Work Hard, Play Harder, and Be Gentle with Yourself: Advice for the Beginning of Grad School and Beyond

I have a lot of thoughts on my mind as I wrap up my prosem on graduate education. I have spent a semester talking to young, hopeful, bright first-year graduate students about how to be successful in graduate school. I have also been supporting several students this semester who are currently on the job market and are having a mixed experience. I am also prepping for my PhD Job Market class for next semester and planning a series of posts here related to that course. Finally, I have read some books about productivity and academia the past few months, all of which emphasize well-being, though from vastly different perspectives. Here are some tips for new graduate students to keep in mind as they move through grad school. And some points that all of us would do well to remember.

Don’t let your self-worth get tied up in your graduate school performance

Let's all migrate here! photo credit: chuck4x5 Happy via photopin (license)

Let’s all migrate here!
photo credit: chuck4x5 Happy via photopin (license)

This is so hard to avoid. But graduate school performance is determined by many factors, a lot of them that are outside of your control. Perhaps you don’t realize going in to graduate school that your advisor rarely publishes, or no one told you to look and see if they do. Maybe you and your advisor just don’t mesh. Maybe you realize you really don’t like your research topic. Maybe a professor holds some kind of implicit bias against you. Maybe you just don’t like research and writing. Maybe you are feeling inadequate and experiencing imposter syndrome. All of these things can lead to you being less successful as a graduate student. And, going into graduate school, you may not realize many of them. Thus, just because graduate school doesn’t go well for you, or just because your CV has no publications on it, or just because you have no motivation to get research done, it doesn’t mean that you are not an awesome, smart, capable person. You are. But, maybe this is not the right environment for you. If it isn’t, I officially give you permission to quit and move on with your life. Maybe it is, but you need to make some changes. I officially give you permission to switch advisors, departments, or institutions. Make sure you remember that your self-worth is much more than your academic performance.

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A Publishing Primer

One irritating thing about starting anything new, whether it is grad school or a job, is all of the jargon that no one seems to like to explain. So, in this post I  explain what publications are, and the publication process.

What Academics Mean When They Talk About Publications

A publication generally refers to a piece of writing that is published in a journal or in a book. Popular press (i.e. magazine, newspaper) and blog pieces generally do not count as “publications.”

It would be cool if we could get credit for publishing in these journals. photo credit: Moleskines mostly. via photopin (license)

It would be cool if we could get credit for publishing in these journals.
photo credit: Moleskines mostly. via photopin (license)

All Publications Are Not Created Equally

There are several different types of publications, and they are not all equally respected. And, further, the respect that each gets varies across disciplines. If you are in psychology, journal articles are generally most highly respected. If you are in some subdisciplines of sociology, books are most highly respected.

Journal Articles

Journal articles in peer-reviewed journals are held in highest esteem, and the more the journal the article is published in gets cited, the higher the esteem of the journal, in general.

Peer review means that the paper was reviewed by other scholars in the field, most likely professors or advanced graduate students, and the author had to respond to the reviews to get published.

Editor reviewed means that the paper was reviewed by the editor only, and the author only had to respond to editorial comments to get published.

There are also journals where authors can pay to have their papers published, and this are usually regarded as the lowest quality.

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How to Take Graduate Courses, and Use Them to Advance Your Career

I have been on a grant writing hiatus from my blog, but this semester, I am back! I am starting a series designed for graduate students early in their career based on the first-year proseminar I teach to our human development and family science graduate students. When I designed this course, my hope was to reduce the variation in graduate student achievement that is attributed to the advisor. Thus, I wanted all students to have a good, solid base of information and advice that would benefit them in the coming years. This first post is on taking graduate courses.

Undergrad is very coursework focused. Most PhD programs are not. That said, it is important to do reasonably well in your graduate coursework. Graduate courses require a different set of skills that many students easily catch on to.

It's your first semester of graduate school - do you feel like this? photo credit: Buried Alive via photopin (license)

It’s your first semester of graduate school – do you feel like this?
photo credit: Buried Alive via photopin (license)

Skill 1: Be engaged. Many graduate seminars are discussion-based, and to be seen as an engaged graduate student, you need to be asking questions, and answering questions. Some courses will even require you write discussion questions each week. When you are in class, look at the person who is speaking, or the professor. Make eye contact with your professor and classmates. Comment on readings and answer questions. Talk at least twice during a 3 hour discussion based seminar. Use the readings as your resource, not your own personal experiences. And, do not talk just to talk. If you are an extrovert, make sure you are not dominating the conversation with another extrovert in the course. One way to be sure you are not dominating the conversation is to keep a tally of how much you talk compared to the other students. Try not to double or triple their talking turn count. Do not interrupt the speaker. Treat the other students and your professor with respect.

Skill 2: Be professional. Show up to class on time, or even better, 5 minutes early. Don’t look at your phone or websites that are off topic like Twitter. I often let students have laptops in seminars so they do not have to print the papers, but I have had graduate students shopping on Amazon when they were supposed to be engaged in class discussion. I have also had graduate students scrolling when we were engaged in an activity that didn’t require looking at the readings. That is really irritating and I always assume these students are looking at social media or the news or shopping and aren’t engaged in the class.

Skill 3: Produce quality work, and turn it in on time. Take advantage of professors’ offers to read rough drafts or to revise papers. You do not need to blow away your professor with your writing acumen, but you do need to write papers that are well-argued, formatted to your graduate program’s preferred style, and have been proofread. Do not turn in papers late unless you talk to the professor.

Do not be afraid to talk to the professor if you are feeling overwhelmed at the end of the semester. Professors will often consider short extensions on final papers to students who are overwhelmed for any reason. Reach out and ask for help. Other students are doing it, and are benefitting.

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How Structural Equation Modeling is Ruining Family Research

photo credit: BrittneyBush via photopin cc

How I feel when I see a structural equation model of cross-sectional data with 15 latent variables predicting 3 different outcomes. photo credit: BrittneyBush via photopin cc

Look out readers! This is my first of a series of posts I am working on related to causal analysis.

About two weeks ago, I attended the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) annual meeting. It is a long meeting – I usually get there on Tuesday, and don’t leave until Saturday. And, while at the conference, I go from 7 am until 9 pm. In fact, I didn’t even leave the hotel two days! This might explain why I went off the rails during the Q&A at the last session I went to, but what set me off was a theme I saw throughout the conference.

Here is the crux of the problem: early career scholars are so focused on fancy statistics (i.e. structural equation modeling, latent class analysis) that they 1) forget about theory and the justification of their research question, and 2) present papers so complicated that no average person can understand, and even the non-average person who has a PhD and tenure cannot understand it.  But, I do not want to lay all the blame on early career scholars – we senior scholars are the ones creating these monsters!!

In most graduate programs, students are required to take several methods courses. I was required to take at least 6 when I was in grad school, and our students are required to take at least 6 as well. Unfortunately though what is happening is that we are overemphasizing the importance of cutting-edge methods and statistics, and underemphasizing the importance of constructing coherent research questions that have strong theoretical justifications.

Why are these complicated statistics ruining family science? They are ruining family science because they are making conferences boring and incoherent, and leading to the rejection of papers from these family science scholars, and a lack of publications can make it hard for these students to get a job. I talked to several colleagues and students about this issue, and each could give me examples of presentations they went to where they could not even figure out what the research question was, or why they should care.

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Where should I submit my paper?

I wish we could get credit for publishing in these kind of journals. photo credit: yelahneb via photopin cc

I wish we could get credit for publishing in these kind of journals. photo credit: yelahneb via photopin cc

When you are in an interdisciplinary department, deciding where to submit your paper is fun, and confusing. I already told you about the time my student and I rewrote a paper we had rejected from Demography for the Journal of Family Psychology (it was accepted). But, how do you decide which journal to submit to? What factors do you consider?  My student Sara Sandberg-Thoma have been working on a paper and discussing where to submit it, which is where the idea for this blog came from. Sara and I came up with the following tips on how to decide where to submit your paper

  1. Where are the papers you are citing published? The paper Sara and I are working on could be submitted to several journals – it crosses a few disciplines. As we were reading the paper out loud, I noticed Sara was citing a paper in a journal we hadn’t discussed that I really like – Social Science & Medicine. I suggested we submit the paper there.
  2. What is the turn-around that you want? Sara is going on the job market soon, so we wanted to submit the paper to a journal with a pretty quick turn-around time. I also considered turn-around time when I was on the tenure track – I didn’t want my paper languishing for months. I would rather get a quick reject and move on to the next journal. Social Science & Medicine, the journal we decided on, has a pretty quick turn-around time, so we thought the paper could potentially be in press before she went on the market.
  3. Where else have you published? Other journals in our field have pretty quick turn-around times – Journal of Marriage and Family (JMF), Family Relations (FR), Journal of Family Psychology (JFP) – but Sara already has two first-authored papers in JMF, so we decided to go for Social Science & Medicine because she hadn’t published there before.  I don’t think it is a good idea to have most of your papers in the same journal, though JMF is awesome, so she has a good problem.
  4. How good is the paper? I think Sara’s paper is really good, so I think she should be able to get it in a high-impact factor journal. You will sometimes hear academics talk about top-tier, second-tier, and third-tier journals. So, before Sara submitted to FR, a journal I love but that is probably second tier, I thought we should try a higher-tier journal first. Again, since she had two papers in JMF, I thought we should go for a different journal with a high impact factor – again a deciding factor for Social Science & Medicine.
  5. Who do you want to read your paper? Another factor to consider is who you want to read your paper. Would you like psychologists to read it? Maybe you should go for JFP or a psych journal. Do you want sociologists to read it? Maybe you should go for Social Forces or Journal of Health and Social Behavior. This is also important in considering who will review your paper. In my post about the demography paper that ended up in JFP, I discussed how to write your paper for different audiences. Consider your audience before you submit. Skim a few other papers in the journal. This will give you a sense of the flavor of the journal, and you can adjust your paper accordingly.
  6. What do other people think? Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan and I have a writing group with our grad students, and we always get feedback from this group. Do you think this paper is good enough for JMF? What kind of reception do you think it will get at JFP? Advice from others can really help, and can also help you see flaws in the paper that you can fix before you submit. Just don’t wait around too long for the advice! I have a colleague who is constantly seeking advice from several people, and his/her papers never get submitted, thus his/her CV is lacking – not a good situation to be in when on the tenure track. So, get some advice, then submit it!
  7. When should I shoot high? If you already have some really great publications, like Sara does, she can afford to get rejected from a high-impact journal first, then resubmit to a lower impact journal. The extra time it will take to be rejected from the higher-impact journal shouldn’t hurt her if she resubmits to a quicker turn-around lower-impact journal. However, if she had fewer publications and she was going on the job market soon, I might suggest she try for a lower impact journal that would be unlikely to reject her paper, especially if it had a quick turn-around. But, she has some wiggle room give her current publication record, so I think she can afford the risk of rejection and shoot for a higher-tier journal. So, if you have already been productive for the point at which you are in your career, then shoot high. Or, if you have tenure, why not try to submit that paper to Child Development or American Sociological Review. You can take the risk.

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How to Succeed in Graduate School While Really Trying

I am really trying! photo credit: dkjd via photopin cc

I am really trying! photo credit: dkjd via photopin cc

We are midway through the autumn semester, and I have been reflecting on my graduate proseminar course, which is essentially an introduction to graduate school. Some programs have these types of classes, and others do not. So, in this post I give you links to articles I assign and a few tips I give to our first-year graduate students. The articles and tips are designed to tell students those things which faculty generally assume students know, as well as give them suggestions on how to succeed in graduate school. What would you add to my list?

How do I take a graduate class? How do I know what classes to take?

Claire’s Tips for registering for courses:

  • Talk with your advisor. Talk with your advisor about which courses you should take each semester. They may have specific courses they want you to take, or they may know about a specific seminar being offered that would teach you a specialized skill or knowledge set.
  • Email the professor. You may not be able to tell from the title of a course what the course topic will be. If you see a faculty member is teaching a seminar, email them for a course description and/or syllabus. Even if the syllabus is not ready, they will be able to share with you the topic for the seminar. Then, you can decide whether or not to take the seminar.
  • Take seminars when they are offered. Faculty often rarely have the opportunity to teach graduate seminars. Thus, if you are interested in a seminar in a specific topic, such as attachment, it may not be offered again for two or more years. Thus, it is smarter to take the seminar when it is offered and delay a required course, because you may not have the opportunity to take the seminar the following year.
  • Make it count. Choose your electives wisely. For example, try to take electives related to your research interests. You may be able to write a paper for these courses that are related to your research interests and will thus lead you closer to a publication or help you prepare for candidacy. Further, if you are planning to do a minor or specialization, you should look for electives that will count towards the requirements for the specialization.
  • Explore other departments. HDFS is interdisciplinary, and our students often take coursework outside of the department. If you cannot find an elective you are interested in taking in the HDFS course offerings, you might explore electives in Psychology, Sociology, Economics, or Communication.
  • Register for independent studies and thesis credits. Do not forget to register for independent study and thesis credits! By adding these credits to your load, you will free up time from coursework to focus on your research.
  • Make sure you take the minimum number of credits needed to be a full-time student.

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Self-regulated Learning and Graduate Education: What Graduate Programs Should do Part 1

Today I want to wrap up my series on self-regulated learning and graduate education. I want to revisit my original question: “What information, tools, tasks, and activities could we provide to promote our graduate students’ learning, intellectual development, and achievement of their post-graduate school goals?”. Over a series of posts, I reviewed information and tools (writing skills, research skills, and presentation/teaching/media skills) to promote graduate student success. My posts on tools ended up discussing tasks and activities to master those tools as well, so look in those posts for those discussions.

If I had to sum up my series of posts, I think that the keys to a graduate program informed by self-regulated learning principles would be a focus on professional development and goal setting and feedback. I want to discuss both; in the post I am focusing on professional development.

After writing these posts, I have been reflecting on graduate training. Of the tools I identified that graduate students need, I think most graduate programs focus primarily on teaching students the scholarship of their field, and how to contribute to it, which would fall under the category of “research skills”. The other tools I identified are largely ignored in graduate training, unless an advisor takes it upon themselves to teach them: writing skills, presentation/teaching/media skills, and those parts of research skills that do not deal with conducting research (such as consuming research). I now believe all graduate programs should have the following, and that these could lead to improvements in graduate student achievement.

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Tools to Promote Grad Student Success: Research Skills

I am still on the topic of self-regulated learning and graduate education. Today I want to discuss another tool that graduate students need for success: research skills. The art of conducting research has many components. First, students need to formulate research questions, preferably research questions that are going to be incremental, if not significant, additions to the field. This is a hard skill to teach, and one students really want to learn how to do. In fact, I was just on a panel at a first-year graduate student orientation, and a student asked – how do I come up with good research questions?  There is no easy answer to this question. But, I have a few ideas of how we can help grad students gain skills related to formulating research questions.

medium_320161805First, we need to teach graduate students how to find and consume research. Faculty often assume that because our students are so tech-savy, they know how to search the internet for research related to their topic of interest, and find relevant articles. However, what faculty forget is that as undergraduate students, our students most often use their computers for social networking and consuming information. It is a very different skill to use the internet to find research. In a future post, I want to talk about skills related to finding research, but that is outside of the scope of this post. Let me just say that we need to teach students how to use the internet (my favorite is google scholar) to find research articles, rather than assuming they know how to do this.

On the topic of how to consume research, I think most students come into graduate school thinking they need to read every word of every article, and that they need to read every single article on their topic. Students will eventually realize that this is impossible. We might save them time by recommending ways to figure out which articles they should read in their entirety (i.e. classic articles in their field, articles that they are directly building on with their research) and which articles they can skim (i.e. articles for class that our outside of their field, articles that they are using just for a particular citation). We also need to help them understand when they have enough of a grasp of their area to begin to move towards research questions. I try to cover how to consume research early in the grad student proseminar I lead (see a syllabus here), but grad students can go years without really understanding how to consume research in an effective, efficient way. It feels overwhelming to get to know a field when you are a beginning grad student, so the earlier grad programs and advisors can give tips for consuming research, the better. Advisors are also the best individuals for helping a student know when they are ready to go to the hypothesis building phase, and have read enough. I have seen students fall in this trap where they think they don’t know the literature well-enough to formulate and test research questions, even after years in graduate school, and these students tend to flounder and not get the publications needed to land jobs.

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Tools to Promote Grad Student Success: Writing Skills

Well, apparently I took the summer off from blogging. I wasn’t necessarily planning that, but I was really busy with grant submissions, travel, paper revisions, etcetera. I had a great time at the International Association for Relationship Research conference in Australia in July, and I also visited and gave talks at the University of New South Wales’ Social Policy Research Centre and the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research. I was also appointed to the National Council on Family Relations’ Future of Family Science Task Force and attended a 3-day meeting in Minneapolis where the task force met. More on that in a future post.  I should also mention I had fun too – lots of baseball and t-ball for my sons, a Nashville bachelorette party for my sister, and trips to Cedar Point and Kelly’s Island with my family. Overall, great summer!

photo credit: Pesky Library via photopin cc

photo credit: Pesky Library via photopin cc

For now, I want to get back to the topic of self-regulated learning and graduate education. My last post posed the question “What information could we provide to promote our graduate students’ learning, intellectual development, and achievement of their post-graduate school goals?” Now I want to move on to “What tools could we provide to promote our graduate students’ learning, intellectual development, and achievement of their post-graduate school goals?”

When I think of the tools of the trade for myself, the most important tools that come to mind are: writing skills, research skills, and presentation skills. Let’s discuss each of these in turn.

The most critical skill we could provide to our graduate students, in my opinion, is exceptional writing ability. Excellent writing skills can improve a students’ likelihood of grant funding, manuscript acceptance, and can ease the milestones of graduate school, such as comprehensive/qualifying/candidacy exams. Each of these can help students achieve their post-graduate school goals. Further, excellent writing skills can lead to further intellectual development as they can help distill ideas and lead to new discoveries. Learning is also improved with good writing – students will be more likely to retain information when they are able to succinctly and logically summarize critical ideas.

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

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photo credit: TwOsE via photopin cc

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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