What They Don't Teach You in Graduate School

By Paul Gray and David E. Drew

Inside Higher Ed
November 30, 2005

Each year, Ph.D. candidates and young faculty members come into our offices and sheepishly ask us to tell them what they really need to know about building a career in academia. We usually take them to a long lunch at the Faculty House and give them the helpful hints that we share with you here. We start with tips for getting out of graduate school and into your first job. Subsequent pieces will offer tips for later stages of academic careers.

I. Understanding the Meaning of a Ph.D.

1. Finish your Ph.D. as early as possible. Don't feel that you need to create the greatest work that Western Civilization has ever seen. Five years from now the only thing that will matter is whether you finished. If you don't finish you are likely to join the ranks of freeway flyers. holding multiple part-time teaching jobs.

2. Be humble about your Ph.D. You don't need to flaunt the degree. Everyone has one. Many of your colleagues, both in your institution and outside it, will be put off if you sign everything Doctor or Jane Jones, Ph.D. In fact, the main use of Doctor is in making reservations at a restaurant. When you call in and ask for a table for four for Dr. Jones, you will get more respect and often better seating. One of us recently received a letter from John Smith, Ph.D. (candidate) Don't do that.

3. Remember that a Ph.D. is primarily an indication of survivorship. Although the public at large may view your doctorate as a superb intellectual achievement and a reflection of brilliance, you probably know deep in your heart that it is not. It represents a lot of hard work on your part over a long period of time. You probably received help from one or more faculty members to get over rough spots. Your family, be it parents or spouse, stayed with you over the vicissitudes of creating the dissertation. You stuck with it until it was done, unlike the ABDs who bailed out early.

4. A Ph.D. is a certification of research ability based on a sample of 1. The Ph.D. certifies that you are able to do quality research. Unlike the M.D., which requires extensive work with patients, followed by years of internship and residency, it is based on a single sample, your dissertation. The people who sign your dissertation are making a large bet on your ability to do it again and again in the future.

5. A Ph.D. is a license to reproduce and an obligation to maintain the quality of your intellectual descendants. Once you have the Ph.D., it is possible for you (assuming you are working in an academic department that has a Ph.D. program) to create new Ph.D.s. Even if your department does not have a Ph.D., you can be called upon to sit on Ph.D. examining committees either in your own or in neighboring institutions. This is a serious responsibility because you are creating your intellectual descendants. Recognize that if you vote to pass someone who is marginal or worse they, in turn, have the same privilege. If they are not up to standard, it is likely that some of their descendants will also not be. Unlike humans who have a 20 year inter-generation time, academic intergeneration times are 5 years or less. Furthermore, a single individual may supervise 50 or more Ph.D.s over a 30-year career.

II. Finishing the Dissertation

1. Finding a dissertation topic is not as easy as it looks. In fact, for many students it is the most difficult part of their dissertation work. Some students go to a professor they want to work with and ask for a topic. Usually they wind up desperately unhappy because they don't own the topic yet are condemned to work on it. Often these students spend the rest of their life ABD.

2. Don't assume that if you are having trouble defining a dissertation topic that the entire dissertation process will be that arduous. Once you define the topic, you are in problem solving mode, and most people do well in solving a problem once they know what the topic is.

3. Put a lot of effort into writing your dissertation proposal. The proposal has two important payoffs:

It is usually one or more chapters of your end product, the dissertation.

It is a contract between you and advisory committee on what you have to do to receive the degree. In general, if you do well what you promise in the proposal, the committee should sign the final document. If, because of circumstances, you cannot accomplish all you set out to do, you have the basis for a negotiation.

4. If little or nothing is written on your dissertation topic, don't assume that an abbreviated literature review is acceptable. Thesis committees are used to having a minimum sized review and will insist on it. If only three previous papers even touch on your subject, reviewing them is not considered an adequate literature search. Furthermore, the new data you expect to obtain, even in a specialized topic, can affect a lot of intersecting fields. Those fields have to be identified. In short, a literature review not only discusses what has been done and why but it also points out the areas in which your work has implications.

5. Be skillful in whom you select for your dissertation advisory committee. The worst possible approach is to pick people because they are famous in their field. Rather, recognize that the role of the advisory committee is really to advise and help you. Therefore, choose people who can help you over the rough spots. If your thesis is experimental and requires expertise in two fields, pick an expert in each field and someone who knows about experimental design and statistics. When push comes to shove (and it will at some time while you are working on your dissertation), the person you need will be there to help you because he or she made a commitment to you. Simply hoping that the expert will contribute their time to your problem without being on the committee can prove nave.

6. In doing a literature search, use the chain of references. Begin with one or two recent articles (a survey article helps!). Look at the references that are cited there. Then read those publications that seem apropos and look at their reference lists. Some things will pop out often. These are usually (but not invariably) the classics in the field that you MUST reference. Proceed from reference to reference until the law of diminishing returns takes over.

7. Couple your literature search (typically Chapter 2 of your dissertation) closely with the discussion of results and the conclusions (typically Chapters 4 and 5). You may find that as your dissertation progresses, some parts of your literature search are really irrelevant to your research. In this case, you have to be ruthless. Despite the brilliance of your prose and the long, tedious hours you put into creating the material, you have to delete these pearls. Of course, you should save the work as part of your file of references so you can use it over and over in future publications.

III. Hunting for Your First Academic Job

1. Job hunting is a research project and you should treat it as such. Gather as much information as possible. Read the ads. Contact sources. Follow up leads. Be aggressive. Use your contacts. See next rule. The chance of landing a good appointment is higher if you search broadly than if you sit in your office waiting for one or two possibilities. Begin job hunting early and make it a project done at the same time as your other work. If you are a graduate student, don't wait until your dissertation is finished to start looking. (But if you find you simply don't have the time and energy for both the dissertation and job hunting, focus on finishing the dissertation.)

2. Most academic fields are dominated by fewer than 100 powerful people. These people know one another and determine the course of the field. Early in your career you should get to know as many of them as possible. More to the point, they should know who you are. You want them to see you as a bright young person on the cutting edge. Although important, there are dangers associated with this tactic. You should not begin the process until you have mastered the literature (particularly the papers they wrote!) and developed some ideas of your own. If they get to know you and conclude you have no ideas, you're finished.

3. Pick a place where you and your family want to live and which matches your lifestyle. City people are not happy in isolated college towns and small city people have a hard time adjusting to a megalopolis.

4. To get a job (and later, to get tenure) you will need references beyond your dissertation committee. Build a reference pool. That is, identify people who will say nice things about you. They don't have to be famous or distinguished but they should hold impressive titles or be employed at prestige places. References from abroad are particularly desirable since they show you to be a world figure. Remember that colleges are lazy. When references are needed, they will ask you for a long list of names from which to choose. Pick your friends.

5. Resumes are important. They are the entree to the process. Invest in having them done professionally. They should be neat but not gaudy. Include everything that is remotely relevant in your resume. Some search committees have a checklist of skills, experiences, and other criteria they expect for this position. Do you know something about, say, medieval literature or data bases, since they want that course covered. A committee may blindly drop you from consideration if you don't have a check next to each of their items. Your problem is that the list of items is different at every institution.

6. When applying for a position, interview your potential boss just as they interview you. You will have to live rather intimately with him or her for a long time. Make sure you are compatible.

7. If you are a new Ph.D. or an active researcher on a campus visit, many, if not most of the senior people who interview you have less, not more research productivity in the last three years than you have. This is particularly true for older faculty members who were granted tenure in easier times. When you are interviewed by such people, be kind. Stress the importance of your research but don't overwhelm them with the details. You don't want them to perceive you as a threat to the comfortable position they now hold.

8. Find the best possible institution for your first job. You can only go down the pecking order, not up, if you don't make it at your first place. If you are a success, you can go up one level at a time. Stanford doesn't hire from WinsockiState.

9. Unless you are starving or homeless, don't take a tenure-track faculty position without the Ph.D. in hand. We estimate the odds are 2 to 1 against your ever finishing your degree. Even if you do finish while on the job, your chances of being tenured have gone down because you have reduced the seven-year clock. Furthermore, without a Ph.D. you will be offered a significantly lower salary and you may never make up the difference. If you must work, the only defense you have is to negotiate with the institution that the clock does not start until they legitimately call you Doctor.

10.Non-university research organizations offer the challenge of research without the need or the opportunity to teach. They include industry laboratories, major consulting firms, government laboratories, and nonprofit think tanks. Each has a distinctive culture. Many involve military work. In the not-for-profits and the consulting firms, you are only as good as the last contract you brought in. As a result, these organizations experience a high burnout rate among people 45 or older. If you want to go back to academia at some time in the future, you will have to create your own portable wealth by publishing. Many of these organizations encourage and require you to publish, at least to publish research monographs. Unfortunately, publishing is counter-culture in some of these organizations. In some industrial laboratories it is said that if you write F=ma or E=mc2, someone will stamp your report Company Confidential.

11. Avoid taking a job in a college that you attended, no matter how strong your loyalty as an alumnus. You will always be regarded as a graduate student by the older faculty and will be treated as such.

12. If your field is one in which there is an oversupply of people, one strategy is to seek a job as an assistant dean. This approach is quite tricky. Colleges are always looking for such necessary but non-glorious jobs as assistant dean for student affairs or assistant dean of administration or assistant dean for summer school. You, as an applicant, insist that you also have an appointment (even if not tenure track) in your field of specialty, say, history. You must also insist that you teach one course and that you have some time for research. Unless you do so, you will never have a crack at a tenure-track position. You must then be active in your department and be seen by the department as a member in good standing who gives them access to the Administration. Even then, you may never be fully accepted. However, you will gain experience that can be used later and you will have had the academic title (and the teaching and research experience) needed on your resume when you look for a job involving full-time teaching and research.

13. The law of supply and demand applies to academia as much as to other fields. You are playing a futures game on the job market, no different from a high roller in the stock market, when you select a field of study for your Ph.D. Since it takes 4 to 7 years or more to acquire the degree, you make the assumption that your services will be in demand several years from now. They may be, but then again they may not be. Fields move in and out of favor over time. When a hot new field or specialty opens up, it is an exciting time. Lots of people wander in from adjacent fields. They form departments or concentration areas and begin training Ph.D.s in that specialty. There is a shortage of people and good salaries are offered. However, what usually happens is that within a relatively short period of time, the Ph.D. market saturates and jobs become scarcer. Furthermore, other new specialties emerge and colleges and universities cut back on the previous fad. A classic example is operations research (also known as management science). In the 1960s, new departments were formed. By the 1980s, the job market was saturated. In the last decade the supply exceeded the demand, and this in a field where there is industrial as well as academic employment. The obvious implication for graduate students is that fields with an oversupply of applicants, both initial jobs and tenure are much harder to achieve. Furthermore, the academic level of the school where you will be hired will, on average, be lower and so will the salary.

14. Institutions have their own cultures and, in large institutions, different schools and departments may have different cultures. The culture will range from cooperative to cutthroat. Often the culture will change when a new person is appointed president or provost or dean or department chair. That is what makes these appointments so critical to the quality of your life. A cooperative culture should be treasured. It will help the young faculty member. Conversely, a cutthroat culture is particularly difficult for the young faculty member because they come in not knowing the culture of the place nor being prepared for it. When interviewing, try to find out whether the members of the faculty like one another and try to assess from what they tell you what the cultural norm is. Asking graduate students about faculty infighting wont help because they are usually insulated from it. Remember that, in addition to trying to assess your capabilities and fit with their needs, the interviewers are trying to present as good a picture of themselves as they can so that you will accept their offer if they make one. Thus, always assume that actual conditions are much worse than they are painted during the interview. If you are lucky enough to have multiple offers, investigate the cultures involved in your choice by speaking to people (if any) who are there whom you know and to people who have recently left there.

15. Two pieces of data about an institution which are important to you are whether you are being offered the right amount of money and the chances of your achieving tenure. To this end, obtain information on the salary levels for people in your field. The American Association of University Professors publishes salary averages for many (but not all) colleges.

16. Tenure levels are a little trickier. First, the number of tenure cases per year in an academic unit tends to be small. You need data for your specialty. However, knowing the tenure fraction for the institution as a whole is also important. If a college tenures 1 in 10 it is a far different place than one that tenures 8 in 10. Just knowing success in the tenure process is not enough. Some colleges weed out at the three year point. Others make tenure so tough that faculty self-destruct by resigning early. Talk with people who recently made tenure in the department. They will usually have the best view of what the current situation is.

17. Evaluate a postdoc carefully, particularly if you are in the sciences. You should think of a postdoc in cold, hard economic terms. It as an investment (or speculation, depending on your point of view) just like buying stocks or real estate. You will certainly be paid less than if you took a teaching position but you may gain additional knowledge and experience to make more money in the long run in your chosen field. The anticipated benefits must exceed the short run costs to make the investment worthwhile. Some conditions under which a postdoc is appropriate are:

You are in a field where jobs at good places are scarce and you did not get one or you failed to follow Rule 1 and delayed too long in starting your job search.

You feel you need to gain specific research tools (or, if a scientist, experience with specialized equipment) to be able to move your research past your Ph.D. thesis.

You want to work with a specific individual (preferably one of the powerful 100, see Rule 2) who will further your growth.

You want to build up your publication list without using up your seven-year clock.

A postdoc is not appropriate if you are afraid of teaching or talking in front of people. You are merely delaying the inevitable. A postdoc is also not appropriate if you lived on a shoestring for years and/or have a family to support.

18. Ask about the retirement system when considering an institution. It is really not too early to worry about retirement when interviewing for your first job because it can affect your mobility economically from then on. Recognize that you will most likely be in a state retirement system or in the TIAA retirement system. TIAA is subscribed to by most private and some public institutions. In TIAA, once vested (usually, these days, at once) you keep what you have when you move to another institution. State retirement plans are portable within the state but not from one state to another. The major problem comes when you move from a TIAA college to a state institution or the other way around.

David Drew and Paul Gray are professors, respectively, of education and information science at Claremont Graduate University.