practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

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!

Most Sociology PhD programs include a paper requirement such as a “second year paper” or a “Master’s paper.”  This paper serves, in part, a practical purpose of making sure PhD students have an empirical manuscript drafted early in their program that they can mould into a sole-authored journal publication before they go on the job market.  This is an essential part of professionalization as today’s tenure-track job market is so competitive that ABD applicants need at least one sole-authored publication to land a tenure-track job.  This in and of itself is a practical and useful part of the professionalization process.  However, many programs pair this with unreasonable expectations on where early scholars should publish: top tier journals.  “Failing” to land a top tier journal publication can make graduate students feel a severe version of imposter syndrome, that they aren’t cut out for academia, even though all well-established academics frequently receive rejections from these journals as well.  

As a graduate student, I frequently heard that my goal should be a publication in one of the two highest ranked sociology journals: American Journal of Sociology (AJS) or the American Sociological Review (ASR).  If that didn’t work out, a publication in the next two in rankings, Social Problems and Social Forces, would also be acceptable. The last resort was to submit to a subfield journal, but only if submitting to the first four journals did not lead to a publication.  There were certainly faculty who suggested subfield journals over generalist, but the overarching narrative in the program was “top tier or bust.”  

I’m pretty sure this is not a unique feature to Berkeley Sociology as you can see this type of advice in some of the recent Sociologica articles about publishing, which you should read all of if you haven’t already.  Along with other helpful advice about publishing, Fligstein notes: “After putting in hundreds or even thousands of hours, your published work can go completely ignored if it appears somewhere where audiences are sparse. Given this problem, it is important for young scholars to find their way into the best outlets they can. Journals like the American Sociological Review have over ten thousand potential viewers while edited volumes may sell as few as 300 copies that mostly end up in libraries.”  Similarly, Lamont says: “At the start of a career, you have no choice; if you want to be a part of the disciplinary conversation you have to go for the journals that have the most visibility.”  Both Fligstein and Lamont make similar arguments that junior scholars need to enter the literature in highly visible spaces.  

Junior scholars of course need to be seen and heard to help them land tenure-track jobs and earn tenure, but I have two gripes with this advice.  The first is that this advice makes it seem as if young scholars should always target the top tier journals, which in sociology are “generalist” journals.  But even the most established scholars never only publish in generalist journals.  Check any CV for a big name in your field and you’ll see a wide range of placements including subfield journals, edited volumes, and top tier journals.  In disciplines where the top tier journals are meant for a “general” audience of that discipline, this advice is particularly fraught since not every paper is meant for a generalist audience.  Some conversations are most relevant to the subfield and make important contributions to advancing how a subfield thinks and works, so why spend the time and energy trying to convince a general audience that a subfield conversation is interesting?  It is definitely a useful skill to be able to frame your research for both generalist and specialist audiences, but it’s also useful to know when a specialist framing is a better approach than a generalist framing. 

My second gripe is that this advice is often given to early graduate students, as was my experience.  That early in a graduate career, students are still learning to write for an academic audience and to write for their discipline.  To set the expectation that these students place their first (or maybe second) academic research paper at a top tier journal is a stretch at best.  Top tier journals are at the top in part because they are exclusive. They get a lot of submissions and accept very few. Setting the bar that high can mean students who “only” place in subfield journals feel like they won’t make it in academia despite that subfield publications are a valued contribution to the field.  

While some graduate students are able to accomplish top tier publications, it is often students in more privileged positions.  Placement at this early career point is only possible with a combination of a lot of support, guidance, and feedback from one or more faculty members, and the graduate student having a lot of time to analyze, write, revise, and edit.  Programs that are small and have generous funding not attached to teaching tend to have more graduate students who can accomplish this.  

So what advice would I give instead?  Make a list of all of your works-in-progress and ideas.  Think about what audience each paper is engaging and decide whether each is best suited for a generalist or specialist audience.  It is always good to have at least one paper in the works or in mind that would be well-suited for a generalist audience. If all the others are really for specialists, that is both fine and normal!  

Next, think about the paper that is the closest to going out the door and make a list of the journals that match the paper well.  This should be a list of 4-8 journals, all of which you would be happy to have your work published in. When your paper is ready, submit it to the best journal on that list and work your way down in prestige as you get rejected.  Since every journal on the list is one you would be happy to see your work published in, you’ll be happy with your placement when it happens.  

Finally, always remember that rejection is a normal part of the publishing process.  The only people who aren’t getting rejections are the ones who aren’t submitting their papers to journals.  When it happens, it doesn’t mean your paper isn’t worth publishing ever. It just means it’s either not a good fit for the journal you sent it to or it needs some more work before it will be publishable.  Make revisions, get more feedback, and submit it again. Don’t give up!  

There’s an inherent tension with being a faculty of color in a Predominately White Institution (PWI).  Faculty of color face higher demands than their white colleagues in terms of mentoring, advising, and counseling due to the underrepresentation of non-white faculty across academia, but junior faculty are frequently advised to “just say no” to any work that is not directly related to getting tenure.  Students of color are knocking at the door, and colleagues, mentors, and friends are all saying “Say no!  Protect your time!” Just saying no isn’t an option. To deny students a safe space to talk about race and racism on campus, a supportive and critical ear for their research ideas, and a role model who provides safe spaces for students of color is to reinforce the common narrative that academia is a white, middle-class institution that is not for students of color and first generation college students.  Furthermore, providing safe and supportive spaces for students of color is also creating a safe and supportive space for myself as a woman of color in a PWI.

For me, being faculty of color comes with a responsibility to students in part because of my own experience as an undergraduate.  I started at the University of Maryland at College Park with an interest in science and the environment and landed quickly in a major that was primarily housed in the Geography department.  At the time, Geography had one black faculty member, a black man who taught the department’s only courses on how race and class influenced how people interacted with space. This was in stark contrast to my experience in the Geography department otherwise, which included the omission or dismissal of race as a relevant topic.  I distinctly remember asking a professor how the economics based theory he was explaining related to the phenomenon of people lining up to buy the newest Air Jordans the night before they were released. The professor admitted he had never heard of anyone doing that and asked the class if, by a show of hands, they knew anyone who did that.  There were three students of color in the class of 50 and we were the only students who raised our hands. Based on this small N of agreement, the professor concluded that the situation I described “didn’t occur” and moved on with his lecture. The blatant dismissal of experiences of people of color in that classroom was in stark contrast to the overt discussion of such topics as the varied quality of produce in grocery stores in middle-class, white neighborhoods compared with poor, black neighborhoods in my classes with the black Geography professor.  Needless to say, I took as many classes as he taught during my time at UMD and even asked him to chair an independent study on environmental justice.  

I compensated for the lack of people of color in my major with other spaces, including minoring in African American Studies.  It was there that I had courses taught by black women, one faculty member and one graduate student. Their perspective on race, class, and gender reflected my lived experiences as a black woman who grew up in Baltimore City during a time of white and middle-class flight, city budget cuts, and widespread disinvestment.  Sitting in a classroom with a person that looked like me at the front of the room who validated my life experiences as important for academic scholarship gave me a sense of belonging in the halls of that institution of higher education. It was a feeling I wouldn’t have had without those three black role models and mentors.  These experiences were formative. Having black professors made me feel like I had a right to be there. That I had a right to be heard. That I had a right to speak up.  

When the Geography professor publicly dismissed my question about Air Jordans, I approached him after class because I knew that my voice mattered, a feeling I didn’t have as a college freshman.  I told him that his dismissive response to my question alienated the experiences of the few students of color in the room. I was only able to speak up against that microaggression with the confidence that I did because of the black professors who showed me I belonged.  

That exposure to scholars who studied how race mattered and role models who gave me a sense of belonging helped me transition to work in predominantly white organizations and further education in PWIs with even smaller black student bodies.  As I got further along, I found myself in the position of being a role model and mentor as those black professors had been for me. At UC Berkeley, I attracted attention from undergraduates of color and was able to provide them opportunities to learn about research in a safe, supportive space.  I will never forget the team meeting where one of my RAs commented she had never been around so many black students on campus before. But as much as I provided them a safe and supportive space, they provided me the same. They understood the importance of race to my work as people with lived racialized experiences and cheered on my research as an important contribution.  I felt safe and supported in their midst even as their leader.  

As I look towards my first year as an Assistant Professor, I know that because of how underrepresented blacks are as tenure-track faculty, being a black woman will come with demands from students of color.  I also know that finding balanced ways to engage with students of color will feed me as much as it feeds them. So I will set boundaries that allow me to prioritize the demands of tenure without sacrificing work that gives me life.  I will use quotas for the requests on my time based on a certain number or certain amount of time per semester. I will meet with small groups of students when possible to meet the demand for interaction while not overcommitting myself.  I will explain how they can support my journey to tenure and what earning tenure means not just for me, but for students like them. I will be selective about what I say “Yes!” to and say “Not right now” to so as to prioritize what I can do now versus what I would like to do, but just can’t do at the time of the request.  Finally, I will find ways to make sure my engagements are acknowledged in my tenure file by associating them with my service work as much as possible. But, no, I will not say no to paying forward what those three black professors gave me.  

One missing part of many social science graduate programs is learning how to work with others.  Research in graduate school is predominantly a solo endeavor through the MA and dissertation. Additionally, there are limited opportunities to work on research with faculty, other graduate students, and undergraduates, particularly for those doing qualitative research.  Unfortunately, I’ve found that many qualitative researchers are resistant to working with research assistants (RAs). This resistance means that qualitative focused undergraduate and graduate students are much less likely to have mentored opportunities to learn about research than their quantitatively oriented peers.  This has implications for disparities in mentorship, professional development, and publications by methods. Why is there resistance to working with RAs?  

Concern 1: No one can do the work as well as I can. 

This concern includes things like “I’m the most familiar with the data because I collected it,” “I’ve worked with similar (or the same) data before,” “I developed the study so I know what’s there.”  You are absolutely the most familiar with your data and the most familiar with your study. Any RAs you work with, whether undergraduates or graduate students, will be less knowledgeable than you are.  In fact, this concern is also sometimes expressed as “I don’t have anything for an RA to do,” under the assumption that someone less qualified won’t be able to contribute in any way. However, none of these concerns mean you can’t find RAs who would be helpful on the project.  I’ve found that with training and experience working with the data, RAs can be efficient in their tasks AND contribute to the implementation of the study. As someone with distance from the design and background of the project, they often have a distinct vantage point for viewing the data and project.  Furthermore, they bring their own experiences, expertise, and perspective to the data. This means they might notice relevant data that aren’t captured in a coding scheme, raise questions about how concepts are defined and operationalized that clarify the focus of the project, have a “new” take on what is happening in the data from their perspective, and identify more efficient processes for the work.  Once your RAs are trained, you can delegate tasks that don’t require your full attention such as collecting metadata, and use RAs to expand your work to collect and analyze more data or new data sources.

Concern 2: Training and management take time. 

Training a team and managing RAs’ work takes time.  This is undoubtedly true. You will have to train your RAs including orientation to the broader project and specific training on the tasks they will complete, provide them with assignments, monitor their work, run team meetings, conduct quality checks, and give them feedback.  You will be trading some data work for management work, but this can be easily managed by setting up processes for the team and a timeline for things like quality checks and feedback. I recommend having weekly meetings (especially in the beginning), keeping an FAQ list with questions that come up in team meetings, and specifying all steps in the process in a training manual that your RAs can refer back to as needed.  The management work will be an addition to your workload, but it is a sacrifice worth making to get more hands on deck to push your research forward and doesn’t take much more than a couple hours a week once set up and past the training phase. 

Concern 3: I work with sensitive data. 

Interview data in particular can include personal information about research participants.  But the same is true for many survey and experiment projects. By following IRB requirements for CITI training, signing confidentiality waivers, removing personal identifiers, and restricting access to data through password protected computers, you can protect your research participants, while working with RAs.  Reach out to your IRB to get ideas and understand your institution’s requirements for bringing on new team members.  

Concern 4: I don’t have funding to pay RAs. 

Many researchers are doing research without additional funds from which to pay RAs for their work.  But there are several other ways to compensate RAs that they may be amenable to for the opportunity to learn from your expertise and get hands-on experience.  Some universities offer students credit through a research apprenticeship program. If your university doesn’t provide this sort of program, you can build your research project into a course where students learn about the topic and gain hands on experience with research doing work for your project (a la service learning).  For students who work on the project for multiple semesters, you could offer them the opportunity to co-author on a paper, giving them another type of professionalization experience. Finally, there are small tokens of gratitude for their work such as providing career advice, writing recommendation letters, acting as references for job applications, listing their names in acknowledgments on publications, and taking them out for a meal to celebrate the work they’ve put in on the project.  

Concern 5: I don’t know how to integrate RAs. 

Almost none of us were explicitly trained on how to integrate RAs into our research projects.  So what better way to learn than by doing? The first RA I worked with did everything I did so that I could determine what realistic tasks were for an RA to complete.  She collected newspaper articles and compiled relevant information about them into two spreadsheets. From monitoring her progress and work, I identified which part of the process was too difficult for someone new to the project (work I ultimately did myself) and separated the two remaining tasks (data collection and objective data summaries) into tasks for two separate teams of RAs.  As I moved forward with this, I made tweaks along the way and kept a training document that provided detailed instructions for each team including a photo tutorial for my microfilm team on how to scan articles. It was only by working with RAs that I was able to figure out how to integrate them into my data collection and analysis process. Start with one RA and see what works.

Concern 6: It’s just easier not to work with RAs. 

There are certainly cases where just doing the research work yourself would be easier.  I have worked with RAs on projects where my pace is double theirs, but it was still a valuable experience for both of us.  For my RAs, who have all been undergraduates working for credit or pay through a university program so far, they got exposure to the other side of what their professors do, insight into grad school, career advice, a job to put on their resume, me as a reference for jobs and a recommender for graduate school, and acknowledgments in my future publications.  In return, I got to give a group of predominately women, students of color, first-generation college students, and community college transfers an opportunity to learn about research. It’s part of the reason I wanted a job in the academy rather than returning to the non-academic research career I worked in pre-grad school. These are the moments I get to connect what they learned in their research methods course with an actual research project that they are interested in.  It gives them new ideas about what to do for their theses and sometimes interest in doing a thesis. For some, seeing how the sausage is made helps them make an informed decision that they’re not interested in research or PhD programs. It’s also my opportunity to create a community and safe space for these predominately underrepresented groups. Working with RAs is part of my work as a mentor and role model. It is part of what fulfills me in my work.  

Throughout my time as a PhD student, I heard about “postdoctoral fellowships” as an option after graduating.  No one ever directly explained what they meant when they mentioned that so-and-so got a “postdoc” or there’s a new “postdoc” program, but there seemed to be an underlying assumption that postdocs provided an opportunity to focus solely on your research before being in a tenure-track position.  I didn’t realize until I was on the job market and applying to jobs and postdocs that the term “postdoctoral fellowship” is actually used to describe a much wider range of opportunities for social scientists. Below is my attempt to classify (yes, I’m a sociologist) the different types of postdocs to help graduate students in the social sciences better understand their options.  The categories I describe are not meant to be mutually exclusive, as you’ll see by a few examples I include at the end, but capture the range of what you might find. Those of you looking towards the job market may find that you want to pursue a postdoc that goes beyond the commonly assumed definition of the term based on some of the benefits I describe below.

The Basic Model

This is the postdoc most people think of when they hear the word.  It is also the base model to which other postdocs add some other element.  The basic model includes funding and access to resources to work on your research with no other (required) responsibilities.  The goal of the postdoc program is to support junior scholars’ intellectual development. Postdocs are provided office space, a salary, health insurance, and access to the host university’s resources.  You might apply for this type of postdoc directly, but some private universities are able to offer Assistant Professors a basic model postdoc as part of a job offer. There seem to be very few postdocs like this, as you’ll see in the examples below.  More often postdocs build on this model to provide postdocs with some support, justify the expense of paying for the postdoc, and cover funding for the position through some other funding stream.  

The Mentored Postdoc

Some postdocs include a faculty mentor with the goal of providing postdocs with support and advice in advancing their career.  This can include help with setting goals, regular check in meetings, feedback on papers and presentations, and reference letters for job and grant applications.  Some of these programs require identifying a mentor before applying and getting a commitment letter from the mentor, while others match accepted applicants with mentors based on availability and interests.  Be sure to read the application requirements carefully to determine if it’s the former or the latter and contact potential mentors several months before if necessary and possible.

The Research Center Postdoc 

Some university-based research centers hire postdocs to work on their projects and programming.  While the prior two types allow the postdoc to focus 100% of their time on their own research, this type of postdoc often requires that 50-100% of the postdoc’s time be spent on work that benefits the research center directly.  This work can include data collection, analysis, and writing on what is usually team-based research projects, but might also include applying for grants for new projects.  

The Research Team Postdoc 

Similar to the research center postdoc, the research team postdoc integrates the postdoc into a larger research project and research team.  The main difference between this postdoc type and the prior is that these postdocs are with individual faculty members or small faculty teams rather than attached to a research center.  These are the types of opportunities you might only hear about by networking with faculty at conferences. Similar to the research center postdoc, these jobs often require that postdocs spend 50-100% of their time on the research project that is funding them.  

The Teaching Postdoc 

Some postdocs include a teaching requirement.  This is actually fairly common since teaching is a way to fund a postdoctoral position.  However, there is a wide range in teaching load from as little as one course in 3 years to as much as a 2-1 load.  The teaching load is usually less than what’s expected of tenure-track faculty, so positions at teaching institutions have a higher requirement than those at research institutions in general.  These positions don’t have as clear of a divide between the postdoc’s time for research and their time for teaching, but the assumption is often that when a postdoc is teaching they will still have time to do their research, thus the partial teaching load.  

The Diversity Postdoc

This final postdoc type is never a standalone category in this typology.  The diversity postdoc is a subtype based on the required characteristics of applicants.  These postdocs specifically target members of underrepresented groups for postdoctoral funding and many of them specifically target underrepresented racial/ethnic groups.  This focus is mostly about the priorities of the funding entity to provide opportunities to underrepresented groups in the academy and less about what the postdoc actually does during their postdoc.  

What Kind of Postdoc Do You Want?

These different postdoc opportunities are not all equal.  Having 100% of your time to focus on your research and whatever professional development and engagement you identify is going to yield different results than being in a postdoc where only 50% of your time is focused on your research.  That said, there are several reasons you might want a postdoc that includes required research or teaching. First, postdocs that include research with a team offer exposure to a different kind of research environment than many social science Ph.D. programs.  The team environment can be dynamic and fast-paced in comparison to sole-authored research, which may be appealing to you if you found research to be at all isolating as a graduate student. Even if you’ll be spending less time on your sole-authored projects, you could still end up with publications depending on the length of time you’re working with the team and what stage the project is in when you start your postdoc.  

Second, teaching a reduced teaching load during a postdoc is a good opportunity to ease into the demands of a tenure-track professor.  You’ll be forced to figure out how to balance your teaching responsibilities including course prep, grading, office hours, and administrative tasks with pushing forward your research projects.  You’ll also end your postdoc with at least one syllabus under your belt and classroom experience that you may not have gotten as a graduate student depending on your institution and funding package.  This experience will make starting a tenure-track job a little bit easier.  

A Few Examples

As I mentioned upfront, none of these types are mutually exclusive.  Below are a few examples with links for more information and a list of the types of postdocs they represent.  If you are using this list to look for potential postdocs, pay attention to when this post was written, as it is possible some of these opportunities no longer exist.  

Postdoctoral FellowshipTypes
Brown’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America Postdoctoral FellowshipBasic, Research Center, Teaching
Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty DiversityBasic, Diversity, Teaching
Cornell Presidential Postdoctoral FellowshipBasic, Mentored
Dartmouth Society of FellowsBasic, Teaching
Indiana’s Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society Postdoctoral FellowshipBasic, Research Center, Teaching
NYU’s Provost PostdocBasic, Mentored, Diversity, Teaching
President’s Postdoc programBasic, Mentored, Diversity
Princeton Society of FellowsBasic, Teaching
U Michigan LSA Collegiate Postdoctoral Fellowship ProgramBasic, Diversity, Teaching

It took me years to come up with a time management system that worked for me.  YEARS. It has only been through trying different approaches that I figured out what works for me.  In fact, at different times in my education and career, different systems have worked. Making adjustments was necessary to find what works for me today.

During undergrad, I used a to do list and a wall calendar with deadlines for each class color coded along with my work and extracurricular schedules.  While this system worked well then, it didn’t fit when I transitioned to my first real job post-college. Where my coursework assignments all had hard deadlines, my work assignments included tasks that were ongoing or didn’t have set deadlines.  Some of that work was tasks I needed to repeat every week, but others were assignments that I needed to make progress on, but weren’t pressing. I had to find a way to balance the deadline work with the flexible work.

Lucky for me, my job offered a time management workshop that I attended to learn some new strategies.  I already used to do lists of what I needed to get done, but the workshop gave me a new system to try. The instructor taught a way of implementing goals by breaking up a larger goal into steps and mapping those steps onto the calendar by blocking off specific times to work on each task.  So if I needed to write a status report from a site visit, I might block off 2 hours each day to work on it around my meetings for a week or so depending on how long I thought it would take to complete. Same for any other task I needed to work on each week until my work days were filled with meetings and tasks.  I tried this for a few months. However, I found that it wasn’t flexible enough for my work style. The problem for me was that it was hard to predict how long most of my tasks would take to complete and for most of them, I preferred to focus on that task until I hit a stopping point or it was done. I found myself constantly readjusting my work task appointments in order to finish my assignments.  While that wasn’t necessarily time consuming to do, it was tedious and not how I wanted to be spending my time.

So when I started my MPA program and had an opportunity to take another time management workshop, I immediately signed up.  At that second time management workshop, I learned about remember the milk (RTM), a free task list website, which I began using to manage all my deadlines.  In RTM, I had a to do list for my MPA coursework, one for work deadlines, and one for my personal deadlines.  This helped me keep track of all of my hard deadlines.

After ditching the calendar block approach, I came up with a more flexible way to manage my day-to-day to dos that I still use today.  The solution that worked for me is pretty low tech. Each semester, I make a table in Word with a color coded column for each of my broader responsibilities like book project (previously dissertation), other research, teaching, home life, and other.  The rows in the table include a week level summary in which I note any hard deadlines in the appropriate column and then a row for each day of the week. I combine work and personal in this list since many personal things have to happen during business hours such as making doctor’s appointments.  

Every Monday morning, I take about 15 minutes to plan what I’m going to work on over the course of the week.  I map each specific task to the days and try to take into account other time commitments I have. As I complete tasks, I use the strikeout format to cross out what I’ve finished and I move around anything that is incomplete to the next day I can get to it.  I also add tasks as I realize what I thought was one step is really three. I like the flexibility of Word because when things takes longer than expected, as they often do, I can copy and paste the task from one day to the next.

These days I’ve been using this Word table and red calendar appointments on the days I have hard deadlines. When I have a longer list of deadlines as I did when I was applying to fellowships, jobs, and postdocs, I use RTM, but I no longer use it for one off deadlines for journal reviews, resubmissions, and CFP deadlines.  

What I’ve described here is my custom made time management system.  You can find your own custom time management by trial too. Remember that time management experts recommend only making one major change at a time and trying that change for at least 30 days before you decide it’s not working.  Part of why it took me years to perfect my system is I tried every new aspect for a semester rather than changing systems mid-semester. Whether you give it that long is up to you, but 30 days is a fair trial period. At the end of 30 days, assess what is working and what isn’t.  Make adjustments and try again. It’s worth the time and energy to find a system that works for you!