practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

Imposter syndrome can manifest as a feeling of panic and fear: “Was it a mistake I got into grad school?”  Or as a sense of doubt: “Do I really belong here?” Or a surge of anxiety: “When will someone figure out I don’t belong here?”  It might surface as you read alone in your office: “Am I smart enough to be doing this?” Or around the seminar table: “They all seem so much smarter than I am…”  Or in a conversation in the hallway: “That person just brushed off my idea…Something must be wrong with it.” It’s something that we all experience as applicants to graduate school, as graduate students, as job market candidates, as postdoctoral fellows, and even as tenure-track professors.  Achieving any level of success, such as getting into graduate school or advancing to candidacy or getting a job, doesn’t eliminate the feelings of inadequacy, fraudulence, uncertainty, and lack of belonging.  Some of this comes with the nature of academia. We’re surrounded every day by incredibly smart people and, as the old saying goes, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.  So of course you experience doubts about your research, your teaching, and your expertise.  The problem arises when imposter syndrome becomes debilitating.  It can completely halt work on a project, discourage you from reaching out to a potential collaborator or mentor, or lead you to skip a deadline for a fellowship, a special issue of a journal, or a conference.  Gill and I have both been there. She is on the job market, and I just started a tenure-track position. So we’ve combined forces to think through how to counter imposter syndrome and prevent good scholars—grad students, junior colleagues, even senior colleagues—from restricting their opportunities because of the voices in their heads.  

There are of course, some predictable times in which imposter syndrome might creep up in your life—moments when you are entering new phases of your career and moments when you are entering new and unfamiliar spaces, such as giving a talk at a new conference or experimenting with a new literature or methodology.  Gill, for example, recently experienced imposter syndrome when a senior scholar questioned her research question. “Given all of the potential opportunities and research questions you could ask, why would you focus on just race and gender?” While Gill responded in a way that made her proud and represented her work well, she spent the next two weeks with the question rattling around in her head, and she found herself looking at the ground, avoiding eye contact, especially with senior scholars, and over-apologizing and over-thanking senior scholars for simple things, such as forwarding a relevant news article to her or inviting her to a public talk.  Zawadi experienced severe imposter syndrome at the start of graduate school. As a student new to Sociology, she was unclear whether and where she fit in the discipline and felt lost in classes like Classic Theory where the instructor assumed students were already familiar with the readings. She felt inept and behind. 

Imposter syndrome flares up at different times and looks different as we move through our professional lives, but the feeling is similar regardless of when it occurs.  Gill and Zawadi both experienced imposter syndrome throughout the graduate school years and now after, even with the PhD in hand and the title of Dr., both still experience imposter syndrome.  While it may no longer be about citations or knowledge of the literature (although Gill did recently experience a moment of imposter syndrome around her knowledge of a specific literature after a question at a conference), Gill and Zawadi both have moments of feeling like outsiders and questioning their place in the academy as a postdoc and assistant professor.  

So, what can we do about it?  We brainstormed a reflective activity to help ourselves in those moments of feeling like a fraud.  It won’t eradicate imposter syndrome, but it can help reorient our thinking from a negative to a positive perspective.  Here’s the exercise: (1) Make a list of traits that answer the following questions: 

  • What does being a “good” scholar mean to me?  We focus on the ideal self here as the tendency to compare to others can actually trigger imposter syndrome instead of address it.  Had grad student Zawadi focused on how well Gill appeared to understand Durkheim in theory without the context that Gill majored in Sociology and read Durkheim before graduate school, it would have made Zawadi feel worse about her progress and performance.  Instead, focus on what your best you looks like.  
  • In an ideal world, where I am the best version of academic I can be, how would I spend my day? 
  • How do I act in the classroom? 
  • How would I approach my research? 
  • How will I enter a faculty meeting? 
  • What are the characteristics that I want to embody as the best version of the academic I aspire to be? 

Focus here on traits (e.g., read broadly), not specific tasks (e.g., complete qualifying exams).

(2) Then, look back on what you did in month or semester.  Make a complete list of everything we have done related to your research, teaching, and service work, as well as your personal and professional growth in that time period.  We found it helpful to consult our calendars and to do lists so we wouldn’t overlook the little things that are easy to forget. 

(3) Finally, much like a word match from the kids’ menus, compare your list of characteristics of a good scholar to your list of accomplishments.  Match your accomplishments with the trait that they demonstrate. 

The activity provides three opportunities.  First to visualize your belonging in the academic space of your choosing.  By drawing connections between your activities and behaviors you hope to embody, you can see the progress you are making to be that “good”, nay “great” scholar. Second, the activity allows you to identify where your actions don’t match your ideal goals. Unfortunately, these shortcomings are often on the personal side of the equation for many of us.  Think through how you can make space in your daily or weekly lives to actively become the well rounded person you aim to be. Finally, we encourage you to not just do this for your professional and work-related activities because life often interrupts work. Documenting the major move you just completed, the health challenges you just underwent, and other interruptions can also be a kind reminder of the challenges you have faced and that you still accomplished something despite those challenges. Below, we model this with our own lives, baring our vulnerabilities to the internet, hopefully for the common good.

Gill’s Ideal Traits (On my best day as an academic, I…)Gill’s Actual Accomplishments (In the last three months, I…)
Keep to a regular writing scheduleReal talk: I do not write every day.  That being said, I got a lot of writing done:
-Revised and resubmitted an article—accepted!
-Started a new project with a new co-author—three skype meetings, data analysis, theoretical reading
-Wrote a presentation for a conference 
-Wrote application materials for 25 jobs
-Revised and submitted a second article
-Drafted third article
Cultivate a sense of work/life balanceI never feel like I’m doing this part right, but it does seem like I made some time to be a whole person lately:
-Visited my family
-Made a major life decision about a romantic relationship
-Joined a book club and actually read the book for two of the three months
-Saw four movies and one play
-Attended two birthday parties
-Read 5 novels and watched all of Downton Abbey
Maintain a commitment to communityAs a postdoc, I have to make an active effort to stay connected to a broader community:
-Developed mentoring program with provost’s office—had six meetings with relevant campus actors and planned first session
-Attended six talks/workshops on campus and at neighbor schools
-Attended new student cocktail reception
-Attended postdoc orientation
-Attended department and all-school faculty meetings
Keep up with publications in the field; read regularlyI did not do a great job with this one, so this is something I’m going to flag for myself.  However, I’m probably behind on this because of my work keeping up with job applications:
-Theoretical reading for new project with a new co-author
-Attended six talks/workshops on campus and at nearby schools (hey, if you don’t have time to read the book, at least go to the book talk?)
Maintains a network of both trusted friends and new connectionsThis is some of the most important work I do each week, and I rarely recognize it is as work.  It’s important to realize that, just because you’re not in front of a computer, you are still *working.*  Sometimes, work is fun, like when I’m connecting with trusted academic friends, but that doesn’t make it not work!
-Had five meetings with other scholars/search committee chairs at ASA
-Checked in with my accountability partner
-Met with two new colleagues to share and workshop work
-Met with six senior scholars to get feedback on job materials; revised job materials approximately 800 times (just kidding—about 6 drafts)
-Had ten meetings with colleagues/friends on campus since academic year began
Present work regularlyThis goal is often limited by opportunities depending on when I attend conferences and receive invitations to share my work, so my expectations for this goal are low, but I try to find a way to present my work in a public venue–at a conference, at a workshop, in a writing group, or at a colloquium series, at least once per academic term:
-Presented work at ASA
-Met with colleagues three times to move forward on a conference we are planning for the spring
Develop new skillsI did nothing in this area in the last three months unless I count feedback on job materials…maybe I am developing skills around writing about and explaining my research to different audiences?  But I’d like to incorporate some more methodological thinking into my future planning.
Cultivate style–both in terms of       fashion and charismaI really value cultivating a personal sense of style.  I am bored by the greys, beiges, and other neutrals that define professional spaces.  I hate the assumption that because you care about how you look, you aren’t as serious about your work.  When I am dressed and feeling good as hell (thank you, Lizzo!), I do better work because I’m more confident.  But, academics do not make enough money to support my endless hunger for fashion, so I try to be really purposeful about how I spend my style budget.  Don’t ask me how many Sephora points I have, though.
-Got a major haircut
Make time to encourage and support others—peers, students, colleaguesThis can sometimes be the thing that’s easiest to cut because the “returns” are not immediately visible, but I really try to preserve some time for this every week.  I am where I am because folks made time for me, and I want to carry on my mentors’ legacy in my own actions.
-Met with three former students for dinner
-Met with current graduate student
-Met with two new colleagues to share and workshop work
-Attended a friend’s practice job talk; provided feedback

Gill’s Reflections: I spent most of these three months thinking I was “getting nothing done” or “being lazy.”  The list says otherwise. When I listed it out, it was both overwhelming and reassuring. I realized that I had done A LOT, and I was happy with how I spent my time, but I definitely did not embody all of my “ideal traits.”  Reflecting on the list allowed me to acknowledge that I *am* living the life of a scholar–meeting people, writing, engaging with scholarship–and that I still have places to improve. By listing all of this out in this systematic way, I’m now able to set clear goals and intentions for the rest of the semester. 

Zawadi’s Ideal Traits (On my best day as an academic, I…)Zawadi’s Actual Accomplishments (In the last three months, I…)
Spend time with my familyMy husband and I have opposite schedules, so this one is a constant struggle.  
-Was primary child care for LO over the summer
-Took LO to the playground every weekend after day care began 
-Did family outings when all of us were home
-Didn’t work on weekends and evenings to focus on home and family 
Maintain balance between research and teachingI feel good about the schedule I’ve set up and been able to maintain so far.
-Mostly kept teaching, office hours, grading, and lecture preparation to Tuesdays and Thursdays
-Mostly worked on research on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays
Keep up with grading and lecture preparation without letting it overwhelm meSo far so good on this one.  However, I expect this to be challenging once it’s midterm time…
-Returned grades on reading responses before the next one was due
-Finished lecture preparation for the week by the Thursday before in most weeks
-Only had to prepare for class once on the weekend so far this semester
Keep up with my research deadlinesI did miss one grant opportunity I wanted to apply for, but that was for a collaboration and we weren’t able to schedule a time to talk until after the deadline.  But other than that, I’ve been keeping up.
-Started and finished data analysis for presentation at conference
-Prepared 2 conference presentations
-Completed a revise and resubmit 
-Completed a draft of a new paper for a conference submission 
-Began revising a data analysis 
Advance research that doesn’t have a deadlineBetween the research deadlines I had over the summer, our move for my job, and some life interruptions (car breaking down, phone breaking, getting a cold and losing my voice), I’ve only been able to start working on research that doesn’t have a deadline in the last month.
-Began reviewing new literature for revising several papers (and a new course syllabus)
-Read and did some preliminary writing for an op-ed/beginning of a research project with a friend/colleague
-Submitted an IRB request and full application to access confidential survey data
-Met biweekly with undergraduate co-authors to advice them on data collection
-Finished edits on two papers and submitted them for review 
-Connected with a new collaborator to discuss how to merge our interests for a new project
Connect with people at my new jobAs a new AP, I need people to know I’m there, but also need to find community to sustain me.
-Had lunch with several faculty members in my department
-Attended all new orientation activities to meet and connect with other new hires 
-Met with several graduate students
-Attended events for faculty of color and women in STEM (and made new friends!)
Connect with people in my new neighborhoodI’m gearing up for what I know will be the longest winter I’ve lived through and know that I won’t be able to just connect with random people on the playground once the snow starts.  So I’m trying to make connections before I feel isolated.
-Exchanged numbers with several parents of kids my LO had a good time with 
-Reached out to friends who have also recently relocated to the area 
Put my health firstSince having my LO, I’ve had little time to exercise and get back in shape, and it’s lead to more ramifications than bigger pants.  It’s time to put my health first! The diet part is going better than the exercise.
-Reduced carbs to one meal a day
-Ate more veggies and fruits 
-Took vitamin C regularly 
-Ran a couple of times (Okay literally twice and then got a cold and took a break to recover)
-Set an appointment with a new doctor to follow up on some minor health issues 
Feel settled and not overwhelmed in my homeDid I mention we just moved…this one is tough!  Between keeping up on the regular cleaning and cat hair removal and the actual unpacking, I’m not fully there yet, but am also trying to unpack in a way that makes it easy for me to maintain order and cleanliness in our home.  We have a storage unit of boxes coming soon so…this will be an issue all over again. Realistically, it might take me a year to really feel I’ve accomplished this trait.
-Fully unpacked LO’s room (the only room that is completely unpacked)
-Made significant progress on unpacking every room in the house, but particularly the bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen
-Got much needed furniture, so it’s starting to look like someone lives here
-Slowly organizing so that everything has a place including getting boxes and bins to keep things that way
-Kept up on weekly cleaning needs
Generally feel calm, rested, and balancedOverall, I would say I accomplished this, but that’s not to say there weren’t days that I felt anxious and overwhelmed.
-Prioritized sleep over work when needed and possible 
-Used planning to reduce anxiety 
-Reminded myself of what’s most important to me (family) when I was feeling overwhelmed
-See also all the items above about trying to create order in the chaos of our move

Zawadi’s Reflections: What stood out to me the most in writing down what I’ve accomplished over the last 3 months is how much I’m actually juggling.  As a mom, a wife, a professor, a researcher, and a person, there are a lot of moving parts, so when one overwhelms my schedule, of course other aspects suffer.  The move overwhelmed my summer and made me feel unaccomplished, but I actually kept up with deadlines for completing data analysis, preparing 2 presentations, and finishing a revise and resubmit, all things that took time and energy and I finished on time.  It meant leaving research that wasn’t on deadlines on the back burner, which made me feel less accomplished, but was necessary due to what was happening in life. Acknowledging this makes me feel less like a fraud and more like I’m doing my best towards my goals in academia and in life.

Now, we’re not saying that we don’t have imposter syndrome after doing this exercise, but it feels good to acknowledge the progress we have made.  We are both doing the things that matter to each of us for being a good scholar and person to some degree. There is certainly room for improvement, but we’re not “doing nothing” as our brains trick us into thinking.  We are putting in the work. And we most certainly BELONG. 

What’s on your traits list?  What other ways do you grapple with imposter syndrome?  We want to know!

As the fall semester was getting going, #AcademicTwitter was full of people sharing about organizing and planning for the semester.  It was really helpful for me to see the different ways that folks organize their planning from lists on a white board to to dos on a calendar to detailed spreadsheets.  I got new ideas for tracking and visualizing my to dos from seeing these examples (one of which I’ll share once the materials I need to implement it arrive).  Seeing how others planned out their semesters made me realize that while I generally enjoy planning, I have a strong aversion to planning out each week of the semester in advance.  So when I eagerly read Dr. Whitney Pirtle’s description of her semester planning process, I found myself breaking out in a cold sweat at the idea of following a similar approach.  Dr. Pirtle generously shares her template in the post linked above, which she uses to organize her work and get shit done.  (And she is getting shit done!) But I still felt a sort of dread looking at her template as I thought about all the replanning that comes when inevitably a task takes longer than originally planned.  Mind you, many incredibly productive academics, like Dr. Pirtle, swear by this approach. It’s just an approach that doesn’t work for me. There’s more than one way to be successful in this PhD life, so below I share an overview of these two effective approaches to planning and managing your time during the semester.  

Planning by Week

The strategy of planning each week out in advance starts with a list of broader goals, which is the foundation for both planning approaches discussed here.  What do you want to accomplish this semester? What do you have to do? I’m going to focus on research, teaching, and service here, but I highly recommend integrating this list with your personal life as well, since you can’t put life on pause for work.  

Based on what I do and what I’ve seen others compile, folks generally include the following in their goals:

  • Data work (collection, cleaning, analysis) they want or need to complete,
  • Papers/chapters they want or need to work on,
  • R&Rs they have deadlines for,
  • Peer reviews they promised to complete, 
  • Conferences they plan to submit to,
  • Talks they are scheduled to give,
  • Courses they are teaching,
  • Departmental committees they are on,
  • Workshops or writing groups they organize, 
  • Students they are supporting as committee members, and 
  • Friends they are supporting through writing groups and giving feedback on papers.

This gives you a list of things like: Submit to the American Sociological Association conference, complete data analysis for the deracialization of gentrification paper, and teach two sections of race and ethnicity.  The next step is to identify every step you need to complete to get to the final goal. For example, if my goal is to submit a paper to the American Sociological Association in January (yes, they ask for a full paper), then I would list out steps such as review the list of sessions, identify a paper topic and appropriate session, conduct data cleaning, analyze data, create any figures/tables, outline paper, read relevant literature, draft paper sections, and finally submit the paper.  

While these goal setting procedures are the basis for any planning approach you choose, the planning by week approach takes this list of specific tasks and assigns each to a week (or several weeks) in the upcoming semester.  This means estimating how long each task will take to complete and taking into account hard deadlines, such as conference submission deadlines and grading, to come up with a week-by-week plan for the semester.  

This approach is particularly effective for gauging what you actually have time to complete in the semester.  Seeing how much you have to cram in to get done the ambitious list of goals you set before you get started is incredibly helpful and can lead to either updating your goals or going into the semester knowing you’ll probably come up short.  (Quick side note: One thing I do to deal with that my to do list is always way longer than what I have time to complete is to have a list of goals I will prioritize and do first and the list of secondary and tertiary goals that I will get to in the long shot that I finish my list of top priorities.)  This approach also means that you’ve done your planning for the semester in advance, instead of doing it each week. Yes, you will have to adjust your timeline as you realize there are really 3 more steps to get from data collection to data analysis or the step you thought would take 1 days really takes 4 weeks.  But your weekly to do list essentially comes directly from the plan.

Weekly Planning

What I use is what I’ll call here the weekly planning approach.  I start with the same process as the planning by week including writing out a list of goals for the semester and breaking out a list of specific steps.  The only real difference between the planning by week and the weekly planning approaches are what happens next. Instead of assigning each task to a week in the upcoming semester, I leave the tasks as a list in my goals, which I refer to when I’m making a plan for the upcoming week.  

Every Monday, I plan for the week and allocate tasks for each day in the coming week.  In my planning document, I start by pushing forward the tasks that didn’t get finished in the prior week and adjust when I work on them depending on deadlines I have that particular week, such as grading a reading response for my classes.  As I realize there are more steps to getting a task done, I add them to the weekly to do list and move them around until they get crossed off. Probably about once a month, I refer back to my list of goals to add something new to my to do list from those semester goals.  

Why do I do it this way?  Well first because the idea of planning out every week for a 14 week period is too much for me.  I have done it before because it was a required assignment, but it was stressful enough that I would do it and then never look at what I had put on paper again.  (And yes, I will be requiring that my graduate students do the same exercise as a feasibility exercise to ensure that the empirical paper they hope to write for the final in my class can actually be finished in 14 weeks.)  I’ve done enough research to know everything takes longer than it should and part of the reason that I don’t put my to do list as appointments on my calendar or plan out the whole semester in advance is because of that. Weekly planning lets me move things around as they don’t get done without having to readjust my plan for the whole semester, which I personally find a little demoralizing.  So while I still have a specific list of everything I’d like to accomplish in a semester, I don’t have a constant reminder of what sometimes feels like oversights and failures when I’m inevitably “behind.”

What’s the downside?  I don’t get to see how realistic my goals are for the semester.  At this point in my career, I have a pretty good sense of what I can realistically accomplish in a semester (especially thanks to doing some teaching during my postdoc), so my goals are usually fairly reasonable.  However, if I had less experience balancing research and teaching under my belt, I would want to go through the motions of the exercise of planning by week to see how much work I would need to accomplish to keep up with what I hoped to complete even if I never returned to that detailed plan again.  

So Which Approach Should You Use?

As always, I highly recommend trying different approaches to figure out what works best for you.  In fact, I’m sure there are even more approaches than the two I outline here, so you should try whatever you think will work for you.  Given that both approaches I’ve outlined above are based on setting goals and identifying specific tasks, you should have a list of goals for each semester and a to do list of specific tasks for each goal.  What you do with them after that depends on what you’re trying or what works best for you!  

Finally, as you try new approaches to time management, remember two things.  First, time management experts say it takes about 30 days to form a habit, so try out an approach for at least 30 days before you decide it’s not working.  Second, take time to step back and assess. The only way I came up with my weekly to do list was by trying one thing, analyzing how it was going to figure out what wasn’t working for me, and then making tweaks to come up with an approach that worked.  There’s more than one way to be successful in this PhD life, so take the time to find the approach that works for you.  

The following was originally posted on the Junior Prof’s website.

As a graduate student, I wasn’t initially sure that a postdoc would be the right decision for me.  I had entered my program 10 years after completing my undergraduate degree and was pursuing a second career, moving from evaluation research to academia.  It seemed more appropriate to dive right into the road to tenure at my age given that the Assistant Professors in my department were younger than I was. When I told my mentor this, she nipped that thought in the bud with something to the effect of “why wouldn’t you take time off the clock to push forward your research?”  (For the record, she was right.) So during my year on the job market, I applied to 12 postdocs and got lucky enough to land one, a diversity postdoc at New York University, along with a tenure-track position. I negotiated a delayed start with my job (yes, this is possible) and in August of 2018, I filed my dissertation at UC Berkeley, moved my family across the country, and started as a postdoctoral fellow for the year.  But what I experienced as a postdoc was not at all like my past as a grad student nor my future as an Assistant Professor. Being a postdoc was isolating, as the position itself is liminal by definition. As I describe below, it took effort on my part to feel a sense of integration and belonging.  

Stepping foot on campus on my first day as a postdoc, I was excited about the opportunity to spend time on my research, develop a new syllabus, and connect with a new department and new people.  But I quickly realized that it was going to be challenging to find a space for myself in my new and very temporary department. Postdocs are the people who are at a university the least amount of time.  Undergraduates spend 4-5 years on campus, MA students 2-3 years, PhD candidates 5-10 years, and faculty and staff anywhere from 2-3 years to a lifetime.  I was there for a year, which is barely enough time to learn the names of the faculty members in the department let alone to establish relationships and make connections for the future.  This was especially the case because of the selection process for my postdoc program, which happens outside of the academic departments in which the postdocs are housed. I applied with a mentor in the department who committed to supporting me during my time there, but the department hadn’t selected me for the position, which meant that only the department chair and my mentor knew that I was coming prior to my arrival.  This was in sharp contrast to admissions to grad school where a group of faculty members decided to offer me a spot and court me through my decision. It was also distinct from the hiring process for my tenure-track position where the department faculty decided I should be on the short list and knew that I had accepted the invitation to interview, been offered a position, and accepted said position. In fact, I got emails from practically every faculty member in the department both when I got an offer and when I accepted the position.  

Because of this difference, I felt isolated and unseen in my first month on my postdoc.  I was the only postdoc in the department, so there was no departmental orientation. The other postdocs in my program were scattered throughout the university and I saw them roughly every 4-6 weeks.  Since some of them were teaching in their first semester and many were located in offices 15-20 minutes away from mine, they weren’t easy to connect with for community building. Within the department, my office was back among the graduate students where faculty rarely visit.  

It became clear that I needed to do something when a graduate student in an office near me looked up from getting his coffee to ask me what I was doing in the department since he had seen me often enough to know I wasn’t just passing through for an appointment.  Not only did I feel alone despite the faculty, graduate students, and staff just around the corner, but those same faculty, graduate students, and staff either didn’t know that I was there or didn’t know what I was doing there.  

So I figured out a course of action.  As an introvert, I knew I wasn’t going to walk around knocking on doors to introduce myself, so I asked others to lay the groundwork.  I asked my mentor if the department could distribute an announcement that I was there for the year. She immediately sent an email to her colleagues and the graduate students, which led to a few folks knocking on my door to introduce themselves and some more stopping in the hallway and kitchen to welcome me to the department.  I also asked my mentor and the department chair if I could attend a faculty meeting for the purpose of introducing myself, which was granted.  

Finally, I realized that part of my feeling of isolation was because of my level of involvement during grad school.  I was an organizer for a graduate student group, a participant in a workshop and three writing groups, and an attendee at talks across campus.  I had community on several levels through these activities in addition to the friendships I had developed over the course of six years of graduate school.  Just being visible wasn’t quite enough. I decided that a writing group would give me a sense of belonging in the department as an intellectual home, so I reached out to a few graduate students I knew were doing research in one of my areas, urban sociology, and invited them to join me.  While the department didn’t have a culture of writing groups, they were open to it so we met every 2-3 weeks to discuss a draft paper, proposal, or fellowship application and provide feedback. The space gave me a chance to connect with the graduate students while learning about interesting research happening in the department.  Engaging with this group really gave me a sense of connection with the broader department that I had been lacking. This paired with teaching an undergraduate course in the spring gave me a sense of purpose beyond advancing my own research and a sense of belonging in the space outside my office door.

Even though the faculty and students in my current department all knew I was coming, these same strategies will be helpful in my transition to a tenure-track position this year.  Asking other faculty for introductions, providing graduate students with an opportunity to connect, and making myself accessible to undergraduates through my teaching and office hours will all help me establish roots and a sense of belonging in my new home department.  As someone who pursued a career in academia because, beyond loving research, I have a passion for teaching, mentoring, and role modeling, feeling like I have an intellectual home is an important part to feeling integrated. Establishing connections with faculty and graduate students plays a central role in that.  So, you might even find my door open to encourage the faculty, staff, and students passing by to stop and say hello.  

Putting your research out into the world is an emotional act.  Pretend all you like that science is devoid of feeling, but the only way this is true is if your research is just a job.  Most of us care about our work to the point that a manuscript submission can feel like sending your baby to college full of your hopes and dreams.  The problem is that publishing isn’t easy, which makes for an emotional rollercoaster along the way.  

The Ride

The publishing process is full of highs and lows.  They will vary in when and why they occur, but you’ll experience them.  They might start as early as during research design, but certainly by the time you’ve committed words to a page, you’ll have enough emotional attachment to the work to experience the rollercoaster.  

One early flood of emotions in the writing process may come in that moment of realizing you’re onto something exciting and interesting.  It’s a real high with a burst of energy. You can’t wait to write this down and get it out there in the world. You have findings!! You have a contribution!!!  But sometimes this euphoria is followed by the realization that your manuscript isn’t as exciting as you first thought it was for some reason. Maybe you got an alert of a recently published article that has similar findings.  Maybe someone who knows more than you wasn’t as excited as you are about the paper. Maybe you’ve struggled to get the words on the page in the brilliant way you envisioned them in your head. Maybe you get a rejection from the journal you thought would be the best place to publish it.  Whatever the reason, your stomach drops and you feel disappointment and sadness. But the highs return. Maybe as you revise and edit, getting reinvigorated by the work and the contributions. Maybe when you are ultimately successful in getting that prized revise and resubmit. Maybe reading kind words from Reviewer #1.  While you hope to end on that high note, they can be followed by the lows of rejection (after rejection, after rejection, after rejection) and struggling to please Reviewer #2 to maybe get a positive decision.  

My Lowest Low

Some of the lows will be lower than others.  Early in my career, the lowest feeling came from rejection.  They’re still disappointing, but I’ve now had so many I can quickly pick myself up and continue on the ride.  The hardest part for me now comes at the point when I think I’m done and have that feeling of completion, but get asked for additional revisions.  

I’ve had this happen at two points in the process.  First, submitting a revise and resubmit only to then get another revise and resubmit instead of a decision.  (Picture me banging my head on my desk.) Second, getting a conditional acceptance in response to a revise and resubmit.  The conditional is basically a “the paper is accepted, but we want you to do a few more things before we publish.”  There will always be reviewing the proofs and responding to queries, but these responses often mean things like engaging in the new literature that (new) Reviewer #3 thinks would be a better framing for the paper, adding 5 more footnotes about the constraints of your data source, and expanding the future research paragraph of the conclusion.  Aspects of the paper that you might have already addressed during revise and resubmit number 1.  

For me, this is the point at which my emotions reach their lowest.  “What more do they want from me?! I did everything they asked me for already!!”  This feeling makes it challenging to get the actual work done so I can move on with my research.  I get stuck in patterns of productive procrastination and literally do anything else on my to do list instead of the revisions I need to make.  It’s the least productive period even though it can also be the home stretch. (Although for that paper that went through two R&Rs, it wasn’t.) Thank goodness for promises to co-authors to at least keep those papers moving forward!  

Riding the Emotions

Your research is your baby so you’re always going to feel a way about it whether it is pride and elation, or disappointment and despondence.  The key is to preserve some of the highs to try to evoke them during the low times. I keep a “feel good” folder in my email for such a moment, so I can look back at positive feedback I’ve gotten.  It can also help to look at how far the project as come. Remind yourself why you’re doing the work you’re doing. Read an earlier draft to see how far your ideas have come. Revisit positive and encouraging feedback you’ve received about it.  Talk to that friend or mentor who has been a constant cheerleader for the project.  

Whatever you do, come back to the manuscript!  It might take you two days to recover or it make take you a year, but come back with fresh eyes and renewed spirit to help your baby grow.  Someone out there is waiting to read your work.  

One of the biggest black holes to fall into during the research process is the literature review.  This is particularly true early in your career when it’s easy to feel like you’re not yet an expert in a substantive area.  No matter how much you read, there is always more to read.  So when should you read?  When should you stop reading?  Below is my answer to these questions for those of you who find yourself drowning in the prior literature.  

When Should You Read?

I firmly believe that project specific reading is most useful at the beginning and the end of an empirical project.  Project specific reading is not the same as reading to keep up with the literature, which is a different type of reading with a different purpose that requires different strategies.  

At the beginning of a research project, you should read to justify your project.  This means reading the prior literature to ensure there is “space” for your intervention.  By space, I mean that your study will contribute to the field in some way. This may be a theoretical intervention such as bridging two literatures that aren’t in conversation.  But it could be an empirical contribution such as studying a new case or comparing two or more types of cases that few have studied or compared. During this process, you may find that someone has already done something you thought was a novel contribution.  Don’t be discouraged! There is no original thought left that no one had ever studied. BUT there is almost always a new angle on an old topic. So even if you find that someone has done something similar already, you can still demonstrate space for your study by demonstrating that there isn’t overcrowding in that areas.  The goal of reading at this point in the process is to make sure you have enough information about the prior literature to position yourself in the debates already underway. For grad students, this type of reading is the foundation for your prospectus or proposal. However, this does not mean you have to read each and every potentially relevant article and book ever published.  It means you need to read enough (more on this below) before moving onto implementing the study.  

Once you’ve conducted your study and analyzed the data, you’ll want to come back to the literature to connect the main argument of the paper, chapter, dissertation, or book that you’re writing with some broader literature(s).  At this point in the process, don’t be surprised if the literature you read to justify the study no longer fits the project. Oftentimes the literature about the case you are studying still applies, but you might need a new literature to explain how a specific finding that you present in an article or chapter is a contribution to the literature.  Don’t force a literature to fit if it’s not working in what you’re writing!  

Let me give you a brief example from my own work.  As I wrote my dissertation prospectus, I read to be certain there was space for a study of media representations of gentrification that focused on connections with Americans’ racial stereotypes of neighborhoods.  So I read studies of and summaries of the literature on gentrification, as well as studies at the intersection of media or cultural sociology and urban sociology. This reading let me identify that even though there is a theory about how the media contributes to urban development (the urban growth machine from Logan and Molotch), most empirical studies investigating that theory have focused on the role of politicians and corporations rather than the media.  There is a small literature about media and gentrification, but race is not a central focus in the analysis in most of those studies. “Enough” for my prospectus was being able to write about 9 pages double spaced about the prior literature and referencing about 50 books and articles. That was also “enough” to convince my committee that the study was worth pursuing.  

Once I had identified the key findings for each of my empirical chapters, I returned to the literature to identify new readings.  The reading I had done for my prospectus about the literature on gentrification and studies of media/culture in urban sociology was still relevant, but I realized I needed to move beyond the urban literature to justify the study by bringing in literature on culture and media sociology.  I also found that each chapter needed some new literature. For instance, I added the (e)valuation literature from cultural and economic sociology to a chapter about the news media’s descriptions of the benefits and drawbacks of gentrification, which I hadn’t engaged with previously. Once I knew what the main findings were for each chapter, I was able to see which additional literatures I needed to situate my study and findings.  

When Should You Stop Reading?

So when do you know that you’ve read “enough”?  Unfortunately, there’s no set number of references or pages of reading.  BUT you will know when to stop by assessing whether you can write a well cited argument.  The easiest way to do this is to start formulating and writing your argument about the prior literature, which is often called the literature review section of a paper or chapter.  Try it on in a memo or an outline or a free write, but add in citations so that you can see where your have holes that indicate that you might need to read more. Keep in mind however that holes don’t necessarily mean that you missed something.  Holes can mean that there’s a gap in the literature, so be ready to prove to yourself that you have looked thoroughly for information that would fit there and that you didn’t find it.  

If you decide you need to read more, that doesn’t mean doing another deep dive into anything and everything.  Reading more means doing a targeted search to find additional citations and to fact check your assumptions.  In fact, I often start with the references from a source I’ve cited and the works that cite that source.  On Google Scholar, you can get a list of sources that cite a work and then search within that list. So, for example, when I thought there was not a lot of literature using the growth machine theory that focused on the media, I used this function of Google Scholar to search for other works that investigated the media side of the theory within those that cited Logan and Molotch’s book.  

Reading is a really easy source of productive procrastination.  You can almost always find more to read and it’s easy to use the excuse of “needing” to read more to prevent you from moving forward with data collection, analysis, and writing.  If you find that this is true for how you have engaged in the reading tasks of research, set limits to how much you will read or deadlines for when you will stop to push yourself past the black hole of reading.  Unless someone (like a committee member) is telling you that you have to read more to get their approval on your prospectus, move forward. There’s always an opportunity to do more informed reading later.  

There were moments of graduate school when I would wonder “Why do we have to do this?” and “Why do we do things this way?”  As someone who tends to think of process and efficiency, there were several aspects of the PhD process that just didn’t seem to be in the best interest of graduate students.  Most of these inefficiencies seemed to exist for two reasons: university requirements and academic hazing.  

University Requirements

Individual departments and faculty don’t have complete control over how the PhD process is implemented for their major.  Universities also have requirements to ensure that departments are producing PhDs that maintain a certain level of standards and, thus the university’s reputation.  These types of requirements are challenging or impossible to change even when the case can be made they are not in the best interest of graduate students.  

For instance, my PhD granting institution has a rule that the faculty member who chairs a student’s qualifying exams cannot also be the chair on their dissertation.  So if all of my qualifying exams had been with faculty who were also on my dissertation committee, I would have had to eliminate one person as an option as chair. Picking at that point in the process, before knowing (a) what direction my dissertation was headed in, (b) how well I work with each committee member, and (c) how well my committee members work together, means I would have had little flexibility to change chairs if the direction of my project shifted dramatically or if the demands of my chair didn’t work for me.  The requirement undermines the relationship building students have undergone to even construct their qualifying exam committees.  

These kinds of requirements extend to annual evaluations of progress, funding restrictions, qualifying exams, and prospectus and dissertation defenses as well.  In some cases and for some students, these policies complicate the PhD experience making what is already a long and arduous process inefficient.  

Academic Hazing

Hazing is a term we often associate with sororities and fraternities in the context of higher education to describe humiliating and sometimes dangerous rituals that these groups undergo during rush.  “Academic hazing” refers to the use of rituals that trigger feelings of imposter syndrome and humiliation, encourage overwork and burn out, and lead to physical and mental health decline in an academic setting.  Under the guise of “this is what we’ve always done” or “this is what I had to do in graduate school,” these practices produce unreasonable expectations on which graduate students gauge their performance, which can lead to feeling like a failure or a fraud, overworking to try to meet expectations, and eventually suffering the consequences both physically and emotionally.  In this way, academic hazing is violent (#academiasoviolent), reinforcing the internal narratives of “I don’t belong here” that non-white, working-class, first-generation college students, immigrants, and women often already feel during the process of graduate school rather than countering this narrative with work that affirms and supports that all graduate students have earned their place and belong there.  Many of these practices are also inefficient and less useful to training PhD students. While you might first think of hazing as acts of verbal abuse, it comes up again and again in more subtle ways in every aspect of the PhD process. To illustrate this point, let me take one example that a group of folks have been discussing on Twitter: the amount of reading assigned in graduate courses.

If you’ve gotten through your first semester of a PhD program, you are most likely familiar with this issue of academic hazing.  You find you are assigned 500-1,000+ pages of reading to do in a week as if the only thing that you are doing is reading for that one class, when in fact you are taking 2 or 3 and maybe also working as a Teaching Assistant or a grader.  Under these circumstances, graduate students are stuck with making decisions about what gives. The likelihood of finishing all of the reading and understanding the details is unlikely, so they either resign themselves to skimming everything or “choosing” a subset of to read more closely, opting to not read every word.  (Choosing is in quotation marks because my own experience of this is actually just reading until I ran out of time and thus “choosing” a subset of reading based on whatever I could get through before class.)  

Why am I calling this academic hazing?  First, the arguments for why this amount of reading is assigned (and why it is necessary) are often about the ritual of what was done before in terms of how the course was previously taught or how the instructor was taught the same course.  Second, most graduate course instructors do not provide any guidance on how to navigate such a large corpus of reading. You can imagine that a student who tries to read each page carefully and to understand all that they’re asked to address might feel incompent when they are unable to finish all the reading or don’t understand all of it.  Thus, the practice has intentional and unintentional implications for well-being. But I also believe that this practice is inefficient and less useful. If the goal of assigning so much reading is that graduate students should read broadly in a subfield, why assign more reading that one could possibly digest in such a short period of time?  This goal is not for coursework alone. In fact, coursework is only the first stage in which graduate students engage with the literature. Students inevitably take qualifying exams, which includes an enormous amount of reading beyond that in related courses. They are also likely to read even more for their dissertations because they need a new literature or more depth in a specific part of a subfield.  Because neither coursework nor qualifying exams are typically built to deal with depth, it seems only appropriate to provide an amount of reading that will allow grad students to engage with each of the readings they do, while pointing them to other sources they should read if they’re interested in a particular literature.  

The quantity of reading in coursework is one example, but the hazing continues beyond courses.  Students are told their MA chair won’t sign off until their paper is deemed “publishable,” dragging on the requirement for longer than needed and making students feel less competent with each rejected draft.  Qualifying exams are used to force more large quantities of reading on graduate students, in some cases without allowing them to choose what they read or allowing them to focus on the areas most relevant for their dissertations.  I was also told that the qualifying exam process should be pleasurable, which made me think I was doing something wrong when it was not for me. Faculty refuse to sign off on prospectuses, prolonging the process to advancement to candidacy and reinforcing feeling like a fraud.  Finally, dissertation committee members expect polished work in early drafts instead of the realistic expectation that early chapters will be works in progress using writing to think and process.  

These forms of academic hazing leave graduate students feeling like maybe they’re not cut out for graduate school and doubting their ability to continue.  The academic career path is full of rejection from the outside world from journals, funders, and jobs. Additional rejection from the people training you only sends the message “you aren’t smart enough,” “you don’t belong,” and “you won’t survive this process.”  Frankly, I’m sick of seeing capable and smart graduate students be so beat down by their PhD experience that they leave. We can and should change this.  

What Can Faculty Do?

Faculty play an important role in advising students, reducing the hazing aspects of their own practices, and supporting individual student’s needs.  For university requirements, the options are limited because these kinds of requirements are not flexible and not following them may lead to the student being punished.  The main thing faculty can do is help students navigate these requirements. This involves making sure students are aware of the policies and helping them think ahead about how to navigate them.  In addition, some faculty members are in a position to give feedback to higher-level administrators about the requirements and their misalignment with student needs. Potentially these forms of feedback could lead to change longer-term.  

Thankfully, there is a lot more that faculty can do to reduce academic hazing.  We can reduce the reading load on our syllabi, explain to students what to focus on in the longer readings, help students move past programmatic benchmarks while giving them guidance and feedback for future drafts, provide flexibility to prepare for the dissertation through qualifying exam readings, accept less polished draft chapters to teach students how to work through their findings, and encourage students to have real work-life balance.  Changing the culture of academia is in our hands. We shouldn’t accept hazing just because it’s what we went through. Academia should be supportive because that’s what we all deserve.  

Going into a PhD program is a bit like having a baby: Everyone has advice to give and an opinion about what you should do and how you should do it.  Like with being a parent, you have to figure out what works best for you and your circumstances. For the most part, folks are well intentioned in the advice they offer, often suggesting what worked for them.  But this PhD life isn’t one size fits all, so while you should listen and take note, be sure to reflect on whether the advice given will work for you. Below are some examples of advice I’ve gotten that hasn’t worked for me.  

Do/Don’t Study “Hot Topics”

Some faculty view studying “hot topics” as similar to ambulance chasing.  The reference to “hot topics” usually refers to issues covered by the news and frequently in social conversations.  My own work on gentrification was sometimes viewed as this type of research because of how frequently the news covered the topic in cities like New York City and San Francisco.  Thus, some folks saw my research focus as “trendy.” But other faculty saw the topic of gentrification as timely for the same reasons. These faculty members viewed the study of “hot topics” as a way to be at the forefront of the literature and some even push students towards these topics.  Either way, the problem with these two directions of advice is that it can discourage Ph.D. students from pursuing their topics of interest either by telling them their hot topic dissertation is not worth pursuing or that their non-hot topic dissertation is not worth pursuing.  

If you get this kind of advice as a graduate student, decide what topic you are most interested in and pursue it.  It is your research and your reputation in the long run.  You get to make a decision about what that reputation is going to look like.  Furthermore, and even more important, you’re the one who has to execute the research.  If you hate your topic (or are only marginally interested in it), will you be happy working on it for the 5-10 years of graduate school plus the 5-10 years post graduate school when you’re still publishing on the same project?  Being intellectually satisfied and engaged will help you through the rough patches of graduate school so pick a topic that will keep you motivated.  

Don’t Get Involved in Service

Graduate students have basically zero decision making power in most programs, but they do have critical mass to influence change.  That means there are often opportunities to get involved in organizing and departmental politics whether formally through student organizations or informally through ad hoc campaigns.  But some faculty advise students to stay away from departmental organizing or engaging in the debates and conversations and to instead focus on their work.  

The problem with this advice is that often organizing is happening around issues central to graduate students satisfaction and reduced stress.  If the issue affects you directly, you may have even more of a reason to get involved. Furthermore, organizing your fellow graduate students is a form of social engagement, giving you access to a broader community particularly if you are part of an underrepresented group.  For those students who are a small minority in their cohort or in the graduate program in general, this can mean the difference between having a space to build together or not having any contact with your peers. You’re going to be attached to your department for 5-10 years so decide whether the work of organizing is a worthwhile investment of your time and energy depends both on the topic and the community building potential.  

I also think that this kind of service can help prepare graduate students for the politics they will encounter as faculty and working in non-academic research.  I was heavily involved in the Sociologists of Color and Allies (SoCA), a student group that advocates for racial diversity by providing safe spaces (both social and academic) for graduate students of color, bringing diversity issues to the department on behalf of students, engaging white students in conversations about allyship, and bringing race related content to departmental talks.  The work I did for SoCA took at most 2 hours a week when it was busy and an hour a month when it wasn’t. That time was an investment to make the department better for every grad student of color, an issue of the utmost importance to me as a woman of color. Being a part of SoCA also gave me access to other students of color who I would have never met since they were further along in the program and not around as much.  It gave me a sense of belonging in the department even though I was the only black person in my cohort (or the cohort before or after mine). It also gave me space to learn about the issue of racial diversity in the specific context of higher education and led to other service opportunities such as serving as the graduate student representative on the faculty search committee, which has given me some insight into the politics of diversity and inclusion.  

Don’t Work on Someone Else’s Research

This advice arguably varies depending on department and discipline.  Psychologists often work in collaborative environments like labs and some Sociology departments subscribe to an apprentice model where graduate student work closely with faculty on that faculty’s research agenda.  However, if you are not in a discipline or program like this, you might hear advice to focus on your own research and not work on someone else’s project. Now the reason behind this advice is two-fold. First, it is beneficial to have a sole authored publication to get a tenure-track job (which is the career goal most faculty are thinking of first because of their own career path).  Second, these faculty worry that the student will get less credit for publications (if any) because of the stature and reputation of the PI.  

Now both of these concerns are valid and important to consider when taking on such a project.  However, they overlook a number of potential benefits. First, you get to see a research project designed and implemented by an expert.  Depending on when you join the project and how long you’re involved, this might include learning about grant writing, reviewing the literature, data collection, data cleaning, data analysis, and writing.  Given that the faculty member is also working with others, you might also learn more about running collaborative research including what gets delegated versus what the PI does themselves, how co-authorship is decided, and what kind of supervision and training is required when working with non-PhD collaborators.  Second, it can be a chance for mentorship around a research task including receiving guidance and feedback on your work. Finally, these types of work arrangements can and often do lead to co-authored publications, which again can be a good learning exercise, but is also a CV builder. Yes, there will be times when you have enough on your plate that you need to say no to opportunities to work on someone else’s research project.  But early in your graduate school career, these opportunities can be great for apprenticeship, mentorship, and CV building.  

Don’t Teach

Many programs require teaching as a part of funding packages.  But when students are in a program that doesn’t require teaching or have won fellowships that reduce their teaching loads, some faculty discourage them from teaching, instead suggesting that they have plenty of time to teach later in their careers and should focus on research.  Essentially the advice is to not teach unless you have to.  

It is true that teaching reduces the amount of time that you have to focus on your research.  In fact, I would always advise a student who has been teaching a lot to take advantage of a semester or year without teaching responsibilities.  However, graduate students who have not had the opportunity to teach might want to, particularly students who want to pursue a tenure-track position, for three reasons.  First, you don’t know what you like or hate to do until you do it. If you haven’t taught, particularly prepared and taught your own curriculum, how will you know that you want a job that includes teaching responsibilities?  Second, teaching in graduate school provides an opportunity to learn how to balance teaching responsibilities and research before it counts. From my observations, junior faculty who had little to no teaching responsibilities as graduate students are learning the balance and realistic expectations while they are on the tenure clock.  Finally, teaching as a graduate student is a great opportunity to develop a syllabus if you plan to pursue a tenure-track job. Entering with a syllabus to teach means fewer new course preps in your first year.  

As a graduate student, I sought out summer classes to gain this experience and develop my own syllabus.  While summer term is much more intensive than the regular semester, it was a good opportunity to make some money for the summer and expand my teaching experiences beyond being a teaching assistant for someone else’s course.  But working as a teaching assistant during the semester gave me experience with balancing teaching and research.  

Other Advice 

In addition to these pieces of advice that have implications for your trajectory in graduate school, you might also hear advice about how to study, research, and write.  When you hear something in this genre of advice that doesn’t work for you, remember that (a) the person giving the advice is well intentioned and (b) is probably giving advice based on their own experience.  You can sometimes translate it to something that works for you. For example, if writing every day doesn’t work for you (as it doesn’t for me), but someone tells you to write every day, translate that to advice to make sure you are not neglecting your writing.  Alternatively, you can chalk it up to personal preference and keep doing what works for you. For instance, if someone tells you that you should read hard copies of articles, but you’re much more comfortable reading and taking notes on your laptop, that sounds like a personal preference to me.  

So What Advice Should You Take?

In most cases, you should do what works best for you because this is your journey.  That might mean breaking up with the professor who sees your dissertation topic as “trendy” or is discouraging of your service work.  But for smaller things, that might mean listening politely and then continuing to do what works for you. People are most often well meaning in giving advice, so there’s no need to argue about it.  

That said, there is some advice that you must listen to.  The first type is a programmatic requirement.  If a decision means losing funding or not finishing a programmatic requirement you’ve worked hard to achieve, it’s probably best to follow the advice that will keep you in good standing.  The second type of required advice comes from the gatekeepers in your program, namely your advisor and committee members. If you are dead set on working with a professor who requires a certain approach to the PhD process, then you have to play by their rules.  The alternative is to leave them to work with someone who is more flexible.  

Finally, you might not know what works best for you yet.  In that case, ask more people and get more advice so you have some different approaches to try in figuring out what works best for you.  Regardless of what you decide in the end, choose for your best you!  

To wrap up the series on jobs, this post is about non-academic research career options.  Full disclosure: Evaluation research was my career for 8 years before starting a PhD program.  Based on my positive experiences, I am a big advocate for non-academic research jobs. There are a wide range of options in this category of jobs that draw on different preferences and strengths of social scientists, but common across them is no teaching and little to no solo research.  Remember that even though PhD programs train explicitly for the professoriate, the skills that PhDs develop provide a wide range of job opportunities beyond the tenure-track these days. This is especially true if you’re in a social science program like sociology, economics, political science, or public policy.  The methodological and pedagogical training and experience you receive in these programs are highly sought after in private corporations, foundations, government agencies, and nonprofits. Below are descriptions of the range of opportunities based on my pre-grad school work experience and where I’ve seen grad school friends land research jobs.  Where possible, I highlight additional experiences you might pursue to be more marketable in these fields. For all of them, personal connections can be incredibly important, so network, network, network. Whether through LinkedIn, conferences, or informational interviews, connect with professionals in the field you’re interested in to learn more and to contact when you’re looking for a job.  

Why Non-Academic Research?

Non-academic research jobs are a great opportunity for those who love research, but are less in love with teaching.  These jobs can have better work-life balance than academic jobs as you can work 9-5 and have actual vacation days. The pay can be better than an academic job, but depends on the size and budget of the employer.  And the work is generally more collaborative and less isolating than what most social science PhDs experience in graduate school.  

Some non-academic research can include more public facing work than academia.  Companies like MDRC and Urban Institute have a designated publications department to disseminate reports meant to be accessible to policy makers and practitioners.  Smaller non-profits will have opportunities to translate evaluation findings to changes in practices including training front line staff.  

Evaluation Research 

Almost all funding entities require an evaluation component these days including private foundations and government agencies.  PhDs are hired as program evaluators in several capacities. First, there are organizations like MDRC, the Urban Institute, Mathematica, the Community College Research Center, and Vera Institute, which are hired as external evaluators by funders or fundees.  These companies hire PhDs skilled in quantitative and qualitative methods to design and implement evaluations including designing surveys of program participants; analyzing survey and programmatic data; conducting observations, focus groups, and interviews; and writing up results into briefs and reports.  Second, many nonprofits and local city agencies have in-house evaluation departments to design and implement the required evaluation components. The larger the organization, the larger the evaluation department is likely to be. For example, NYC’s Department of Education has a large research and evaluation department because of the enormous number of K-12 schools across the 5 boroughs.  Other large organizations with offices in multiple cities like Catholic Charities or Goodwill are also likely to have larger evaluation departments. Regardless of where, these jobs are great for folks who enjoy research, but are less interested in teaching semester long courses. Training and mentoring are often part of the position as junior team members need to be oriented to the project and trained on how to collect, process, and analyze data, as well as mentored around their future career goals.  

If you’re interested in this line of work, you may want to do three things to increase your chances. First, take a course in program evaluation.  You should be able to find one in the policy program at your university. As someone who has taken courses in both program evaluation and research methods, they are not the same course, particularly if you took research methods outside of a public policy program.  There is a vocabulary and approach to research design that is distinct to program evaluation. Take a course to learn the vocabulary and tenets of strong evaluation design.  Second, get some experience working in teams. Evaluation research is almost always done with a team even if it is one PhD with a small group of RAs. Gain experience working on group research projects to demonstrate that you know how to work with collaborators and supervise RAs.  

Research Evaluation 

Foundations and government agencies hire PhDs to evaluate grant applications, decide what projects to fund, and monitor funding use.  This includes places like the Ford, Russell Sage, MacArthur, and Annie E. Casey Foundations, as well as the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health.  These jobs are about evaluating research designs and plans, not conducting research, which is a great fit for folks who enjoy designing research projects and critiquing research design more than executing research.  

For these jobs, it helps to have exposure to a wide range of methods.  You can get that through taking a variety of methods courses and working on research projects with different methods.  In addition, each foundation and government agency has a substantive focus that you should have expertise in to assess the merit of grant applications.  

Marketing Research

The for-profit world is full of opportunities to do market research.  Most of these jobs are about gauging consumer response to and interest in a company’s products.  Similar to evaluation research, this domain is a good fit for folks who enjoy research, particularly collaborative research, but do not want to teach.  

This is arguably the area I know the least about, but my read is that needed skills include survey design and analysis, focus group implementation and analysis, memo writing, and oral presentation.  These skills can be signaled through coursework, conducted research, writing samples, teaching, and conference presentations or guest lectures.  

User-Produced Data Research 

Finally, there is a growing number of jobs working for companies that generate large quantities of data.  This includes companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google who have more and more data every day just based on users interacting with their products.  These companies hire PhDs to analyze the data they collect from users including (primarily) a wide range of quantitative data analysis. Some of these companies even hire psychologists and related social scientists to conduct experiments.  

For these jobs, experience working with social media data is certainly a plus but not a requirement.  You can signal relevant skills through the methods you use instead.  

For the Non-Academic Research Job Market

Before you’re looking for a job, get more information about these options.  First, look at job postings to see what kind of prior experience and responsibilities these companies are looking for and whether those sound like what you’d like to do.  Second, talk to people working those jobs. These days, all PhD programs should have alumni in every one of these types of jobs, so alumni networks can be a good place to start for more information about different job options.  But you can also connect with folks through LinkedIn and professional conferences.  

Keep in mind that these jobs may be available at times that don’t align with the academic calendar.  Strategize with your committee and your connects about how to deal with this. Finally, remember that for every year of work experience (including doctoral training) you have, it will take about one month to find a job in this market.  There are of course exceptions, but using this as a general rule can help manage your expectations for how long the job search will take. Good luck out there! 

As you prepare to go on the academic job market, think about where you’d ideally like to work.  More specifically, the kind of institution you want to work at and for. This means thinking about how your priorities align with the different kinds of schools.  Tenure-track jobs at all institutions of higher education include some combination of research, teaching, mentoring, and service but vary in the quantity of each. The descriptions below are my own summary of the options, which will give you one way to think about the tenure-track options.  

AA and BA (Only) Granting Institutions 

Community colleges and liberal arts colleges mainly fall into this category along with some other universities.  These are institutions in which teaching is the top priority and teaching loads are large (3-3 or 4-4), such as Pomona, Oberlin, Borough of Manhattan Community College, or City College of San Francisco.  Importantly, class size will vary dramatically between community colleges and liberal arts colleges with larger class sizes in community colleges.  

Despite this focus, many faculty in these colleges are also doing research.  In fact, there’s been a growing interest in bringing in faculty with active research agendas at liberal arts colleges to expose undergraduates to research, support undergraduates in thesis writing, and enhance the college’s reputation.  Even some faculty at community colleges maintain an active research agenda, but neither community colleges nor liberal arts colleges usually have strong infrastructure to support faculty in their research endeavors. This means few opportunities for research funding from the college and little support for applying for external grants.  

One exception to this description is a small number of elite liberal arts colleges (often called selective liberal arts colleges or SLACs) that operate a little more like PhD granting institutions.  Colleges like Amherst and Haverford have a 2-2 or 2-3 teaching load along with small class sizes. Additionally, they provide more institutional support for research particularly around attaining external funding than at other liberal arts colleges.  

An important difference between community colleges and liberal arts colleges that might be important for your decisions about where to apply is the composition of the student body.   Community colleges serve a diverse group of students with a large number of first generation college students, students from low-income and working-class families, and students of color.  In contrast, some liberal arts colleges have a more privileged student body on average.  

MA Granting Institutions 

In addition to undergrads, some colleges also have terminal master’s degree programs, but no PhD programs such as University of Baltimore and California State University, Los Angeles.  These programs tend to be more practical and applied such as methods programs, urban planning, public health, public policy, law, business administration, and international affairs. You’ll find these programs within PhD granting institutions including departments of interest that only have MA programs, but may also find that MAs are the highest degree conferred at some schools.  

Like the AA and BA granting institutions, MA granting institutions have a primary focus on teaching and may lack support for research.  However, this does not mean that they are not looking for applicants with an active research agenda for the same reasons stated above.  

PhD Granting Institutions 

All of you going onto the academic job market are coming out of PhD granting institutions and presumably know a bit about what they have to offer.  The main focus for tenure and promotion is of course research followed by teaching and service. But what that looks like will vary dramatically depending on the prestige of the institution.  

High ranked universities like Harvard and Princeton will have higher demands for publishing both in terms of quantity and quality.  Highly ranked placement in journals and with academic presses will matter for attaining tenure. In contrast, teaching and service will matter less, although no one wants to promote a colleague who never contributes so this doesn’t mean there are no service or teaching responsibilities.  For moderate and lower ranked universities like University of Indiana and Boston University, higher ranked publications are not frowned on, but the requirements for tenure allow for a wider range of publications even without top placements.  

PhD granting institutions have a lower teaching load than the former types (2-1 or 2-2) to allow faculty to meet these higher demands for research, but also to accommodate the demands of working with PhD students.  In fact, part of tenure may be reviewing how many PhD students a faculty member is working with at these institutions and getting reference letters from PhD candidates. Keep in mind that PhD programs range widely in size from cohorts of 1-2 students to cohorts of 30+.  Demands on faculty from PhD students will obviously vary depending on program size.  

Finally, PhD granting institutions tend to have internal funding to help faculty develop new research projects and support to apply for external grants.  The level of support can vary depending on institutional resources, but some form of each exist at most of these institutions to help faculty be successful in research.  

Deciding Where to Apply

What jobs you apply to all depends on what’s important to you.  Think about these questions: 

  • What kind of students do you want to work with and teach?  At what level?
  • Do you want to be involved in more applied and public facing work OR primarily academic work? 
  • Do you want teaching to be your primary focus OR research?  
  • What kinds of courses do you want to teach (eg applied, methodological, substantive)? 
  • What kind of mentoring do you want to do (eg research focused, career focused)?

If you can’t answer these questions, it’s time to gather some data and get some more experience.  Ask alumni from your program to do informational interviews about their experiences in jobs you know less about.  Visit a college or university to learn more about what they offer and who goes to school there. Review websites to gather information about different programs and schools.  Finally, get experience teaching and mentoring to figure out what aspects of a tenure-track job are most important to you. If you decide you don’t like teaching, there are lots of opportunities to do research without teaching in non-academic and non-tenure-track jobs.  (More on this soon!) 

Lastly, a note to those of you applying to jobs.  Folks have different takes on this, but I am in the camp that you shouldn’t apply for a job you wouldn’t take.  If you don’t know whether the job is one you would want or not, apply. But if you know you wouldn’t accept the job, don’t waste your time or the search committee’s.  It’s a small courtesy and more efficient use of your time and energy during a stressful period. Use your time wisely!  

Some of the most stressful moments of grad school arise around making what feel like career defining decisions.  Choosing which faculty members to work with is one of those moments for many grad students whether it’s picking an advisor or committee members for MA papers, qualifying exams, or the dissertation.  Even though you have to formally assign faculty to individual roles, I recommend thinking about a Dream Team of faculty rather than the 1, 2, 3, or 4 faculty members you will engage with for a specific component of your program. 

Much like a basketball team, you will have a starting line up, including your advisor and committee members, but you should also have some benchwarmers to serve as substitutes.  Why? Because at any point in the process, you might change direction. For example, maybe your MA research was focused on race and economic sociology, but your dissertation moves you towards race and urban sociology.  While the faculty on your MA committee might still fit the bill, they might not and might even suggest other faculty as more appropriate for your new direction. It’s worth noting here that faculty are usually not offended at being replaced when this happens so while the conversation might feel awkward, don’t shy away from making changes when you need to.  

So who is on the Dream Team?  Some members will be substantive experts on your case or the literatures you’re engaging with, while others will be methodological experts in the type of data and analyses you’re working with.  It’s unlikely that any one of your Dream Team members will be experts in all of your substantive areas and methodological approaches, which is why you need a carefully configured team. Your starting line up should cover the substantive and methodological areas as a team.  

In addition, regardless of whether they are relevant or substantive experts, they should all be (a) supportive of your research agenda and (b) a good fit in terms of mentoring style.  In fact, some members of the Dream Team will only be these two things and not provide any substantive or methodological expertise.  To the first point, none of your Dream Team should discourage your research pursuits, insult your intelligence, or generally make you feel less than, even if this means not working with a big name in your subfield or methodology.  Ph.D. programs take too long to subject yourself to years of abuse. It will be hard enough without harassment and abuse.  

While some faculty might be supportive, they might not be a good fit due to mentoring style.  You can adjust some aspects of how you work with supervisors to work with anyone, but there are some mentoring styles that just won’t mesh.  For instance, I worked with someone who is terrible with email, which is my preferred means of communication. I could adjust to go to their office hours when I needed to connect with them.  In contrast, I decide that I couldn’t work with a faculty member who had a more passive style of communication because I had trouble figuring out what they were recommending or even what they thought of my research as I work best with direct communication.  Some aspects of ideal mentorship style will be requirements and others will be suggestions.  

As you think about which Dream Team members will warm the bench and which will be your starting line up (advisor and committee members), consider what you need on a day to day basis.  Think about how often you’d ideally meet with your advisor or committee members, how you prefer to receive feedback, what kind of feedback you need, whether you can meet in person or need the flexibility of meeting by phone or video chat, and the expectations the faculty have for engaging with their grad students.  This last point is best achieved by talking to grad students who have worked with the faculty members you’re interested in working with, but also can be accessed by talking to them directly. Most grad students seem to feel more comfortable doing the former, but only the faculty member can tell you their current policy and expectations for grad students in different stages of the process.  For example, I did a qualifying exam with a professor who had never before used a group model, but chose to the year I did my qualifying exams. Former students wouldn’t have been able to tell me that that was the faculty member’s new policy. Just know that it is okay to ask a faculty member directly, “How do you work with students for qualifying exams?” Some faculty members even have documents outlining their philosophy and approach.  

Finally, there are logistical considerations, namely, what is your timeline and which faculty members from your Dream Team are available on your timeline?  I had 3 faculty members on my Dream Team who would have been a great fit for my MA committee, which required 2 faculty members. But 1 of them was on sabbatical the year I hoped to finish that requirement.  Instead of slowing down my timeline, I continued with the 2 other faculty members and worked with the 3rd for qualifying exams and my dissertation.  

Which faculty members can you approach?  Really anyone in your department is fair game, but you need to put in leg work to build a relationship and feel out rapport, mentoring style, and availability.  You could take a course with someone you’re considering, but not every faculty member teaches a grad level course every year, so your ability to do this will vary by faculty member.  Alternatively, you can use office hours or non-office hour meetings to discuss your research ideas with faculty and learn about their mentoring style. Use some qualitative research skills to collect more information about your potential Dream Team members.  “Interview” other graduate students about their experiences working with those faculty. “Observe” faculty in action in workshops or colloquiums where you can see what kinds of questions they ask and how they ask them. Finally, take potential Dream Team members for a test run by asking for feedback on a short written piece like a draft research proposal for a fellowship application to get exposure to how they deliver feedback.  One of the most helpful things I did to identify my Dream Team was to shop ideas for my MA paper. I wrote a one pager with a short description of 3 potential projects that I took to office hours of 5 faculty members. Among the faculty who ended up on my Dream Team, one focused on what was most exciting, another on what design was most feasible, and the third on the potential contributions. Seeing how they engaged with ideas was helpful insight into how they think and how they critique research.  

Lastly, I want to stress that you can switch in faculty from your bench whenever you need to.  You might need to change who you’re working with because of a change of direction in your research, a personality mismatch among committee members or with you, or changes in your timeline and a committee member’s availability.  Whatever the reason, do what’s best for you and your progress.  It is not uncommon for someone to change their dissertation committee.  Yes it involves a potentially awkward conversation, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.  Don’t think of it as a break up. Think of it as a substitution.  

For other perspectives on this topic see this thread and this response.