Advice for current Ph.D. students at UT-Austin, especially those in the dissertation phase

by Dr. Maureen Berner
(LBJ School of Public Affairs, 1998; James Galbraith, Supervisor)
Assistant Professor and Director of State and Local Government Program
University of Northern Iowa

Maureen BernerIf I were to have to write my dissertation over again, I would not change a thing, besides getting a different babysitter for one day. Let me explain.

I was lucky when I came to UT. When I was doing research on a paper before my comprehensives, I came across an article that made me angry. It said a particular theory was "dead." I had just come from working in Washington, D.C., and I knew this theory described a process that was alive and well.

Suddenly I had motivation for working on the dissertation.

I also had some nice literature to show that my work would be a contribution, but entering into the theoretical arguments.

Advice #1: Pick a topic that you care about. That way, you can work on it.

Advice #2: Pick a topic others care about - one that matters. That way, other people, like your committee, will actually read it.

I had an advisor that was interested in my interests, and found quick support for my topic. In fact, it was similar to the topic he had written on when he was a doctoral student.

Advice #3: Find a champion. That way, she/he will make sure you finish. The data was readily accessible. I applied the data to the theory, used statistics that my advisor was familiar with and were appropriate, and suddenly, I had the results.

Advice #4: Make sure you can actually do the dissertation before you go too far down the road. That is, make sure you have your data and that they are good. Open the file. Read it. Get it in your hands. Don't trust others or your computer.

Then I had a baby in early November 1997, just after I got my results/finished with the data. I took three months off to try and figure out why, and finally got to writing. I hired a babysitter to watch the baby while I typed. She only spoke Chinese. Her husband dropped her off and picked her up. I couldn't talk with her, so I wasn't distracted. I was paying her, so I was motivated to work as much as possible while she was there. I wrote everyday from about 9 am to 5 pm, with some short breaks to nurse or eat lunch. She quickly started bringing me home cooked Chinese food, because she must have thought my diet was not the best. I wrote the dissertation in about 4-6 months.

Advice #5: Just do it. Just sit down and write. Don't try to do other major things in your life while you are doing it.

End of story: I was interviewing at the same time, and received several good offers. I took a position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I started the job in June, defended in August. For the defense, I called the same person to baby sit. At the last minute, I decided not to bring my son along, but I couldn't get a hold of the lady.

Her husband interrupted my defense, looking for the baby. So if I changed anything, it would be to get a different babysitter for that.

Epilogue - I received compliments on the dissertation from my committee, so I asked them to nominate me for a national dissertation award. To my surprise, I got it. Don't be afraid to promote yourself. I had a great time at UNC-Chapel Hill. I recently moved to Iowa to direct a new Institute of Government, modeled after the program I was in at Chapel Hill (and to help with an ill parent, who has since passed away). As soon as I arrived, budget cuts hit, the Institute is a non-starter, and I won't stay here long. If I could offer more advice, it will be on how to handle difficult career moves. Or I could talk about how I could get other stuff published, but the article from the award winning dissertation took 5 years. But I'll save that for another time.

Best of luck to everyone -