practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

Whether you’re applying for extra-academic jobs, postdoctoral fellowships, or tenure-track positions, the cover letter is an important part of the job application.  Your resume or CV provides a snapshot of what you’ve been up to in your career, but it leaves out all of the context and nuance needed to understand your career trajectory.  Even the pieces that someone could put together from different sections of your resume or CV aren’t necessarily clear, such as that the “gap” in your employment was when you were getting another degree.  The cover letter is where you get to fill in the holes and explain how the pieces fit together.  It’s your chance to control the narrative and tell readers how to interpret the story that your resume or CV tells.

I do this in my own cover letters because my B.S., M.P.A., and Ph.D. are arguably disconnected.  I majored in Environmental Science and Policy in undergrad with a concentration in Land Use (in the Geography department), a minor in African American Studies, and a certificate in French.  Ten years later, I finished an M.P.A. and then went onto complete a Ph.D. in Sociology.  At face value, I look scattered and unfocused.  What’s masked there is my common interests across the three programs.  I was first introduced to the gentrification literature and spatial data analysis in undergrad, which carried onto my M.P.A. in my focus on urban policy and finally my Ph.D. where I wrote a dissertation about gentrification.  In a cover letter, I can explain my path to find an intellectual home for understanding how place contributes to inequality, as well as how I build on my training in Geography (B.S.), Policy (M.P.A.), and Sociology (Ph.D.) in my research agenda to directly address that my CV could be interpreted as “Zawadi is scattered.”

You might have a part of your resume or CV that raises questions that you want to address directly like I do, but more commonly, you’ll need to address why the job you’re applying for is the next job in your career trajectory.  This is something that all cover letters to all types of employers should do, but there are specific cases where you may need to address concerns about whether you “really want” the job you’re applying to, particularly if you have a Ph.D. or are coming out of a Ph.D. program.  I’ve heard this commonly about liberal arts jobs (e.g., do they really want to work in a teaching focused institution?) and for extra-academic jobs that are more removed from research and teaching (e.g., do they really want to not be doing research or not teaching?).  It’s easy for folks to make assumptions when they read your CV about what you want based on things like that you’ve published in peer-review journals, gotten a degree from a research institution, won grants or fellowships, or taught multiple courses.  In this case, you can control the narrative by pointing to the experiences that made you really want to take this direction.  

Instead of answering the kinds of questions I posed as hypotheticals directly, you should show the reviewers how your prior experiences actually make the job you’re applying to the job you want as the next step in your career.  Maybe it was an amazing teaching experience or experience mentoring undergraduates you had that made you really want to work at an undergraduate focused institution.  Maybe it was a classroom experience you had as an undergraduate that you aim to replicate or avoid for other students.  Maybe it was the experience of writing a public facing piece and getting to dialogue with people outside of academia.  Maybe it was the experience of learning to program in R and the power that the program provides to work with so many different kinds of data.  Whatever it is, connect the goal (THAT job) to other parts of your resume or CV to show the reviewers how you’ve already begun to pursue that direction.  

People make assumptions as they read job applications to help narrow the pool.  You can control the narrative and avoid some of those assumptions in your cover letter.  Asking alumni from your program for feedback and advice, or people you’ve done informational interviews with from the kind of jobs that you want to apply to can help you identify what those areas are where folks might make assumptions.

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.

Summer is a precious time for academics and graduate students.  Even if we have some teaching load over the course of summer, we often have a longer period of time with fewer obligations than during the semester.  But with the grading done and final grades submitted, it is also a time with no schedule imposed by anyone else.  The lack of structure can be particularly daunting for graduate students still in coursework who normally have a structured schedule of course meetings and deadlines throughout the semester, so let me share a few suggestions that have helped me manage my unstructured summers.

First, I do some planning.  This includes planning for a break somewhere in my summer.  I look at my deadlines and commitments and figure out when I can take some time off to do anything but work.  For me, it doesn’t have to include a trip or even any travel, but I like to take advantage of the fact that I can take multiple days to turn off my brain at some point in the summer and do something that is not work even if that something is decluttering my closet.

The other planning I do is to figure out what I have to get done and what I would like to get done over summer.  The “have to” is tied to deadlines such as the big sociology conference in August, but the “would like to” is anything that will push forward my research pipeline. As I’ve mentioned before, I am not wedded to starting with what is closest to out the door when it comes to prioritizing my research work.  In fact, summer is the one time of year I usually manage to consistently balance data collection and analysis with writing, which means taking on some early on projects with some almost done project to balance my love (data) with my like (writing).  Being able to include more data collection and analysis work is what makes summer one of my favorite times of the academic calendar.

Second, I set up some accountability where I need structure.  Writing without a deadline can sometimes allow me to linger in black holes longer than I should.  For instance, I might continue to go back to the literature over and over again without a deadline because there’s always something more to read.  That’s where connecting with others through writing groups and accountability groups can be helpful.  Knowing I promised to send a draft to my writing group by a certain date, forces me to stop and get words on the page.  Similarly, if I tell my accountability partner/group that I’m STILL reading, I’ll get pushed to really assess if I need to read any more or if I’m just procrastinating in the literature.

Given the isolation of living in a global pandemic, writing and accountability groups can also provide social contact at a time when many of us are not seeing many people.  But social contact can often be something that’s missing during summer even during “normal” times.  With fewer people in the office, no departmental events, and no set times when people are milling from one commitment to another, summer can be quiet and isolating.  I try to purposefully schedule social contact during the summer, reaching out to friends to set up times to connect even if that’s a phone call with a friend who is far away.

Third, sometimes I set a schedule.  I don’t always use this approach, but it can be helpful for making sure I balance the work on data collection/analysis with the work on writing instead of just focusing on the data or writing until it’s done.  As a graduate student, I used scheduling to split my time between my own work and RA work (20 hours a week) to make sure that I was sticking to my paid hours without having to document every hour I spent on the project.  I use a similar approach during the semester to split my work days into teaching and research days with the goal to keep teaching work to those allocated days as much as possible.  This summer, I’m planning to try splitting my hours so that I spend mornings doing data work and afternoons doing reading and writing.  Historically this approach hasn’t worked great for me, so I may switch back to divvying up my days in a couple of weeks, but I write better in the afternoons when my brain is fully awake, so I’ll start by trying to center that time for my writing.

Finally, I try to approach assessing how summer went with grace.  With what feels like so much free time, I inevitably plan for WAY more than is physically possible more summers than not.  But I try to look back on what I accomplished rather than what I didn’t, knowing that any forward motion is progress towards my goals.

A big part of the transition to being on the other side of the PhD is figuring out how to manage a pipeline of research.  One piece of advice I’ve heard a lot on the topic is to prioritize my research starting with what’s closest to done.  It’s advice that makes sense.  Finish what is closest to done and then (and only then) move onto other things.  I tried doing this during my year as a postdoc and found it doesn’t work for me. 

To be clear, I think the advice is sound.  Finish what you’ve already started and start with what’s closest to finished then go onto the next closest to done, etc.  However, the advice always seemed grounded in a fear of not finishing to me.  That is, if you don’t continue with that project that’s almost done, you’ll never turn back to it and just keep starting new projects and starting new projects and never finish anything.  

But there is also a time and a place to put a project on time out.  It’s often better not to rush work out the door that isn’t really finished.  Some of you may not have this problem, but I can get impatient, frustrated, and maybe even a little bored.  Reading the same words over and over on a page can lead to me not really reading, but just moving my eyes back and forth.  When I hit that point, I’m more prone to make mistakes, miss the holes in an argument, and rush so I can move onto something else.  Those mistakes can make the difference between a rejection and a revise and resubmit.  So for me, any project without a hard deadline is best served with a time out when I hit that wall.  

While that project is in time out, I follow my heart and work on the project I’m most excited about.  I’m always tempted by new data and collecting new leads on new projects, but I find that I usually go to something that’s already in the works even if it’s not the next closest project to finished.  Turning to something that’s exciting keeps me engaged with my research and enthusiastic about what I’m producing.  Eventually, I come back to that project in time out and when I do, I have fresh eyes.  I can see what’s working and what isn’t.  I have new ideas about how to resolve the problems.  And I’m excited to be engaging with the project all over again.  

For me, a project in time out doesn’t get left behind, but it is possible that this approach means leaving some projects on the cutting floor.  Sometimes that’s because you can’t actually do what you aimed to do with your data.  Sometimes it’s because you’ve learned all you can from the project and have moved on.  It’s not always a bad thing to leave some projects behind.  But if you’re worried about leaving projects behind, you can set a schedule for when projects come out of time out or choose to balance one almost done project with one project you’re really excited about.  

There are ways to keep the joy in research while still being productive.  Find yours! 

Last week, I listened to the Professoring podcast episode on Academic Break Ups.  The co-hosts discussed a range of kinds of break ups they experienced as graduate students including breaking up with advisors who were no longer a good fit.  The podcast (which I highly recommend) got me thinking about finding advisors and committee members or the process of academic “dating.”  Like romantic dating, academic dating is all about those “getting to know you” conversations and feeling out whether a faculty member is someone you work well with.  I’m going to focus on a few academic dating activities here, but you can also read my thoughts about how to pick advisors and committee members elsewhere on my website. 

The reason everyone should do some academic dating is that just because someone studies a topic related to your interests or uses a method that you want to learn, doesn’t mean you’ll automatically work well together.  So you want to do some “courting” to figure out who you click with.  Keep in mind that your needs will likely change over time (as might your understanding of your needs) so reassessing the fit of the relationship with your academic mentors is essential to make sure the fit still works as your circumstances change.  

During graduate school, I used a couple of strategies to get to know faculty: office hours, talking to graduate students, and taking courses.  I would often go to office hours to talk about a research idea I was developing OR some aspect of the program that I was trying to learn about.  Discussing a research idea in office hours gives you a sense of how the person engages with graduate students on their research topics.  When shopping around my MA paper idea, I realized that different faculty gave me feedback on different aspects of the project.  One faculty member focused on the “so what?”, another on the research design, another on what literature I was engaging with, and another on the feasibility and scope of the project.  Depending on your strengths, weaknesses, and priorities, some of these perspectives may be more valuable to you than others.

In other conversations with faculty, I would ask them about a programmatic requirement before I was transitioning to tackle that new milestone and was looking for a better sense of expectations for that particular task.  Doing that helped me take a look at what faculty I was already working with thought the focus of qualifying exams should be, for example, as well as getting alternative perspectives from other faculty I was considering working with in some way.  In the conversations I had about qualifying exams for instance, I asked about recommendations for how to approach the process, how to pick subject areas, how they work with students for exams, and whether and how they thought those exams should inform the dissertation.  This gave me some great advice across 4 or 5 faculty members, but also gave me details about what I could expect working with each of those faculty members.

In addition to talking directly with faculty, I also asked other graduate students about their experiences with those faculty members.  If I didn’t know someone who was working with them, I would ask the Graduate Student Advisor in our department which graduate students were working with or had worked with those faculty members.  Current and former graduate students were usually willing to share their range of experience and offer helpful reflections on what worked for them with these faculty members and what didn’t.

Finally, if the faculty member was teaching a graduate seminar that aligned with my interests, I took their class.  Keep in mind that some faculty require that you’ve taken a course with them before they will work with you, although that is usually for a qualifying exam rather than being on a dissertation committee.  You can learn a lot about faculty from the classroom including which faculty like to debate, what scholars and perspectives they think are important, and how they give written and oral feedback.  If you’re interested in a critical race perspective on economic sociology and your economic sociology professor doesn’t teach anything about race…you have an answer right there about whether to work with them or not.

Ultimately, you want to find advisors and committee members who support your growth as a scholar and fit with your work style.  So across your academic dating activities, consider how you feel after interactions, whether you understand the feedback they give you, and whether they’re helping you grow in areas where you need improvement.  Date widely to find your people, but remember that once you’ve made a choice, you’re not married!  Make changes as you need to.

Research, teaching, and service are often framed as the three pillars of a tenure-track faculty job.  This framing arguably simplifies the job and overlooks a core role that faculty play as mentors and, relatedly, career coaches.  For both undergraduate and graduate students, faculty serve as role models and sources of information about what it means to be a professor.  Yet faculty may not realize their role as a career coach and miss opportunities to encourage undergraduates to consider a PhD or help a graduate student design a dissertation that will best suit their career goals.

Coaching Undergrads

By overlooking the career coach part of the faculty job, some of us miss opportunities to talk to curious undergraduates about careers in research.  I have found that part of this is because these students often articulate some kind of direction for their futures.  For example, many of the students who ask the kinds of questions that promising students for graduate school ask are planning to pursue an MSW or law school.  During my first semester on the job, I would stop the conversation there, assuming they have a clear career direction and not taking it any further.  But I remembered that I was that student at some point, planning for a MPP or MPA, but also not knowing anything about a PhD.  What I have started doing instead of stopping the conversation is telling students that I see something promising in them and asking them if they’ve considered a PhD.  Nine times out of ten they have not because they don’t know anything about what a PhD program entails or what jobs you qualify for with a PhD.  

Undergraduates are only seeing the most externally facing part of our work, our teaching.  If they’re not interested in being teachers, they usually aren’t thinking about what we do.  This is in part because less than 3 percent of Americans hold a PhD, so most college students don’t know anyone with one, besides their professors.  The focus on MSWs, JDs, and MBAs is in part because these degrees have some clear career trajectory: with a MSW you become a social worker, with a JD you become a lawyer.  But the odds are that students are also more likely to know someone with a terminal master’s degree than with a PhD.  

Taking the time to talk careers in research with curious minded students who seem to have clear career goals can open up options they had never considered because they didn’t have any information.  Planting the seed can encourage first generation college students and Black and Brown students who are so severely underrepresented across the disciplines to consider a career in research.  Being told by someone who is already in that position that they have promise is what they need to even consider that direction.

Approaching the Future for Graduate Students

As a recent PhD, I have noticed two issues in career coaching with graduate students.  First, some faculty make assumptions about what graduate students want to do with their careers without actually discussing career goals with them.  Second, conversations about career goals often happen too late in the process, such as when the student is starting to apply for jobs rather than getting them thinking about how to craft their CV for their goals, potential goals, or plans and back up plans.

Faculty sometimes assume that graduate students want to be tenure-track faculty at the highest level of prestige they can achieve.  While this may be true for some graduate students, some students have more specific goals in mind.  For instance, I knew I wanted to be at a racially diverse undergraduate institution where I could mentor and be a role model to students of color.  That goal made larger public universities that were NOT top tier programs a better fit for me.  I got lucky that my publications record also made me a good fit for these universities and didn’t make me seem overqualified for those positions, but that wasn’t planned because I didn’t have insight into that part of the application process.

What faculty can do is to have conversations about career goals early and often.  If a grad student knows early on that they’re planning on a teaching job or extra-academic position, there are things they can and should do to get their CV ready for those jobs.  For teaching jobs, they need demonstrated teaching experience.  For extra-academic positions, experience working with teams can be a plus.  And for policy or evaluation positions specifically, it is good to have a research project that has policy or applied implications.  Helping students be aware of the kinds of opportunities and research projects they should focus on will help prepare them for the job market of their choice.  These conversations are increasingly important as graduate students may need to consider a range of jobs when on the market and need to be prepared for a plan A and B.

For students who aren’t sure about their goals, faculty are in a unique position of having former students, colleagues, and friends who have pursued a range of jobs with a PhD.  We can help graduate students network for informational interviews so they can identify their preferred career direction.  If you’re organizing a job market workshop, you can also invite alumni to share their experiences across R1, teaching, tech, policy, and government jobs, not just R1 positions.

Career coaching is not just the job of your campus’ Career Center, it is an integral part of our jobs as tenure-track faculty.  We are in the best position to identify promising undergraduates who should consider a career in research and to help our graduate students consider their career goals and implications for what and how they do their dissertation research.  Passing the buck on this work only serves to disadvantage our students and restrict information about PhDs to the exclusive few who know 1 of those 3 percent.  

One of frequently given piece of advice I’ve heard about academic publishing is to avoid book chapters.  The logic is that they’re not given the same weight as a peer-review journal article, but it’s often phrased as “no one cares about book chapters” or “book chapters don’t count for anything.”  While I know this to be true from my experience in academia thus far, there are reasons why you might still might consider writing a chapter for an edited volume.

Reason #1: Name Recognition

Writing for an edited volume may be important to you because it will associate your name with your subfield.  For instance, a handbook is being published with the who’s who of your subfield.  You might want to make sure your name is on that table of contents so that YOU are also associated with the who’s who of the subfield.  While it will probably not be your most cited work, it could put you and your other publications on the radar of more senior scholars who will someday be reviewing your job application or writing you tenure letters.

Reason #2: Networking

Depending on how the book is being implemented, writing a chapter could be a networking opportunity.  Some editors are able to bring together the writers for the volume for workshopping the chapters, for instance.  In other cases, you might be interested in getting on the radar of the book editors themselves for future collaborations.  In this case, writing the chapter is more about the connections you make through the process and impressing others with the work that you’re doing in chapter.

Reason #3: Practice

Some of you may want to pursue a book chapter as practice in the research process.  One of the first publications I landed as a graduate student was a book chapter, which I chose to pursue because it was an opportunity to code interview data, analyze it, and write it up by myself.  Since I had previously worked in a team-based research environment, I wanted an opportunity to practice what I would be doing in my graduate program through my MA and dissertation.  Doing that for a book chapter was a low stakes opportunity to get my hands dirty and get used to not having co-authors.  

Best Fit for Book Chapters

If you do decide to submit to an edited volume, make sure not to put your most exciting and interesting findings or innovative analyses into your chapter.  It’s often appropriate for a book chapter to be based solely on a literature review and either descriptive statistics from a quantitative project or a single case study example from a qualitative project.  Limiting what you include in the chapter to this will ensure that you still have plenty to say in your submissions to peer-review publications, so you can save your best work for more valued publications. 

When I applied to Sociology PhD programs, I got rejected from my top 3 choices.  I had applied to 9 programs, got into 3 programs, and was waitlisted at a 4th.  As excited as I was to have some options, they were not the options I was hoping for.  In fact, 1 of the 3 programs I was admitted to was a program I had applied to just cuz.  Seeing my actual options forced me to reassess my goals and pick a program based on a very different criteria than I had selected programs when I applied. 

I had compiled the list of 9 programs I applied to based on my interests in the subfield of social psychology.  My sense is that some of the folks who are not constrained geographically choose to apply to the top 10 programs in their discipline, but I wanted to specialize in social psychology at that time, so I did my research and picked programs with a strong focus in that area.  That gave me 7 programs to which I added 2 wild cards that I had no hopes of actually getting into.

So when I found out that I had gotten into 1 of my wild card applications and 2 strong social psychology programs, I was suddenly comparing 2 apples with 1 orange based on my original selection criteria.  I had to rethink what I needed from a PhD program.  When I applied, I assumed I would always want to specialize in social psychology, but as I assessed my options, I realized I needed to also consider the other areas that I was interested in: race/ethnicity and poverty.  So I updated my spreadsheets and compared the 3 programs across these 3 areas instead of just one.  Doing so gave me a sense of where I would have support across all of my subfield interests and how much support through the number of faculty specializing in each area.

In retrospect, this was the right way to make the decision.  I went into the PhD without much prior exposure to Sociology and spent part of my first year figuring out the subfields and locating my interests in them.  While I continued to be interested in race/ethnicity and poverty, I realized my interest in social psychology was really an interest in culture, which came with a different set of theories and methodological tools.  So choosing a program based on a broader combination of interests meant I wasn’t pigeon-holed into a subfield that my interests had evolved out of.  

Given that changing topics from application to dissertation is VERY common in Sociology programs, I now advise students to consider several broad areas that they’re interested in instead of looking for the faculty who are studying what they think they want to do their dissertation on.  It’s much more likely that their specific interests will shift than the broad subfield areas that they’re interested in.  While it is never a bad thing to have substantive overlap with faculty in a department, it is helpful to not put all your eggs in one basket.  You never know if you won’t click with the one faculty member who studies what you’re interested in, so it’s in anyone’s best interest to apply to programs where there are multiple faculty who would be a good fit.  Besides, a dissertation doesn’t just have a chair that supervises, it requires a committee.

A lot of social science departments have goals to diversify their graduate student bodies by recruiting more people of color applicants.  It is a worthy goal, but also one raises questions, such as where are these potential people of color applicants and how do we get them to apply?  Even at universities with diverse undergraduate bodies, the question of “how do we get them to apply?” is still unanswered, as students who demonstrate the kinds of skills and thinking faculty associate with strong graduate students are often planning on terminal MA programs like MSWs and JDs.  I may be an Assistant Professor today, but even I thought I was going to stop at a terminal MA until a mentor pushed my thinking.

I went to a large university for undergrad where I majored in a small, interdisciplinary major.  The department was literally 2 faculty members who predominately did administrative work, so I graduated after 4 years with zero exposure to research and the assumption that college professors just taught.  It wasn’t until three years after graduating that I realized a PhD prepared people for careers in research.  At that time, I had started my first career job as a Research Assistant at a social policy evaluation nonprofit, where many of my supervisors had PhDs.  I hadn’t taken much notice of that at that particular point, but I knew my assigned mentor had a PhD.  While I was focused on an MPP or an MPA and trying to sort out the differences between those options, my mentor’s response to my educational goals during our goal setting meeting was “why just a MA?”

The question totally threw me.  My mother, a college-educated public school teacher, had ingrained in my brain from an early age that “a Master’s is a minimum,” as she watched the standards for hiring for her position change.  So I left my BS program knowing that I would come back for another degree at some point, but not wanting to waste my time and money before knowing what I wanted that MA to be in exactly.  When my mentor asked “why just a MA?,” I really didn’t have an answer.  I didn’t know what a PhD was or what someone might do with one, so just posing the question sent me on a path to figure out what I didn’t know.  Learning more about how my supervisors were trained for research through a PhD program became my motivation to pursue that option.  I was that RA who read everything I could about research methods, who loved doing literature reviews, and couldn’t get enough of qualitative or quantitative coding and analysis.  If it wasn’t for that little push to explore the options, I might have gotten an MA in Geography and a job in mapping or stopped my educational career with the MPA program I did complete when I was considering PhD programs in Policy (which require an MA).

It is that experience that informs my answer to the question, how do we get them to apply?  Many of the students who definitively state they are going to get a JD or an MSW probably don’t know about the full spectrum of options they have for higher degrees.  They probably don’t know what their professors do on a day-to-day basis.  And they have probably not had exposure to conducting research.  

So what can we do to get them to apply?  Give them information about what a PhD program entails and what you can do with a PhD when you’re done.  Tell them why you think they would be a great fit for a PhD program.  Expose them to research not just in class readings, but through opportunities to get some hands on experience to see if they like it.  At the end of the day, they won’t all apply to PhD programs for one reason or another, but they will have considered the option and some of them, like me, will submit an application.

Some of you might not know this, but I’m an avid knitter.  I do everything from cabled hats and fingerless gloves, to lace shawls and sweaters, and I have what some might call a lot of yarn.  One thing that I find helpful for understanding my research process and personality (if you will) from knitting is the common discussion about “process” and “product” knitters.  

Process knitters are people who enjoy knitting for knitting sake.  They choose patterns and yarns they like to work with, but aren’t wedded to finishing anything.  In contrast, product knitters are those who knit for the sake of finishing the knit item.  They often focus on one project at a time and knit it to completion.

Personally, I’m a process knitter.  I have WAY too many projects all sitting around at various stages of completion.  I also have a whole large bin of things I finished knitting and then never seamed up or added buttons to because…I’m a process knitter.  I also have no problem just ripping out a whole sweater and starting over because I enjoy the process of knitting that much.  Not that you asked, but I have literally reknit a sweater by unraveling a prior version of the sweater I knit when my first take at a sweater turned out too short.

So how does this relate to my research?  You can see the exact same patterns in my research process.  I love data and analysis, so I have too many projects in early stages where I got excited about a new data source or a new analysis tool I figured out and dove in, but still haven’t finished a full paper.  I collect data and research ideas in the same way that I collect yarn and new patterns for future projects.  I have no problem doing a brand new analysis or going back to the data analysis phase of work in any form at any point in the process (and I mean even when I thought I was done and Reviewer 2 asks for one more change in a model).  

This research “personality” certainly comes with its challenges.  I have to force myself to focus on what’s at hand and not be distracted.  My system for that is to let myself go down the rabbit hole only long enough to record a new research idea in Evernote, bookmark a new data source, or memo about a new paper idea.  That gets it out of my head and helps me move onto what I really need to be focused on.  

But there are also perks.  I always have more than one project going on and PLENTY of research projects to turn to when it’s time to come up with the next idea.  Whether it’s my Evernote with hundreds of tagged research ideas, the data sources I may (or may not) have downloaded when I got excited about their existence, or the halfway complete data analysis that I’ve never gotten back to completing, I have works-in-progress to turn to when it’s time to pick up the next project.  As Jo VanEvery notes, “Multiple projects can lead to more finished projects.

So what kind of researcher are you?