practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

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.

When you first start graduate school, you’re assigned an advisor usually based on the faculty you mentioned in your application statements and/or the research interests you described.  For those of you in the social sciences and in programs to which your funding is not attached to an individual faculty member, it is perfectly normal for this assignment to be temporary.  You may find that your assigned advisor isn’t a good fit because your research interests change, your methodological focus shifts, or you just don’t work well together.  So as you shop around (yes, you should do that), here are some things to consider.

First and foremost, you want someone who is supportive of you and your endeavors in graduate school and beyond.  This should be true of all of your eventual committee members and mentors in graduate school.  Your advisor needs to be behind you 100% as you develop as a scholar, but also when it’s time to discuss whether the department should give you additional funding or nominate you for a fellowship, and when you’re applying to fellowships and jobs.  They should be ready and willing to speak or write about you with the highest accolades at all times.  

Next, it’s extremely important to pick someone whose working style fits with yours.  While it may not matter to you whether the faculty member is organized or prefers in person interactions to email, it is extremely important that your communication styles and expectations align.  For instance, I have a very hard time understanding passive communicators, so I looked for faculty who shot from the hip, giving me direct feedback and advice.  You also want to consider what your expectations are for contact and make sure that your expectations will mesh with what the faculty member expects.  If they expect weekly progress reports via email and biweekly in person meetings of 1-2 hours, but you want to be able to do your thing and check in as needed, it’s not going to work.  

Lastly, most people end up with an advisor who has some overlap in their substantive or methodological interests.  However, this does not necessarily mean that your advisor studies what you want to study, the way that you want to study it.  More often, a good fit advisor has some overlap in the broader subfield in which your research is situated or uses similar methods.  My advisor had expertise in urban sociology, but had never studied gentrification.  It’s okay if you pick someone with one and not the other because there are only so many faculty to choose from in any given program.  I have found that some students hold onto advisors who are a good fit in being supportive and in work style, but who aren’t methodologically or substantively experts related to their work and thus aren’t on their dissertation committee.  This approach works if it fits with the requirements of your program.  For my MA paper, for example, my advisor had to be one of the two readers I selected, so taking this approach would not have worked for my program.

While these three factors might seem straight forward, remember that both your understanding of your needs and your needs themself may change over time.  In the comprehensive or qualifying exam stage, you may feel comfortable organizing your readings and managing your time to complete the task at hand without much input or guidance from your advisor, but as you begin to dissertate, you may realize you need more interaction, feedback, and guidance.  Just because the relationship has been one way doesn’t mean that it can’t change, so the first thing to do if/when this happens is to speak to your advisor about whether the relationship can adjust to meet your new needs.  If they’re not comfortable with the change, then you should consider your other options.  However, that switch could be moving your advisor out of the chair role and into a committee member, rather than moving on without them.  

To figure out who would make a good fit for your advisor, it’s important to shop around.  Go to office hours to introduce yourself and get advice on some aspect of the program that is coming up or feedback on a project idea to feel out how different faculty members approach advising and mentoring.  Taking classes with a faculty member can also shed light on how they give feedback and to what extent.  Finally, ask around!  Find the students working with the faculty member you’re considering and find out what their experiences have been.  

As you are considering your options, remember that graduate school is a time to do what’s best for you.  It is kind and considerate to worry about hurting a faculty member’s feelings about switching advisors, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make a change that will be better for you in the long run.  It’s okay to be a little self-entitled some of the time.

There’s a common refrain that academics should write every day, which you all already know I don’t do.  But many folks, myself included, reframe this to that we should be touching our research every day.  Yet, even touching your research every day isn’t always possible. During the semester, the demands of teaching can make it hard to find the time.  The system that has worked for me so far has been to keep a balance between research and teaching by allocating certain days for each.  

It’s really easy for teaching to take over more and more of your time.  There’s lecture prep, designing assignments, responding to students’ emails, coordinating with TAs, maintaining participation records, and grading.  Furthermore, most of this happens on a weekly basis. I usually teach both of my classes on the same days, so I schedule my office hours between classes and work on anything class-related before and after class and during office hours when I’m free.  

The days I don’t have class are my research days.  I still keep up with urgent student emails, but on research days, I try not to productively procrastinate with teaching work unless it is required.  Research days are reserved for meeting with RAs and working on grant applications, data collection, coding, data analysis, and writing.  

There are weeks when grading priorities take over and I don’t get to part or all of my research time, but for the most part the dividing my calendar between the two activities makes it easy to maintain.  Since my schedule is teaching twice a week, this usually looks like Monday and Wednesday are teaching days and Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday are for research. I used a similar approach in graduate school when I worked as an RA.  It would have been easy to prioritize work with a deadline over my own research, so I separated my week out into 20 hour chunks with 2.5 days for my RA work and 2.5 days for my work. Separating my time this way builds in a more immediate deadline to do what I need to do for deadlines like those associated with teaching or RA work because not finishing means cutting into my research time.  

This system works well for me now, but I can definitely foresee the need to change things in the future.  First, I’m a first year AP, so my service load is relatively light. With more service work, I’ll need to build in specified time to do that as well, which is likely to cut into my research time since all of the work associated with teaching will still need to happen.  Second, I have a 2-2 load, but have been teaching two sections of the same class each semester this year. With shifting to 2 different course preps, I’ll need to adjust my schedule to perhaps focus on one class on one teaching day and the other class on the other, but will also do some work in preparing the classes to ensure I’m not grading assignments for two classes in the same week, for example.  Finally, most of my active projects are in the end of data analysis or writing stages, which I find easier to engage with while balancing teaching. As I move into data collection and early data analysis with new projects, I’ll need to see if my system still works.

My approach does mean that I’m not touching my research every day, but it also means that my research is not untouched most weeks.  Even without working on it every day, I am moving forward. When summer comes around, I’ll switch to working on my research every day, but until then, a step forward is still a step in the right direction!

I’ve been struggling to identify something to write about this month given the circumstances of a global pandemic.  It doesn’t feel like I have anything useful to offer given the circumstances and yet posting on “normal” academic topics seems trivial.  So what I decide to do is share how my transition to working from home is going.  

In my work life, perhaps the most jarring change has been suddenly working from home with no notice or time to prepare.  Under normal circumstances, working from home is the exception, not the rule for me. I go to campus and work in my office where I enjoy my chocolate drawer, all of my books, a large monitor to spread out my work, and a quiet space where I can close the door and be left alone.  At home, I do home stuff: I cook, clean, play with my toddler, talk to my partner, knit, watch bad tv shows, and generally decompress. The only time I normally work from home is when I’m not prepared for a deadline, which usually entails working for a few hours over the weekend when it happens.  I like the separation of spaces and the time it gives me to connect with my family and for my brain to process things and recover from a day or a week of work.  

When my university decided that courses would be going online post-spring break, I fully intended to continue to go to my office.  But as we learned more about the outbreak, that seemed like an unwise decision, so I opted to work from home and limit any travel outside of the home to the essential.  The first week of this was really challenging. I was overwhelmed by the news of what was happening in the world around me, feeling anxious about being “stuck” inside, was worried about friends and family in other states and cities, and totally uncertain of how to get anything done around a toddler who was so ecstatic that mom wasn’t leaving for work that they wanted to be by my side at all times.  I was not sleeping well and increasingly stressed and anxious.  

Now, we’re in week 3.  Emotionally, things have calmed down as I’ve been in communication with my family and friends, and I’ve gotten used to the new “normal” of being home all day every day.  I’ve also figured out ways to make some work happen. I won’t lie and say I have a routine. I definitely do not. But I have a number of strategies to overcome the inconvenience of not having a quiet office space where I can close the door and not be disturbed.  When I can drag myself out of bed, I get up before the toddler to at least have a moment of alone time before anyone else is up and demanding my time and energy. To be completely honest, this only works a couple times a week for me because of my body demanding more rest.  I use screentime liberally since if I’m on my “screen” (laptop) then the kiddo wants to have a screen too. Finally, I expect to take breaks frequently to play with the kiddo and take cues from them about when that should happen. Thankfully, my partner is also at home and joins me in these efforts, taking on entertaining the toddler whenever I need some quiet to get some reading or writing done or I have a meeting.  We play it all by ear, but it’s made it possible for me to get a little bit of work done every day, even if it’s mostly work for my teaching.  

It’s not perfect.  It’s not equivalent to my normal work life by any stretch.  But it’s how I’m making do right now. I’m doing what I can by putting one foot in front of the other.  

I frequently find myself recommending the National Center for Faculty Diversity Development (NCFDD) in reference to their advice on how to say no.  If you haven’t seen it, they have a helpful list of steps for what do when you get a request for your time and energy to make sure you’re not overwhelmed with the kind of service that doesn’t “count” for tenure.  After a few years of reading this advice from NCFDD, I have a few things to add to this conversation. First, while saying no can be hard, figuring out what to say no to is just as difficult. Second, in addition to saying no, some of us (I’m speaking to myself here) need to learn to shut up and not volunteer for things.  Both of these are particularly challenging for those of us who are underrepresented in the academy and, thus, more likely to get requests for work that is not deemed important in the tenure and promotion process, but who also might want to do some of this work.  

For me, the biggest challenge to saying no is requests from students.  My commitment to providing transparency and support in all things PhD means requests that come from graduate students in particular whether that is a request to be on a comprehensive exam committee or sit on a panel about work-life-balance during graduate school are very hard to decline.  To avoid being overwhelmed, I consider how much is on my plate and see if the exam or event works with my schedule. But if it does, I’m inclined to say yes.  

My other personal tendency that I have had to suppress is volunteering both in my department and outside.  I’m organized and process oriented, so I often see different ways to do things. Furthermore, I have opinions about things like professionalization, graduate training and mentorship, and diversity and inclusion, which makes it hard to bite my tongue in certain conversations.  Outside my department, I have also been known to offer my knowledge of non-academic research to folks and support folks on the academic job market. Given my experience watching a good friend frequently say “how can I help?,” I have a hunch that many of you are offering up your time, energy, and resources when you should be biting your tongues and being stingy.  As a first year Assistant Professor, I try my best to keep my mouth shut, but there are certainly instances when I volunteer ideas and offer to do things because the opportunity is important to me.  

While I haven’t yet implemented this, the best advice I’ve seen on this is to limit the total number of these requests you take on or volunteer for.  If you want to provide support for professionalization of graduate students in your department, great! Do it! But set a cap on the number of events you can take on and stick with it.  The other thing I would add to this is ask for what you need to do the work. It’s okay to say “I’m interested, but would need administrative support for setting the date and booking a room” so that you can do something you care about without taking on all of the labor to make sure it happens.

Part of implementing this kind of quota system is identifying what’s important to you.  Is it student professionalization? Community engagement? Supporting student groups? What kind of work matters to you?  Whatever that is, document the work you do and include it in your records for tenure and promotion even if your institution doesn’t currently reward those activities.  I suggest this because institutions and departments change what they are looking for sometimes, which could mean that this work “matters” more than it would have previously.  But, even if this doesn’t happen, you can make a case in your statements for how this work (1) promotes the university, department, or your work and (2) supports your research, teaching, and/or mentoring.

So what’s important to you?  What do you want to prioritize in your professional work beyond the demands of the job?  

After I became a parent, I started realizing that a lot of advice about graduate school and the research process are geared towards academics who are single and have no children.  If you have children and if you are the primary caregiver for your children, you face a different set of constraints, challenges, and responsibilities than your single colleagues with no children.  To what extent those constraints, challenges, and responsibilities are different depends in part on how much support you have in the specific form of child care, since getting work done as a parent kids often requires not being with your kids.  Here are a few pieces of advice that just didn’t work for me post-partum.  

1. Write During Your Optimal Work Time

Ideally, you would write at your prime work time.  So whether your prime work time is 6am or 3pm or 12am, you would prioritize writing during that time to use your optimal work time for this important aspect of our work.  However, it’s not always possible to do that when you’re a parent. In fact, you sometimes can’t work during your prime work time at all when you have kids. For me, this has meant that I work when I have the time and ability to go to the office.  Sometimes this means I’m at home doing things with my family during times when it would be optimal for me to be writing. While this isn’t ideal, it’s how things have worked out, so I make the best of my work time when I have it.  

2. Work 50-70 Hours a Week

When I started on my tenure-track job, a very well meaning and helpful faculty member told me to figure out what I needed to do to achieve tenure (e.g., how many articles) and then determine how many hours a week I needed to work to achieve that whether that was 50, 60, or 70.  This is extremely practical and useful advice, but my immediate response was that I can not work more than 40 hours a week. In retrospect, I can see that he and I were in very different positions during our early tenure-track years. My schedule requires that I’m home by a certain time to be with my kid.  I’m also not the parent who pulls out my laptop when my kid goes to bed, mainly because by that time of the day I am tired! So when my night owl kiddo crashes at 10pm, so do I. Finding time to work at home is a lot easier for parents whose children go to bed at 7 though, so squeezing in a couple of hours of work before going to bed is possible.  For me, I work the hours that I’m in the office because that’s what fits in our schedule, but every family’s situation is different, so do what works for you and your family’s schedule!

3. Protect your Writing Time

Advice around setting a daily writing practice often includes to schedule writing time as an appointment on your calendar and never schedule something that conflicts with it.  It is an appointment and commitment to yourself. While this is certainly ideal, it isn’t always possible as a parent. That doctor’s appointment you had to schedule months in advance may only be possible during your writing time.  The Halloween parade that you were really excited to attend might be a conflict. Your writing time might even be interrupted with a call to pick up a sick kid. It can be hard to protect your writing time because of these priorities.

4. Unplug During Writing Time

Another common piece of advice about writing is to unplug from distractions like your phone, email, and social media.  Turn your phone to do not disturb mode. Don’t open your email. And do not go on Twitter or Instagram. While it’s easy to stay off of email or social media platforms, being a parent means being on call 24-7, so turning off my phone is not an option.  During my writing time, I’m still aware of my phone and checking to make sure that a text or phone call coming in isn’t about my kid and something I need to respond to. Luckily, it’s not often an interruption, but the advice to unplug to write is just not one I can implement.

5. Make Time to Exercise 

Exercising can be an important way to manage stress, so folks often recommend making time to exercise and prioritizing your exercise schedule over any other conflicts.  This advice assumes you have time and energy to exercise. Frankly since becoming a parent, I find myself frequently choosing sleep over exercise, which I think is a logical decision.  I function better as a parent and an academic when I’m rested. When it does not mean sacrificing sleep, I am glad to exercise, but most days in most weeks, this is not an option for me.

There are surely many more pieces of advice that don’t fit for parents.  What are some that you’ve heard?

I work in a department (and a university for that matter) that highly encourages collaborative research between graduate students and faculty.  We have a system in place that allows this to happen regularly, so I have been thinking a lot about how I want to engage in research with students.  While there seemed like only one model of doing this to me as a graduate student, I’ve come to realize that there is a spectrum that involves different types of work for the faculty member and the student.  Depending on the needs, interests, skills, and other demands of those involved, each faculty-student collaboration can look different.  

Model 1: The Research Assistant 

This approach is most frequently used when a faculty member needs help pushing forward a specific component of research work.  Most often this is help with collecting data, transcribing, cleaning data, reformatting or organizing data, coding, or collecting readings for a literature review.  Most RA work is limited to that specific task and does not result in co-authorship because the RA has not contributed to analysis or writing. Instead, the RA gets a resume line, a reference (if you agree to it), and experience on the inside of the research process.  For exposure to the research process, I orient my RAs to the broader project as part of training so that they understand where the very detailed task that they are completing fits into the broader research project.

Model 2: Student Support on Faculty’s Research 

This model overlaps with the RA model above with one key exception.  The student is doing similar tasks as an RA on a project designed by the faculty member, but the student is also a co-author on the project because they have either been involved in the life cycle of the project and made significant contributions to the process, OR they were involved in the analysis and writing.  The faculty member is usually still first author in these cases, but the RA gets co-authorship.  

Model 3: The Collaborative Project 

Unlike the prior two models, this approach involves the faculty member and students developing a project together.  In this case, the idea could have come from either the student or the faculty member, and they decide to collaborate on design and implementation.  Co-authorship in this case would need to be negotiated before the project turns to the writing stages since there may be no clear first author depending on how work was divided for the other aspects of the project.  Defining authorship order at that point can also determine who does more work on the written product.  

Model 4: Faculty Support on Student’s Research 

Finally, faculty may be involved in a student-led research project by giving advice, providing mentorship, and doing writing and editing to the final manuscript.  This model goes beyond the involvement a faculty member would have on a student’s thesis or dissertation committee. The faculty member is highly involved with the decisions around data collection and analysis, but the student has primary responsibility for implementation.  The writing portion of the project may have a more equal division of labor, but could involve the faculty member writing smaller parts of the manuscript as well. In this model, the student is usually first author due to the sheer volume of work they did to implement the project.

What Model Should You Use?

As a faculty member, there are a couple of things to consider when choosing which model to use for your research projects.  First, do you need to work with someone at all to finish the project? For instance, if you have a close to finished project that would take a long time to orient someone to complete, you might choose to handle the remaining task yourself.  However, if doing it yourself would mean having to wait 3 months to get to it, you might consider using an RA to get assistance to wrap up the loose ends.  

Second, where is the particular project in the process?  In general, projects that are not as far along will be easier to incorporate others into through any of these models, but particularly for the models involving collaboration and co-authorship.

Third, what else is on your plate?  This is particularly important to consider when taking on new projects.  For instance, a graduate student comes to your office with an exciting idea and asks if you want to work with them on it, but you’ve got a backlog of your own work.  You could say no, or you could propose to work together as a student-led project with your involvement as providing regular and prescriptive advice and guidance.  

Students also have room to initiate one of these models as well.  This might be because the student is limiting their involvement by, for example, choosing to do specific RA tasks and not sustain engagement longer-term for a publication.  Alternatively, a student could approach a faculty member with a good idea that leads to a faculty support on student’s research model or a collaborative research model project.  

However you choose to approach the process, working with students contributes to their training and CVs.  It also contributes to faculty’s research productivity and mentoring in the department. Regardless of which model you choose, it can and should be mutually beneficial.

These days, graduate students learn early that to get and keep an academic job they need to publish, publish, publish.  In fact, many programs have turned requirements like a Master’s thesis into a paper so that students have something early on to place before they hit the job market.  What’s not as often communicated is what to expect in terms of timeline. No one can tell you exactly when you need to submit a paper to a peer review journal in order to have an acceptance in hand to be on the market by fall of 2024 as the process is incredibly variable.  That said, there are a number of known factors that contribute to how long it could take and some common advice on what to consider.  

How Many Submissions Might it Take

I did a poll on Twitter asking folks across the academic world the highest number of submissions they had ever had before placing a manuscript.  116 people responded in the 24 hours the poll was up, so this provides a decent starting point to understand how long publishing could take. 

For over one-third (37%), the most submissions they had ever done to place a manuscript was 3-4.   A lucky 27% said 1-2 submissions, but an almost equal percent (26%) said 5-6 submissions. Finally, 10% said 7 or more submissions.  

First thing you should take from these numbers is that it is common for it to take a few submissions before your work sticks.  You should not feel bad if you’ve gotten a few rejections for a paper because most of us have been there: 73% had 3 or more submissions.  In fact, you should feel accomplished that you’re putting yourself out there, use the opportunity to strengthen your paper, and, for those of you with less publishing experience, learn more about how to write for your discipline from the feedback you’ve received.  In fact, I’ve found that besides a few grumpy reviewers, the feedback I’ve gotten along the way has been gold.  

Why Does it Take so Many Submissions?

How many submissions it takes to get published is affected by a number of different factors that I want to acknowledge to explain the results above.  First, some papers are harder to place than others due to limited venues, sample size constraints, or controversial topics. For instance, I have a paper based on interviews with about 35 respondents.  It’s a respectable number of interviewees, but some editors and some reviewers don’t like that I’m looking at subgroups within the 35 for my analysis because that splits them into smaller groups.  

Second, where you aim to place will influence how many submissions it takes.  A common publishing strategy is to aim higher than you’re willing to have your work land, which means starting with journals that often have more submissions and higher rejection rates.  I personally use and encourage others to use this approach because you’re likely to get feedback from other experts before your paper ends up at the venue you’d be really happy getting a publication with, but wouldn’t know where to send it to next if it got rejected.  Now this isn’t always possible as some topics have a limited number of appropriate venues, but I implement it whenever I can.  

The other way to go about choosing a venue is to target the “perfect fit” journal on your first submission.  For this approach, your work needs to be a good fit for what the journal does (or for a specific special issue) and have solid methods and analysis.  My suspicion is that some of the folks who answered 1-2 submissions in the poll have taken this approach. I’ve done this for at least one manuscript, which I submitted to a special issue in a subfield journal.  The article fit the theme really well and while the reviewers and editors asked for pretty major revisions to the framing, they didn’t have major concerns about my data source or analytical approach, so the paper was accepted.  The downside to the perfect fit approach is that you could get rejected from the perfect venue for the paper. So if you’re going this route, I would recommend getting the paper as polished as possible before submitting. Workshop the heck out of it and get feedback from anyone and everyone who will read it to make sure it’s as tight as possible.  Maybe even pay someone to copy edit before you send it in.  

Finally, the last factor I want to mention is arguably the biggest factor, which is how much you know about writing a good journal article.  Obviously your first academic paper might take longer to get right, which could go two ways. Either it means you spend a lot of time with the paper and revise draft after draft after draft, or it means that your submit it early and often and get a lot of rejections trying to get it right.  There’s no right or wrong approach here because both take time.  

So the moral of this story is you could get lucky and place the first or second place you send your manuscript, but expecting 3-4 submissions is a more reasonable estimate.  

How Does that Translate to Time?

This is the part that is a little tricky.  Some journals have a fast turnaround with desk rejections within 1-2 weeks and reviews back within 3 months.  But others take a longer time due to a large number of submissions, challenges recruiting reviewers, reviewers taking longer to submit their reports, and editors having other demands on their time.  Realistically, you could not hear for a year if your manuscript gets sent out to reviewers. (Side note: If it’s taking a long time based on any information about timeline provided on the journal’s website and information you’ve heard from advisors and colleagues, it’s okay to contact the editor to ask for an update.)  

Given that you will likely need 3-4 submissions to place and that it could take up to a year to hear back from each of those, your worst case scenario is that it takes 3-4 years to place a manuscript.  Obviously not every submission is going to take a year, so, in reality, this might be closer to 2-3 years. The point is you probably won’t be able to lock in a publication over the summer before you go on the job market (or in the two months before you submit your tenure file for that matter), so starting early is to your advantage.

Rack up Those Rejections

This is why writers of all genres promote accumulating rejections.  You’re not going to get a publication if you’re not submitting your work to journals.  Furthermore, your manuscripts are likely to get better with more and more feedback on specific papers.  While it’s never easy to get that email with that sentence starting with “Unfortunately…,” it also gets a little easier to stomach the more you get.  Courage (read with French accent) to all of you in putting your manuscript babies out there!

I’ve officially survived my first semester as an Assistant Professor!  Coming into the job was entering a black box. I had balanced research and teaching before, but only with one course.  I had also done service, but as a graduate student when I had control over what I did and how much. So navigating research, teaching, and service in a new institution and with a new workload, while adjusting to living in a new place, was an unknown.  Thankfully some of my prior experiences prepared me for the job and for managing my expectations when life inevitably happened.  

What Prepared Me

The first and most important experience I had before my tenure track job was experience teaching.  I had previously developed and taught two courses so I have no new course preps in my first year. I highly recommend that graduate students do more than TA if possible.  Teaching someone else’s curriculum is very different than developing and teaching your own. Yes, you develop pedagogical skills while TAing, but you don’t have to think about your pedagogical goals (beyond reinforcing the professor’s teachings) and how to implement them through readings, lectures, activities, and assignments in the same way as when you teach your own course.  

Coming into this year with two tested syllabi has also been a major time saver.  Curriculum development is an intensive process. Not only do you have to decide on learning objectives, sections, readings, and assignments, but you also have to prepare each and every course meeting from scratch.  Even with changes I made to my syllabus, I only had 3 learning units that required more intensive preparations this semester. I spent an hour max each week on lecture and activity prep for all other sections, which freed up my time for grading and course administration.  It also meant I had much more time to do research than I would have with a new course prep.  

The second experience I had before this year that helped me navigate my new job was having a baby as a graduate student.  Now, I’m not saying all graduate students should have a baby! This is obviously not something that all of you will want to do or be able to do, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have a life interruption that provides similar lessons.  Babies are unpredictable. You think you’ve got a routine down and two weeks later everything changes. I had to learn to be less of a planning freak and adjust my goals and expectations for work based on what was possible to accomplish in the time I had to work.  I learned to forgive myself, reward myself for what I accomplished, and be okay with not every day and every week being equally productive. Having a major health problem or being involved with carework for a sick family member or friend would lead to similar experiences.  

This semester the experience helped me through a move, an abrupt change in child care, an illness, and some other interruptions that affected my work schedule, my concentration, and my energy.  When things got rough, I prioritized work with deadlines, which were mainly my teaching responsibilities, a couple of grant applications, and a revise and resubmit deadline, and forgave myself for falling behind on other things.  Life happens! You can’t be 100 percent with your work all of the time.  

What I Learned

While I was prepared for part of what my first semester entailed, there was a fair amount that was new.  I was teaching two courses for the first time, teaching large courses (110 students in each section), and doing faculty service work for the first time.  The biggest lessons I learned were on the teaching front as my service responsibilities were much lighter than I expected.  

First I should point out that I ended up teaching 220 students my first semester because of an attempt to reduce my teaching load in the first semester.  As background, the year I was hired there was a policy change in when hires could use course releases. Instead of being able to use them to ease into the full teaching load, new hires couldn’t use their course releases until their third year when they would have feedback on their progress from a review at the end of the second year and be able to use release time to “right their course” towards tenure.  To offset going straight into a 2-2 load, I negotiated my teaching for the first year, which led to me teaching two sections of the same course in the fall and a grad course and senior seminar on the same content in the spring. What I didn’t realize is the size of the classes I was to teach in the fall, which meant having 220 students across both sections. Having two sections of the same course reduced prep for class, but increased course administration and grading substantially, which was a lot even with two wonderful Graduate Assistants helping me.  In contrast, my spring semester is likely to be 30 undergrads and maybe 10 grad students. What I learned: For the future, I plan to balance a large lecture course with a smaller course even though that will mean prepping for two different courses. To achieve this, I’ve begun a plan for new course development over the next 5 years so that I have adequate smaller and larger courses to alternate and not get bored.  

I’ve also been using my first semester experience to reflect on how to roll out new courses.  Inevitably, the first time I teach a course I have too much reading and sometimes too many assignments.  So I’m going to try to teach new courses first as graduate seminars. This will allow me to review the readings in closer detail to decide what is appropriate for an undergraduate course without having to do that before teaching the class.  (I do a lot of work on reading selection and course design before teaching, but do not prepare readings and lecture until I need to since I honestly won’t remember them.) Using this approach will also give me time to figure out how to best organize the course to integrate my core goals for undergraduate teaching: to help students understand (1) their own experiences and (2) the world around them.  

Finally, teaching a course that large inevitably meant teaching a lot of non-Sociology majors and a lot of first and second year students, in contrast to my prior experience of teaching junior and senior Sociology majors.  While I always teach my courses assuming no prior knowledge, the mix of majors AND years meant that students had more of a range of levels of comfort with the type of reading they were assigned and the writing assignments that I use instead of multiple choice exams.  I’m still wrapping my head around how to address this without reverting to in class exams and multiple choice, but the issue is flagged for the next time I teach the course.

All in all, the first semester has been productive and challenging.  I’ve learned a lot, particularly about the kind of instructor I want to be, while pushing forward my research agenda thanks to the experiences that prepared me for this moment.  Since my service load was light, I expect to face new challenges in the semesters to come as I’m called on more to serve the department and the university.