Archive for the ‘Advice for Grad Students’ Category

A Grad Student Online Starter Kit

If you’re starting an academic graduate program, such as a Ph.D., and you’re hoping to eventually finish that degree with a meaningful reputation in your area of expertise (which is a prerequisite for academic jobs), then day 1 is a great time to unpack your grad student online starter kit. Here’s what I think a Ph.D. student should do in his or her first or second year of graduate school to get the train moving down the tracks.

1. Write a CV. If you don’t already have one, it’s time to start one, even if you don’t think you have “enough” to put on paper about yourself. You’ll flesh it out over time, and having the structure in place on paper will get you in the habit of thinking of your work as part of a larger project to build your reputation and expertise in a certain topic. I have a whole post on CVs. Make sure your CV stays updated and posted online for the world to find.

2. Make a website. Seriously. Make one. Many universities have robust profiles for their grad students, but even still, it’s important for you to control your own website where you can update your profile, post about the work you’re doing, and make yourself available for consulting opportunities. And you get to keep the website after you graduate and move from institution to institution. Get a free WordPress site, a Google Sites page, or something simple like that. Install Google Analytics if you can (it’s free). That way you can be a creeper and obsessively track where all your visitors come from. Buy a URL that represents your name and redirect it to your WordPress site and you’re all set.

3. Make a plan for posting your working papers online. It may seem scary to put your half-baked ideas out there, but the work of an academic is all about making ideas public and enduring brutal feedback. It’s really the only way you’ll ever be able to improve your ideas, too. Publishing your in-progress working papers somewhere public can also lead to early citations of your work and credit for your ideas being first on the market. Sometimes working papers get cited hundreds of times before they get published in a scholarly journal. Lakhani, Jeppesen, Lohse & Panetta’s HBS working paper is a good example of this phenomenon. You can always just post your paper on your own blog and label it “working paper – do not cite without permission” or something, which encourages people who read it to contact you first to see if there’s a more current published version to cite. Or you can start a collective blog with some colleagues and publish working papers there, or you can see if your supervising professor’s lab or collective has a website he/she would be willing to post your working paper to. Some universities have working paper series (this is common in professional schools around the country – business, public policy, urban planning). Some schools also subscribe to services like Berkeley Electronic Press’ online tools, which allow groups to start working paper series (and journals, by the way). But the most common platform where some of the largest and most widely read working paper collections can be found is the Social Science Research Network. arXiv (pronounced “archive”) is kind of like an SSRN for computing and science folks, too. You would be very wise as a grad student to start a presence on SSRN and/or arXiv and start pushing your working papers there.

4. Make a Google Scholar profile. These days, it’s all about IMPACT when it comes to research. As the Internet has allowed new journals to blossom and research to become accessible to people all over the world more quickly and easily, the idea that you demonstrate the value of your work by saying you published it in the “top” journal or the “most respected” journal in your field just doesn’t cut it anymore. You’re better off demonstrating the impact of your research by showing how much of an impact it actually has had on scholarship. That is, how often are people citing your work, at what rates, and in what disciplines? Google Scholar tracks citations for you. It’s not perfect, of course. Small-time conference papers and conference proceedings are probably overrepresented in Google Scholar’s tracking, and citations that appear in books are very much underrepresented, but as a general estimate, it’s a good way to show that, indeed, people are citing your work. Saying “I published an article last year in [well-known journal]” is impressive, especially if you’re a grad student. But saying “I published an article last year in [well-known journal] and it’s already been cited 10 times in other journals according to Google Scholar” is WAY more impressive. It shows your work is actually impacting the field rather than showing your work is important merely because it is basking in the aura of some traditionally recognized “top” journal (which may or may not actually be having an impact these days). I’m of the somewhat controversial opinion that someone who is getting their article cited is having more of an impact, no matter how top-tier or bottom-tier the journal their work appears in, than someone who has published in a so-called top-tier journal and has not been cited very widely. I have never heard an argument that has convinced me otherwise. Most of the time, when people disagree with me on this point, their arguments are founded on nostalgia, tradition, and other feel-good “evidence” that members of a discipline’s old bloc spew forth in knee-jerk response. So do yourself a favor and make a Google Scholar profile and start tracking your citations. (And hooray for me – I got to 600 citations today!)

5. Determine your online thought leadership strategy and do it. Yep, you’re a brand, whether you like it or not. Academics are seen as experts in something, and they get hired as professors because they bring with them a unique identity as an authority or leader on a given topic, however narrow that topic may be. To position yourself as a thought leader on your area of expertise (or, if you’re a grad student, as an emerging, aspiring thought leader), you need to start making your expertise known and trusted online as much as in person. You can do this by getting on some social networking sites and by blogging regularly on topics squarely in the center of your expertise or on topics of tangential relation to your area of expertise. You don’t need to be on every social media tool – this is a common misconception. Just do one or a few social media tools really, really well. If you choose Twitter, then tweet a LOT, and keep it professional and focused (Guy McHendry’s Twitter account is a good example of a focused, thought-leading grad student studying national security, privacy, cultural studies, and other topics). If you choose LinkedIn, then really take advantage of LinkedIn by getting your profile to 100% completeness and using LinkedIn groups effectively. Just find something and do it well. It’s perfectly fine to inject your personality, your sarcastic humor, or whatever into your social media presence (social media is social after all!), but just be mindful to keep your extreme opinions and any pictures of you doing keg stands hidden on your Facebook account or something. Once you start getting papers presented at conferences or published, too, make sure Wikipedia includes citations to your work on the appropriate entry pages. Some people think this is vain, but it’s not – not any more vain than someone writing a traditional encyclopedia article about their areas of expertise for a print encyclopedia. Wikipedia is one of the most valuable places you can grow your thought leadership because it’s so widely read. Make a profile on Wikipedia and add citations to your work (and the work of your colleagues…it’s not ALL about you) as appropriate. Just have a bit of humility and remember that you’re not THE sole voice on a topic just because you’ve published an article on it…but the Wikipedians will surely correct you if you overstep your bounds.

If you do all these things in tandem and have all of these pieces hang together in a constellation that is “you” online, I am confident you’ll have established an online identity and a reputation as an emerging leader in your field by the time you graduate. This will help you get jobs, get you invited to contribute chapters to anthologies, get you invited to speak at conferences, get you media interviews, and land you paid consulting gigs. And it may even make you known to grant teams, who might be looking for someone like you to round out their multi-million-dollar grant application. And forcing yourself to publish bare-bones CVs and Google Scholar profiles may even spur you to be more productive in order to flesh these presences out a bit.

I say this from my own experience. I track what people click on on my website, and I know this stuff matters. It has worked for me. So do it. Consider this grad student online starter kit your first bit of homework in grad school.

Anything else I’m missing here in the starter kit? Leave your comments below.

How to Protect Your Time

One of the most common common phrases that came out of my colleagues’ mouths as I approached the end of graduate school and began life as a tenure-track professor at a research-intensive university was “be sure to protect your time.” Or it was some variation of that: “don’t take on too many service obligations–protect your time for research” or “protect your time–be sure your teaching doesn’t detract too much from your research.”

I’ve been asked to sit on a few “how-to” advice panels for graduate students, too, usually focused on the What to Expect After Grad School theme or the How to Manage Your Time as a Young Professor theme. On these panels, too, the common sentiment from fellow panelists seems to be to “protect your time.” A dean’s promise to “protect you in your first year or two” is a common sales pitch for hiring, too.

I have never liked this whole idea of protecting oneself from other obligations. I don’t like the protection-from-threat metaphor, and I especially dislike what it implies about the value of teaching and service in the academy. Contrary to the title of this post, this post is actually about what “protecting your time” means, and why you should largely avoid the “protect your time” advice.

Protection from What?

As a professor, you have to balance the three-legged stool of research, teaching, and service (note: three-legged objects always inherently balance. Things with four or more legs tend to wobble when they are out of alignment…but anyway). In a research-intensive university, such as the one I work for, the expectation is that you should spend the majority of your time doing research, less time on teaching, and the least amount of time on service. At a regional state school, teaching and research obligations may be more equal, and at liberal arts schools or community colleges, teaching will probably take a front seat. At a research-intensive university, I’ve heard all kinds of percentages for how much time you should devote to research, teaching, and service, from 85%, 10%, 5%, respectively, to 50%, 30%, 20%.

Because so much of your tenure case at a research-intensive university is based on the research you’ve done, it makes sense to focus your energies in this area. It is true that you never really feel like your teaching is perfect, no matter how many times you’ve taught a course or how prepared you are for each lecture, and so in that sense teaching can come to dominate a lot of your time. And service is kind of a constant thing that you can get drawn into, as there are always committees that need members and journal articles to review. When people talk of protecting themselves so they can focus on research, they are mostly talking about the threat of teaching and service on their research time. Ick.

Say Yes, Because Yes Brings Opportunity

The actor Rob Lowe was interviewed last spring about his success. The stand-out point in the article is that he has learned that saying “yes” is the best way to open doors professionally. Here’s my favorite line from this interview:

“Yes is the beginning of the road. And the road hopefully leads to you staying relevant.”

When you say “no” to things, you’re turning down opportunities. You know that cheesy quote about how you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take? It’s true.When you’re asked to teach a new course, you may see it as a burden because you’ll have to do all this prep work to get up to speed on how to teach the course. But really it’s an opportunity to brush up on some stuff you may have forgotten about, an opportunity to teach a new stream of students you don’t normally get a chance to teach (i.e., different majors, underclassmen), and an opportunity to broaden your teaching portfolio, which will only make you more valuable to your department in the long run.

When you’re asked to serve on a search committee to hire a new professor, you may see it as a burden because search committees take a lot of time, require a lot of poise, and can sometimes lead to a lot of conflict through tough debates with colleagues. But, really, serving on a search committee is an opportunity to have a say in who your future colleague will be, an opportunity to shape the trajectory of your department long-term, and an opportunity to get to know colleagues at a deeper level, even if that does mean getting into some arguments with them over who to hire.

Teaching a new course, serving on a search committee, advising a student club, reviewing papers for a journal – all of these things require a lot of time, but they bring tremendous opportunities. They don’t eat into your research time. Rather, they can enrich your research if you know how to cull the value out of these non-research opportunities.

Ultimately, too, professors – like actors – are just hoping to stay relevant. They want to be seen by their peers as contributing in fair ways to a department culture and continuing to innovate in the classroom and publish groundbreaking research. Saying “yes” more often provides many more opportunities to stay relevant and useful.

Say Yes, Because Saying No is Selfish

I cringe when some colleagues say you should only put enough effort into your teaching so that you’re not a total disaster in the classroom. And I also cringe when colleagues say you should say “no” to as much service as you can, unless you are asked to serve in high-profile, powerful committee roles or if the scope of service work is ultra-specific to what your research interests are.

No one gets everything they want, and professors have a reputation as out-of-touch prima donnas already. Saying “no” to teaching and service obligations is outright selfish, in my opinion. It shows you think you’re above your colleagues when it comes to pitching in or doing your fair share of the work. It shows you think your research is more important and/or deserves more time and attention than everyone else’s work. And it shows you want to stay in your bubble and avoid opportunities to grow and develop and reach outside your domain.

But at a much higher level, especially for professors working at public universities, saying “no” is a waste of taxpayer money. Professors are civil servants in many ways. They are charged with the responsibility of educating the citizens of a state to be competent employees and critical thinkers. You can’t produce great students if you don’t put serious effort into your teaching. The taxpayers also expect professors to be collegial, to be efficient (as any government agency is expected to be), and to work hard. You can’t make the wheels turn in an academic organization if professors are always opting out of service. Professors are not independent contractors who have been blessed with a life of introspection and self-serving intellectual exploration. Professors are, at their core, teachers and members of cohesive organizations. They profess what they know, and they serve citizens as much through public service as through publication and the creation of knowledge.

Professors have very comfortable lives (well, the tenure-track and tenured ones do, at least. Adjuncts are still chronically underemployed, but that’s another post). They make good livings, they get summers off, they get to be around young people in well-maintained buildings and campuses, and, after tenure, it’s nearly impossible to fire them for speaking out in any way they see fit. For these great occupational comforts, professors owe it to the people to be productive, to burn the candle at both ends if they have a crunch of research to do in combination with a taxing teaching load and service obligations. They do not get to shake off these responsibilities. They are supposed to find ways to take on more responsibilities.

When to Say No, or, How to Protect Your Time if You Really, Really Need to

In two years as a professor, I have said “no” twice. It was painful and difficult to muster the courage to say no, but I did it – once to teaching a class and once to advising a student’s graduate thesis. I taught an online class once, then said no to teaching it again because I very honestly couldn’t take on the burden. I was set to launch a journal, travel a bunch for conferences, and pursue more than one book publishing opportunity. I very truly had a full plate. The “no” to the student was a similar case at the same time. Plus I had never met the student before and didn’t see even the slightest overlap in our interests or my abilities to advise the project. So…two “nos” in two years. I consider that a pretty good record, actually.

Sometimes you do need to say no. If your fate depends on having a certain number of publications on your CV and you’re far from reaching that goal, then it’s fine to say no just a little bit in order to pour more time into research. This still does not mean it is OK to say no to everything you simply aren’t interested in. It means that if you’re behind in your work, then you need to focus on your work. But there may be a deeper problem here. If you feel like you are running on all cylinders and saying no to teaching and service obligations and you’re still not being as productive as you need to with your research, then maybe you should reconsider being at a research-intensive university. Or maybe you need to start letting your work life eat into your personal life. I’m serious.

If you do need to say “no,” though, I recommend you be proactive about it rather than reactive. Let your dean or some more senior mentor colleagues know you’re struggling to get your research done and that you need to teach the same prep again next semester. Or that you can’t really take on anything else for the next few months. This lets your dean or your mentors know in advance you may be struggling, and it can spur them to action to figure out ways to help. It also demonstrates that you’re in control of what you’re doing, you’ve assessed your productivity, and you’ve come to a decision that you need to say “no” in order to stay productive on the research front. This is better than the reactive approach, which is you saying “no” when asked to do something and seeming like you’re complaining or weaseling out of something when the time comes.
As always, this is just my advice, not some set of rules that governs all departments out there. The point of this post is to start encouraging a healthier discussion of the “three-legged stool” of professor life and get away from the phrase “protect your time.” It’s also a call to consider your duty to your colleagues and the public when you decide what work you will and won’t take on, and how many opportunities you may be missing when you say “no.”

Graduate Studies in Crowdsourcing

A few prospective graduate students have reached out to me over the years about pursuing a master’s or Ph.D. focused on crowdsourcing. I suspect my crowdsourcing-focused colleagues at other universities have received inquiries as well. It’s not a simple task to advise someone interested in studying crowdsourcing at the graduate level what programs are the best fits. Graduate study is indeed all about fit, and crowdsourcing’s terrain is odd, its scholars far-flung, and its disciplinary location varied. For what it’s worth, here’s what I have to say to someone wanting to get a master’s or Ph.D. focused on crowdsourcing. I welcome my crowdsourcing-focused colleagues at other institutions to help round out my comments.

Which Crowdsourcing? – Navigating the Language

One of the most confusing parts about the study of crowdsourcing is how many interpretations there are of the term “crowdsourcing.” Heck, some people don’t even spell it correctly (Note: it’s spelled “crowdsourcing,” not “crowd sourcing,” “crowd-sourcing,” or “CrowdSourcing”). Because crowdsourcing’s theoretical roots can be traced to human computation, open innovation, collective intelligence, open source software production, and other concepts, some scholars working in these fields refuse to ever use the term “crowdsourcing” in their work. Some scholars don’t see crowdsourcing as a phenomenon distinct from these other concepts, though I have tried to make the case in my work that crowdsourcing is a unique, different kind of thing, part of a larger and more diverse landscape of online participatory culture phenomena. Some scholars lump Wikipedia and open source software and YouTube in with crowdsourcing, but I certainly do not. There are different interpretations of what crowdsourcing means as a scholarly concept, and there are even more haphazard characterizations of crowdsourcing in the popular press.

The point here is that if you go looking for a graduate program where some crowdsourcing scholars might be, you won’t find the whole group of us by search the term “crowdsourcing.” I consider Karim Lakhani and Luis von Ahn leading thinkers on crowdsourcing, but I don’t think either of these men have ever used the term “crowdsourcing” in their published scholarly work. Rather, you’ll find these guys publishing on issues of “open innovation contests,” “broadcast search,” and “human computation.”

The more familiar you can become with the scholarly literature on crowdsourcing, the easier it will be for you to track down a good graduate program for you to pursue these kinds of questions. Mine the bibliographies from the published work on crowdsourcing and see where that leads you. Learn the theoretical pathways through crowdsourcing and you’ll be able to identify where the fertile ground is for you to pursue your scholarly questions. There’s good research happening about crowdsourcing that goes by many names. The trick is to locate it.

What Discipline?

To my knowledge, there are no degree programs (yet) specifically in crowdsourcing. There aren’t even that many programs in Internet studies specifically (I know of two: Curtin University and University of Oxford). Because there aren’t many dedicated Internet studies programs, most of the people doing Internet research come from other departments. A look at those who attend the Association of Internet Researchers’ (AoIR) conference or who subscribe to the AoIR listserv will turn up a number of academic departments: sociology, information/library science, communication studies, journalism & mass communication, anthropology, art and art history, architecture, design, computer science and engineering, political science, business, urban planning, and so on. We Internet researchers are a motley crew (and AoIR is our island of misfit toys, a place where we can all be at home in our different-ness).

So how do you know which discipline is the best discipline to get a degree in where you can focus on crowdsourcing? Well, that depends on exactly what kinds of questions you have about crowdsourcing. If you’re interested in how to actually design and engineer crowdsourcing platforms and systems, how to optimize their performance, and so on, then you’re probably better off in a computer science program, or perhaps an information science or computer engineering program. If you’re interested in the performance of crowdsourcing applications (i.e., how to know when they’ve succeeded or if they’ve improved a business function), then an academic graduate program in business or management (academic: MS. As opposed to professional: MBA) would be the best fit. If you’re interested in how and why crowds form, how they are motivated, and their perceptions of crowdsourcing applications, you could look into a journalism & mass communication program, a psychology program, a sociology program, information science, and so on. If you’re interested in a specific topical domain, such as journalism or urban planning or governance, you could look to those programs (though be aware that some crowdsourcing scholars are engaged in research outside of their home department’s topical domain. I, for instance, am housed in a journalism school but frequently do work in urban planning and governance).

Crowdsourcing has its tentacles spread across many disciplines, and those of us who spend a lot of our time studying how and why crowdsourcing works and extending its reach into other domains and problems come from a variety of backgrounds. But the home department where you get your degree will color the way you approach questions about crowdsourcing. An M.A. in journalism and mass communication, for example, will require you to take required core courses in the department, such as Media Law and Mass Communication Research Methods. And a methods course in mass communication will focus on the methods and research of the discipline, which is influenced by theories such as agenda setting and other “classic” mass communication theories. And each university’s mass communication department has its own methodological bent, whether it’s quantitative or qualitative in nature. On the other hand, a master’s in urban planning will require you to take courses in land use planning and other practical courses relevant for planners. And a master’s in communication studies from a strong critical/cultural studies program where most of the professors are rhetoricians will no doubt inject you with that view of scholarship. Basically, you’ll get a big dose of whatever the dominant paradigm is at that university, in that department, in that particular program. If you’re not particularly drawn to, say, the topic of journalism, then a program in journalism & mass communication may not be the best fit, even if you’re hoping to work with a crowdsourcing researcher who teaches in that department (like me!).

After the required core courses, though, many graduate programs will let you carve out your own path, sometimes encouraging you to take course work outside of the home department or even outside of the university. Generally speaking, for graduate programs that do not have a strong lab culture (common in the hard sciences, this is where you basically affiliate with a lab and your graduate work is focused almost entirely on the work of a professor’s lab or grant), you will probably be able to write a thesis or dissertation focused on crowdsourcing if you’re persistent. Because crowdsourcing can tie so well into many theoretical, methodological, and topical domains, you have a lot of wiggle room to pursue studies in crowdsourcing within the bounds of a given degree program.

Questions You Should Ask When Checking Out a Graduate Program

If you want to study crowdsourcing, there are some key questions you should ask yourself when evaluating whether or not a program is a good fit. This check list works well with just about any topic you’re interested in studying, actually:

  • Is there a professor in  this program who studies crowdsourcing (or a related concept)? Is this professor willing to take on new advisees? Is this professor qualified to supervise my research? These are the most important questions to ask yourself. Graduate study is an individual pursuit, and scholarly life is about people, personalities, and individual research agendas. It would be better to go to a program that has just one professor who is a perfect fit for your research than to go to a program that generally fits your interests but doesn’t have any single professor who is a great fit for your particular interests. You go to graduate school to study with people, not to study topics. This is especially true for Ph.D. programs. There should be someone at that program who you admire, you should be familiar with his/her work, and you should be willing to work with that person closely for at least a few years. It’s also important to inquire whether that professor is willing to take on a new graduate student as an advisee. That professor may be booked solid with other graduate students and may say no to taking on any new ones until his/her current students graduate. A professor may also not have enough grant money to fund a new graduate student, and many programs are moving into a grant model where professors only get grad students that they can fund with the grants they win. And be sure that the person you want to work with is qualified, or allowed, to supervise your work. Some schools have faculties where only a portion of them are actually qualified or allowed by the university to supervise graduate work. Most universities have rules that say professors can only supervise graduate students who are pursuing a degree they already have, too, which means that a professor who has a master’s degree but not a doctorate may not be allowed to supervise a Ph.D. student.
  • Is the graduate program flexible enough to allow me to pursue my research interests in crowdsourcing? Some graduate programs are highly structured, where all or nearly all of your course work is prescribed for you. But some graduate programs are highly flexible, requiring only 1-3 core courses of all graduate students and letting you create your own path through the degree. Because there are no graduate programs specifically dedicated to crowdsourcing, you’ll probably want some flexibility to craft your own degree path. Figure out what’s required in the curriculum and what courses you’ll get to curate into your degree plan. Some of the most interesting work in crowdsourcing is interdisciplinary, so find out if you’re encouraged (or even allowed) to take courses in other departments, too.
  • Are there other professors in the program or in the university who have affiliated interests? Let’s assume you’ve found a great program that has one expert crowdsourcing scholar on the faculty you’re dying to work with. You still need to identify a few other faculty members to be part of your supervisory committee. Most Ph.D. students have to round up a chair (dissertation director) plus 2-4 other faculty members who serve as members of the supervisory committee (dissertation readers). Sometimes there are rules, too, that say that one of these other members needs to be from outside the department. It is important that there are other faculty members in that program or elsewhere at the university who are willing to serve on your supervisory committee and are capable of making sense of your research. If the crowdsourcing scholar you’re working with is the odd duck in the department, you may have some difficulty rounding up a committee that supports your work. And remember that crowdsourcing is an Internet-based phenomenon. If the rest of the faculty isn’t Internet savvy, for instance, it may be a challenge to round up a committee that can best support your work. This doesn’t mean professors are unable or unwilling to bend in new directions – if anything, it’s a joy to step outside your comfort zone to advise new students with exciting research questions. But it sometimes causes problems.
  • And then all the regular questions about grad school: Do they offer fellowship funding? Are the grad students and faculty collegial and welcoming? Is it in a place I want to live and can afford to live? Is this program going to prepare me for future employment or continued study in a satisfactory way? Am I ready to take on this commitment for the next few years? Will my family or partner kill me if I go to grad school? Etc.

The Outside Committee Member Option

Many schools are open to the possibility of having a student’s supervisory committee consist of one or more members from outside of the university entirely. Programs like Skype make this even easier. I had Karim Lakhani on my Ph.D. committee from a distance – he was in Boston, I was in Salt Lake City, and he attended my defense meetings via conference call. If you find that one program is a better home for you but you’re still eager to have one specific person on your committee from a distance, see if the university will allow that person to sit on your committee remotely and Skype in for meetings. This is becoming quite common. There are some technical headaches, but it’s generally a good thing.

So Who are the Crowdsourcing Scholars? Where are they Located?

This list is not exhaustive, and I welcome other folks studying crowdsourcing (and willing/eager to take on new grad students) to contact me and add their name to this list. Here are some folks studying crowdsourcing and related phenomena:

I welcome any other input from folks out there studying crowdsourcing. What do you think are the best programs for this kind of study? What other folks am I missing from this admittedly short list?

Bad Publishing Experiences

I’ve had my ups and downs with academic publishing. I’ve been rejected as many times as (maybe more than) I’ve had work accepted for publication. But a rejection within the normal flow of academic peer review isn’t a bad experience. It may sting a little, but in the end failure is a good thing if you know how to leverage that failure as motivation to do better next time.

The kind of bad publishing experience I’m talking about here happens on a whole other level. Book projects that fall through the cracks, editors who lie to you, reviewers who don’t understand the constraints of the journal they’re reviewing for – these are the kinds of bad experiences I’m talking about. In this post, I talk about some of these bad experiences and perhaps how to avoid them. Along the way I’ll sprinkle in my own tales of woe and those I’ve heard from my colleagues.

The Anthology that Never Happens

When I was a master’s student, I saw a call for chapters for an edited volume come across the CRTNet listserv. I was a fan of a TV series from the 1990s that had some groundbreaking themes regarding sexuality and gender and teens, and I figured an analysis of this series would make a great contribution to the anthology announced on the listserv. I contacted the two co-editors and pitched them my idea. They liked it a lot and encouraged me to submit a full chapter for the book. I spent weeks doing meticulous close readings of the series (which I had on DVD) and writing up what I thought was a really great analysis. I submitted it to the editors, got an acknowledgment of receipt, and the usual “we’ll let you know the next steps.”

Abandoned book projects are quite sad.

As time passed, I grew anxious. This would be my first substantial publication, and I was eager to 1) know how the publishing process worked in general, and 2) find out the fate of my specific chapter. Every time I inquired, which happened about every other month, the co-editors would tell me they were still looking at the chapters, they were waiting to receive some other chapters, they were negotiating with the publisher, or some other kind of “it’ll be just a little bit longer” response. Two years later – two years! – I was moving on to other projects, and I even landed my first publication elsewhere in the meantime. I inquired one last time about my chapter and found out the co-editors never really had a publisher commit to the project and that they were both overworked and probably wouldn’t be pursuing the book after all.

I wasted my time, basically – a lot of people wasted their time. And the chapter I wrote was so tailored to the book’s theme and technical requirements, it would have taken quite a reworking to send somewhere else. Plus, an entire book specifically about the TV series I analyzed came out the very next week. I missed the boat.

How you can avoid this scenario: Any time you’re thinking of responding to a call for chapters for an edited book, you should directly ask the editors up front whether they have already secured a publisher and what the exact time line for publication is. (Then, add 6-12 months to that time line, since it always takes longer to publish books than editors think it will.) If they don’t have at least some pretty firm verbal commitments from publishers, and if those publishers aren’t reputable, then don’t even think about sending in your work. It’s not worth your time, and you can easily send that chapter idea somewhere else as a journal article or to another book that already has a publisher lined up. Plus, book chapters generally won’t count for tenure as much as journal articles will, most anthologies are not peer-reviewed, and you chapter won’t end up in a searchable scholarly database for others to cite.

The Enthusiastic Editor who Reneges

I presented a paper at AEJMC years ago. At the end of the panel, a few people came up to the speakers’ table and made small talk about the specific research papers. As I talked to one person about my presentation, I saw this man behind him trying to edge in to speak with me. When my conversation kept going on, the man instead butted in, handed me his business card, and said (direct quote – I remember it well): “I want to publish your paper. Please send it to me.” On the card was the man’s name and university affiliation, as well as his affiliation as “Editor” of a well-known mass communication journal. I was shocked and flattered. I told him I would certainly send it in.

Two days after I got back from the conference, I shot the man an email thanking him for inviting me to send in my manuscript. I told him I wanted a week or two to incorporate feedback I received at the conference and that I’d be formatting the paper for his journal and sending it in soon. He replied and said that was great and he looked forward to seeing the paper. I spent a LOT of time reformatting the paper for this journal, a citation style I was a bit baffled by and had never used. I reworked the content of my paper as well. Now, this journal was archaic in its submission requirements, requiring me to snail mail in four copies of my paper to the editor. I mailed it in, and I was eager to see the reviews. I figured it may not be accepted, but at least I’d get some good feedback from the reviewers. And given the outright statement from the editor that he wanted to “publish” my paper, I hoped I’d at least get a revise-and-resubmit decision.

"I want to publish your paper" may actually mean "I want to lower my journal's acceptance rate."

Nope.

A week later I got a snail mail paper letter from the editor saying he was desk rejecting the manuscript and wouldn’t be sending it out for review. Not even sent out for review? You sat through my paper presentation at AEJMC and you said you wanted to publish the thing, and you wouldn’t even send it out for review!? You had me reformat my paper, print it out four times and pay extra postage to mail it to you, and no review?! There was no explanation in the letter, really – just that it didn’t fit and he wasn’t going to waste reviewers’ time on it. I hold a pretty strong grudge against this man and this journal to this day. It was one of the most un-editorly, unprofessional, and unkind acts I have ever witnessed in academia.

How you can avoid this scenario: Well, I’m not sure how you can avoid it, really. If the editor of a journal you (used to) respect comes up to you after hearing your conference presentation and says he “wants to publish it,” then you should probably send it in. In this case, I think this editor was just a jerk and a liar. Even if, once he read my paper, he found it actually did not fit the journal, he at least owed me a bit of a deeper explanation for why it wasn’t a fit (and perhaps why he may have initially thought it was a fit based on my presentation).

I suppose you can always try to pin people down when they approach you like that. Perhaps I should have countered at the conference and said “so you mean you’ll send my full paper out for peer review?” and gotten him to say “yes.” But I couldn’t have known that at the time. The point here is that some editors may say anything to get you to submit to their journal, and there’s more value in them wasting your time (i.e., they can claim a tougher rejection/acceptance rate by rejecting your paper) than you may be aware of. You may not be able to avoid the scenario, but you can do as I’ve done and tell your tale to as many people as you can, smear the name of the editor and journal as widely as you can, and discourage your colleagues and students from submitting to it.

The Misaligned Reviews

I know many colleagues who have had trouble with misaligned reviewers and editors, and I’ve experienced this a few times myself. Misalignment can mean at least two things: 1) the reviewers and editor offer conflicting evaluations of your work and reconcile those conflicts by either rejecting your piece, making you wait while several additional reviews are solicited, or giving too much weight to one of the reviews in the pile; and 2) what the reviewers and editor tell you does not line up with the technical requirements of the journal.

Misalignment is a common occurrence in the review process. Engineering a solution to bridge the gap is usually more difficult than writing the paper in the first place.

In this first scenario, which is quite common, you may be upset to see one cranky reviewer’s opinion carry so much weight. Or you may be upset that, even though the two reviewers kind of like your manuscript, the editor still disagrees with the reviews and rejects you. Or you may just get strung out while additional reviews are gathered, and in the end you still get rejected many months later. But the worst case scenario is when the editor extends a revise-and-resubmit decision based on the conflicting reviews, you revise your paper accordingly, you resubmit, and you still get rejected after the second round of reviews. This is the most painful because it sucks so much time and energy and because you end up trying to appease several people over a long period of time only to fall short. And some people go through several rounds of revision before getting the axe, which really sucks.

In the second scenario, which I’ve encountered twice, the reviews and the revise-and-resubmit decision ask you to add a lot of content to your paper, which is already at the maximum length allowed by the journal’s technical requirements. In one instance, I was asked to include the equivalent of about 1,000 words of additional literature and discussion to a paper that was already 100 words over limit when I initially submitted it…and yet the reviewers also wanted me to keep all my previous content more or less intact. It’s a confusing directive.

How you can avoid this scenario: Ask direct questions of the editor to make sure you have a clear understanding of what you need to get done and how you’ll go about doing it. In the case of conflicting reviews, you may need to side with Reviewer 2 while carefully, politely refuting all of Reviewer 1’s contrary advice. Peer review is supposed to be a scholarly conversation to improve your work, not a harsh judgment or gatekeeping process, so don’t be shy about trying to open up the conversation with the editor and with the reviewers (you’re never going to know who the reviewers are, and they won’t know you. But you can ask the editor to pass along your direct rebuttal letters to the reviewers when you resubmit, and frequently editors will do this anyway). And if the reviews ask you to add a lot more content to your already lengthy paper, point this contradiction out to the editor and ask him/her whether you should ignore the reviewers’ suggestions or ignore the word limit. The editor should have answers for your questions. It’s not supposed to be a guessing game for you.

Also, just get used to conflicting reviews. It happens, and it’s kind of the beauty of the peer review process. If your work doesn’t rub someone wrong along the way, then you’re probably not saying anything interesting anyway.

The Black Hole

I recently sent a manuscript to a well-known journal in my field. I sent this paper to a previous journal, and when it was rejected there (for not being theoretical enough…a common complaint of my work), the editor at that journal recommended I send it to this other journal, which was a better home for more practically focused work. So I sent it in. I’ll spare the details of the submission process and the back-and-forth with the editorial assistant (I never got to interact with the editor!) because it would reveal the journal’s identity, but suffice it to say that I did not get acknowledgement of receipt of my submission in a timely manner (and only when I prodded for it), and I got no follow-up about my manuscript along the way. I also was ignored on half the emails I sent to the editor and editorial assistant.

Black holes. Where nothing escapes. Where no one can hear you scream. Where your manuscript is probably not even under review yet.

During this waiting period, I heard from one colleague who let his paper sit at this journal for a full year, without hearing back on it, before he ultimately decided to withdraw his manuscript. I also heard from two other colleagues who felt the journal was just a venue for the editor to publish his friends’ and students’ work, and that the perception was that some work didn’t even have to go out for real peer review. Basically, the journal’s getting a shady reputation, despite the prestige of its editorial board and the visibility of the major organization that publishes it. I ultimately decided to withdraw my manuscript, and I CCed the associate editors on my withdraw email. Unsurprisingly, no response to that email either.

It was a waste of time for me. I sent my paper to a black hole.

How you can avoid this scenario: Follow up regularly. If you submit a manuscript on a Monday and haven’t received an email back saying it’s been received by Wednesday, it’s OK to send a follow-up email and politely inquire that it was received in good order. If it’s been under review for the typical time specified on the journal’s website (or, if it’s not specified, then 3 months, which is typical) and you haven’t heard anything, you can gently inquire about the status of your manuscript with the editor.

This is how I word that email, by the way:

Dear [editor's name],

I am gently inquiring about the status of manuscript, “[manuscript title],” [manuscript processing number, if applicable], that I submitted for review on [date you submitted it]. I look forward to a decision and the possibility of continuing the publishing process with [journal name].

Thank you,
Daren Brabham

And if you don’t hear back, keep following up. As long as you don’t get rude in your tone, you’re not bothering them. It’s an editor’s job to keep you informed about the status of your manuscript, especially after it’s been more than 3 months. And if you get the cold shoulder – especially if you’re also hearing bad things about the journal’s reputation along the way – then it may be time to withdraw your manuscript. If you do withdraw, a decision you should not take lightly, you should explain to the editors that you’re withdrawing, why you’re withdrawing, and probably also include a timeline of your contacts and their (non)contacts with you along the way.

You have to make tenure. You’re on your own clock. Don’t let a lazy or rude or nonresponsive journal editor get in the way of that pursuit.

The Change of Editor

Sometimes the editorial process is long – several rounds of review that take many months each, as well as a very long time from acceptance to actual publication. Sometimes editors will change during that process, and the new editor may feel differently about your article than the editor before. I submitted a manuscript to a journal almost a year ago. It went through one round of review and I was asked to revise it. I revised it, addressing all of the editor’s and reviewers’ concerns, and I sent it back in for a second round of review. I figured that the next decision I got would be for minor touch-ups or perhaps an acceptance. But while my paper was under review a second time, the editor suddenly resigned and a new editor took his place. This new editor – a good person, I should add – was left with a pile of manuscripts in various states of review. (The editor change also delayed my decision by about a month.) This new editor’s take on my manuscript, however, was that it needed yet another round of revision, this time to address different things (a complete rearrangement of my literature section). It’s OK – I understand. But it is a little bit of a let down. I’m currently working on the revision to send it back in for round 3.

When a new editor assumes the throne, you never know what will happen.

But this could have gone a lot worse. The new editor could come in and toss out a number of manuscripts that might be in their 4th or 5th round of review after a year or more, with authors feeling more and more confident they might get an acceptance decision next. That’s the power of an editor, and this kind of thing comes with the territory unfortunately.

How you can avoid this scenario: You can try to to appeal a decision with the new editor, explaining that you have made all the changes you’ve been asked to make prior to the new editor taking the helm. But this may not fly. It’s more common for editor changes to happen in such a way that late-stage manuscripts are shepherded through by the former editor, sometimes with various editorial footnotes stating that, though the new editor is listed on the journal’s masthead, certain articles were accepted by the previous editor. But sometimes editorial changes are sudden – editors are people, and life happens. You don’t have a lot of control in this scenario.

However, if you end up doing a few rounds of revision and the new editor ultimately disagrees and rejects your work, you can send your paper elsewhere. When you do send it to a new journal, you can explain in your submission cover letter that it went through a few rounds of review somewhere else and that, due to editorial changes, it didn’t sit well with that new journal’s editor. You can even include the reviewer reports and your revision memos when you submit to the new journal. The editor at this new venue will likely find your candor refreshing, and having seen how you’ve already improved your manuscript may make your review process there easier. Again, all of this publishing stuff is a big scholarly conversation. Better to just be upfront about your manuscript’s history.

 

Hopefully this is a helpful look at some of the things that can go wrong in the publishing process. You’ll probably have your own instance of bad luck in time, and the more you try to publish, the more you’ll run into these roadblocks. But, as always, keep pushing. You’ll stumble into some good luck eventually.

Good Students Aren’t Always Good Scholars

Just because you ace all your tests and get awesome grades on your papers and kill it in class discussion does not mean you automatically have what it takes to be a good scholar. Good students try hard, they listen to directions, and they meet expectations put on them. Good scholars, on the other hand, set their own expectations and are propelled by their own sense of urgency and curiosity. This entrepreneurial spirit is a must by the time you graduate from a Ph.D. program, and you should really try to embrace this spirit earlier in your scholarly training.

Graduate School is Not an Extension of Undergraduate Education

Many people make the faulty assumption that a master’s degree is just an advanced bachelor’s degree, and that a doctorate is just an extension of a master’s degree. Yes, some professional master’s degrees are set up this way, with just another year or two of prescribed course work beyond the bachelor’s, but any serious academic master’s degree involves some amount of self-starting and some kind of final capstone accomplishment. These master’s programs may leave many of the courses up to your choosing, requiring you to craft your own unique program of study that meets your needs, and they also usually require comprehensive exams, a final project, and/or a traditional thesis at the end. These two qualities are what make a master’s program a scholar endeavor and not a student endeavor. And it’s this entrepreneurial spirit that is the reason many master’s programs require some evidence of maturity (often a year or two in the working world or some other evidence of research experience as an undergrad) before admitting students.

Doctoral programs are even more entrepreneurial than master’s degrees. Yes, they almost always involve formal course work, but nearly every Ph.D. leaves much of that course work up to the student’s design. And just about every Ph.D. program culminates in a comprehensive exam process and a dissertation. There is basically no way you can get through a Ph.D. without being an entrepreneur. You can’t get a Ph.D. if you still see yourself as a student (in the undergrad sense).

Grades Don’t Matter

For the record, no one in a master’s or Ph.D. program cares what your GPA is. One reason is that graduate grades may not even be on the same letter scale or grade point scale. Graduate grades at UNC, for instance, are H (high pass), P (pass), L (low pass), and F (fail). Hs are rare, Ls put you in danger of being kicked out of the program, and Fs will certainly get you kicked out of the program. Basically, you’re supposed to Pass in a graduate program – you’re supposed to master the objectives. This is a very different system than A, B, C, etc. It assumes that you’re there to become competent in some topic and grow beyond that to where you can become a producer of knowledge.

This also means that graduate grades are, when calculated numerically for transcripts, quite inflated. If making a B means you’re not doing well in the program (as was the case at Utah), then that means everyone who’s still in the program has a brilliant GPA. The point is: who cares what your GPA in graduate school was? Just leave it off your CV and focus on what you’re going to do with your course work later on rather than focus on making straight As in your graduate course work. Think broadly about the application of your knowledge and you’ll end up with awesome grades anyway.

Why Academic Entrepreneurship Will Set You Apart

It’s a really rough job market right now for academics. Professor jobs are few and far between. A publication on your CV used to get you a guaranteed job at a research university, but now it takes a book or a collection of published articles to get an interview. When so many people have impressive CVs, how do you stand out from the competition in an academic job hunt? The answer: demonstrate that you’re a self-starter.

If I look at the CVs of two Ph.D. candidates who have the same number of prestigious publications, then what more do I look for? Well, I’m trying to see how many of those publications were solo-authored or first-authored and how many were produced as a member of a lab or writing team. I know there are different cultures at different universities and in different disciplines, but generally speaking, being a lead author or a sole author means an article was a study you took charge of, and being a subsequent author in a group means you helped another person’s project happen. Basically this distinction is one of entrepreneurship and subordination, between leading and following. If the question is “which candidate will be most likely to take charge of their own program of research when we hire them,” then the answer is, almost always, “the academic entrepreneur.”

So how do you stand out as an academic entrepreneur? Here are some tips:

  • Initiate your own papers. The easiest thing to do is just start writing your own papers, start finding your own voice. Don’t feel like you have time to do this? Too bad. You do have the time. And if you want an academic job, you’ll make the time to write your own papers. You crank out a ton of papers in grad school, and there’s no reason at least half of these papers shouldn’t make their way into the publication pipeline. What if your research involves hazardous or expensive materials (e.g., in the sciences), and there’s just no way you can run your own research projects as a grad student? Well, you have two options: 1) ask the lab director if you can, in fact, take the lead on a paper that’s produced in the lab. If the lab director cares about your academic development, then he/she will be open to this idea, especially if you’re proposing to do all the heavy lifting to make it happen (and sometimes if you guarantee to include the lab director as a subsequent co-author). Or, 2) think of related papers that you could write on your own that don’t directly require the expensive and hazardous materials. These related papers could be comments on methodology, proposals for teaching activities related to your research findings, literature reviews, and even book reviews. You may or may not need the lab director’s permission to write these papers, especially if they’re drawn from lab experiences, but you can definitely get them done without needing a grant. My point is: there’s no excuse for not producing your own work and demonstrating you know how to be an academic entrepreneur.
  • Raise your public profile. You can always start blogging on a certain topic or write guest columns for newsletters or other publications. Or you can try to get on roundtables and panels at conferences. Think about branding yourself as an expert in something, with your own unique take on it, beyond the genre of writing papers. This intangible stuff matters. If people have heard of your name, then that’s always a good start to being seen as an academic entrepreneur.
  • Don’t forget teaching and service. Research is important, and publishing papers is the best way to demonstrate your research prowess. But teaching and service are always important to rounding out your academic entrepreneur image. You can propose to teach certain courses in your area of expertise, and you can get involved in service activities for specific professional associations, all of which speak to your scholarly abilities. You can even seek out innovative teaching grants to develop new courses in a special topic. Teaching a course on your own is also good for demonstrating independence. If all you’ve ever done is TA classes for another professor, then it’s difficult for a hiring committee to determine if you truly know how to teach a course day in and day out, let alone if you know how to build a syllabus from the ground up. In a tough job market, hiring committees have their choice of candidates who have already taught their own courses, so it is important to find a way to teach a course on your own at least once before you finish your Ph.D. If you can’t get these opportunities at your university – and often it’s just a matter of asking – then no one is stopping you from asking the local community college for teaching opportunities.

Academic entrepreneurs (aka good scholars) are different from good students because they think of all these things. Entrepreneurs are trying to make opportunities happen, they’re trying to take the lead on projects, they’re taking the initiative to write their own papers, and they’re sniffing out funding and teaching gigs and leadership opportunities in service organizations.

Academic entrepreneurs may not make the best grades (to be clear, though, they don’t make bad grades). But all of their good efforts are foregrounded and grades are an afterthought anyway. If all you have to show is good grades and not a portfolio of research papers, teaching, and service, then you’re still stuck in the good student mindset and haven’t fully transitioned to being a good scholar. In short, you’re not ready to be an academic, because you’re still a student. A good student, but still a student.

If you’re thinking of a scholarly career, then it’s time to transition from student to scholar. The sooner the better, frankly. Being a scholar, especially a scholar who is in the running to get a good academic job, requires an entrepreneurial spirit. It’s not just about the grades. And it’s not just about the ability to build a CV full of publications. It’s about making sure all of that work looks like you did it, that it was driven by your curiosity and energy.

Thesis and Exam Defenses

As if being a grad student wasn’t hard enough, grad students also have to formally defend themselves in front of their supervisory committee members at least once and sometimes as many as four times in pursuit of their degrees. This post is all about how you can navigate these defense meetings.

Wearing these to your defense meeting probably won’t help, but you can certainly try.

What is a Defense?

A defense is a formal meeting between a grad student and his/her supervisory committee. This committee consists of a primary advisor (aka committee chair) and 2-4 other folks, usually professors on campus. Some programs require at least one of these other committee members to be from outside your department and sometimes outside of the school entirely. Sometimes these other committee members include working professionals instead of academics. This is sometimes the case in Ph.D. programs in computer science in places like Seattle or California, where there are many qualified professionals working in local tech companies. Professionals on supervisory committees (and all committee members, really) are usually required to hold the degree the student in pursuing, though, so if the student is pursuing a master’s degree, all of the committee members should at least have a master’s. These other committee members are sometimes called “readers” or “outside readers.”

In the meeting, the student is required to defend something he or she has done in pursuit of the degree. If the defense is for comprehensive exams, then you defend your exam responses. If it’s a thesis defense, then you defend your thesis.

When to Defend

Every academic grad program has a formal path spelled out for students to get from the beginning of the program to the very end. Master’s students will likely have to defend their final work, whether it’s a thesis or a professional project or a set of comprehensive exam responses, at least once toward the very end of their degree. Some master’s programs even have two defenses, a “path exam” defense at the end of the first year and a final thesis/project defense at the end of the degree (usually at the end of year two). Ph.D. students follow a process that is more consistent from university to university. At the end of course work, Ph.D. students take comprehensive exams, which they then have to defend (usually at the end of year three). Then they write a dissertation proposal, which they have to defend (usually at the beginning of year four). And then they write their whole dissertation, which they defend at the very end of the degree (usually at the end of year four or five). Some doctoral programs sandwich the exam defense and the dissertation proposal defense into a single meeting, which means the student usually takes exams, then gets to work on a proposal, then has the joint-purpose meeting a few months after the exams. Either way, just about every academic grad program has at least one defense meeting.

Professional grad programs – MBA, JD, MD, MPH, MHA, etc. – are very different. They may or may not include defenses, but they have their own set of serious hurdles to cross toward degree completion. Professionally oriented master’s programs in otherwise academic disciplines, though, such as MAs and MSs in the humanities or social sciences or hard sciences, are more likely to involve traditional academic milestones like defenses.

What Happens in a Defense?

There are generally two levels of inquiry going on in a defense. On the first level, the committee is trying to clarify any errors or gaps or deficiencies in your written product. In this case, the committee asks you specific questions, requiring you to explain away the deficiency. If the committee thinks you misinterpreted a theory or needs better explanation of a certain concept you wrote about, they will ask you these questions directly. Ideally, you are trying to keep this first level of inquiry that involves clarification to a minimum. These are basically the places in your exam/thesis where you kind of got it wrong or you weren’t clear or precise enough, and the committee is testing your basic level of competence – did you get this part of your exam/thesis right or wrong, in other words.

The second level of inquiry happening in a defense involves the committee advancing you into deeper levels of synthesis. You really should aim for the bulk of your defense meeting to be about this second, deeper level of inquiry. Moving into this second level of inquiry means that you more or less got the answer “right” and now the committee wants to challenge you and push you forward. In this level of inquiry, the committee may ask you questions that may be tangential to your work or your exam response. They may ask you to imagine debates  between two theorists who did not live in the same era. They may ask you how your work relates to current events. They may ask you to explain the trajectory of your work in the next 10 years. These questions can be about anything, really, but generally they’re asking you to engage deeper concepts, to play in the space of academia, to tackle delicate concepts in ways a mature scholar might.

This is a scene from a European Ph.D. defense. Notice the formal attire, the candidate presenting to a panel of professors, and the members of the public in the audience in the back. Defenses vary from country to country. (Photo from Jude’s Food and Life blog).

These second-level questions are usually the scariest because they may be totally unrelated to what you’ve written about in your exams/thesis. But they are important questions because it’s the committee’s chance to test you as an academic colleague rather than just a student. They want to see how you respond when pushed. They want to see how you think, not just how you are able to master the thoughts of other published scholars. They want to see your stances and your scholarly identity.

The worst defenses are the ones where students regurgitate the work of others and don’t seriously engage the discourse of the discipline. You can know the work of Foucault or Weber or any other important theorist by heart and still not pass a defense. You pass a defense by having a voice of your own, by taking a stand, by locating your own voice in the scholarly discourse. This doesn’t mean you arrogantly state whether you agree or disagree with certain scholars. It means that, having mastered the literature on a given topic, you have an opinion on which directions are better than others and which lines of thought you will pursue in your own work going forward.

Carving out your own identity as a scholar is extremely important for Ph.D. students, especially at the final dissertation defense. If your committee pushes you with second-level inquiry and you are hesitant about staking your own claim in the discourse and continually fall back on the work of others, then it demonstrates that you’re NOT ready to conduct your own independent research and contribute to the body of knowledge as a scholar.

People fail defenses when they completely bomb the first-level type of questions–when they’ve completely gotten stuff wrong. But failed defenses happen most often when students can’t play in the second-level space, when they have no voice of their own.

Preparing for a Defense

So how do you prepare for a defense? You prepare by 1) knowing your own work, 2) knowing related work, 3) situating your work in larger scholarly/professional context, 4) finding a voice, and 5) looking forward and developing a vision for how you will contribute to the discipline or profession as a more enlightened scholar.

Don’t just think about what other theorists and researchers have said on a given topic. Rather, think about how these different voices in the scholarly discourse are in tension or conversation with one another. Think about the intellectual history behind a topic, don’t just collect facts about a topic. Remember that research is done by people, who each have their own approaches and perspectives. They may actively disagree with each other. They may collaborate. They may have studied under one another when they were grad students. You have to know this human dimension to knowledge or else you miss the entire point that scholarship is an industry of knowledge making – an industry you’re about to join in earnest. Don’t memorize theorists’ names and throw them around like fashion labels to look smart when you talk. Know their names because your work has meaning that is explained through theirs.

Dynamics

The dynamics in a defense may be really complicated. In some schools, the informal understanding is that your chair is your biggest advocate and your other committee members play the role of attacker. In other schools, all of your committee members – chair included – are on the offensive. In some cases, each committee member will stick to his/her area of expertise, but in other cases committee members may question you on all kinds of things you may not have known they knew about. The business school professor on my committee, for instance, asked me more questions pertaining to critical/cultural theory than some of my more cultural studies-minded committee members did. This surprised me a bit, but I handled it.

Some schools have other faculty members and grad students in the room when you defend, who certainly add a bit of performance pressure and who may also be invited to engage you in questioning. And many publicly funded schools technically have fully public defenses, especially at the thesis defense stage, where members of the public are invited to attend and sometimes question you. Sadly, even with these public defenses, there is a terrible job done to advertise the defense, and so outsiders rarely attend. Ask around to get a feel for what the dynamic will be in your defense.

(For another good take on dissertation prospectus defenses, check out Guy McHendry’s post.)

Finding the Right Publication Venues

So you’ve written a really great academic paper, and you’re ready to try your hand at publishing. How do you know where to send your work? What journals are respected? What journals are the best fit for your work? And what other things do you need to consider when you send your work out for review? This is a much more complicated topic than you might think, especially for highly interdisciplinary and evolving disciplines, such as Internet studies. Here are some things to think about.

Prestige vs. Likelihood of Publication

You shouldn’t be ashamed to admit that you factor in the likelihood of publication into your decision. Everyone thinks about this. I could send a paper off to the very best journal in my discipline, and that paper may go through a few rounds of review only to be rejected in the end. This may suck a year or more of my life while my research grows stale and my interest wanes. Or, I could send it to a niche journal that I’ve published in before, where my paper is a perfect fit, and where I think it will be accepted relatively quickly (like within 6 months).

Some people have the knee-jerk response that you should ALWAYS send your paper to the best possible journal with the highest prestige, best impact factor, or whatever. I disagree entirely, and especially for work that deals with nascent technologies, hot political issues, cutting edge theory, or innovative methods. It’s worth interrogating this notion of prestige, first. Here are some reasons for prestige and why it doesn’t necessarily mean much:

Some journals are prestigious simply because they are old and have been publishing the longest in the discipline. Older, established journals are generally better than brand new ones, but not because they publish better work per se. Just because something was first doesn’t make it the best, but it does sometimes make it a household name.

Sometimes a journal is prestigious because it’s the flagship journal of the academic association you belong to. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean the work in its pages is of high quality, but it does usually make the journal a household name.

Some are prestigious because they have high rejection rates and high impact factors. Journals may be rejecting a lot of good quality work because there simply isn’t room in the journal to publish it all. Print journals are constrained by page limits, so these journals may feel extra pressure to reject work that is otherwise worthy of publication. And there are a ton of problems with impact factors, and these types of ratings don’t do humanities and social science work justice.

Some are prestigious because they have celebrity scholars on the editorial board. Big names on a journal’s editorial board (aka prestigious people) bring prestige to a journal. But in some cases, journals pepper some famous folks on the editorial board for decoration and don’t put these great scholars to work actually make the journal a quality publication venue. That is, just because a journal has so-and-so on the editorial board doesn’t mean he or she is actually reviewing many manuscripts for the publication.

The point of all of this is that prestigious journals are not automatically bad. It’s that not all prestigious journals are automatically good. There’s more to a journal that these several factors. Fit should be the most important thing, frankly. Landing an article in a journal that’s a perfect fit but lacks all of these markers of prestige may be a very effective way to get your work read and cited by your specialty peer group, because those folks are all reading this small niche publication. When you’re pursuing tenure, there will be pressure to publish in journals that are more prestigious than they are a good fit for your work, and to some extent you’ll need to respond to this pressure by trying for the prestigious journals. But don’t forget about the specialty journals that are great fits, that are more likely to publish your work, and that might get you published quicker so that people can start citing you and you can start having a meaningful impact on the scholarly discourse. In many cases, articles in small-time journals go on to get cited hundreds of times in the first few years after publication, and yet articles in even the most prestigious journals have a hard time accomplishing this with any regularity. I think you’d rather have an article that had a demonstrable impact on the discipline than an article that happened to appear in a journal that was old, established, had a big-name editorial board, and so on.

Affiliated Journal or an Independent Journal?

There are journals that are affiliated with some professional association, and there are journals that are independent. Many academic associations sponsor journals. Their big journal (and/or their oldest, most respected journal with general topical coverage) is often called the “flagship” journal. With AEJMC, for instance, the flagship journal is Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. AEJMC also publishes two other association-wide journals, Journalism & Communication Monographs and Journalism and Mass Communication Educator. Within the organizational structure of AEJMC, though – and it’s a big organization – are various divisions and interest groups focused on specialty areas of journalism and mass communication. Many of these groups publish their own journals. All of these journals can said to be “affiliated,” either to the organization as a whole or to the specific division within the division. Affiliated journals tend to become household names over time, and often they become prestigious in many ways. Tenure committees look highly upon publications in these journals, too, since publishing in them is a small way of validating the association, which your colleagues probably belong to as well. Likewise, publishing in an affiliated journal is an implicit endorsement of your work by the association, which is in its own way a process of acknowledging that your work falls within the accepted topical coverage and standards of the professional association of academics in a given discipline.

Some journals are also affiliated with universities or departments within universities. The International Journal of Communication, for example, is a journal that is affiliated with USC Annenberg. And since Annenberg’s a great school, the journal benefits from this reputation. Affiliated journals, quite simply, are endorsed by some entity that matters, and publishing in them in some small way endorses your work as work that matters.

Independent journals are a different story. These are hit and miss. Some of the best journals in a discipline are independent journals, but there are a ton of independent journals that are just simply not worth publishing in. For-profit mega-publishers like Elsevier, Sage, Taylor & Francis, Routledge, and so on make money by selling journal subscriptions to individuals and libraries. In many cases, affiliated journals have contracted the manuscript management and printing to these independent publishers. What I really mean when I say “independent” journals, though, is that there are journals that these publishers have started up because they saw a market for them. These publishers will take the initiative to start a journal, build an editorial board, and publish manuscripts. These journals are sometimes the first in an emerging specialty, and so these journals sometimes benefit from being the oldest journals in the specialty field, which brings some veneer of prestige. And they sometimes are the only journal for a while, until other competitor journals come on the market, so the early foundational, theoretical work that happens in a new specialty gets published in these new niche independent venues, which makes these journals important quickly.

You’ll want to weigh these factors when considering an affiliated or independent journal for your work. I’ve found that in my weird interdisciplinary focus, the independent journals are often the best fit. I know my disciplinary-misfit colleagues are also reading these journals, and the affiliated journals, which are sometimes bogged down by history and tradition and politics and bureaucracy of an association, might be resistant to work that blurs disciplinary boundaries. I don’t like the independent journals at a fundamental level, though, because of the publishers’ profit motives. I give my work away for free and they charge tons of money to people to read it, which is bankrupting libraries.

An alternative independent journal may be the open access journal. These journals are mostly online journals, started up by folks who care about a specialty area, and manuscripts are free to submit and free to read. This is the ideal model – peer reviewed work that is widely circulated and free. The downside with open access journals is that many old school tenure committees still think they are not as good as the old prestigious ones.

Beware of so-called open access journals that charge you to submit an article or charge you to publish an article, sometimes hundreds of dollars. This model is basically the open access one, but it justifies the cost to pay editors and production folks to publish the work. In my opinion, if a board is not passionate enough to start up an open journal and move manuscripts through to publication for free (and/or can’t convince their university that they deserve a graduate editorial assistant or some funds or course release to work on that journal), then it isn’t worth paying to publish in anyway.

Online Journal or Print Journal?

This is an old debate by now – go Google it. Times are finally starting to change, and universities are finally starting to understand that a peer-reviewed article in an online journal is just as good as a peer-reviewed article in a print journal. In fact, it’s better, because it’s more widely accessible online (especially if it’s free to access), it can get published quickly, it comes with searchable metadata, it can contain multimedia, and there aren’t any page number constraints on number of articles published by the journal. But some people still think print is more prestigious, so if these folks sit on your tenure committee, you’ll need to publish something in print. Ask your colleagues and mentors what they think of online journals. If they’re keen on them, then publish in them. If not, then try to educate them that online publication is just as good or better.

Graduate students, especially, are finding an increasingly competitive job market. To land a job at a research intensive university (“R1″), it seems like the norm is now to have at least one journal publication and sometimes as many as five or six. If you want any hope of having this many things fully published by the time you finish your Ph.D., you’re going to need to consider faster publication venues for some of your articles, which basically means you’ll need to consider a few online journals.

Watch for Special Issues

A great strategy for publishing is to look for calls for papers for special issues of journals. From time to time, even some of the very top-tier, general-topic, “prestigious,” old journals will plan a special issue on a narrow topic, usually guest edited by one or two leaders in that area. These are great opportunities to get your niche work into more general, prestigious journals. But there are many more reasons why special issues are good to pursue:

  1. Special issues will draw the attention of those in your specialty area. You’ll all submit something, and odds are, once the issue comes out, all of you will look like a slate of experts in that given area. It’s a great way to be lumped together with up-and-coming and established scholars in your niche area. Since the special issue is the journal’s “expert focus on a special topic,” then those who publish in that issue become the “experts on that special topic” in the eyes of the journal and its readership. Special issue guest editors are almost always renowned experts on the specialty topic, too, so getting your work in front of them is a good way to make your name known to the movers and shakers in your field.
  2. Special issues are looked at as important moments in the development of a discourse around a certain topic. Years from now, when someone stumbles across one or two citations in a database that seem to be in the same issue, they’ll check to see what the issue was about and find out there are a few other articles in that issue they can cite. The authors in the special issue become a cluster of citations on the topic that people will look to. I don’t know if anyone’s studied it, but I’d guess that articles in special issues tend to get cited a bit more often than stand-alone articles in general journal issues, because the special issue is a kind of convenient jump start for a researcher trying to study a given topic.
  3. Special issues are sometimes handled more quickly than the regular journal issues. Special guest editors, who are eager to tackle the topic and who don’t spend year after year editing the journal like the regular editorial board, may be more motivated to move an issue through quickly. Depending on the topic, too, it might make more sense for the special issue to be shepherded through the publishing process more quickly, so as to remain relevant with a current event or development in the discipline.

Other Publication Possibilities

Standard journal articles are not the only way to get publication experience. Though full journal articles are the bread and butter of this industry, scholarship comes in many forms. Consider these options:

Book reviews and literature reviews

If you’ve read a book that was published in the past year or two and have something to say on it, why not consider a book review? Many journals publish a few book reviews in every issue, and there are even entire journals dedicated to reviews (e.g., The Review of Communication, which is also an NCA affiliated journal with a great editorial board). Book reviews tend to follow a general format (more on this in a future post), but they’re often short (1-3 pages). And you can sometimes combine two books in a single review if the books are connected in some way. Some journals even accept reviews of documentaries, films, CDs, conferences, performances, lectures, panels, and other forms of scholarship.

Another option is the full literature review article, sometimes called a survey article. Again, there are whole journals devoted to literature reviews/surveys, and most journals will run an article like this from time to time. These articles synthesis large bodies of literature on a given topic in order to bring some clarity to the field or to refresh and redirect a theoretical development for new political times or emerging technologies. A stellar example of this, and one of my favorites, is Thomas Ruggiero’s survey article on uses and gratifications theory, where he synthesizes the theory to date and considers its relevance for a new media era. These articles are difficult to write and require a thorough understanding of the literature, but when survey articles are published, they get cited a LOT. Why? Because someone has done the heavy lifting for you. Instead of regurgitating uses and gratifications theory in your own work, you can just point to Ruggiero and move on. Survey articles are a great service to the discipline, as they reorient – and sometimes generate renewed debate within – a line of study.

In their course of study, grad students do both of these things – reviewing books and synthesizing large bodies of literature. Why not formalize this process and send these works out for review? If you’re going to take the time to read a book thoroughly, there’s no reason you can’t sit down and write a book review. And if one of your comprehensive exam questions asks you to synthesize a theoretical development, why not send that out to a survey journal, too?

Case studies, practical application, and teaching notes

Other forms of scholarship include practically-focused things, like how practitioners can use research, or case studies of research in practical context, or suggestions for how to teach research in the classroom effectively. Many journals include practical sections or teaching notes, and, again, there are entire journals devoted to these forms of scholarship. And – shameless plug – there are whole journals devoted to case studies, too.

Features, comments, and responses

Features and comments can mean a lot of things depending on the journal. These tend to be non-peer reviewed, and they tend to be essays or arguments on a specific issue (usually a controversy or a current event) in the discipline. These vary, but they’re worth looking into, especially if you have something to say to a journal’s readership that doesn’t otherwise fit in the journal’s research article requirements.

Responses are unfortunately rare in journals, but they are very interesting. Here’s how they work: An article is published in a given issue that you either disagree with (on a philosophical point or even because you think they’ve executed the study incorrectly or unethically) or think is incomplete in its assessment. You then contact the editor and propose to write a critical response to that author, which would appear in the next issue or two. If the editor likes what you’re proposing, you might wind up published in the next issue with your response. Responses generate a lot of debate about a topic, which is a really good thing for scholarship. It keeps things vibrant and exciting and gives scholars something to care about. Some journals host special forums from time to time, too, which are invited collections of arguments from various scholars on a topic, each riffing off the other. It’s a good way to get at the many facets of a complex issue by hearing many viewpoints at once.

Short formats

There are a lot of journals now that seem to publish “research in brief” or other forms of short format studies. These tend to be data-only articles, basically, but still structured the same way as full research articles. These are a good fit for studies where the result is a big table of data that kind of speaks for itself, such as descriptive data, that doesn’t need a ton of literature apparatus or analysis or discussion to make the point clear. Research in brief formats don’t tend to count as significantly as longer articles, but they do tend to be peer reviewed. I’ve heard from a colleague once that these are good places to send the scraps from a larger study – the bits of data that are interesting, but are tangential to your main findings and/or are small and couldn’t sustain a full paper in their own right.

Alternative scholarship

Alternative scholarship forms are becoming a bit more popular. These include (filmed) performance pieces, interactive games, and other multimedia efforts (though there’s much more behind the words “alternative scholarship” than this). Online journals tend to be the logical places for featuring multimedia pieces. Sometimes, too, alternative scholarship takes the form of poetry or fiction or comic books or art. It’s a versatile catch-all category. If you make it, odds are there’s a scholarly home for it these days.

White papers, slide decks, working papers, op-eds, guest blog posts

If your goal is to translate your research to a wider audience, make it relevant to business, or whatever, you also have the chance to do these things. These shouldn’t be the focus for a young scholar, as these are rarely peer reviewed. But they’re a great way to raise your profile or build a consulting presence for yourself in parallel to your peer reviewed efforts.

What About Book Chapters?

Last but not least, there’s the question of book chapters. Chapters in edited collections may be subjected to peer review, but frequently they are invited instead. These are great for getting your work out there, especially around a specialty topic. There are some of the same benefits of appearing in a special journal issue. But not all books succeed. I’ve submitted – and had accepted – two book chapters in the past where the book never succeeded in securing a publisher. It was a big waste of time for me. Chapters don’t tend to look as good to a tenure committee as journal articles, and invited chapters certainly don’t (unless you were invited to write a chapter in a book on the “greatest thinkers in the discipline”). Keep these at a minimum, I say.


Hopefully this helps you think of new homes for your work. When you do a study, you generally have a lot more to report than what makes it in the typical journal article. You may have practical applications, teaching ideas for your findings, commentary on the theory you used, or something to that effect. These spin-off publications can help get the most out of the hard work you put into a given study, and it’s a good exercise in learning to write for different scholarly genres and for different audiences.

No One Will Read Your Dissertation

No one will read your dissertation (or master’s thesis…it’s the same genre, with the same nonexistent readership). No one will.

Seriously. No one.

OK, your dissertation advisor and your supervisory committee will. And maybe also your partner or your parents. But that’s really about it. And they don’t really count because they have to read it.

You’ve poured a lot of your life into this awful writing product. You’ve made your partner miserable by talking about it for so long. And you think it’s the most important thing in your life right now. I completely understand why you’re bummed no one will read your dissertation.

But the fact that no one wants to read it doesn’t mean you can skip it. You still have to finish your dissertation, or else you won’t get your degree. And without a degree, you can’t get the job you’ve been aiming for. So let’s get through this damn thing and put it behind you, sealed away somewhere where no one will read it. And you can move on with your life. Here’s some advice to keep in mind as you toil away at your dissertation.

Keep your entire degree pursuit in perspective, in the professional sense. Remember that the whole point of a Ph.D. is to train you to enter the academy, to become worthy of creating new knowledge through independent, rigorous research. The steps of a Ph.D. program – coursework, comprehensive exams, dissertation proposal, dissertation writing, dissertation defense – are intended to gradually get you to this point, from mastery of a subject (hence the term “master’s degree”) to creator of new knowledge at the edge of what is known about a subject.

Coursework is to elevate your mastery of a subject to become intimately aware of the debates at the edge of what is known. Comprehensive exams are supposed to demonstrate that you know where this boundary of knowledge is (i.e., what is known and what is not yet known in a given subject). The dissertation proposal is where you propose to discover new knowledge beyond this boundary edge through rigorous research. The dissertation itself becomes that knowledge contribution. And the dissertation defense is your moment to stand behind the quality of your research contribution, to declare before a panel of soon-to-be-peers (your dissertation committee) that you are worthy of joining their ranks as a knowledge creator, as a member of the academy. The completion of your Ph.D. is a demonstration that you are an explorer, that you’ve discovered new terrain in a subject, that you are an unquestionable expert in something (even if that “something” is really narrow and obscure). And if you get a professor job when you’re done, you have the opportunity to “profess” what you know to others, who must demonstrate mastery of that content. It’s a pretty awesome process when you think about it. It’s an ancient ritual process whereby a society formally accepts new knowledge into the canon and formally anoints you a knowledge-creator.

As big and overwhelming as this process sounds, though, it’s comforting to see exactly what you’re doing in this process at any given step. Comprehensive exams, for instance, are quite nerve-racking for many people, but you’re not trying to know everything in the universe. You’re just trying to know a few topics so well that you can easily explain how various lines of thinking in those discourses are in tension with one another, and you need to know those topics well enough to know what is not-yet-known. By identifying this boundary, it becomes clear exactly how you can contribute to that body of knowledge.

The same goes for a dissertation. It’s about creating new knowledge through a sound, independent research study. It’s about making a new nugget of information to add to the pile in order to demonstrate to a panel of professors that you are qualified enough to keep making those nuggets for the remainder of your career, without their close supervision. There is no need to write the great American desk reference on all things relating to your topic. No need to discover a cure for cancer. No need to put forth a grand philosophy on life. No need to redefine the entire discipline with a groundbreaking manifesto.

Want to break free of the shackles of your Ph.D. program, move on, and get a job so you can be free to pursue research and teaching that you enjoy? Then start seeing your dissertation as one small step in a larger process, one conquerable objective in a string of objectives that will get you to where you want o be. Take small bites and chew them well. Keep it all in perspective.

Keep your entire degree pursuit in perspective, in the personal sense. Remember, too, that someone – or several people – is likely in agony while you pursue your degree. At minimum, you yourself are in agony. Your health may be declining, you may have had to sideline all your hobbies, you may have neglected your friendships, and so on as you climb this mountain of a degree. If you have a partner, especially one who uprooted his/her life to move across country with you while you finish your degree, then he/she is also in agony. People are waiting on you to finish your degree. Your body needs some exercise. And you’re probably definitely broke. No one gets rich in a Ph.D. program, and your partner might be idling in a mediocre job waiting to find out where the two of you are going to eventually settle down when you’re done with your Ph.D. So finish already. There’s physical, mental, spiritual, and financial health at stake the longer you stagnate in a Ph.D. program. It’s silly to let a little old dissertation get in the way of all of that.

Remember that a dissertation is more like an extended article, not a short book. For some reason, a lot of grad students think of their dissertation as a book they have to write. But it isn’t. In the social sciences, especially, dissertations are really just extended journal articles (or a few articles mashed together), not books. Dissertations are “extended” journal articles in the sense that they contain extra literature apparatuses in them to demonstrate to your supervisory committee that you are competent to pursue your own research.

In a typical journal article (in the social sciences, at least), you have 1) introduction; 2) literature review, which ends in a research question(s); 3) method; 4) results; 5) discussion; and 6) conclusion. A limitations section (the section where you disclose how much your research sucked and how you could do it better in the future) may be folded into the discussion or conclusion, though I’ve seen them appear in the method section, too.

In a dissertation, you still have all of these parts, except that two sections seem to be considerably extended: the literature review and the method section. Here’s how those two sections are extended:

Literature review: This section is extended in a dissertation because you’re trying to demonstrate a deeper understanding of the conversations and tensions happening in the discipline, tracing the contours of the discourse and identifying the boundary of knowledge that you’re planning to build upon. You’re also trying to explicate the concepts you’ll be operationalizing in your study, too. In a typical journal article, you may only do this latter part – explicating concepts – in order to efficiently move on to the method section and get on with the results and discussion. But in a dissertation, you can’t just get by with explicating the concepts at hand. You also have to trace those concepts back to deeper issues, sometimes all the way back to metatheoretical and philosophical concerns (ontology, epistemology, etc.). You may also have to explain the intellectual history of your subject – how you got to where you are today in your discipline. All of this is up to your committee, of course, but the point is that, yes, you have to write a longer literature section.

My advice? Just write an efficient journal article-type literature section and let your committee tell you where you need to elaborate. It’s easier to write concisely and be told where to expand than to go on and on and on and be told where to cut (and where you still need to expand). Remember that everything in the literature review needs to be relevant and needs to build and progress and synthesize. You shouldn’t have random tangents included just to make it longer. Aim for being exhaustive, not lengthy – very different concepts.

Method section: This section is expanded because you have to talk about methodology and method, whereas in a typical journal article you’d only really talk about the method at hand. The difference? Methodology is the discussion of the method you’re using in general. It’s like a meta-method discussion where you justify why your methodological approach is a good one. And method is where you discuss the procedures you’re going to be using in your present study. So while the method discussion may be about how you’re going to sample people and how you’re going to interview them for your study, the methodology discussion talks in broader strokes about why interviewing – or qualitative methods in general – is a better way to answer your research questions than quantitative or rhetorical methods. My advice? Conceive of your methodology discussion and your method discussion as two separate things. Write one and then the other, and stitch them together (usually methodology, which leads into method).

Remember that a dissertation is a bizarre, outdated form of writing that has no place in the publishing world today. You’ll go through the exercise of writing a really long literature review and a really long method/methodology section, only to find out down the road that a book publisher won’t be interested in any of that, and journals won’t either. You’ll basically have to slaughter all of the extra stuff you added to your dissertation in order for it to pass muster. If you’re clever, you can package this excess stuff into its own article (or articles) that might be suitable for more philosophical journals, journals devoted to deep understanding of methods, or review/survey journals. But for the most part this extra stuff becomes the casualty of dissertation writing. So just get through it. Jump through that hoop.

Be efficient. If you can pin down an idea for a dissertation project relatively early on – like in your coursework – then you can focus each class paper toward your dissertation project. You can effectively chip away at the literature review and method sections through these small papers. But at the very least, you can tailor your comprehensive exams toward these portions of your dissertation. If you have to write an exam question about some theory and your dissertation will be testing that theory, then you damn well better harvest your exam response to that question and polish it up for the literature review of your dissertation. This is common sense. Don’t take comprehensive exam questions that are unrelated to your dissertation. In other words, don’t test competent in one thing and then have to learn an entirely new thing to even begin to write your dissertation. One should flow into the other.

But being efficient is also about seeing your dissertation as a product, or, rather, as a snapshot of your production line. Say this to yourself: “Here, at this moment in time, lies my dissertation. It is a snapshot of what I’ve got in the publication pipeline at this moment and a glimpse at what’s to come.” When you’ve finished your dissertation and you have a professor job, you’ll be expected to slice and dice that thing into journal articles. It’s better to write your dissertation in the first place with this fact in mind. It’ll help you think of your chapters as packages that can be sent out to this journal or that journal. It’ll help you see a chapter as consisting of different modules you can move around and reassemble into new articles later. You can see the extended matter in your literature review that you had to include to satisfy your committee as a module that can be extracted and set aside, so that what’s left in the chapter can be sent out to a journal. You get the point. Your dissertation is a collection of potential publications, not a whole, discrete, single masterpiece.

You can also start sending chunks of your dissertation to be published in journals even before you finish your dissertation. The academic job market increasingly expects Ph.D. students to have publications when they graduate anyway, so get cracking.

Talk it out, teach it out, blog it out, walk it out, drink it out. Whatever. I found that people get in a rut writing their dissertation (or writing anything) when they keep it to themselves. Your colleagues may really be tired of hearing about your dissertation, and your partner certainly is. But sit down and talk about your dissertation to someone. Try to keep it simple and understandable (talking with a family member or someone who isn’t an academic is a good exercise in cutting through the jargon and clutter). Something that may seem really obvious to you may confuse the hell out of someone else, and this should be a signal that you need to explain this part of your dissertation better. And something that is really making you stumble may be crystal clear to someone else. You’ll only be able to figure out these pitfalls by talking about your dissertation with someone.

Consider teaching some sliver of your dissertation to undergrads, too. Nothing helps you boil down your dense dissertation into a digestible and clear lecture than by, well, writing a lecture. The very act of slotting your dissertation into a PowerPoint slide deck that undergrads can follow is, in my opinion, the absolute best thing you can do to get your mind clear about a tough topic. Odds are, you know your dissertation topic really well. You’re probably just having a hard time figuring out how to tackle all of that information in an organized way. Use a teaching opportunity as a way to get organized about your thoughts. Asking to guest lecture in a professor’s class is really easy to do, too, and it’s a CV hit.

You can also blog about your dissertation as you go, too, if you’re so inclined. Blogging takes a lot of energy and time (which is why I so infrequently update mine), but it’s a good way to make yourself write every day. Prolific scholars like Henry Jenkins make blogging part of their publication process, too. A collection of blog posts can quickly add up to a full-out journal article. Or, in your case, a dissertation.

As for the “walk it out” and “drink it out” bits of advice, I’ve heard these can help, too. I never found much help in either of these strategies, but I have colleagues who found exercising (or going on hikes) and consuming various substances (alcohol, etc.) to be important factors in getting their mind to wrap around a tough topic and get back to writing. Different strokes for different folks. Just figure out a way to rescue yourself from treading water in the cesspool of theory and research in your head. Getting away from other grad students for a while is a great plan, I think.

Access, assets, timing, and relevance are as important as sound research execution. You have to do sound, rigorous research for your dissertation. That’s a given. But you also need to be realistic in your pursuits. Everyone wants to do this big, awesome multi-method study for their dissertation, but it just may not be possible. Here are some things to consider as you progress:

Access: You probably have a research site in mind for your dissertation, but do you know if you’ll have access to it when it comes time to write? Studying prisons or a big Fortune 500 company or defense contractors or other sexy topics always looks good on paper, and your committee may be likely to approve your topic. But you may find there’s a lot of red tape to cut through before you’ll have access to the stuff you need to do your study. If it’s crucial that a company send out a survey on your behalf to its customers, then you should probably line that up before committing to it. And if you want to study some culture in Papua New Guinea, then you need to line up some travel funding before you commit to that. You have to have access to your research site, or your research simply won’t happen. And have a back-up plan.

Assets: In the Web design world (at least circa 2000), you called the “things” that went on your website “assets.” These included photos, video clips, and other content. Likewise, if you conceive of a dissertation study that involves analyzing the archives of some defunct newspaper, you need to be able to actually view those archives. You have to be able to access these crucial assets. You might also, quite literally, need some assets, as in money, in order to conduct your research. That same archive may be located in some obscure library somewhere and you can only use the approved library microfilm contractor to get copies of the archive. This may cost quite a bit of money. Who knows.

It’s especially important to consider access and assets in Internet research. A lot of times, there may be a wealth of data surrounding an online video game or Web site, but it may be almost impossible to get a hold of it if there’s no established method for retaining the data or no permission given to you by the site owners. These data are also fleeting. Web sites can be deleted in a blink of an eye, and you’re screwed if you don’t have a plan to retain this asset.

Timing: You hopefully have some target graduation date in mind. This might be when your fellowship funding runs out or a date your partner has basically warned you is a “must” for completion. Either way, you have a clock you’re racing. Make sure your dissertation progresses accordingly. If you’ve allotted only 3 months for data collection, then, realistically, can’t fly away to Papua New Guinea to live with a tribe for a month AND visit some obscure library archive in Kansas AND conduct a few dozen interviews. You need to pare it down, or you need to give yourself more time.

Timing is really important for job hunting and applying for dissertation funding. When you interview for professor jobs as a grad student, the school will want to know that you’re likely to finish on time (“on time” meaning before you would officially start on the job the next year). One way to convey this confidence is by having defended your dissertation proposal, or, better still, having already collected your data by the time you interview for a job. So if interviews start as early as October at some schools, that means you need to get past your proposal defense by like August and try to dive right into data collection in September. And all of this is to start a professor job the following August. Get cracking. Dissertation year funding works in a similar fashion. A lot of times, you need to be ABD (i.e., past the proposal defense) before getting dissertation monies from external foundations.

Relevance: I’ve discussed picking a good research topic in a previous post. The point here is to find a topic that has some traction with today’s news or issues. Relevant topics help you 1) finish on time, 2) engage others in discussion and debate about your dissertation topic as you write it, and 3) get you exposure and job interviews for your work.

Avoid an arms race and ignore tradition. One really absurd thing I noticed at Utah was how some of my fellow Ph.D. students felt the need to brag about how long their dissertation was, or how hard they were working on it, or how little sleep they were getting. This isn’t an arms race. No need to escalate a page count war among colleagues. There is absolutely no need to write a 300+ page dissertation. Especially since no one will read it. Mine was relatively brief (quite brief by Utah’s standards), and I finished on time with an equally non-readable dissertation as any of my colleagues. There’s no glory in writing a long dissertation just because it’s the tradition at your school. Just keep your head down and finish. Write as much as is needed to accomplish your task and appease your committee, and call it good.

Your dissertation may also be the very worst thing you ever write – the most unpolished and verbose and awful to read. Focus your energies on writing good journal articles instead. People will be in awe that you finished, not that you wrote an award-winning dissertation.

Beware of as-is publishing opportunities. When you do finish your dissertation, you may think publishing it as a book is out of reach for you. You may think your work wasn’t good enough or whatever. But then along comes a book publisher who wants to publish your dissertation in its entirety! You don’t need to change a thing!

Beware of these publishers, many of which are German publishing houses. The way it works is that they offer to publish your dissertation in full and without any editing. They assume that if it made it past a committee of professors, it’s probably good enough quality to publish. This isn’t a scam. It’s just a company trying to make money off your product. You can pursue this option if you want, but remember that 1) this will transfer the copyright over to the publisher, which means you can’t spin out other journal articles from it as easily, and 2) though it will technically be a book, it won’t count like a book on your CV really. In reality, no respected academic publisher would take a dissertation and publish it as-is. Why? Because – say it with me now – no one would read it. Academic book publishers will always require you to strip out considerable tracts of your literature review and method chapters and do substantial reworking before agreeing to publish your work as a book. In short, don’t pursue the publish as-is route, even if the offer is flattering. Because it isn’t flattery. They send bulk emails out to all recent Ph.D. grads.

Don’t take it personally when no one reads your work. Remember, no one wants to read your work in dissertation form. Not even a lot of your friends and relatives. Don’t let it get to you. Just be thankful your friends and relatives are still talking to you after the hell you’ve put them through while you went after your Ph.D. And just look forward to cranking out shorter, better publications later that people will want to read.

But you have to get your dissertation done first.

Announcing a new journal

I know, I know. There are far too many academic journals out there already, and so few people actually read them. Blah, blah, blah. I’m a bit of a hypocrite, but I’m proud to say I’ve now gotten a new academic journal off the ground. It’s called Case Studies in Strategic Communication, and it’ll be a peer-reviewed journal focusing only on case studies – not research papers – in the broad domain of strategic communication. You might know strategic communication better by its many other identities: public relations, advertising, marketing, IMC, and on and on.

So think about what you’ve done as a strategic communication professional or what you’ve studied as a strategic communication scholar, and put it in case form. Then put it in an email, and send it to me. Here’s the full CFP:

CFP for New Journal:
CASE STUDIES IN STRATEGIC COMMUNICATION

Manuscripts are now being accepted for the first volume of Case Studies in Strategic Communication, a new online, peer-reviewed journal.

Case Studies in Strategic Communication (CSSC) is dedicated to the study of strategic communication through the case study form. Case studies illustrate the strategies, tactics, and execution of communication campaigns through in-depth coverage of a single situation. CSSC is a peer-reviewed online publication housed at the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Case studies have long been central to the study of strategic communication, but these cases have been scattered across textbooks and websites, are quickly outdated, are not fully representative of the many facets of strategic communication, and lack a common format useful for teachers and scholars. Through the ongoing publication of strategic communication case studies online, CSSC aims to develop a living resource of diverse case materials for teachers, scholars, and practitioners.

As technological convergence and industry trends demand the integration of several branches of strategic communication in everyday practice, it is necessary to consider the approach to strategic communication holistically. Thus, CSSC welcomes case studies dealing with any of the following disciplines: public relations, marketing, advertising, integrated marketing communication, social media campaigns, crisis communication, special events planning, development and fundraising, internal or employee communication, investor relations, community relations, media relations, online community management, publicity, and more.

There is no limit to topical coverage, and CSSC hopes to develop a resource that touches on as many industries, tactics, geographic regions, and diverse populations as possible. CSSC seeks case studies concerning all sectors, too: private companies (large and small), publicly traded corporations, non-profit organizations (large and small), political campaigns, government agencies (local and national), and educational institutions.

In addition to success stories, CSSC also seeks case studies that explore failures, shortcomings, missed opportunities, and crises. Stories of failure are not often told in case study collections, but they sometimes yield the best lessons.

CSSC publishes cases in the tradition of Harvard Business School case studies or the Arthur W. Page Society case competition. The journal does not publish traditional scholarly research papers. CSSC publishes long case studies (3,000-8,000 words) covering full campaigns or programs, as well as short case studies (1,000-2,500 words) tightly focused on a single strategy, tactic, research method, or evaluation method used in real strategic communication programs.

Submissions are welcome from scholars, students, practitioners, and teachers of strategic communication. Submissions are accepted and published on a rolling basis. Visit www.csscjournal.org to learn more about the journal. Contact the editor, Daren Brabham, with any questions: csscjournal gmail.com.

Things You Should Have Started Doing Last Year

If you’re a grad student and you’re going on the academic job market soon, listen up! You’re probably already behind the curve, and you’re running out of time to get prepared for the job market. It’s a cut-throat business these days, and CVs that used to get newly minted Ph.D.s jobs at top research universities 5 years ago now barely raise an eyebrow for adjunct work at the local college. Here are five things you should have already started doing to prepare for the job market.

1. Do More Research

You might already have a publication or two, but you can always have more. I think the norm for getting tenure-track jobs at research universities is to have at minimum one strong publication (ideally first authored or solo authored, in a big name journal), and/or a few publications that are a step down (e.g., lower impact journals, non-first authored articles, and so on). Ideally, for a research-intensive tenure-track professor job, you’ll have like 4-5 publications, with at least 1-2 of those being first authored/solo authored and in well-known journals. More importantly, though, you want the publications to hang together as a collection. You want to demonstrate that you have a coherent program of research, that your articles build on each other, and that you have a clear future as a productive scholar in this area.

Super creepy image to suggest that you should be researching and writing more. Sorry.

If you think you don’t have enough time to do this kind of thing, you’re dead wrong. Every paper you write for a class needs to be beefed up for submission to a conference or journal (ideally both). If you take a methods class that involves proposing a study (or any other class project that doesn’t actually result in a full paper), then it’s your responsibility down the line to execute it and publish the results. Let’s assume you take like 3 seminars a semester over about 2.5 years of Ph.D. coursework (like I did at Utah). That’s 14-15 classes where you’ll produce a paper. If you only send out 10 of those papers to conferences, and if only half of them stuck, you’d have 5 fully vetted research papers. At least 3 of these five would/should make it into journals eventually. There’s your three publications, and all of it from classwork. Add on another couple of papers from your outside research pursuits (perhaps part of your eventual dissertation), and you’ve got a robust publication record.

The Ph.D. is about transitioning from student-of-knowledge to producer-of-knowledge, so get cracking. And if you’re complaining about not having enough time in your day to do extra research, then you either need to 1) get creative about how you squeeze more out of your day, or 2) prioritize your work life over your non-work life. In terms of getting creative, that could mean teaming up with others to co-author articles or making a more concerted effort to streamline one class paper/project into another. In terms of skewing your work-life balance toward work, that’s just what needs to happen. If you think you work a lot now, wait until you are pursuing tenure. I lost all of my hobbies in grad school–ALL of them. It sucked, but I’m thankful I now enjoy a job where I have enough resources to make my research go smoothly so that I can now revisit my hobbies on my own time. These are harsh words, but they’re the truth.

2. Do More Teaching

Many of the best Ph.D. programs discourage doctoral students from teaching. Rather, the focus at these places is to excel in coursework and do research (independently and as research assistants to professors). Some Ph.D.s may graduate having never actually taught their own class from start to finish, most will graduate having taught or been a teaching assistant for fewer than 5 sections, and hardly any get the chance to develop new courses or affect curriculum. The (completely misguided) logic at these universities is that you need to focus on cranking out research. But the reality is that even for the most research-intensive professor jobs, you still need to prove you can teach. The vast majority of professor jobs require you to teach undergraduates some basic courses to earn your salary. No matter how much a school talks up its research focus, teaching is still the bread and butter of this profession (as it should be). So if you can’t demonstrate that you know how to give a good lecture, lead a discussion, or interact with students, you’re sunk.

Don’t listen to your advisor, frankly, especially if they tell you not to teach. You’re free to pick up your own side teaching gigs, pick up adjunct teaching at the community college nearby, take on summer teaching, and so on. I’m of the opinion that unless your outside obligations start to noticeably interfere with your academic performance, no one at the university has a right to tell you what you can and can’t do. This includes picking up any extra side job to make extra money, deciding to have kids, deciding to devote time to community service, or deciding to devote your time to religious obligations. Be proactive, too, in letting your department chair or dean know that you’re interested in teaching in the department. This way, they may ask you to teach before hiring an adjunct.

Besides, the more experience you get as a teacher in grad school, the easier it will be your first year of teaching as a professor. If you’re a seasoned teacher, you’re a seasoned teacher anywhere, and this will let you devote more of your energies in your first years as a professor to research.

3. Make a CV and a Website

Seriously? You don’t have your CV written and kept up to date? And you don’t have even the most basic WordPress site about yourself? Get on the ball. People will definitely search for your name when you apply for a job, and you want your site to be an even more robust portfolio of your work than what you submitted in the job application. And your CV should always be up to date and ready to be sent out (and found online) at a moment’s notice. It’s also good to start developing a teaching philosophy, a research statement, and other documents you’ll need for the job application process and for applying for various grants.

4. Read Job Ads

You should have signed up to get listserv emails from a bunch of academic associations by now. This will provide a constant stream of intelligence  about the academic industry to your inbox, which also includes job ads. You should also visit sites like the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s job board and AEJMC’s classifieds periodically, too. Why should you look at job ads long before you yourself are actually looking for a job? Because it will let you see the trends, and that will help you better prepare to be a competitive candidate when it’s your turn. Here’s what I mean:

Read it (and possibly weep, since no one is hiring)

Say you’re a former newspaper journalist and your dissertation is going to focus on the history of newspapers in some region of the country. Fair enough. If you keep your eye on job ads, though, you’ll notice that 1) hardly any schools are specifically hiring historians, and 2) hardly any schools are hiring people who study print media. Rather, the job trends seem to indicate that schools are looking for people with new media expertise, with expertise in “multiplatform” or “convergence” journalism, and for people with expertise in international/multicultural/diversity issues in mass communication. So what does this mean for you? Well, it means that if you continue to just teach the basic newswriting course and you push ahead with a historical dissertation that studies some regional American newspapers, you might not be the most compelling candidate on the market. What you can do, having followed these trends, is begin to frame yourself as a better fit for this kind of job. You can start lobbying your department chair to get a chance to teach the convergence journalism course rather than yet another section of newswriting. Or you could lobby your chair to start making the newswriting curriculum more innovative and convergence-focused in its own right. As for research, you could change up your previous plan of examining the history of regional American newspapers by including an analysis of a similar foreign newspaper. Or by including an analysis of a minority-run newspaper. Or by including a more robust explanation of how the newspapers you’re studying paved the way for multiplatform journalism today. Essentially, what you can do is begin to frame yourself as somehow speaking to these trendy issues of new media, diversity, and so on. And none of these changes really means you’re selling out to what’s fashionable. It means you’re adapting to what’s important in the discipline. It means you’re relevant.

5. Get Up to Speed on Money

Lastly, you should start figuring out what you’re worth, what you’ll reasonably get paid in a new professor position, and what kind of life you’re wanting for yourself if/when you get that professor job. Start studying the cost of living in various parts of the country. Also start looking up the average salaries at various schools around the country. There are many freely accessible resources for this, especially since public universities are compelled to publish salaries.

If you watch these money trends, you’ll get a good idea of what to expect in a job offer. And if you get a feel for cost of living around the country, you can get an idea of what your life might be like if you were to move there for a job. Some schools might seem to pay very well, but they might also be located in a very expensive part of town. That means the salary is probably not that much better than any other place, and it might mean that you 1) will have to rent rather than buy a home for a while, and/or 2) live rather far away from school and commute every day. If you dream of being able to walk from your house to campus every day and grab a coffee on your way to work from the boutique coffee shop on the corner, then you need to seriously look at what it will take to live that close to campus, that close to local cafes, and so on. It’s often completely out of reach for junior faculty to do that. If you got a job at Pepperdine, for instance, you might be wowed by the average $76K a year salary they might offer you as a new professor. But you’ll need to temper that with the fact that Pepperdine is in Malibu, which is 281% more expensive to live in than the average American city (one resource says that would be like making $20K a year in Durham, NC). And on the other end of the spectrum, you may be tempted to sneer at a $33K a year offer from the University of the Southwest, but this school is located in Hobbs, New Mexico, which is 14% less expensive to live in than the average American city. And according to that resource, making $33K in Hobbs would be like making $150K in Malibu; or put in reverse, making $76K in Malibu would be like making $16K in Hobbs. Interesting, eh?

Don’t forget about student loans, either. You’ve been deferring those damn things all throughout grad school, and they’re about to come back with a vengeance in your first year of your professor job. So prepare for that as well. You need to crunch the numbers to find out this kind of stuff, and the number crunching takes time, so the better you are at following money trends, the better off you’ll be come job time.

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