The 'CV of failure': Coping with and learning from setbacks as a PhD student

October 1, 2020

In his piece “The Matthew Effect in Science” (1968), Robert Merton considers how credit for scientific achievements is allocated (and often misallocated) based on esteem and seniority. The pattern of the ‘Matthew Effect’ is summarized in a verse from the Gospel of St. Matthew: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” In scientific work, then, Merton argues that recognition tends to breed more recognition, success following success.

While Merton was analyzing the so-called ‘bench sciences,’ something like this pattern can be seen throughout academia. Success tends to follow success, resources beget more resources, and those who start out ahead tend to end up further ahead as well. 

PhD students get this message constantly. We are told that our application for top national grants will be improved if we have already been awarded some prominent, competitive fellowships. For those going on the tenure-track job market, it is vital to have some publications to increase visibility for hiring committees. 

Academic success is like compound interest – you accumulate more as you accumulate more. What Merton called ‘cumulative advantage’ means that the resources earned from successes – funding which allows for focus on writing rather than teaching, a publication that garners recognition in the field – make it easier to get more resources. 

This partially explains why academic representation is accomplished through the curriculum vitae (CV) – a (hopefully) long list of achievements. In the CV, academics demonstrate past successes in garnering resources and credit and thereby their worthiness for more resources and credit. 

My purpose here is not to criticize the CV, although it certainly can be critiqued for reproducing structural advantages in academia. The CV has a certain usefulness when it comes to questions of whether someone can be trusted with a $1,000,000 grant or if a job candidate can teach the courses a department needs. In situations where institutional actors don’t personally know an applicant, something must stand in for personalized trust. Past achievements are a convenient metric of generalized trustworthiness. 

So while there are many issues with how academia awards credit and resources, what I want to critique in this post, rather, is how the CV misrepresents the process of academic work. Because of the CV format and academics' interest in representing themselves as successful, failures are generally hidden away. As grad students, our mentors – superstars in their fields, tenured scholars, or even just people who have managed to get a job – have such extensive CVs that it seems like they have never struggled, never doubted, never failed.

Almost certainly, this is not the case. Academic work is full of false starts, dead ends, rejections, and failures, and anyone who has been in academia long enough probably has more misses than hits. Yet this is hidden from view in the CV, which misrepresents the fact that much of academic success is about learning from and overcoming failures and set-backs. 

For students who only see others’ hits, though, our own misses may feel momentous and insurmountable. When others’ failures are not part of their self-representation, our own failures are magnified, and our sense of being an ‘impostor’ in the academy may be heightened. 

Recognition is growing of the mental health struggles grad students face, and recently some in the academy have sought to bring failure into the open by creating and publishing a ‘CV of failures.’ The mirror image of the CV, this one is a list of unfunded grants, article rejections, and ignored job applications. 

The CV of failures attempts to normalize failure as part of the process of academic progress. I created my own in response to some stinging rejections, and I have found it incredibly useful for two reasons.

First, creating a CV of failures is cathartic. Writing my failures down gives them some sense of finality – similar to the way a writing project is ‘done’ when you add a publication line to your CV. Putting each failure into context diminishes the power of any individual failure to dampen my self-esteem. When viewed alongside past failures which, yes, also hurt my ego but which I was able to eventually move on from, I see in my CV that I have survived past defeats and can do so again.

Second, as I mentioned above, creating and sharing a CV of failures helps to normalize failure as part of life. I’ve shared my CV with colleagues (and here), and it has opened up conversations about anxieties, stressors, and challenges that come with grad school and with the competitiveness of modern life in general. It is also a chance to be gently mocking of myself and diminish some of the pretensions of academia. Most importantly, though, it establishes failure as part of the process of improving our scholarship. Feedback, critique, rejection –  these are opportunities to learn how to be better at our work. No one moves through the world without setbacks, and it is important to recognize and normalize that fact. 

Your most important relationship: Getting things right with an advisor

September 17, 2020

One of the challenges of navigating graduate school, from my experience, is the isolation. So much of my time is spent alone, thinking through my ideas, fretting about my career, and planning out my next steps. And writing, the central activity of PhD life, is generally a solitary activity – even for collaborative pieces. While popular image of the academic is a ‘lone genius’ laboring in an ivory tower is a construction, it is also based on the real experience.

For these reasons, it is important as a PhD student to cultivate relationships – with other students, with faculty as you go through training, and with fellow scholars as you transition from student to peer. One of the most important and tricky to navigate is the relationship you form with advisors or mentors. And many PhD student struggle to make these relationships effective and rewarding.

Most people join a doctoral program because they want to work with particular faculty (among other considerations like rank, funding, and location). I will admit that, as usual, I did everything wrong in this respect. I applied to grad school at UW–Madison because of the program I wanted to work in, but I gave almost no consideration to who would advise me. As with most of my (mis)adventures in applying to grad school, this stemmed from ignorance. 

Happily, though, I was able to cultivate strong relationships with a group of faculty mentors once I arrived on campus. I was fortunate in that my first advisor was extremely generous with his advice and encouraged me to ingratiate myself with other faculty in his and related departments.

Still, even once I had established some rapport, I struggled – as I’m sure many student do – to know how to build these relationships and maintain a good work environment. From discussing advising with faculty and working some ideas out through trial and error, though, I’ve come to several broad conclusions that I think all PhD student should keep in mind as they pursue mentorship.

1. From the outset, clarify expectations. What are the ground rules that you can agree on about your mentorship? How often do you want to meet? Does your advisor prefer long drafts or short snippets? When you share something for feedback, how long can you expect to wait for comments? What kind of feedback do you need or want? Setting out your respective expectations beforehand helps to save a lot of trouble, confusion, and doubt later on.

2. Know that part of any faculty member’s job is to advise you and other graduate students. In fact, it is often central to their work, because it contributes to developing their own academic standing to have advisees who go on to be successful. Plus, they get paid for it! So this means that you shouldn’t feel like anything you are doing is an imposition on your advisor’s time. Don’t hesitate to talk to them about questions you have about your progress or research agenda, share any and all pieces of writing for comment and feedback, and discuss your career goals and steps to work towards them. They can also connect you with other faculty in the field to help build your network. Take advantage of their knowledge, connections, and time. 

3. Following on the last comment, it is important to always leave your ego at the door when you share your work with your advisor. Getting critiqued is the most vital part of the scholarly process. You get to see what another reader thinks of your ideas and how you can make your work stronger. I’ve known too many PhD students who are timid or afraid about sharing work because it is “not good enough yet.” It’s not supposed to be perfect. Your advisor is there to help you make poor work into good work and good work into great work. Recognize that critiques from your advisor are a sign that they are invested in your work (enough to devote the time to read it) and that they want to help you improve. 

4. Building off of that, it is important to actively incorporate your advisor’s feedback into your work. With each revision, your advisor will be looking to see if you have addressed the concerns or critiques raised in the last draft. Or, if you don’t want to accept their critique, make a case for why you’re taking things in a different direction. Either way, you need to show that you have been taken their suggestions into account, which shows that you value the relationship enough to commit to the hard work of revision.

5. Finally, and this is the best piece of advice: remember when your advisor is not talking to you or reading your work, they spend exactly zero minutes thinking about you. This is not meant to be harsh (and it's a little tongue-in-cheek)! This is good news. Your advisor is not brooding in their office about how terrible a student you are! They are too busy for that. Don’t spend your time worrying that you don’t live up to their expectations. If you have doubts, talk to your mentor about how to improve. If you have writing, share it. Otherwise, don’t devote extra time or mental energy to worrying about what your advisor thinks of you. They aren’t thinking about you. They are working.

Short-term planning: Fill your working hours with what really matters

September 3, 2020

I have one principle for productivity: even if a task is important, it won’t get done unless I set aside time when I will do it. 

What I mean is that life — especially as a PhD student — will always present ways to fill up my work time. There are important emails (few). There are inessential emails (many). There are service opportunities, teaching workshops, colloquia, job talks, invited lectures, professional development events, and so on. These are all valuable activities to some degree, but my concern is that if I’m not intentional about my time, my working hours could very easily fill with interesting but not always essential (in the get-me-to-graduation sense) activities. So it bears repeating: if you don’t set aside time to do the important things, they won’t get done, because something else will worm its way in.

I am very intentional about structuring my work time. My Google Calendar tells me what I am doing every minute of the working day, and I mean this very literally. Starting at 6:30 am (walk with my wife), and continuing until 5:30 pm when I turn off my computer for the day, I don’t have unstructured time. (My after-work time is much less rigid.) I make time in my calendar when I will tackle each task in my to-do list. This is especially important for writing time, which we too often take to be an activity that ‘happens when it happens.’ I don’t leave writing time to chance. If I don’t plan when writing will happen, I find that it doesn’t happen. 

So here is my strategy. It’s called the Sunday Meeting. I learned about this from Kerry Ann Rockquemore at the National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development. It has been a game-changer for me in terms of setting myself up to have a productive week. Here’s how it works:

First, every Sunday night, I have a standing meeting (in my Google Calendar, of course) with myself, where I sit down and plan out my week. It takes about half an hour. 

I start by looking at my long-term planning document. What are the projects that I am working on in the coming week? What are some of the tasks that I need to work on the move these projects forward? What are all of the smallish tasks that I need to take care of (like returning library books)? Also, what are the things that I set out to accomplish in the previous week that I didn’t get done? 

I bring all of these things I have to do in a very old-fashioned way: I write them out on a legal pad. It becomes just a mess, but it gets all my ‘to-do’ stuff in the same place. 

Second, I open up my Google calendar and start filling in my work week. I start with the immovable obligations: lectures, sections, meetings, office hours, etc. Once these are in my calendar, I start filling in the rest. Usually, I start with writing tasks, because these are always my highest priority. If I can, I put these hours in the mornings (my best hours). Then I continue to turn items on my legal pad into scheduled hours in my calendar. 

Third, with each task, I consider not only its priority level, but also how long I anticipate I will need to complete the task. Can I squeeze email time into the 30 minutes between lab sections? Can I fit an article annotation into the hour between lunch and that committee meeting? 

Often, I will find that I do not have time for everything I set out to do. This is not a big problem! In fact, it is an opportunity to reassess my priorities. Do I really need to do all these things this week? If I don’t have enough time, then I look for work that I can slough off until later. It is a process of homing in on priorities and letting other things slide. Call it intentional procrastination. 

So that is it. At the end of my Sunday meeting, I have gone through all the projects and tasks I had anticipated in my long-term plan. I have found a time during the week when I plan to do each task. I have filled in my working hours so that nothing else creeps in. And I have assessed my priorities when inevitably I find there aren’t enough hours in the week to accomplish all that I thought I would or could. 

Two caveats: first, I try not to be inflexible with my actual time. If something important comes up, I change my plans. But having planned when I will do what allows me to really weigh the options. Is this new thing that has come up worth ditching writing time? Can I move writing time by bumping something else out of place? 

Second, I adjust my calendar throughout the day to reflect what I actually did, as opposed to what I planned to do. Then, at the end of the week, this allows me to see my actual productivity. Did I really do those 30 hours of writing I thought I would get done? Probably not. And this helps me to refine my planning next week, to be more realistic about what I can accomplish.

But I think it bears repeating: if you do not fill your time with the activities that really matter to you and your progress, then your time will find a way to fill with something else, and your productivity will suffer. 

Long-term planning: Think strategically about who you want to become as a PhD

August 19, 2020

Central to success (or just keeping your head above water) as a PhD student is to approach your work life strategically. This means establishing for yourself the accomplishments, achievements, and skills that are most important to your career advancement (however you define it), and then planning your working days to maximize focused effort towards the goals you have set (to the extent that you can given the demands on your time). But how to develop a strategic plan? What do you need to consider? How do you create one?

There are many ways to make a strategic plan, or what is often called an individual development plan or IDP. It is, essentially, a formal written plan, and it is something that every PhD student should create in order to guide their work. Having an IDP helps you to think about what you are going to do during your graduate studies and when you are going to do them. When will you go to conferences? When will you try to publish? How will this fit into your research timeline? What about your teaching obligations? Are there other skills that you want to develop that you may not get through your program of studies?

There are many formatting options, but an IDP should include, at a minimum, the following items:

Think of the IDP as your professional development plan for the next five or so years. It can be daunting to begin, because it feels like your whole future is up in the air. I found it helpful, when I sat down to create mine, to spend some time daydreaming. I imagined myself in the future, four or five years down the road. Who I am? What am I working on? What career am I in? What skills do I have? What does my CV look like? What events have I participated it?

From these ideas, you should get a list of extremely broad long-term goals, which loosely define who you seek to become. Then, the next step is to break each goal down into projects or tasks that comprise one piece or component along the way to meeting the goal. These are where you start to develop actionable items.

I will explain this with an example. One of my long-term goals is to have developed and carried out a record of strong research related to geographical indications in France and the developing world, by 2022. Now, because part of my plans include fieldwork in France, one of my projects has been to recuperate my French abilities, which have seriously degraded since I last spoke it regularly more than 10 years ago. So as a sub-goal, I wrote in my IDP: “Read, write, hear, and speak French at a sufficient level to pass a language evaluation.” 

I want to make two points with this example. First, it is important to consider how these sub-goals or tasks contribute to your overall, long-term plans. For me, French skills are not an end in and of themselves. They are part of preparation for fieldwork and part of the future professional identity I want to cultivate, as a researcher who is able to share ideas and findings with others in multi-lingual contexts. So my goal was not to become fluent in French (although this would be nice!). In writing my IDP, I focused on what is necessary to achieve my long-term goals but also what is feasible given the constraints on my time as a graduate student.

The second point relates to what I wrote above about having a timeline. It is important to think about when you are going to do the tasks that help you achieve a goal. For me, for instance, my goal of recuperating enough French to do fieldwork comes with a built-in deadline, because many of the grants I am applying for require a language recommendation from a university instructor. So it was easy enough for me to develop the timeline for this goal, because I knew when my end-date would be. For other goals, the timeline may be more fluid and flexible.

I will wrap up with several key factors that students should keep in mind when developing an IDP or thinking about long-term strategic planning.

First, write goals and sub-goals that you can assess. This means that you should be able to tell whether you have achieved them. For me, for instance, my taks for French is to get a letter from a French instructor by a certain deadline. I will know whether or not I have achieved the goal when I do or do not get that letter. Write goals that are relevant to your plan, achievable given your other obligations, measurable (if possible), and with a deadline.

Second, track your progress. You should record whether you meet your goals on time, and why or why not. This will help you to reconsider your goals and long-term plans, and adjust depending on the other things that are certain to come up during your studies.

Third, and most importantly, the plan is a living document. I return to my IDP at least every six months or so to revise. This is why tracking progress is so helpful. It allows you to adjust your plan, reflect on what worked or didn’t and why, and to reevaluate your priorities. I have had numerous drafts to my IDP because who I am and what I want to do have changed over the last few years. The strategic plan I made when I was a first-year student is no longer relevant. It changes with me, and so I return to it often to make updates and reaffirm my long-term commitments. 

Getting the writing done: Setting a schedule and monitoring your results

July 28, 2020

I have written a lot about writing here, and with good reason. To reiterate, success in graduate school (and the academic world broadly) is equatable with writing productively. It is through writing that you make your scholarly contribution and communicate to other scholars, and it is on your writing output that a faculty committee will eventually determine your qualification as a PhD. So, how can you get all this writing done?

I have found the advice of Paul Silva, in his book How to Write a Lot, extremely helpful and I would recommend it for any new or veteran graduate student. For me, there are four key points to Silva’s advice: have a schedule, set goals, set priorities, and monitor your progress. I will explain how I understand these and put them into practice.

1) Have a schedule. In my last two posts about making time for writing, this is what I was arguing for. Simply put, if you do not pencil in time to write, your time will fill with something else. This may be true for any kind of work activity, but it is especially so for writing, which beside being the most important work of a PhD student, can also be the most painful to begin. We all know the agony of a blank Word document and its blinking cursor.

So schedule writing time like you would schedule any other work time. I use Google Calendar, but paper calendars, bullet journals, or any other means would work. During my Sunday night weekly planning meeting with myself (something I will discuss in a later post), I ‘pencil in’ my obligations for the week. As I am no longer in classes, these are few, leaving me with large blocks of unstructured time in my calendar. I dare not leave these blank lest they fill themselves with pointless tasks (like scrolling Twitter) or tasks that I specifically try to deprioritize in my work life (like email, endless email). So I schedule in ‘writing time.’ And when that pops up on my calendar, I take it like any other obligation and get writing.

2) Set goals. What are the sequential steps that will contribute to the completion of the writing project you are working on? Spend some time before you begin a project thinking of these subtasks and then write these goals down. Seems easy enough. Once you have done a few large writing projects, you develop an intuitive sense of all the little steps that you need to complete on the way to something publishable. But the next point tends to trip people up.

3) Set priorities. Where to begin? What writing task demands your most urgent attention and what can wait until later? Which tasks are dependent on having already completed previous tasks? These are things you need to figure out and write down. I like to use an Excel spreadsheet for this kind of planning, with each row being a day of work and each column a project. I start at the end of the project — what is the goal? Then I work back from there and set a writing priority for each working day. The first ones (that is, the last tasks chronologically) are easy (proofread citations, write acknowledgements and dedication, format table of contents, etc.). As you move closer to the present, it gets trickier, but knowing what tasks will come later can help to figure out what needs to be done first. If you get all the way back to the day you are currently on and have run out of time, then reconsider either the feasibility of your deadline or the amount of work time that each task will require.

4) Monitor progress. It is important to keep track of whether you are sticking to your plan and meeting your goals. This is something most people do not do, and I think that is a mistake. If, after ten weeks of work, you have not finished your project, it is useful to know why. Maybe your teaching load was greater than you expected. Maybe you had an unexpected family emergency. Maybe you were just lazy about sticking to your plan. Knowing why you did not achieve your goals helps you to understand the issues that prevent you from writing or how to plan better for the next project.

I also use a spreadsheet for this. (A colleague and I joke that in planning or decision making, our go-to solution is always either ‘make a spreadsheet’ or ‘make a flowchart.’ We are fun people.) So for each writing day, I first set down the goal I am working towards (ex. literature review) and then a daily task that contributes to that goal (ex. write 500 words on French meaning of ‘terroir’). Then, at the end of the day, I count the words written, write down whether or not I have met my stated goal, and record how long I actually worked (to compare with my ‘planned’ work time). 

It is amazing, after a few weeks, to see how productive you can be. Or, conversely, you will see that despite planning for writing six hours a day, you have only been able to actual spend 90 minutes each day writing because other stuff gets in the way. Either way, monitoring your progress helps you to see why you have or have not been productive. And knowing is the first step to fixing it and getting more writing done. I say this not because you should feel guilty about not writing enough. Life happens, after all. But you should know why you are not able to write as much as you planned, and adjust your future plans accordingly. 

I find that scheduling time for writing means that I stress about it less. If I do not accomplish my daily goal (something that happens all too often), I know that tomorrow, the work will be waiting for me and I have set aside time to do it. 

Writing on the bus and other adventures in academic productivity

July 15, 2020

Recently, I write a post stressing that PhD students, as academics, should think of their primary job as producing writing, and that they should try to structure their working hours to maximize writing time, even at the expense of other tasks (teaching, etc.). Now, I want to delve into what we should count as ‘writing’ and how to balance our energy and responsibilities to get the most out of each workday.

I used to have a long commute to campus by bus. Every day, I saw an older gentleman sitting there with his laptop out and open to an in-progress Word document. For the rest of the ride, this academic (I assume: he got off the bus at the university) would alternately look at the screen or out the window. He never, as far as I saw, wrote a word on his commute, but his computer was out the whole time. Was he doing writing? 

Perhaps. Maybe having the document out helped him to recall the previous day’s work before he reached his office. Perhaps just having the project before him jump-started his thinking. Whatever he was doing, if it helped him crank out a few hundred words later, he was certainly using his commute to be productive in his writing. I, unhappily, have never been able to work on public transport and unwisely continue to use my commute time for podcasts. 

My point, as anyone who spends a great deal of time writing will know, is that writing is a process with many stages, many of which do not look like writing to observers nor contribute directly to word counts (my standard measure of productivity). Was the bus the best time for this academic to get his really good writing done? Probably not. Was it a good time for him to think about his project and prep himself to sit down and do the work. Very likely.

So when we think about staying productive in our writing, we need to accept that we are not always going to be in the best space — physically, mentally, emotionally — to tackle the really tricky bits of writing, like laying out a careful analysis of batch of interviews or setting out a piece’s contribution to the field.

Writing coaches and productivity gurus will often speak of ‘A’ and ‘B’ writing tasks. ‘A’ tasks are the meaty bits, the trickiest, deepest, most engaging parts of writing, for which we should reserve our best hours of the day. These are the parts of writing that I think we should build our whole schedule around.  For me, the morning hours, between my second cup of coffee and lunch, are my best hours, so I try (when I can) to stick to writing. 

Does that mean that I stop ‘writing’ after lunch? Not exactly. The other writing (‘B’ tasks) includes things like proofreading, annotating, responding to critiques, organizing citations (or your citation manager), or any other work that takes, generally, much less mental capacity to execute. The kind of work that you may be able to do while listening to a podcast or, if that’s too distracting, music. 

This summer, for instance, I am using my afternoon hours to revisit and annotate some of the works that shaped my thinking about my current project. I am writing a lot in these annotations, but very little of it will appear in the body text of the articles I am preparing for publication. Yet I still consider these hours to be ‘writing hours’ because revisiting these pieces has helped me to rethink some of the contentions of my pieces and my approaches to the data. The afternoon work helps my writing the following morning.

It is in your interest to take advantage of office hours, commutes, proctoring, and other periods in your day when you might have divided attention to edit, cite, annotate, whatever. These ‘B’ tasks count. After all, you have to get your citations right eventually to finish whatever project you are working on. So if you are not feeling particularly in the mood for hard-hitting writing work, or if you only have a few moments between discussion sections, it is totally sensible not to dive into ‘A’ writing tasks. But keep yourself productive and moving forward by doing some other kinds of writing.

Above all, though, try to structure your time (and devote your good mood, high energy hours) to ‘A’ writing tasks, because these take the most concentration, attention, and time, and because they are, ultimately, what makes academic pursuits worthwhile. 

Remember thou art a writer: Setting work priorities as a PhD student

June 23, 2020

One of the best pieces of advice I received about success in a PhD program (or in academic life in general) is to remember that our ‘work’ is writing. Yes, this is not all that we do. We also may teach, attend class, read thousands of pages to pass prelims, or perform valuable campus and disciplinary service, among others. But it is important to recognize that these other aspects of our professional lives matter vastly less to career success than the writing that we will produce. 

This varies, of course, to the extent that any individual is seeking a tenure-track job at an R1 university or a PUI, or seeking to work in industry or public service. Yet reflect on this: what will eventually earn you your diploma is not a stellar teaching record or a CV full of committee memberships, but producing a dissertation (or a collection of articles, depending on your field). If you are in a PhD program, you are judged by your writing. That is your primary job. So when you are setting priorities to manage your time, your first move should be to budget for writing. 

I learned this the hard way, as always. In my first year, I was aghast that a fellow first-year student was neglecting class work to devote most of her working hours to prepare an application for a prestigious fellowship. I was very much in an undergrad mindset (and also just did not know enough about high-level academic life) and regarded my colleague’s shirking of her reading responsibilities as a recipe for disaster. How could she have her priorities so wrong, putting some long-shot fellowship application ahead of course reading?! 

But she had it right. Those 50 pages or so to read before each lecture were much less important, in the big picture of academic success, than the fellowship application. And she got the fellowship! In addition to three years of full funding (she would have plenty of time to do the reading then), it also scored her a killer line on her CV (which would help in future applications… success breeds success). I had it all wrong. What did I have to show for doing the required reading but some messy notes (that I would not even be able to decipher a few years later) and a pat on the head for answering questions in lecture? 

So prioritize writing, full stop. Yet this is easier said than done. Rebecca Schuman, in a terrific recent series in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Are You Writing?”, decries the myth of the Great White Academic Male and his writerly productivity. This is the idea that to be productive, academics must rise before the sun and get their ‘real work’ done before the demands of family, teaching, and grading interfere. This notion is clearly outdated, patriarchal, and just really bad for mental and physical health (unless you are just naturally up at that time). I enjoy Schuman’s series immensely and recommend reading all of her advice, especially her strategy of taking advantage of even short periods (as little as 25 minutes!) to produce some writing, which is sound. Yet I do not agree with her wholeheartedly about building these blocks of productivity around other tasks (unless those tasks are unmovable, like childcare or delivering a lecture). Rather, build blocks for writing, and fill your breaks between writing with other work. 

So this is the heart of the matter: your writing should come first, always. And when I mean writing, I mean writing that progresses towards a CV line — a grant or fellowship application, a publication, a conference presentation, a completed thesis, a chapter of your dissertation. If you have a responsibility that is not this kind of writing, put it on the back burner. Even teaching, even term papers (unless they will become part of a chapter or publishable article… and if you are not using term papers this way, you are wasting energy). This is not to say that you should shirk other responsibilities entirely. Obviously, getting a failing grade (that is, less than a B) or not doing your grading will get you in serious trouble. But do not, under any circumstances, make non-writing tasks your priority. 

In a PhD program, are not primarily a teacher or a student. You are a writer, a productive scholar. Save your ‘best stuff’ for writing, and spend as much time writing as your other obligations will allow. If it’s only a few hours a day (or the occasional 25-minute burst), try to make them your best hours. If you can only squeeze in 30 minutes over lunch, then learn to eat quickly. Never, ever, let a workday go by without getting some writing done. (I advocate setting aside weekends for not working, if you can manage it.)

How do you determine what counts as writing? I’ll talk more about this in my next post. 

Success in the PhD program: Intelligence or endurance?

June 9, 2020

I have a confession to make: I do not care for graduate seminars. 

For the uninitiated, seminars are classes of less than 15 students who meet once a week with a professor for facilitated discussion, usually around a conference table. The reading load is heavy — sometimes 150 pages per week of dense, high-level writing. The format is generally that the professor or a rotating student leader kicks off discussion with some questions, and then students contribute their thoughts on the readings. For the next three hours.

Now, I get why the seminar should exist. It forces grad students to read an important body of texts deeply, because they need to be ready to speak about them. And it places students on a level playing field with the professor, who can provide important context and clarification but generally lets students come to their own conclusions about the works. It is valuable preparation for the fields and subfields that students will spend their careers engaging with. And it sucks.

Why? Because whatever my strengths as a scholar, they are not in extemporaneously putting together a coherent thought in the matter of moments between when I raise my hand in seminar and when everyone’s eyes turn towards me. Part of earning a ‘grade’ for the seminar (and grad school grading is a topic for a whole different post down the line) is participating, so I spoke up, but I always felt like my contributions were weak because I could not string together sentences while listening to everyone else’s comments. This was frustrating, because I consider myself a smart person (smart enough to bungle my way into a PhD program, at least), but I didn’t ‘feel’ smart in seminar.

After some early seminar experiences left me feeling like an impostor, I decided that I needed to prepare better. It was clear that just doing the readings, for me, was insufficient for me to engage with their ideas. To prepare for seminar, then, I started taking extensive notes of the main points of each reading and writing a summary that to explain the central argument of each piece to myself. I would also come to seminar prepared with three things to say: a provocative question, a reflection on a reading, an attempt at synthesis, or whatever. And I gradually started to get more out of seminar than flop sweat. 

What dawned on me, much later, was that being smart has very little to do with success in a PhD program. Many smart people struggle, and smarter people than me have left their PhD programs to do something else worthwhile. My improved seminar performance was not because I got smarter, but because I prepared more than I had before. And that is grad school: you have to work really, really hard to succeed. 

This is not to say that the PhD is just a mindless slog. If there is any mental capacity that correlates with success in a PhD program, it is not intelligence but intellectual curiosity. You have to be interested in asking questions, in finding intellectual gaps that others have yet to fill in, in reading (and reading, and reading) what scholars before you have thought and written. 

Yet above all, the most important mental quality, from my experience, is mental discipline. Putting in the effort to get the work done, whatever the work may be: reading those 150 pages for seminar, writing that grant application, revising that thesis into a publishable article. Grad school is just a lot of freaking work. It is not like other formal educational experiences, like undergrad, where you may be able to skate by on your smarts (as I mostly did). 

I am sure that my PhD program in the social sciences is not alone in rewarding the capacity to focus and work hard. Surely any PhD student, as well as med students, law students, and others pursuing specialized fields, has to work hard. And the flip side of this key to success is the mental strain that it puts on students — the exhaustion of working 12-hour days without time off; the demands of getting ahead with writing while balancing coursework, teaching, or whatever funding one may have; the social sacrifices of not seeing friends or family as often. These are really systemic issues and ones that need to be better addressed by universities and programs.

Yet for me, the essential training that graduate school has so far given me is not the course content or the breadth and depth of my field that I got from preparing for my prelims. It was just to sit down and do the work, and then to move on to the next task. 

Really? Another PhD advice blog?

May 27, 2020

Why another PhD career blog? And why me? Believe me that these are questions I posed to myself before sitting down to write a single word. With the death throes of the tenure track career path now entering their fourth decade, millions of words have already been spilled about the crisis of the academy and academics, thousands of think pieces written about whether anyone should pursue a PhD at all, much less what PhD students can do to prepare themselves to get a job, any job. And personally as a PhD student, I already have enough on my plate preparing articles for publication, reading for prelims, and planning a dissertation project that may be turn out to be unfeasible during a pandemic. 

And yet, I think there is value exploring and expanding on decades of career prep advice. No single person has ever or will ever capture the breadth of graduate student experience or been able to consider all the questions that students might have. And there is value in every perspective. I have seen fellow students struggling where I do not, and I have felt myself treading water where other students surge ahead. Maybe my successes and failures, my doubt and clarity, can help others deal with their challenges. 

I think it is important to be upfront about my identity as a PhD student. In some respects, I come from a place of privilege. I identify and present as a white man, which means that there are certain challenges that many students face that I might not even be aware of, certain perspectives that I would not feel comfortable trying to speak from, certain strategies or tips that would not occur to me because they address hurdles that I have not been made to leap over. Clearly, I cannot speak for the whole spectrum of PhD student experiences, both because the population is richly diverse and because the range of disciplines present different structures, expectations, and pathways. That is to say nothing of the divergent strategies for students intent on the tenure track or those looking to work outside of academia.

In other respects, though, my background has presented its own challenges in graduate school. I am a first-generation PhD student, and in fact a first-generation college graduate as well. Some aunts and uncles completed college, some cousins got master’s degrees, and my older sister even completed her PhD before I started my program. My grandparents, though, were firmly working-class (being from Wisconsin, you better believe that more than one worked in a cheese factory), and my parents worked hard to build a stable, middle-class life for our family without the benefit of an advanced degree. So when it came to prepare myself for a PhD program, there was so much going in that I was not aware of… and worse, I was not aware of what I was not aware of. The hidden curriculum of graduate school. 

A short example: when I was preparing my application for UW–Madison, I naturally reached out to professors I knew best at my undergraduate institution. These were professors of English and theology with whom I had worked closely and developed a good rapport, and who would write glowingly of me. When I reached out to these professors, however, to write letters to get me into a program that weaves together sociology, economics, and geography, my referees kindly pointed out that I would be better off with referees from the fields I hoped to enter, or at a minimum the social sciences more broadly. This was something that had never occurred to me before. 

Maybe that anecdote makes you think me naïve. That’s exactly the hidden curriculum! Nowhere on a PhD program application does it say that your shot at admission will be improved if the committee knows your referees, or has at least heard of them, or at the very least recognizes their discipline as part of the academy. At best, you may get something like “We prefer recommendations from academic sources.” I set about applying for a PhD program exactly as I had applied for undergrad, because that was the only comparable experience I had, and I had no intuition that things would be otherwise. Happily, feedback from mentors and others helped me to get my application in shape. 

I am interested in the hidden curriculum of PhD programs: the tips and strategies and goalposts that I did not know existed going in and which I have only learned (and continue to learn) through trial-and-error. So much that I wish I had known, so many mistakes that I made out of ignorance. Hopefully, others can benefit from my mistakes. 

So besides being an experiential learner of the hidden curricula of PhD programs, what qualifies me to speak on this topic? For three years, I worked on campus at the UW–Madison Graduate School as a project assistant in the Office of Professional Development and Communication. Our role in this office was to enhance graduate student professionalization opportunities, including successful advancement within the degree program, long-term strategic thinking about career aspirations and goals, and preparation for a variety of academic and non-academic career paths. I also did some independent contracting work in this vein with the grad school career prep enterprise Beyond the Tenure Track. I do not claim to be an expert in graduate student professional development in any way, but I have learned a lot from these roles and used this work to reflect on my own successes and failures, and I used my time to gather advice, tips, and strategies from people who have many years of experience. These are what I hope to share through this blog, refracted through my own perspective and history, of course. 

So wrapping up my nth year in a PhD program, I feel like I am starting to figure things out, at last. I am eager to share what I have learned along the way, and to hear from others about their tips and ideas for finding success. I would like to open up conversations about these things, especially the very heart of the matter: how to define success in graduate school and after.