Archive for the ‘Dissertation Netherworld’ Category

Until recently, I hadn’t returned to the location of my grad school years since finishing my dissertation and starting my job.  Because I still have some good friends in the program, the trip was part reunion and part nostalgia.  As friends graduate and faculty retire, I’m sure that this feeling won’t be present in many future trips, but I was surprised to see that almost nothing on campus had changed.  I was most surprised, though, by the differences in my interactions with faculty.  I am not sure if the difference was due to my own increased self-confidence upon returning after a year and a half as a successful faculty member, a greater recognition that I was an equal on the part of faculty, or some combination of the two (perhaps it was just the fact that the last time I was there I was just coming out of the foggy dissertation netherworld…).

The most bizarre of these encounters involved a faculty member that I have had some differences with in the distant past.  In one day on campus I am fairly certain that I talked to her more than I had in the final four years of my graduate career.  This is the same faculty member that had wondered what was wrong with me in my first year.  It is possible that she may look at my job at an unknown school and think that I could have done better if I had only listened to her advice.  My hope, however, is that she looks at the fact that I have the type of success that I wanted and considers that she may have been wrong.  Regardless, interactions such as these reminded me that I have come a long way since the beginning of my graduate career.

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When I was on the job market, I had an interview at a school that was ranked much higher than the school at which I accepted a position.  Because the school was also in a less-desirable location I thought at the time that if I had received an offer I would have had a difficult choice between that school and my current employer.  Of course, I didn’t have to make that decision but I did wonder about the candidate who was offered the job.  In the fall I checked the websites of a few schools that had interviewed me in an effort to see who had eventually been hired but none of them had been updated.

I had forgotten about this curiosity until a few days ago when something reminded me of a faculty member at one of those schools and I returned to the websites to look again.  Regarding the position at the highly-ranked school all I can say is that I apparently never needed to worry about making a choice because the person that was hired has qualifications that far exceed my own, to the point that I am not sure why I was interviewed at all.  Of course, even at a highly-ranked SLAC there is the potential worry on the part of hiring committees that a promising candidate will accept the job only to leave after a few years and continued success, but the gulf between my modest C.V. and that of this other person causes me to question whether they would have offered me the job even in the event that all other candidates declined.

In the end, I suppose that there are two ways to look at this situation.  The first is that I never had a chance (all the more reason not to spend time worrying about things that you cannot control while on the job market).  The second is that my meeting with this department at the ASA Employment Service and my relatively interesting dissertation topic carried me much farther than I expected them to.  Of course, the most charismatic person in the world is no match for a killer C.V.

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As much as I enjoy telling students what not to do, I find that they tend to perform better on class assignments when I carefully tell them what to do.  Because of this, I would like to follow up my recent post on how not to write with a detailed description of what good writing looks like.  Thankfully, Henry at Crooked Timber has taken on this task so that I don’t have to and, as a result, has produced an interesting take on what good writing in political science consists of.  Of course, I don’t teach classes in political science but this document could be tailored to a sociology class rather easily.  An excerpt (not coincidentally the advice that has large benefits for readers but that I find difficult as a “naturally good” writer):


This is perhaps the most commonly neglected element of structured writing. It concerns the paragraphs into which your prose is organized. Each paragraph should focus on one main point. The point of each paragraph should build on that in the previous paragraph, and create the foundations of the next. Each paragraph should be a necessary part of the overall structure of your essay.

I find that a useful mental exercise is to boil down the arguments of each paragraph, one after the other, into single sentences. Then, put all these sentences together into a consecutive narrative, looking to see whether each sentence can be made to flow naturally from the sentence previous to it, and into the sentence following. This will highlight any major structural problems. If you are not able to boil down each of the paragraphs into a single sentence summary (however simplistic), then the offending paragraphs most likely need to be rewritten more clearly. If there are gaps or non-sequiturs when you put the one sentence summaries together, then the meso-structure of your essay needs to be re-organized, by cutting and pasting paragraphs, or by introducing new paragraphs to fill the gaps, or deleting old paragraphs that detract from the flow of your argument.

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Winter caretaker for the Overlook Hotel.  Duties include upkeep and minor repairs.  Perks include large amounts of free time.  Perfect for ABDs.

I’ve previously noted some of the ways that works of fiction (such as Candide, The Lord of the Rings, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) are related to graduate school and the job market.  Settling down to watch a scary movie on Halloween night, however, I found what may be the best dramatization I’ve seen about working on one’s dissertation (especially when on fellowship): The Shining.  For example:

As a graduate student there were many times when my wife would come home from work and ask me how my work went during her time away.  Typically, I would respond to this with some vague statement intended to disguise the fact that I had gotten up at 10, read things on the internet, taken a shower at 12:30, eaten lunch, opened a document to work on, read other things on the internet, taken a nap, and then read some things on the internet until she got home.  If she ever called during the day and needed me to bring something to her, the disruption to my “work” had the potential to frustrate me to no end.  It wasn’t so much that I was working but that I had the potential to work and may actually start doing so at any moment.  Any interruption was thus an interruption of my potential to actually accomplish something.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

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I am no longer ABF.  In fact, I haven’t been ABF for nearly three months.  I’ve moved, arranged my office, attended orientation, and started teaching.  Despite these things, there has never been a moment when I started feeling different.  Participating in graduation didn’t do it because I wasn’t even done with my dissertation yet.  My defense didn’t do it because I still had revisions to make, and the act of filing may have been the most anticlimactic, since the person who received my paperwork did not seem to care that I had just completed seven years of intense study at her institution.

Maybe it is the lack of some kind of symbolic passage into my career as an assistant professor or maybe it is the fact that I’ve been busy preparing for the beginning of the semester, but I still feel like a graduate student teaching a few more classes.  Maybe the realization will come with my first-ever adult-sized paycheck, but I suspect that it will actually come at some moment that isn’t particularly special.  I remember walking down the hallway of my college dorm room and being struck by the realization that I was a college student.  Maybe someday I’ll be struck by a similar realization about my new role.  Either way, it will sure be nice to get those adult-sized paychecks.

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With job market season gearing up we get a fresh set of advice columns, such as this one from the Chronicle of Higher Education about how to get  a job at a liberal arts school.  This advice, while largely similar to what I’ve heard before at various conferences, seems to be aimed at two distinct crowds: those who are just starting to think about future job markets and those who have gotten a job and are in the negotiation stage.  As a grad student I knew early on what type of job I wanted and actively sought information that would be useful in that pursuit (I can’t believe how easy it is to talk about grad school in the past tense), so I suppose that having these distinct types of advice in one column is useful assuming students put it somewhere safe while they do things like getting teaching experience as a graduate student.

While students are doing the things that will make their CVs stand out from the crowd at application time (and possibly considering Jenn Lena’s recent advice on presentation of self), there is something else that I think can help job candidates or, at least, can’t hurt*: choosing a dissertation topic that is interesting to people in general (and, for bonus points, ties into one of these areas).  Obviously, this is something that needs to be done fairly early in one’s preparation for the job market, but I think that having a dissertation topic general enough that you can have a conversation with somebody about it while in line at the grocery store is incredibly helpful.

While I can’t say whether this was a factor in my own hiring, I would imagine that this is especially true at liberal arts schools where there are smaller numbers of faculty members and a greater need for people who can cover a wide range of topics in a way that is interesting to students.  Having an interesting topic has also been helpful as I’ve started to forge my post-grad, pre-tenure identity on campus.  I’ve spoken to a number of people who remember my CV because I’m “the person who studies clothing**.”  Because everybody wears clothing, everybody has something to say about it, giving me a chance to share my dissertation results and start conversations.  This isn’t to say that I think there is anything particularly wrong with studying thread, buttons, or cuff links, which may be fine topics in a large department where there is room for a variety of particular specialties.  When applying to a liberal arts school, however, don’t forget to talk about how the thread, buttons, or cuff links relate to the larger issue.  I would bet that not a lot of people in the grocery store want to hear about thread but most of them are interested in clothing.

*Note that because I’ve never been on a search committee, this advice is based on my own job market experiences combined with my experiences on campus in the short time since starting as an assistant professor.

**Clothing is a pseudonym for what I actually study.  Here’s a hint: I do not study pigeons, though pigeons have proven to be a successful dissertation topic for at least one person.

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Dissertation defenses are strange to me.  If your chair has done his or her job, there should be no question of whether or not you will pass.*  Even though the defense is discussed as a major milestone like finishing your M.A., completing your prelims, or passing your dissertation proposal defense, the experience itself is anti-climactic.  Like participating in graduation when you are not done with your degree requirements, people will want to call you “doctor” afterward.  Perhaps stubbornly, I still refuse to accept this label.  Of course, this is not out of modesty or a belief that I am no more accomplished than anybody else, it is because I am not done.  I expect that I will have a much greater sense of accomplishment when my revisions have been accepted by my chair and I turn in all of the necessary paperwork.

*I’m sure that there are a few departments that pride themselves on lulling Ph.D. candidates into a false sense of security and then nailing them with ridiculous questions at the defense, but I don’t think this is the norm.

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As an elementary and high school student I developed a bad habit of waiting until the last minute to complete assignments.  At various times I considered starting earlier, but I decided against the extra effort since I was able to get As and A-minuses when starting things at the last minute.  In college I had to work harder to maintain good grades but I still left paper writing until the last minute, typically making an outline two days before a deadline and writing the paper the evening before the deadline, priding myself on the fact that I never had to stay up all night working.

These tactics worked.  My high school and undergraduate GPAs were the same and I got into grad school, where I ran into problems.  As you probably know, writing a course paper in graduate school takes a lot more work than writing a five-page undergraduate paper.  Obviously, I couldn’t start the day before a deadline, but despite my good intentions to start working on papers early in the semester, I ended up waiting until a few weeks remained.  A few times I even stayed up all night.

Then came the dissertation, which was obviously unlike anything I’d previously written.  After setting deadlines for each chapter with my advisor, I found myself using my grad school paper-writing tactics with each one.  This time, I missed a few deadlines.  Thankfully, my advisor understood how to motivate me and the chapters eventually got done, then revised, and then submitted to my committee members.  When I originally set the “complete draft” deadline I was sure that I would be able to meet it.  In retrospect, however, the fact that I met this deadline without substantially changing my poor writing habits is surprising.  Until now, my ability to do “okay” writing in a short period of time has been both a blessing and a curse.  As I’ve gotten older, though, the “blessing” aspect has been largely supplanted by the “curse” aspect.  Sine I’ll soon be working toward tenure it seems that a change in work habits may be in order.

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In seven years as a graduate student I’ve had a lot of time to think about what makes somebody a good mentor.  I’ve even served on committees for the purpose of awarding good mentoring.  Since I started teaching, I’ve also had a few opportunities to serve as a mentor myself, both to my own students and to incoming graduate students in my program.  I consider myself lucky to have had excellent mentors throughout my academic career, which I hope will continue when I begin as an assistant professor in the fall.  These excellent mentors have instilled in me beliefs about what mentors should do.  For example, whenever a professor and a student (graduate or undergraduate) are meeting for food or (non-alcoholic) drink, the professor should pay.  Unfortunately, my graduate student salary has prevented me from acting on this belief with my current mentees, but I plan to start doing so as soon as I get my first real check.

Even more than my mentors, however, I have developed beliefs about what mentors should do based on my anti-mentors.  Female Science Professor has discussed anti-mentors in the past, but my conception of the term is different.  While she describes anti-mentors as “people who actively try to discourage you, but not out of kindness or wisdom,” I think of them as people who have mentoring styles that cause you to vow never to mentor students in that way.  I’ve mentioned a particular experience with an anti-mentor before.  At times over the years, I’ve watched his interactions with his students and felt glad that this early experience led me to avoid him.  While his mentoring style is very hands-on, I prefer somebody who can provide advice when I ask for it along with gentle nudges to keep me on track.

In this way my dissertation advisor is a perfect match.  When I met with her on the day that an early draft of a dissertation chapter was due but had not completed the draft, she didn’t reprimand me.  We talked about a few other things and then I left, promising to send her the draft soon.  I left her office feeling like I had let her down, despite the fact that she didn’t seem let down at all.  Without saying a word, she motivated me more than a stern lecture from the professor above.

Comparing my mentor and anti-mentor, I am struck by the fact that the most important aspect of mentoring appears to be flexibility.  The anti-mentor is the type of person that you describe to incoming graduate students as “a great mentor… for those who prefer his mentoring style” while my dissertation advisor can be described as “a great mentor.”  While she uses a hands-off style with me, meeting as needed, there are other students with whom she meets every week to provide hands-on feedback and support.  Students need different forms of mentoring and, especially in a small department, professors need to work to provide what they need.  Of course, without the anti-mentor I may not have realized this.  I suppose that stern lecture did me some good after all.

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If nothing else, the process of writing a dissertation has given me a new appreciation for those who write books.  Although I don’t have the production of journal articles down to a science, I’ve gotten pretty good at writing coherent papers between five and 20 pages in length.  My dissertation has been like writing six of those papers and hoping that they magically coalesce into something cohesive in the end.

While I can’t be sure without writing a book for comparison, I think that the biggest reason for my frustration has been that going on the job market ABD prevented me from completing my analysis before I began writing.  Instead, I did some analyses and wrote a chapter based on them, then did some more analyses and wrote a chapter based on them, etc.  As a result, when I started writing a chapter I had no idea how it fit into the larger whole other than the fact that it came from the same dataset as my other chapters eventually would.  Working in this way, it was impossible to create a simple outline of my entire dissertation, much less something like this.

Despite the cohesion problem, my dissertation is nearly complete and my advisor recently told me that neither of us would be embarrased by the finished product.  I’ve always been an advocate for the idea that as long as you have a job lined up, a good dissertation is a done dissertation, so this reassurance (back-handed compliment?) was all I needed to hear.  Thankfully, I have not gotten to the point of being sick of my data, as publications based on my dissertation will likely require substantial revisions.  At least I won’t have to worry about whether or not they fit into any sort of larger work!

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