practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

Graduate school is full of hidden curriculum. From how to get an office to where to find sample comp exams to why to use independent study credits, there are a lot of things you won’t know about when you start and some things you won’t know to ask about. There are books you can read to get some insight on the hidden curriculum, but I want to share something I found helpful in grad school, asking questions.

I spent a lot of the first year of my PhD asking questions. In proseminar, in office hours, in staff’s offices, and with advanced grad students. (Ask my cohort mates…I got a reputation for this.) I asked questions to understand the program requirements, funding opportunities, and to feel out who I wanted to work with.

You could call what I did a form of informational interviewing. Normally informational interviews are used to gain insight into a career path. In some ways, my questions were just that: asking about how to successfully complete a PhD. But my questions were also a way to learn about the culture in the department, which faculty communicated in ways that worked for me (and which didn’t), and to get a better sense of the challenges that students often faced in the program and department that I might also face.

While I think asking questions is particularly important in the beginning of your time in grad school to make sure you understand what you’re signed up for, informational interviewing can be also be helpful to get broader information along the way. So for instance, faculty feedback on draft proposals and articles is often in response to what you have written. But behind that specific feedback is an opinion about how a proposal or article should be written. (Trust me, we all have opinions about these things!) Most faculty don’t phrase feedback like “A literature review should…” Instead they say, “Make a clearer argument in your literature review,” responding to the words you have on the page.  

You can make conversations about your specific work broader by asking questions: What does a strong literature review do in your opinion? How do you prefer to organize your data and methods section? What are the common mistakes you see in the articles you peer review? While faculty may be inclined to give specific feedback in response to your draft, you can push the conversation with these sorts of questions to figure out their broader view of what makes for a good journal article. You can apply the same technique to book writing and grant applications as you advance in your career.

Now obviously asking questions only works if you know to ask so keep an ear out for things that don’t make sense to you to follow up on.  It is more than okay to ask for clarification and more information.  Actually, it is sometimes helpful for folks to realize they’re not talking about something that is widely known.  That could be dropping an acronym, a name of a program or an office on campus, or even referencing something you haven’t read.  Having these kinds of interactions can actually inform future interactions with other students in my experience.  

One thing I found helpful in illuminating some of the things I didn’t know to ask about was talking to advanced grad students and asking faculty very open questions.  With advanced grad students, I asked what they wish they had known.  With faculty, I asked what do I need to know about the next step in this process (e.g., qualifying exams).  These kind of questions always brought up really helpful insight I wouldn’t have known to ask about directly.  

Lastly, let me end by reassuring you that part of the faculty job in programs with grad students is to advise and mentor them.  Answering questions is part of the job.  Asking questions is not being disrespectful of someone’s time in any way.  

Drafting an article for peer-review means writing, revising, and editing, but also making the decision about when it is “done” and ready for submission to peer review. So when do you know when it’s ready to submit?  When should you stop wordsmithing and click that button?  I recently saw these questions asked on Twitter, in response to which there were a number of different takes on it.  As with anything in research, there are a number of different strategies for figuring this out.  

Quick disclaimer first though: I’m going to share what I do and how I got there, but remember that there’s no one way to make this decision.  This is what I do and why, but as I discuss below, there are reasons why this may not work for you.  Keep an eye out for other conversations on the topic and figure out what works for you!

Part of the reason I came to how I approach this decision is because I tried a different way at first.  My first peer review submission was a paper that I started through my job before graduate school.  My co-author and I had written a number of drafts of a paper and gotten feedback from our team several times.  Based on advice from our colleagues, we submitted to a journal to get additional feedback and figure out how to move forward.  

This advice followed me to my PhD program where I submitted an article with two similar analyses that I couldn’t decide between with the hopes that the reviewers would help me decide.  Instead, they were confused.  Weren’t Table 3 and 4 quite similar?  Why did the authors include both?  What should the reader take from Table 3 that is distinct from Table 4?   There were no answers in the reviews, only questions.  

Using the peer-review process to get feedback to strengthen your articles is one approach to the process.  In the case of my article before grad school, it was helpful as we used a sociological framework, but only had one trained sociologist on the team.  The one thing to remember with this approach is that a journal that rejects your paper is one you cannot submit that article to again.  So the best time to use this strategy is when you have the wiggle room to sacrifice a journal from your list of potential places to submit.  If you want your article to stick at the first journal where you submit it or you need the submission to be a serious consideration, this isn’t a good strategy.  

After my second experience with submitting for feedback, I had an amazing co-authorship experience where I learned a LOT about writing a journal article and the peer-review publication process.  These two experiences pushed me to take a different approach.  For feedback, I use writing groups, friends, mentors, and conference presentations.  It means losing potential reviewers for a paper, but it helps me develop a more polished and complete paper to submit for peer-review.  To determine whether the paper is “polished” and “complete,” I look to whether I get feedback that suggests the paper is half baked in two ways: (1) my analysis and (2) the framing of the paper.  Now reviewers ALWAYS have something they want changed or added to an article, but what I’ve noticed between publishing and reviewing articles is that a critique of your methods, analysis, or interpretation of findings can be damning, leading to rejection.  But suggested changes for the framing of a paper are often seen as doable revisions and are more likely to lead to a revise and resubmit.  I assume that this is particularly true when you’ve demonstrated to the reviewers that you can implement a framing, so I focus on executing whatever framing I choose well and completely.  

Making sure my findings sections are tight and the framing well executed seems to have increased the number of papers I’ve had accepted at the first journal I’ve submitted them to, rather than the third, fifth, or seventh.  (Yes, I have papers that took that many submissions to place.)  It helps of course that I have more experience with writing journal articles and better understand their format, but my approach seems to help too.  

Now I will say there’s one kind of peer-review journal my strategy is still hit or miss for: high rejection rate journals.  Really no matter what your strategy, the likelihood of rejection is high for these journals period.  But I do think my strategy has helped me land in journals with more moderate rejection rates.  

The main critique of this approach from what I’ve seen is that reviewers are going to make you redo something, so you shouldn’t submit something that perfected.  However, this critique seems to be more about your reaction to feedback.  The only problem with submitting something polished and complete is IF you are unwilling to change the article. If you are willing to make the revisions the reviewers ask for, it doesn’t matter if what you submit is closer to “perfect.”  

Another critique is that this approach encourages authors to hold onto their work and not submit it.  This is a really valid potential drawback of the approach.  What I’ll say to that is, for me, the approach has encouraged me to slow down and not rush.  It has calmed my impatience to get articles out the door and off my plate.  Now if you naturally tend to sit on your work and not click submit, then this critique is something to be careful about.  What may help is setting boundaries on how perfect an article needs to be before you submit it.  

Or maybe there’s a third option that I haven’t thought of that you should check out?  What other approaches have you been advised on or implemented?

I’m in the first of two weeks I’m spending focused on my book project, so it seemed like an appropriate time to share something I’ve learned in working on my first book project: Writing a book is NOT like writing articles!  

This academic year, I’ve been alternating my research time between revising and rewriting my dissertation into a book manuscript and working on articles and book chapters.  During my book weeks, there’s a lot of work that is generally familiar to the research process.  I’ve been cleaning and analyzing new data sources, reading new secondary sources, reviewing new literature, and writing.  But unlike the other tasks, writing for the book has been a whole new learning process.  I know good deal about writing journal articles at this point in my career.  I even teach graduate students about it.  But writing a journal article is so different from writing a book that most of those lessons and experiences just don’t translate.  

The first, obvious difference is the tone of the writing.  Journal articles are written to engage with other experts in your field, other PhDs.  But, these days, academic books are predominately written for an undergraduate readership.  This has major implications for the style of writing: Short and simple sentences.  No complicated clauses.  Clear language.  No jargon.  No passive voice.  Define all concepts.

Writing for an undergraduate readership also means writing for a different kind of expert.  Unlike a journal article where you need to prove the rigor of your methodological approach to your reader, many of your book readers will know very little about data and analysis.  Scratch the “data and methods” chapter and sections.  In fact, put it all the way at the end in a methodological appendix for those research trained readers who want the deets.  

But the part that has really thrown me through a loop is where to engage with the literature.  Just as your main audience doesn’t need an extensive review of your methodological approach, they also don’t need an extensive review of the literature.  So what in my mind is a several page section that I prepare to write by reading a lot and taking extensive notes no longer has a specific place in the book.  There’s no literature chapter.  No multiple page section in the introduction.  Instead, literature is used strategically throughout the manuscript.  I’m still wrapping my head around this and what that means for when I do my “reading a lot and taking extensive notes,” but I’m taking a stab at it as I push forward.

What has been helpful in getting a grasp on how to tackle this new writing challenge has been doing more reading.  I’ve read as much as I can about book writing.  (Yes, you could call it a literature review.)  My current favorites are Revising Your Dissertation, an edited volume with essays written by academic press editors, and the Clockwork Muse, which covers long form writing including dissertations and books. The former does a great job of highlighting the major differences between a dissertation and a book, including what academic press editors are looking for in the books that they publish.  The latter includes guidance and examples (this part is crucial!) of the process of book writing.  

I’ve also been reading relatively recently published academic books to look for things I like (and don’t like) in the writing, format, organization, etc.  Recently, for example, I was reading a book that had vague, unclear chapter titles AND no description of the chapters in the introduction.  As someone who didn’t need to read the whole book, I was frustrated that I was forced to skim each chapter to figure out what was most relevant for my needs.  Needless to say, clear chapter titles and a description of each forthcoming chapter are on my list of “dos” for my own book manuscript.

When I find a book that does something well, it goes in my stack of exemplary books.  This includes works that match the tone and style I’m aiming for in my own book.  They’re accessibly written, but still engage with theoretical concepts and debates.  These are books like Eve Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Tony Jack’s The Privileged Poor, and Tressie McMillian Cottom’s Lower Ed.  

I’ve been learning a lot this year working on #ProjectFirstBook.  But there’s much more to go.

One way my career before graduate school helped me was preparing me to “manage up.”  When we think of the word manage, the process that most often comes to mind is a supervisor monitoring, training, and evaluating a subordinate.  But management really happens in both directions in the workplace.  Supervisors give assignments, but their employees have to advocate for themselves (e.g., we agreed to rotate this type of assignment and I did the last one) and ask for clarity on priorities (e.g., I now have 3 reports with the same deadline, which one should be my top priority?).  The advisor-grad student relationship is very similar to supervisor-employee in many ways, so managing up is an essential skill that all grad students need to protect themselves in that relationship.  

Even though an advisor or dissertation chair is not a boss, they have power over graduate students.  Advisors can decide you’re not ready to take a qualifying or comprehensive exam.  They can require a change in your research design before they will sign off on your prospectus.  They can even contribute to your reputation in the department by what they tell other faculty.  Abusive advisors aside, most faculty think they are being helpful and contributing to a student’s training by the advice they give and the actions they take on the student’s behalf.  But being well meaning doesn’t always mean that an advisor is doing what works best for you.  This is why managing up is an important skill to bring to the graduate school process.  There are times when you will need to advocate for yourself instead of blindly following the prescriptions of your advisor.  I’ve seen this happen commonly around unreasonable expectations from advisors, unforeseen delays in research, life happenings that interrupt work, and advising needs mismatch.  

Unreasonable Expectations 

Student A meets with their advisor to discuss progress on their dissertation.  Advisor says “Great!  Let’s meet in a month to discuss that chapter.  Send it to me two weeks before the meeting.”  So Student A has two weeks to crank out a draft, which could still require significant data analysis.  Even if the draft is further along, the advisor didn’t inquire about the timeline, so Student A may have a conflicting deadline, event, or commitment.  

Unreasonable expectations for deadlines usually come up for a couple of reasons.  (1) Advisors sometimes only think about their availability and don’t ask students when they can get something done.  (2) Advisors think students are only working on their dissertation/exams when students are in fact also juggling other commitments and responsibilities.  (3) Advisors are not accounting for how long it takes less experienced researchers and writers to complete research and writing tasks.  From an advisor’s perspective, the fix is easy: Ask students about timeline.  Say “I can read your draft in two weeks.  Is that enough time to implement the changes we discussed?”  Ask “What else do you have on your plate in the coming weeks?”  Take a minute to sync calendars to come up with a reasonable deadline for both parties. 

If your advisor doesn’t ask these things, you can and should speak up for yourself and ask for a different timeline.  One way to approach this is to punt the conversation by saying something like “I need to figure out how long the remaining work on the chapter will take.”  You can then follow up via email to propose a more realistic timeframe.  Alternatively, you can tackle it in the moment with something like “I have another deadline in the week leading up to that so I’ll need more time” or “The data analysis still needs quite a bit of work.  Let’s meet in two months so I’ll have enough time to sort that out.”  By pushing back on timelines to ensure you’re not agreeing to unreasonable expectations or overworking yourself to meet unreasonable deadlines, you might find that your advisor starts to expect a discussion about deadlines instead of prescribing them. 

Unforeseen Delays

Student B had plans to collect never used before records from an archive for their dissertation.  They can’t tell a lot about the records from the documentation provided because the records haven’t yet been processed by the archivists.  However, the student has been assured they will have access to the boxes.  After traveling to visit the archives, they realize the exciting records are not exactly what they expected.  Before they can move forward with the project, they now need to reassess whether these archives are an appropriate source for the questions they would like to answer or whether they can answer a different set of research questions with these particular records.  This may mean a change in schedule.

This scenario is one in which Student B will have more insight into the problem than their advisor, having actually reviewed the contents at the archive.  Their advisor will have suggestions and advice, but Student B will need to be assertive about their preferences to maintain a project that they are excited about.  They will need to decide whether they are committed to the original research questions and would prefer to visit other archives for better suited materials, or if they are excited about the new research questions they can potentially address at this archive.  They also need to consider whether they have funding, time, and energy for a trip to another archive and how changing their research questions will affect their timeline to finish.  All of these factors are fair to consider in deciding how to move forward, which means the student is the best person to finalize the decision.  

You can certainly discuss the options with your advisor.  In fact, it is often helpful to do so, but don’t be scared to manage up to let them know you will be considering the options and making the final decision.  Simply telling your advisor you need to consider how much the decisions will affect your timeline or that you need to review your budget to determine if you can afford another trip is an easy way to remind them that you need to make the final call.  

Life Happenings

Student C experiences a death of a close family member.  They took time off of their research for the funeral.  Since then though, they haven’t been able to work and have been overwhelmed with grief.  They know that attempting to just push forward will not be productive and that they need to process their grief first.

Life tends to pop up during grad school in ways we have no control over.  This is another situation where the grad student knows best.  So while it might seem unprofessional to share what’s going on with your personal life with your advisor, not doing so means they have no information and may misinterpret changes in communication and completion of deadlines.  That said, what you communicate is up to you.  Advisors don’t need all the details.  They need enough information to know that you aren’t able to meet work deadlines right now, but don’t need to know the intimate details of what you’re dealing with if you’re not comfortable sharing them.  At the bare minimum, Student C could email their advisor to let them know they had a death in the family.  But if Student C is comfortable enough to share more, they might also explain that they’re having a hard time and need to take a break from their research deadlines to recover.  Either approach signals something is going on that is interrupting work, which is what the advisor needs to know.  

Advising Needs Mismatch

Student D connected with their advisor early in their time in grad school.  Their advisor communicates well, provides good feedback, and supports them.  But Student D is finding they need more structure now that they’re working on their dissertation.  While their advisor expects a progress update once a semester, there aren’t deadlines in between.

This situation is an easy fix with managing up.  Student D can reach out to their advisor and ask for a meeting to set a month-by-month plan for their dissertation research with deadlines and deliverables to send to the advisor to help them stay on track.  In the conversation, they can also discuss what feedback the advisor can provide during the semester on the deliverables and in what form.  This is also a situation where the grad student and advisor should sync schedules to meet both of their needs.  

While Student D had a situation in which they needed more structure, some grad students may need less structure or more or less feedback.  Taking on a conversation with your advisor to explain what you need is the first step to getting your needs met.

No matter what your situation, know that your advisor is likely to both know some of what you’re experiencing from their own firsthand experience even if they don’t get all of the details.  Even the faculty member who completed their PhD before you were born may have had to revamp their whole dissertation due to a data source problem or experienced a life happening that set back when they finished their dissertation.  If they aren’t able to adjust their expectations or push you to work through an emotionally challenging time after you’ve communicated your needs, that might be the sign that they’re not the right advisor for you.  In that way, your advisor’s response to you managing up is important intel as well.  

Working in a job where the most important component (at least according to most research institutions’ tenure standards) is also the least regulated by deadlines presents a challenge for creating balance.  Teaching responsibilities come with a clear schedule for preparing lectures, grading assignments, and submitting final grades.  Service assignments can also have hard deadlines even if that’s just the next committee meeting.  While research comes with deadlines for revise and resubmits, conference submissions, special calls for papers, and grant applications, a lot of research work has no hard deadline.  Without a deadline, this is the work that can get pushed to the back burner when work with deadlines gets busy.  The only way to manage this and maintain a balance is with setting boundaries.

The major challenge to setting boundaries is that you need to know what to set boundaries around.  For me, that’s been a moving target since starting my job as an Assistant Professor as I see what demands there are for my time.  Each year I seem to get different requests whether it’s adding guest lectures, external service for a professional association, or a new responsibility within my department.  

One suggestion that has helped me identify where I need to set new boundaries is reflecting on all that I’ve done at the end of each semester.  I use a set of questions I got from Mirya Holman’s MHAWS newsletter that includes reflecting on what you would change about how an accomplishment came about.  When my reflection is that something was too demanding on my time or I did too much of some task, that’s a sign that I need to set a boundary.

There are many ways to set boundaries.  The first and most obvious boundary is saying no.  This boundary is particularly helpful when you’re asked to do something “earlier” than usual in your career.  I’ve usually been able to flag when I’m being asked “too early” by talking to more senior colleagues who will help me determine whether to say yes now, say not now (but later), or just say no.

Most of the time though, I need boundaries for the kind of work I need to do some of, but can’t do all that I’m asked to do.  For these kinds of requests, one approach is to set a cap or a maximum of how much you can do.  For instance, it’s not possible to say no to all peer review requests, but I do set a cap on how much peer review I can accommodate without it taking over my research time.  One way to set this boundary is a total number per semester and saying no after you reach that limit.  Many folks set this number based on how many articles they have under review and multiplying by two or three to set a goal number of reviews to give back to the peer review process.

Another way to set boundaries though is to set limits on a set of tasks that fit together.  This semester, for example, I’ve implemented a system where I treat peer review as part of the category of work I call “reading other people’s work.”  This includes reading draft work for friends, graduate students, workshops, and peer review.  My cap right now is to only read one person’s paper a week.  So to decide whether I can accept peer review, I look at what other work I have in “reading other people’s work” to do in the time frame in which the peer review would be due and make a decision on my availability based on that.  If I accept, I assign the peer review to a specific week based on when I don’t have to read the other manuscripts.

Setting boundaries is an important part of managing to balance research, teaching, and service.  You have a variety of ways to set boundaries, so find what works for you for each of the areas in which you need to set limits and adjust your process as you need to.

I’ve been learning as much as I can about academic book publishing since I graduated in 2018.  While most of the committee members had published books, I didn’t get much information about the process as a graduate student.  So when I decided that I wanted to transform my dissertation into a book, I sought out more information about the process from a variety of venues including panels of authors, panels of editors, and one-on-one conversations with published authors.  I still have much more to learn, but a number of points have repeated across sources in areas where I had lots of questions, so I’m going to share some of what I’ve learned.  

When should I start?

Coming off the job market, I was acutely aware that some folks already had book contracts as graduate students.  I went into my postdoc year feeling behind on the book until I got more information about the process.  From start to finish, the book publishing process takes several years.  It doesn’t usually take 6 years though, so you don’t need to walk into a tenure-track job with a contract in hand to have a book that counts towards tenure.  That said, it does take more than one year, so you’ll need to get some information and figure out a rough timeline.

First thing to find out is what you need in hand for the book to count for your tenure file.  Some universities want a hard copy of the book in the file.  Others want reviews published on the book.  Others are fine with proofs submitted with the file.  Each of these scenarios have different rough timelines.  That said, most editors and authors I heard from agree that getting a contract in your third year on a tenure-track position is (usually) sufficient for having book in hand for your tenure file. 

Advance contracts are (mostly) no more. 

It used to be that it was common to land a book contract with a proposal alone, but that is less and less common.  Many presses will ask for a proposal and two sample chapters, but some ask for a proposal and the full manuscript upfront.  If the proposal is the only thing requested, an editor may show interest, but still ask for the full manuscript before being willing to move forward.  

Every editor I’ve heard speak to this point has mentioned that they are not expecting a full manuscript in their mailbox in a week after a request like this.  In fact, some of them specified that this sometimes takes up to a year.  So you will have time to work on your manuscript if you’ve only prepared two chapters, but are asked to submit the full manuscript.  You may decide though to prepare the full manuscript before you submit the proposal.  I know of at least one successful book writer who prefers to write their books fully before submitting a proposal so that they’ve had a chance to fully think through the whole project and all of its pieces before writing the proposal.

Articles based on book data should come first. 

Once you’ve published a book, there are copyright issues with republishing content with articles, but the opposite is not a problem.  If you plan to publish an article using exact content from any chapter in your book, you should publish it before the book is published.  

Editors tend to not like when “too much” has been published that overlaps with the book data.  However, what “too much” means will vary by publisher, so ask the editor for a rule of thumb before you get too far into articles based on the book.  Most of the editors I’ve heard speak agree that two articles is acceptable, but there may be other presses that have a more stringent or more relaxed rule on this.

Everything is easier for your second book.

The last thing I’ve learned is that publishing your first book is a lot harder than any subsequent books.  Once you’ve proven yourself as capable of completing a book, you have a track record that makes the process easier for any future book projects.  This is true even if you switch publishers for your second book as you’ve already completed a book from start to finish.  Whether a second book is easier to write than the first is a whole other story…

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!