practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

Along my academic journey, I’ve done things that I was trained to think of as “wrong” that worked out just fine.  Professionalization is an important part of the PhD training process, but I’ve learned two things from my experiences as a graduate student and beyond based on not following the path I was trained to: 1) there isn’t one way to be successful in academia and 2) the context in which advice is given matters.

The Many Paths to Success 

A lot of academic advice has a one size fits all approach: “Write every day.”  “Always be publishing.”  But there are many different ways to be successful in graduate school and beyond.  You don’t have to write every day or juggle 5 projects at once to have the CV you need to get a job or to get a promotion.  We don’t all work best with the same approach.  And, frankly, we don’t all work under the same conditions.  Every person needs to figure out what works best for their work style and their circumstances.  The problem is it’s sometimes harder to foresee differences in conditions until you’re in them, such as the specific expectations for your job.  

I had an experience with a disconnect between common advice and the specific expectations of my job come to surface during my first year in my current position.  While generally it is true that academic positions require an active research agenda particularly at research institutions, I stumbled upon a situation in which the “always be publishing” advice did not fit.  During my final year of graduate school, I had child care responsibilities that limited how much work I could do in a given week.  I was on the job market and had to finish my dissertation, which took up all of the hours I was able to do uninterrupted work, so my articles all got pushed onto the back burner.  I came out of that year feeling self-conscious about the “gap” in my publishing record because “you should always be publishing.”  However, the fact that I didn’t publish before starting my job worked in my favor, as those papers would not have counted towards tenure.  Because institutions vary in whether they count all publications in your career, all publications since you completed your PhD, or only publications at that institution toward tenure, it was a happy accident that I wasn’t able to “always be publishing” at that time.  

The same sorts of disconnect can emerge between common advice and personal work style.  I’ve heard a number of academics lament that they don’t work on multiple projects at the same time like they “should.”  How someone pursues their research agenda is a personal work style decision, not something we all need to do the same way.  At the end of the day, people who work on 5 papers at the same time and people who work on 1 paper at a time both end up with finished and published papers.  The path to the published paper may not be the same for every researcher, but the end result is still a published manuscript.  

Unpacking the Context of Advice

Faculty often give advice based on their own experiences.  This means they may not give you advice that fits your goals or path.  This issue is most apparent for folks who want to go into extra-academic jobs, since most faculty do not have experience with PhD-level work outside of higher ed, but it also comes up in other ways.  

For instance, my PhD program was a top 10.  As you probably know, this means the faculty there also trained at top 10 programs.  So advice I got from faculty about things like publishing and the job market needed to be taken with that context in mind: Someone with a job at a top 10 who was trained at a top 10 was giving me advice about how to approach publishing or the job market.  The top 10 bias was very clear in areas like job market advice, but other times it was harder to see because of what I didn’t yet know I didn’t know.  One thing I realized in retrospect was that this context meant the advice I got on publishing was geared towards getting jobs and tenure at a top 10 program.  While some students have goals of landing at top 10 programs, it isn’t what every graduate student wants. 

What I suggest to graduate students who have a mismatch between the context of their faculty mentors and their own goals is to look at CVs of people in the kind of jobs they want.  Those people can indirectly serve as examples of how to pursue a different path than your faculty mentors.  Doing informational interviews with these folks can also be incredibly informative.  You may not know people directly who are doing the kind of work that you’d like to be, but luckily programs have a network of alumni in all kinds of positions.  Ask around and identify alumni to ask for advice on the realities of what is needed for jobs outside of the faculty positions in your department.  

Ultimately, you have to decide what to do with the advice you receive.  It’s not all going to work for you and that’s okay!  Take what works and leave what doesn’t.

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