practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

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.  

Most educational endeavors from K-12 to community college, undergraduate programs, professional MAs, and training certifications are highly-structured learning environments.  None of these programs prepare students for the learner-driven, non-deadline based environment of a Ph.D. program. In all of the former, there are deadlines, assigned readings provided by an instructor, instructions about how to approach your assignments, and feedback on what you’ve produced.  This is arguably an oversimplification of the American educational system, but success in the main model of education before the Ph.D. is in doing what your instructor asks of you. Ph.D. programs however are designed to teach students how to think, analyze, and evaluate through a series of requirements that are not always well-defined or clearly articulated.  Working before pursuing a Ph.D. provides an opportunity to learn about how you operate best in situations that are not purely deadline oriented or clearly defined.  

I say this so definitively because I started my Ph.D. program in Sociology 10 years after I finished my undergraduate degree.  This is a longer break than most people take, but my experiences helped me in my Ph.D. journey in two ways.  First, I was clear on what I wanted to do with my career after finishing my Ph.D. For me, the Ph.D. was a way to move into a second career.  I had worked in evaluation research for 8 years at 2 different organizations prior to graduate school, and completed a MPA program part-time (while working full-time).  I knew I loved research, but also knew from my work experience that I wanted more control over and flexibility in my research agenda than I could get by returning to the non-academic research world.  Initially, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to teach, but I taught a summer course as an adjunct before graduate school and loved it. Going into my Ph.D. program, I knew I would enjoy the main aspects of an academic job.  

Second, I learned a lot about myself on the job that helped me navigate graduate school.  Let me give you a few specific examples to illustrate this.  

  1. I learned pretty quickly that I am extremely detail oriented to the point that I can miss the big picture.  So when I was learning to write research proposals and journal articles, I knew the hardest part would be getting out of the weeds to see the trees in terms of contributions and implications of the research project.  
  2. I worked with some amazing people in those 8 years and learned a lot about who I worked best with: supervisors who were direct and to the point, while being kind and supportive.  This gave me a model of supervision, feedback, and mentoring to look for in faculty. During my first 2 years, I went to a lot of faculty’s office hours and narrowed down to a group of faculty that seemed like a good fit with my work style. This included identifying faculty who I knew wouldn’t be a good fit for me because they provided vague feedback that didn’t give me a clear set of next steps. 
  3. Because I worked long enough to be promoted and gain new responsibilities, I worked on written reports and memos that went through a rigorous review and feedback process.  From those experiences, I knew that I’m open to verbal feedback, but getting red marked up pages or pages swimming in the red of track changes can feel really harsh, particularly from someone I haven’t gotten verbal feedback from before. (It’s easy to make up a mocking or snide voice in your head when you don’t have an idea of how your reviewer sounds.)  This informed how I pursued feedback (e.g., asking for meetings to discuss so I could hear how a faculty member delivered their comments, and sharing papers with workshops where I would get feedback in person), but also influenced how I give feedback to colleagues and students (e.g., asking for a meeting for the first time I’m providing feedback so they can see and hear my enthusiasm for their work before they receive more critical feedback, and writing 1-2 page cover letters that lead with what I’m excited about in their manuscript).  
  4. Finally, I learned how to balance tasks with deadlines and those that I was told to do when I “had the time.”  In graduate school, the former are the equivalent of your course assignments, your teaching responsibilities, and fellowship applications, while the latter are things like finishing up and submitting your MA paper, submitting memos for your quals, and transitioning out of data collection mode completely to focus on getting words on the page for your dissertation.  You’ve got to be meeting your deadlines while pushing forward the work that “has no end” to move forward.  

Gaining these work experiences were essential for my trajectory through graduate school because they gave me a clear career goal and gave me a better sense of myself as a worker.  I worked in research oriented jobs, which also gave me research skills to apply in my Ph.D. program, but you will learn a lot about yourself, what you’re interested in, and how you work best no matter what kind of job you take.  The key is to take the time to reflect and do a little auto-interviewing about your work experiences. Ask yourself: Who do you like working with at your job? What about their leadership style “works” for you? What kinds of tasks do you have at work? Which tasks do you excel at and which do you struggle with?  How do you organize your work to make sure it all gets done well and on time?  

As you might have figured out by now, I don’t believe in a one size fits all advice, but prefer a “choose your own adventure” approach based on your specific circumstances.  So while this post is making a case for why working before grad school is a good idea, it might not be the best fit for your particular circumstances. If you’re going straight through, you can use the same set of questions above to reflect on any internships and jobs you’ve held.  You can also get work experience while you’re a graduate student to inform both your goals and process. Either way, make your work work for you!