practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

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?

There are some questions you never want to get when you’re presenting your research.  I got my least favorite question during the Q&A of a job talk.  Things had gone relatively smoothly (phew!) and then I was asked: “Aren’t these findings…….expected??”  I could see during the pause that the person was looking for a nicer way to say “obvious,” but the effect was the same.  It took a topic that was important to me because it exposed racial inequality and assessed it on whether my results were predictable or not.  To be fair, it’s common to ask job candidates questions that push them to see their thought process, but this question is the result of a broader issue with the demand for novel research in social science.  We are into the second century of empirical social science research.  There are no original ideas!  There are only new ways of thinking about previously researched topics.  

Expecting scholars to produce novel findings is pretty unreasonable in this day and age.  And yet it is a common message to graduate students that the only way to publish and get an academic job is to have novel findings.  As someone with “expected” findings, let me tell you, you can have expected findings and still publish and even get an academic job.  Why?  Because even if something is obvious and predictable based on prior theories, if it hasn’t been tested yet, it is a contribution to study and document it.  This means testing old theories on different populations, phenomena, and contexts ARE contributions.  

Telling graduate students they need to have novel findings only discourages students from pursuing topics they’re interested in because the field is “too saturated,” increases students’ stress levels, and activates their imposter syndrome.  When they see a new paper that approaches their topic, they panic, terrified someone “beat them to the punch.”  Instead, we need to teach them the value of replication findings, theory testing in new settings, and innovative methods, affirming their interests and the potential contributions they will have.  

So if someone questions whether your findings are expected or obvious or predictable, remind them of the value of studies that replicate, test theories, and use innovative methods.  More importantly, remind yourself of the most important thing: why YOU value the research you’re doing.   

How do faculty look at job applications?  I recently asked this on Academic Twitter and got 311 responses and some additional replies.  The vast majority of faculty first look at the CV (66 percent), but a good 31 percent start with the cover letter.  In today’s post, I’m going to talk about the CV and the cover letter and highlight what this means for those of you on the academic job market and how the pros and cons to these approaches for faculty figuring out how to approach the process.

The CV

The academic CV is a peculiar form.  It’s a LOT of information with very little detail.  The CV is just a series of lists with very little prose, which is why it’s a great thing that applicants have the cover letter and statements to provide more information about what they’ve accomplished thus far in their careers.  

The most important thing in a CV is organization in my opinion.  My biggest pet peeve is when applicants lump together a bunch of things that aren’t really alike.  In my experience, it’s most problematic for publications, but it also applies to talks for example. The problem of listing all of your publications all together is that I as the reviewer have to sort through and figure out what is a book chapter, an encyclopedia entry, an editorial, or a peer reviewed journal article.  I have also seen this with works-in-progress that are not submitted to a journal mixed with pieces under review and published manuscripts, but this organization bothers me much less.  Whether you mean it to be or not, doing this can come off as attempting to inflate your CV to look like more publications than you actually have, so make clear sections that include different kinds of work, such as sections for different kinds of written products and written products at different stages.  You might also add sections that separate things like public speaking or workshops for the community from guest lectures in university courses.  This separation not only clarifies your experiences, but also signals the kind of public engagement you’ve been doing, which is particularly important for universities like land grant institutions that have a commitment to the community around them.

Based on comments on my poll and my own experience on a search committee, it seems that faculty generally use the CV to get an overview of someone’s “fit” for the position.  Fit can be the subfields that the search is focused on, but it can also be looking to ensure that applicants have published in a peer review journal or that they have experience teaching the expected courses.  The problem that can arise with starting with the CV is when folks look for markers of prestige such as where the individual got their degree or when it becomes a counting game of how many publications each person has.  The former is problematic because it means screening out people without giving them an opportunity to sell themselves through the cover letter or research statement, but also because more elite institutions tend to have students who come from more privileged backgrounds and also attended elite schools for undergrad.  Prestige begets prestige.  

Counting publications can get problematic because there are many reasons why there are variations in applicants’ number of publications.  Maybe they didn’t have opportunities to publish with any faculty.  Maybe they wrote a book style dissertation and so don’t have as many side papers to publish.  Maybe their program doesn’t require a MA paper or other papers that they could have attempted to publish.  Lastly, maybe their funding was tied to teaching and they couldn’t focus 100 percent of their time on research.  Besides this last item, none of these are easy to figure out from an application whether the CV or the cover letter or the research statement, so while it is important to see peer reviewed publications of some sort, it shouldn’t be just selecting candidates with the most pubs.  

One thing I like to see in an applicant’s CV is evidence that they won’t drown in their first year.  This is signaled with a balance of publications, teaching experience, and sometimes also some departmental service work.  To me, this signals a well rounded candidate who will be able to handle the transition to a full teaching load and service without completely dropping their research.  

The Cover Letter

Unlike the CV, the cover letter is home to narrative.  It tells us what the candidate is prepared to do, but mostly what they’ve already accomplished.  For job candidates, this will feel like a repetitive document to draft seeing as you will also have a more detailed research statement, teaching statement, and diversity statement.  However, not all applications ask for all statements so the cover letter will do more work in many applications.  It is your chance to tell the overarching narrative about your research, teaching, mentorship, and service work and sell your fit for the position and the department.  

While starting with the cover letter is less popular, it is my preferred starting point to the process because I want to hear what the applicant has to say and how they pitch themselves.  If they seem like a good fit for the position, then I look at the CV for other prerequisites such as peer reviewed publications and prior teaching experience in the area of hire.  The downside to starting with the cover letter though is that how someone sells themselves in a cover letter is a product of professionalization.  That is, it is more of a reflection of the person’s training than anything else.  To combat that, I don’t discount when someone describes their research as contributions only to specific subfields or subareas of subfields for example instead of multiple subfields or broader subfields.  I look for interesting and innovative research above all else.  

I’m sure, however, that not all reviewers are this generous in their reading, so a couple of tips for job applicants.  What seems to be most compelling from my experience is an overarching research agenda that captures your various projects.  This is not an easy thing to write and it will take a while to nail down.  It’s easiest to start this in your research statement where you have more space to develop the idea, get feedback, revise, then boil it down to a sound bite for the cover letter.  You want to be consistent across all of your materials.  

To give an example, I do research on culture and the racial wealth gap, race and gentrification, and media representations of gentrification.  These don’t logically fit together without me providing a narrative to connect them for someone.  I picked describing my research agenda as investigating how culture and development contribute to racial inequality.  Most people use substantive connections, but I’ve also seen applicants effectively use their methodological approach to center their research agenda.  

Beyond the research component of the cover letter, make sure to include sound bites about your philosophy of teaching and diversity statement even if both are required, but especially if they’re not.  This is also the space to highlight things like a personal reason you would absolutely uproot your life and move to College Town USA.  Don’t disclose anything you don’t feel comfortable sharing with strangers, but there is nothing wrong with saying you’re eager to return home to X state to be closer to family or to remind the search committee that you lived in the area during undergrad and would love to return.  

Other Approaches

There are people who start with the research statement, the teaching statement, the writing samples, or the letters of recommendation, so job applicants need to put forward their best foot across all of their materials.  Like I mentioned before, consistency across statements, while avoiding repetition outside of the cover letter, is important so take the time to edit across statements in addition to editing each individually.  Start with the longer, specific statements (research, teaching, and diversity) then use those solid drafts to craft your cover letter.  

For search committee members, regardless of the approach you choose, you are prone to some type of bias whether implicit or explicit in ways that gives preferential treatment to those with higher status credentials.  Addressing these biases might look like reminding yourself that not everyone is trained to publish in the very top tier of journals or bust and that not everyone receives training on how to publish or feedback on their work, focusing on ideas rather than framing, and looking for well rounded applicants with teaching, mentoring, and service experience in addition to a strong research agenda.  While departments should still hire junior scholars they believe can get tenure, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that any smart person coming out of any PhD program can learn more and be successful with the right mentorship and support.  

Grant and fellowship season is coming up again.  Seeing the deadlines creep closer on my calendar made me sigh and groan a little.  These applications are always a fair amount of work (read as “time I could be doing something else”) and the rewards are few and far between.  I’ve been dragging my feet, so I’m taking the time to remind myself of why I have subjected myself to over 40 grant and fellowship applications over the last 8 years.  

1. Each application is a chance to articulate your agenda and ideas. 

You’re not going to win every grant or fellowship you apply to.  Rejection is inevitable along the way, but there is something to gain by going through the process.  It forces you to think through your research projects, connect them into an overarching research agenda, and articulate them to others who are often not experts in your area.  Doing this work is helpful for other parts of academic life as well such as writing job market materials, a book proposal, or a tenure portfolio statement.  It could also help you nail down your elevator pitch for networking.  

2. Creating a detailed plan and budget can help you plan.

There’s nothing like being forced to articulate what you will be doing on a project during a period of time and with a pot of money to help you more generally plan for finishing a project.  Doing these detailed plans and budgeting help you see what’s left before getting to the finish line of what might feel like a neverending research project.  

3. One submission is the start to the next application. 

Once you’ve applied to a grant or fellowship once, you now have draft materials to the next year’s application.  Some of what you write will be specific for the year you apply, but a lot of the content can be edited and revised rather than needing to be rewritten.  In fact, some materials can be used for more than one grant/fellowship application.  Even better, some grants/fellowships provide reviewer feedback, which can be helpful in identifying what you need to clarify, provide more detail about, or just scratch in future applications.  

4. Each application is a little bit easier.

The more grant and fellowship applications you write, the easier that style of writing gets.  The easier it gets to write about your research projects.  The easier it gets to declaratively state what you will finish in some absurdly short period of time.  And the easier it gets to write those awkward personal essays about yourself and how you came to pursue a PhD and academia.  

5. Even the rejections count.

My department and university care that I’m applying for grants and fellowships.  Of course they would love if I won one, BUT they also ask what I’ve applied for regardless of whether I’ve been successful or not.  So making an effort counts for something!

6. Every once in a while, you win!

Yes, there’s a lot of rejection in applying for grants and fellowships, but every once in a while the stars align and you get some approval.  And in this case, approval comes with $$$, yay!!!!  

As faculty have adjusted to teaching during a stressful time, many have opted to make changes in the amount of work they assign and how they grade.  The changes reflected compassion and empathy for our students during a stressful time, but some of these changes should be permanent even after face-to-face courses resume.  Changes in how faculty grade could ease disparities in the classroom, particularly around differences in preparation for college.  For instance, not grading for writing style and grammar could be a practice to continue post-covid.  

To be clear, I’m a Professor of Sociology.  I teach courses like “Race and Ethnicity” and “Segregation in the City,” not “Writing Composition” or “the Art of the Essay.”  However, I do assign written assignments.  In fact, that’s the majority of assessments in my courses.  My students write short responses and short papers that demonstrate their understanding of the core concepts of class and apply that understanding to new examples.  Even with all of that writing, I do not grade for grammar or writing style.  Why?  Because they are not things I teach in my classes.  

This has always been my practice, but many of my peers do grade for these things.  In my view, grading for writing style and grammar perpetuates pre-existing inequalities in education.  Students who went to college preparatory schools with smaller classes and more hands-on student-teacher engagement are more likely to already have stronger writing skills.  Additionally, students for whom English is a first language are more likely to have a wider vocabulary and better grammar than their international peers.  Grading for grammar and writing style, only perpetuates the existing disparities through grades and GPA, which keeps more privileged students doing better than their peers.

So if I’m not grading for grammar and writing style, you might be wondering what I do grade for.  My courses are substantive and empirical.  They provide students with vocabulary to understand their own experiences and the world around them.  Through their written assignments, I ask students to demonstrate their understanding of the core concepts we have learned about in class, apply the concepts they learn to explain other cases, and connect the concepts they have learned to their own experiences.  My grading rubrics capture the extent to which the student followed these instructions.  Did the student answer the prompt?  Did they answer all parts of the prompt? Did they cite the number of class readings required?  Did they paraphrase from these readings rather than use direct quotations?  Did they include parenthetical citations to give credit to their sources?  Even without perfect grammar or a flowery writing style, a student can get an A on my assignments by engaging with the questions I asked them and following the other requirements for the assignment.  In fact, students who write well, but never fully address the posed question(s) do less well than their peers who fully answer the question with some awkward writing.

For me, this policy is a small contribution to equalizing the playing field in an inherently unequal system.  Students who write well cannot BS their way around a question and still do well on my assignments (something some of them are used to doing).  But more importantly, the student who struggles with writing can do well in my course.  It is an approach to compassionate teaching that I believe should extend beyond this temporary moment in higher education.  

I recently did a virtual panel discussion with first year graduate students in my program.  It was a moment of realization that the constraints on research, particularly qualitative research, that we are currently experiencing due to coronavirus are even more extreme for first years.  Faculty and advanced graduate students have data and works-in-progress that they can work on over the summer, but many first year graduate students don’t have data and now don’t have the opportunity to collect data this summer.  Students who were planning on doing archival, ethnography, and interview research over the summer now have to decide whether they can pursue research this summer and, if so, how to go about it.  I want to share a few things to think about, but first, let me just say that it is okay if work doesn’t happen this summer.  Your mental and physical health needs to come first and foremost above all else.  Self-care is so much more important than any school work or research!  If you do have the space and time to think about and execute research, here are a few things to think about and discuss with your advisor.  

How committed are you to your original research plan?  

There are many ways to answer a research question.  It would be great to answer your question through the words of the people you interviewed, evidence from documents you retrieved from the depths of a dusty archive, or the connections and experiences you had living and observing the phenomenon you study.  But just because those activities aren’t possible doesn’t mean you can’t pursue a similar or related research question.  Just remember that you can always execute your original plan later.  Putting it on the back burner does not mean you’ll never get to do it.

Option 1 is to slightly modify your research plan by conducting it while socially isolating.  You can recruit interviewees through your networks on social media and conduct interviews on phone or online (Skype/Zoom/WebEx/etc.), or use digitized archival materials.  Going this route may mean a slightly different sample than you would have recruited otherwise, but every interview sample is unique to the recruitment strategy used in some way.  If you go this route, don’t forget to update your IRB application to reflect the new recruitment, collection, and recording options that you’re using.  

Option 2 is to redesign the project to answer the same or a similar question with a different kind of data.  Instead of conducting interviews, maybe you look at the same question with survey data or a digitized archive.  Start by looking to see what kinds of data are available online in repositories like ICPSR, Roper Data Center, Social Explorer, or your library’s databases and archives.  Many of these data sources and analyses will be useful in the longer run if you continue with the same topic for your dissertation.  For instance, qualitative researchers often use quantitative data to justify the study of their specific case whether that be a particular group or a specific geographic location.  If you’re nervous about doing quantitative research, remember that you can get useful information from simple analyses like descriptive statistics, correlations, and ordinary least squares regression analyses.  You don’t have to jump into multinomial regressions with fixed effects.  Start with what you’re comfortable with and understand.  As you get feedback on what you’ve done and where you should take the analysis, you can learn about new techniques.  

What other topics are you interested in?  

The change in access may mean lead you to decide to focus on a different research topic for now that would allow you to use electronically available data.  It never hurts to have more than one line of research going.  So go ahead and design a new project for that other topic you’re excited about that you can pursue virtually.  You can still pursue your original project as your main area of research at a later point.

Are there other program requirements you could work on this summer?  

Every Ph.D. program has multiple requirements, so what requirements could you work on during the summer instead of doing research?  This suggestion definitely involves talking to your advisor and the graduate director of your program to see if the program would let you pursue some requirements earlier than “normal.”  For instance, you might be able to negotiate starting a comprehensive or qualifying exam early, or doing an independent study for course credit.  These activities would free up some of your time later for being able to pursue field work or archival research.

These times call for creative measures, particularly for qualitative researchers.  If that means putting school on hold, that’s okay!  If you have the time and energy to push your school work and research forward, you have options.