. Drew published a lighthearted book that is chock-full of vital information for anyone in or planning on a career in academe. Their book is titled: What They Didn’t Teach You in Graduate School: 199 Helpful Hints for Success in Your Academic Career. Why did they come up with 199 tips? Good question — and one I asked during the interview:

Peg Boyle Single: Welcome to the Demystifying the Dissertation column! Since this column focuses on writing the dissertation, what hints do you have for doctoral students who are in the midst of writing their dissertations?

Gray and Drew: Finish, Finish, Finish. Being an ABD is an exciting new level you reach when your proposal is approved. But if you don’t complete and defend your dissertation, being an ABD becomes one of the lowest forms of academic life.

Don't try to write the best dissertation ever written. You won't finish. Make it just good enough that it gets past your examining committee.

Do not plagiarize (it will come back to haunt you, particularly if you ever run for political office.)

Although, do use the classic words of the comedian Tom Lehrer: "Let no one else's work evade your eyes." Make sure you cite all the papers and books on your topic you can find that came before you. That way, you avoid the clowns (either on your committee or in job interviews) who ask you, whether it applies or not, "Why didn't you consider Jones’s important 1987 work?" You are particularly likely to be asked that question by Jones.

PBS: If these students are planning on an academic career, what can they do now about their writing that will help them most when they are have their first academic position?

G & D: By far the best way to learn to write is by writing, and by having someone else (preferably someone with editorial skill) not only review it but smash it to smithereens. It's tough on your ego; nevertheless it produces not only humility but makes you a better writer. If you can (and this varies from field to field), as you finish portions of your dissertation, submit them to journals. Yes, you will get a lot of rejection letters. Although, as we point out in our book, treat the reviews as the cheapest editorial help you will ever be able to find.

If you're lucky enough to be teaching English composition during your graduate studies, go through your own papers and grade them as you would your students'.

Also, you can "review the literature" on writing as you do for your dissertation. There is a small but fascinating body of work in which successful authors reflect about the writing process. You will enjoy reading about how these great writers struggled to get the right words on paper. Two such collections of essays are Writers on Writing (two volumes, Times Books, 2002 and 2004) and The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work (Public Affairs, 2003).

PBS: Doctoral students are notoriously busy — how important is it that they begin thinking about life after the Ph.D. while they are still students?

G & D: On a scale of 1 to 10, at least 5 by the time they are halfway through and 9 to 10 when they are two years from completing. Read and practice the 22 hints we give in Chapter 3 on Job Hunting. They can do that now, even if they are in their first year. Job hunting is a research project. Just like your dissertation, job hunting takes a while to get done. In today's market, if you wait until you have the dissertation signed, you face extended full-time unemployment (and you're not eligible for unemployment benefits!)

Also, you can lay some groundwork for your post-Ph.D. jobs while still a student. Try to attend conferences and get to know some of the key 100 people in your area of specialization. (Hint #2). Follow up by sending copies of a student paper you produced (but only if you earned a high grade on the paper and only if you cited them positively). In particular, your dissertation topic provides a bridge to a later successful career as a Ph.D. By completing the dissertation, you are establishing yourself as an expert on that topic. It should therefore be in an area in which you plan to continue working.

PBS: In Hint #143: As they say in Chicago, publish early and often, you write that “Data show that people who publish while still in graduate school usually continue to publish at a faster rate after they graduate than those who didn’t publish while still students.” Any tips for helping students to publish early and often?

G & D: As we said previously, writing papers helps you upgrade your writing skills. Have accepted papers in hand when job hunting (they don't have to be published yet, but a letter of acceptance is worth its weight in gold). Even modest, unrefereed papers — presented at really obscure local professional meetings (or in journals no one ever heard of) help. They convince hiring committees that you will be able to produce and hence have a higher probability of achieving tenure (the goal!) than the riffraff without publications who compete with you. Remember Drew’s Law (Hint #4) “Every paper can be published somewhere.”

PBS: You emphasize the importance of mentors; any hints that all doctoral students should know about finding and working with a mentor?

G & D: Mentors come in various sizes, shapes, colors, genders, and ages. You should start thinking of finding a mentor as soon as you start your graduate program, if not earlier. If you don't have one yet, intensify your hunt. The key is to find someone who does excellent work and who is simpatico, that is who likes you, whom you like, and who is genuinely interested in pushing your career. It may or may not be your major adviser.

Your mentor should be someone who always writes you a good reference, whom you can call or e-mail or tweet for advice at those critical moments when you need help or advice, and more. You should also realize that it is a two way relationship. You will be called upon by your mentor from time to time to support them — e.g., they need a recommendation for a Fulbright or want you to review their manuscript for a book, or serve on a professional committee. In other words, you wind up washing each other's laundry. If they are older than you, be reconciled to the likelihood that they may die before you do. Finally, recognize that you have the obligation to be a mentor for the next generation. That's the way the system works.

PBS: I love that your book includes personal advice such as Hint #16: Celebrate your Ph.D.!, where you write “When you hand in your signed dissertation and pay the last fee that the university extracts from you, go out and Celebrate! Celebrate! Celebrate!” For Hint #193: Exercise, you write “The establishment (public health officials and the medical community) is always after you to exercise regularly. This is a case where the establishment is right.” Why do you spend so much time on personal considerations?

G & D: In our book we are mentors to our readers. People are more than their accomplishments. They lead complex personal lives. As professors we are public personages; people who are the only person students look at for several hours during each class session for three months. That's true whether you lecture to 500 or are a TA with a break-out group of 15. We needed to consider what people do in their day-to-day lives and how that affects their work life.

As Woody Allen said, 80 percent of success is showing up. But to show up for class, you have to be healthy and intellectually awake to hold the student's interest and get them to learn. In job hunting, you have to consider whether the lifestyle you would lead if you moved to a particular university or college is compatible for you. (For example, small town people have a tough time living in big cities and vice versa). Your family situation (for example, two professional jobs needed or kids in school) is a big factor.

PBS: Now, the question we have all been waiting for: Why did you write about 199 Helpful Hints? Couldn’t you find just one more hint to bring it up to 200???

G & D: As they say in retail, $200 is a considerably harder sell than $199.

It really was a marketing ploy. We had about 120 hints in hand when we landed a publisher (Stylus), too few to make a book. So we knew we had to write some more. We wanted a number that would stick in potential buyers’ heads rather than a number they use in their daily lives.

Happily, the book has already been reprinted twice. We are thinking of a second edition in a couple of years. We would then increase the number of hints to 299. We've been collecting them. Here are two:

1. Keep up with Technobabble. For many , the latest technical jargon — be it Twitter, Tweet, friending, iPhone, Android, Cliq, or Chrome — (especially when some terms also have conventional meanings) is as impenetrable as the names of hard rock groups are to a devotee of classical music. The terms all sound like technobabble just as Freudian terms sounded like psychobabble to past generations. Technobabble is what your students know, how they talk, how they write and how they think. You may even learn things that you can use in teaching your classes. Incidentally, one of us has developed a strategy for participating in a conversation with his children and grandchildren about contemporary rock groups. Since all the group names they mention sound totally unfamiliar to him, he makes up group names. “Have you heard the latest from ‘Justifiable Homicide’?” or “Are you a fan of ‘speed bumps’?”

2. The oral dissertation defense is (usually) a lovefest. Most advisers won't let their students into their final dissertation oral defense if there is even a 1 in a million chance they will fail. Remember, the adviser’s reputation is on the line as well as yours.

When you're done with your dissertation, you know more about the subject than anyone else in the room. If you suspect that someone on the committee hasn't yet read your dissertation, be kind to them and explain it to them in "See Dick. See Jane. See Dick and Jane run up the hill" terms.

If you can't answer a question, say so. Don't fumble and stumble. The inquisitor will ask another one. One of us recalls their oral defense when a true √©minence grise (French for “gray eminence”) in the field asked about a topic on which he was the world's expert. After taking the topic as far as I could, I said that's all I know. He then asked if my wife was in the sciences. When I said no, he posed a question I admired as I answered it: "How do you explain your field to your wife?” I passed.

PBS: In her Foreword, Laurie Richlin, one of the foremost faculty developers in the nation, suggested Hint #200: Read this book. I couldn’t agree more. I suggest that you pick up this book and place it by your desk for a quick break while toiling on your dissertation or other writing. Please, do not use it as a procrastination tool, although I suspect that will be difficult to do as Gray and Drew’s Hint #15 is: Avoid Watson’s Syndrome … a euphemism for procrastination.

Next column, I’ll be starting a series on writer’s block. No, not on cultivating but on preventing writer’s block, with a strong emphasis on prevention. As always, if you have questions or comments on this articles or suggestions for future articles, please contact me.

 

 

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