Don’t take my word for it: Crowdsourced Advice for Students Applying to Graduate School

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I did a presentation a few years ago for prospective graduate students at the National Council on Family Relations annual conference. In preparation, I gathered advice for students applying to graduate school.  You can see the contributors below.  Do you agree with the advice? What is missing?

Contributors: Elizabeth Adkins-Regan, Paul Amato, Mitchell Bartholomew, Alan Booth, John Casterline, Jeff Dew, Karen Fingerman, Gary Gates, Elizabeth Hay, Claire Kamp Dush, Tina Kauh, Andrew Martin, Lauren Rinelli, Karina Shreffler, Katherine Stamps Mitchell, Miles Taylor, Alexis Walker, Nick Wolfinger

What SHOULD an undergrad or graduate student who is applying to graduate school or a Ph.D. program do?

MOST COMMON PIECES OF ADVICE: 

DO YOUR RESEARCH (AND MAKE CONTACT WITH FACULTY) BEFORE APPLYING.

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Should I go to graduate school?

As part of my job as grad studies chair, I have received several inquiries into our graduate program. Individuals emailing me are interested in graduate school for a variety of reasons: they love Ohio State and want to teach at OSU, they love teaching and want to teach college students, they love Human Development and Family Science and they want to teach HDFS, they have a lifelong goal of getting a PhD, etcetera.

photo credit: CollegeDegrees360 via photopin cc

photo credit: CollegeDegrees360 via photopin cc

In my opinion, there really is only one reason to get a non-clinical or practice oriented PhD – you have a research topic, or even a discipline, you are passionate about, and you think that you will be able to self-motivate yourself to study it in depth for the next several years. Often times, students are not emailing me that they are passionate about an area of research related to child development, adolescent development, family science, prevention science, family demography, couple and family therapy, or some other area that our HDFS faculty members study. Instead, they are passionate about teaching, or really liked their undergraduate experience in our discipline. Now they want to pass that passion on to college students. Because PhD programs are primarily grounded in research, a passion for teaching college students will not necessarily be nurtured and rewarded, in the research intensive universities where most PhD programs reside.

Graduate school is long and challenging. The job market for PhDs, at least the academic job market, is very competitive, and research and publications land people jobs, even at teaching-focused universities. So individuals considering graduate school should give some serious thought as to whether a PhD is what they really want. I ask students to google “should I get a PhD” and read some articles, and if they are still interested and have a research topic they are passionate about, they should get back to me. If not, there may be other meaningful ways they could spend the next 5 to 6 years, and less expensive too I might add.

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Going it Alone: The Problem with Graduate Education in Disciplines that Value Solo Authorship

Working with students to get their publications ready for submission can take hours. I have recently been working with a superstar student from the Sociology department here at OSU. This student is bright, eager, motivated, and deliberate. We are working on a paper together, and the student is first author. We had our first formal meeting about research ideas in May 2012. By my count in my Outlook calendar, about 55 meetings later, in December 2013, we submitted a paper with the student as first author, me as second author, and my colleague as third author to the Journal of Marriage and Family [note I had a maternity leave during that year if that seems like a long time]. The longest meeting we had was scheduled for 2 hours.  I did a little work on the paper outside of our meetings, but primarily, most of my work on the paper was done side by side with the student.

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photo credit: raganmd via photopin cc

The paper has received a revise and resubmit, and the student immediately started working on the revision (this student is awesome, right?).  By my count, we have met 12 times about the revision (the letter is almost done) and we still have to finalize the revised manuscript, which hopefully can be accomplished in maybe three or four more meetings (positive thinking!).  I estimate that we have had about 16 hours of meeting so far about the revision.

I review this to make the point that it takes a lot of work to get a manuscript from idea to completion. I have spent many hours with this student reviewing results, coding in Stata, creating datasets, examining output, and finally, co-writing. The co-writing probably takes the longest. Good academic writing takes much time to learn. The co-writing the student and I have done, including reading every section of the paper out loud and jointly rewriting and clarifying, has hopefully been very helpful for the student. I certainly believe the students’ writing has improved since we started working together, and the student is very appreciative of my time.

But, would I have done this if I were in a Sociology department, or some other discipline that values solo authorship?

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Do Your Homework

My final year of graduate school, I went on the academic job market. I received four invitations for on-campus interviews [aka flyouts], and I attended each.  Unfortunately, I did not receive a job offer from any of these universities. The following year, the first year of my postdoc at Cornell University, I applied for only two jobs, received a campus interview for one of the jobs (Ohio State), and I landed the job. Very little changed on my CV in terms of publication and presentations between those two years. I had the postdoc and had finished my dissertation the second year, and the first year I was pregnant, so those things could have made a difference in why I got the job offer my second year and I did not my first. But, one significant thing did change over that time – my behavior and preparation – and I believe that is why I got the job the second time around.

photo credit: John-Morgan via photopin cc

photo credit: John-Morgan via photopin cc

The first time I was on the job market, I read over the CVs of people in the department prior to the interview, and I had a generic list of questions that I asked individuals I met with based on their rank. For instance, I asked assistant professors about their experiences on the tenure track, I asked department chairs about their vision of the department, etc. I felt pretty confident going into these interviews – they wanted me! Yet, just because you are a department’s first choice (I was told this by one of the departments) does not mean you are going to get the job. Our job when we are interviewing you is to flatter you and sell ourselves and our location. We are going to make you feel special. However, we are evaluating you from the time you step off of the plane.

As I was preparing for my interview at Ohio State, a colleague of mine who had recently moved from a small liberal arts college to Cornell gave me this advice. Do your homework. Read the scholarly publications of everyone that you are meeting with. Really get to know what they work on, and show genuine interest. When you meet with them, engage in some small talk, but then ask them about their research. Share your thoughts on their research, and show how it connects to your own research.  He shared with me how he had meetings with faculty members, and they would say “Ithaca is a great place to live” and he would respond with “that is great, but actually, I read your paper, and I was really fascinated by XX, and I wanted to ask you about YY.”

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