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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.