Designing an (Interdisciplinary) Graduate Seminar: The Crowd-Sourced Syllabus

Designing syllabi for graduate courses is a lot of work, particularly when they are seminars, and particularly when you are in an interdisciplinary program.  In an interdisciplinary program, you might want to teach a seminar on a topic, say intimate relationships, but may only know the research in the discipline (e.g. clinical psychology) you were trained in.  This is one instance where crowd-sourcing can really help.medium_5120100

Here is my story. I teach a graduate course in family theory and research. There are several constellations of family relationships (i.e. couple relationships, sibling relationships, parent-child relationships, in-law, grandparent-grandchild, etc.), as well as several theories related to the study of families. Thus, putting together the syllabus for this course the first time was overwhelming.

I began by looking at a syllabus for a family theory/research course I enjoyed that I took in graduate school in HDFS at Penn State taught by Catherine Cohan, HDFS 525 for you Penn State HDFSers. Next, I googled “sociology of the family”, “economics of the family”, “family communication”, “family psychology”, and “family theory”, and variations on these, with the word syllabus to try to find syllabi that might be relevant. In writing this post, I looked back at my folder of syllabi, and I have several sociology, HDFS, economics, and psychology syllabi related to the family that I used to get ideas of what important readings I might want to include.

Next, I put together an initial draft. I circulated the initial draft among 12 faculty outside of my home institution and my colleagues at Ohio State. I sent the following message:

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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.

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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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The Ultimate Job Market Guide

Going on the job market is stressful and confusing. I have been working on a new course here at OSU called The PhD Job Market – the syllabus draft can be seen here. It is going up through the levels in terms of approvals; it should be offered in Spring 2014. But with all of the recent controversy about W and the rescinded job offer (see Inside Higher Ed, Slate, and the original post), I decided to post my suggested Job Market reading list here.  Check it out – and let me know if you have any suggestions.

photo credit: Jillian Corinne via photopin cc

photo credit: Jillian Corinne via photopin cc

Books referred to below:

  • The Academic Job Search Handbook (AJSH), 4th Edition by Julia Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong
  • “So What Are You Going to Do with That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia (SW) by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius

I also include presentations from the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity library.  You need to join NCFDD to access these resources. It is free to join if you are at a place with an institutional membership.  Go to: https://facultydiversity.site-ym.com/general/register_member_type.asp and chose “Institutional Sub Account Membership”.

Reflect on what you really want for a future career

Academic jobs; Jobs at different kinds of institutions; Postdocs

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Kill Your Darlings (or Kill Your “Research has found that”s)

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When I took our university’s Course Design Institute [which I highly recommend], I learned to think about my teaching in a new way.  One of the first questions I was asked was “What do your student need to know to move from novice to expert?” As we reflected on this question, we were supposed to think over what our students needed to know that were content-related and skill-related.  I was designing my research methods course at the time, so I reflected on what my students would need to know to successfully conduct research not only from a content standpoint, but also from a skill standpoint. The most important skill that I could think of was writing well. A researcher can be phenomenal, but if she or he cannot clearly explain their research, she or he will not be successful.

Writing is a particularly salient skill for me because when I first started submitting my papers, I regularly received negative feedback on my writing. My pattern of thinking then, which I think is common to many young scientists, was that if I do high-quality, methodologically sophisticated research, reviewers will see the value in my research and will react favorably.  Papers from scholars with this mindset tend to have longer result sections and shorter literature reviews. What I quickly learned in submitting my research was that nothing could replace good writing.  Reviewers do not like to read poorly written work, even if the data and methods are good. So, I would get comments from reviewers that commented on the poor quality of my writing and typos. I was tired of these comments, and the possibility that my papers were being penalized because of them.

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Work and family and “one night a week”

I know there has been a lot written about academia and work-life balance – this recent post in Inside Higher Ed tries to get at why academics work so much. In general, the meme about academics working constantly doesn’t really resonate with me [I should also mention that the meme about professors never working also does not resonate with me]. College professor has been ranked as one of the best jobs in America and the least stressful, though both of these rankings have been debated. In general, I have found it possible to have work-life balance as an academic. Part of my strategy has been to try to make my time at work as productive as possible, so my time at home can be as fun and relaxing as possible.

So, my next post in my “how do I do it” series is my strategy of “one night a week”. While on the tenure track, I often found that it was difficult to find time to focus on my research and writing during the day when I was meeting with students, going to meetings, teaching, etcetera. So, I started staying at work one night a week, and working late, often until 10 or 11.  I would shut my door, order in some food, and work on my research and writing for several hours. This really worked for me, and I got a lot done. I tried not to let teaching or service creep into this time, and I would just work on analyses, coding, and writing. I should also mention that there were very few distractions after 5! Note it doesn’t always have to be at night – I have a friend who worked every Saturday morning on the tenure track.

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Writing Group

As the mother of four (2 sons born in grad school, 2 sons born on the tenure track), people are always asking me “how do you do it?”  [Note, my husband never gets asked this question, which is a whole other blog post on gender attitudes.] My go to answer is always “high quality husband, high quality childcare”.  This is true. But, I have also been interested in productivity for a while. I have read several books on the subject, including books designed for academics like Advice for New Faculty by Robert Boice and How to Write a Lot by Paul Silva, and those designed for a general audience like Leave the Office Earlier by Laura Stack. I also participated in the National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development’s Faculty Success Program with Kerry Ann Roquemore, which I really enjoyed.

Recently a friend posted on Facebook that he and his wife, who are both on the tenure track, were going to need some tips for success with multiple children.  So, my friend Dave’s comment is inspiring my next series of posts.  I am going to post a few tips that I have found have helped me be productive.  Most I have implemented in the past five years or so, and I really think they have helped up my productivity.

The first tip I want to share is on my writing group.  After reading How to Write a Lot, my colleague Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan and I started a writing group with our graduate students. We started out simply; I remember that our first semester one of our tasks was to read How to Write a Lot.  We devised a schedule for the quarter (though Ohio State is now on semesters, so we now devise our schedule by semesters), and each person in the group took a week to share a piece of writing with the group. We usually distribute a draft of a paper, though sometimes it might just be an idea for a paper, or a conference proposal. Sarah and I both take turns in addition to the graduate students. The group helped boost our productivity by creating deadlines for the students, and for us.  For instance, if a student presented a paper at a conference in the fall, we would encourage the student to put the paper on our schedule to read in the spring.  This is very important because publishing is key for both tenure, and what I call the “first tenure track” – grad school.  The job market is so competitive, and to stand out at all, students need to make sure they are submitting their work for publication early and often. We found that writing group was successful and resulted in several submissions.

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How to publish your paper rejected by Demography in the Journal of Family Psychology

One of the best things about being in an interdisciplinary department is that you can publish where you want – there is not a group of “top journals” that you have to push your papers in.  My colleagues in Sociology are trying to get papers in the American Sociological Review, American Journal of Sociology, and Social Forces. My colleagues in developmental psychology are going for Developmental Psychology and Child Development. In my interdisciplinary department, the only guideline we have used is that the journal have an impact factor over 1 if possible (though this is not a hard and fast rule).

Therefore, I can send my papers where I think they best fit and get a readership. Family and intimate relationship research is particularly interdisciplinary, and as such, I have a lot of options. I have submitted papers to Demography, American Sociological Review, Journal of Family Psychology, Developmental Psychology, Journal of Marriage and Family, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, etcetera. Of course, I do not have papers published in all of these journals, but I have tried them all at one point or another!  What is different for interdisciplinary researchers is that after a paper is rejected at one journal, such as Demography, you might want to resubmit it to another journal in a different field, such as the Journal of Family Psychology. That is the story of this paper.

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