Archive for the ‘Thoughts on Academia’ Category

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:

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 to learn more about the journal. Contact the editor, Daren Brabham, with any questions: csscjournal

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.

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

It’s that time of year when students ask teachers and employers for recommendation letters. Well, it’s always that time of year, isn’t it? References are important, whether you’re hunting for a job, internship, scholarship, or a spot in grad school. There’s a right way to ask someone to vouch for you, and I hope this post makes your future reference-asking go more smoothly.

References or Recommendation Letters?

Many jobs/internships/scholarships/schools may require you to provide the contact information for any number of references (if they don’t say a number, you can always ask what they’d prefer, but the default is usually three) rather than to provide full letters of recommendation. This is ideal, I think, because it’s less of a drain on the whole of society than having people write full letters, especially for highly competitive programs. Let me explain what I mean by “drain.” When I was applying for professor jobs–and I applied to quite a few–most of the schools required three full letters of recommendation. Now, in this job market, any given professor job may get 50 or more applicants. Some search committee/employer will have to sort through these applicants, and they will probably make a short list of 10 or fewer applicants they think are worthy based on their resumes/CVs. It is only at that point that the committee will actually turn to the letters to read them. So what does this mean for, say, the other 40+ people who weren’t shortlisted? It means that each of their three recommendation letters essentially goes to waste. That’s 120 letters. That’s 120 different people out there who spent maybe as much as an hour preparing and writing your letter of recommendation. That’s 120 hours of human intellect and labor wasted. It’s a big drain on society in general. I much prefer organizations that only ask for the contact information of references up front. This is much easier to provide (i.e., it only involves the person providing the recommendation to say “yes, put me down as a reference” initially), and it’s a lot more respectful of people’s time than the full letter charade. The reality is that employers will probably call these references anyway for additional commentary beyond the letter they wrote, so might as well just cut the letter part out entirely and stick to the phone calls.

But I digress. Back to my point.

Some application processes ask for a list of references, and some ask for full letters. Either way, you need to ask the person who is recommending you if they’re comfortable doing so. This means you need to get prior approval to use their name before you start spraying your application around on And if they give you full access to use them as a reference widely, it’s still a nice gesture to send them a quick list of jobs you applied for. That way, when the recommender gets a call, they have some kind of clue that it’s coming. Full letters of recommendation require a lot more work on your part. That’s what the rest of this post is for.

Asking for a Recommendation

When you approach someone to write a letter of recommendation for you (or if you ask if you can list them as a reference on your application), you need to make sure you’re not just asking for “a letter.” You need to ask for “a positive letter.” This is a picky point, but there are some people out there that simply say “sure, I can write you a letter,” and then they write a lukewarm or even negative letter. After all, you didn’t ask them to write a positive letter, did you? (I know this is crappy, but it happens. It happened to me once, and I found out about it and learned my lesson.)

The best way to ask, I think, is to meet with the recommender and tell them a little about what it is you’re applying for and why you think you’re a good fit. You don’t need to put on a salesy pitch about why you’re the right fit for what you’re applying for (because they don’t get to make the decision, you know), but it’s important to give some kind of a rationale for why you’re pursuing the thing you’re pursuing. Then, actually ask the following: “I think you can speak to my strengths and my fit for this [scholarship/internship/school/job], and I would appreciate your support. Would you feel confident providing a positive letter of recommendation for me for this?” When you phrase it this way, you give the recommender the opportunity to answer you frankly. If they don’t feel confident writing for you because they think you suck, then you’ve given them the opportunity to tell you right then and there that they’re not up for the task. If they don’t feel confident writing for you because they feel that they don’t know enough about you, then you’ve given them the opportunity to ask you for more information before they agree to write your letter. And if they do feel confident writing a letter for you, then you’ve kind of boxed them in to writing only a positive letter, which is what you want.

The majority of the time, though, the person you’ve asked to write a letter for you likes you, respects your work, and they don’t have a problem vouching for you. Let’s move on.

Who to Ask

First and foremost, the people you ask to write letters of recommendation for you need to really know you. They need to be able to write a detailed, personal letter of support, not a generic letter that they write for all students. This means that if the best person to recommend you is a Ph.D. student who taught you in their class rather than some distinguished professor who you barely know, then you ask the Ph.D. student. It’s ideal not to have an entire slate of letter writers with “lowly titles,” but a detailed, personal letter from someone lower in the ranks is much more valuable than a generic letter from someone who has a big title or some kind of political prominence. And, of course, the ideal ideal scenario is to have a slate of letter writers who are both powerful/respected/have big titles AND who know you well enough to write a detailed letter.

Second, you want to aim for some breadth, too. If you’re applying for a graduate program, for instance, it’s OK to have a letter or two come from people NOT in higher education. If you have an employer who can write a good letter, include it. But if it’s for a graduate program, you definitely need at least one (and ideally a majority) of your letters from someone in academia. Try to build a collection of letters than can speak to your many strengths. If one recommender knows your research ability really well, one knows your teaching ability well, one knows your work leadership experience, and one has taught you in a class, then you have a great collection of letters that speak to the whole picture of who you are.

When I applied for professor jobs at research universities, I had letters from my dissertation advisor (who was kind of expected to write a letter for any professor job I applied to…it’s a red flag if your advisor doesn’t write you a letter), a professor from another discipline I had worked on a grant project with, a professor from yet another discipline who knew my research well, and a professor who knew my teaching and service very well. For professor jobs at teaching-oriented universities, I asked a slightly different crew to write for me, focusing more on my teaching abilities and less on my research prowess. Think of the image you want to put forward. Find the people to bring together to help you put forth than image. Have them write the letters.

When to Ask

As soon as possible. People need at least a week to write a letter of recommendation. Two weeks or more is preferred. And if you ask more than a month in advance, it’s worth following up closer to the deadline to remind them. Asking for letters less than two weeks before a deadline ain’t nice.

Be Organized

Once you’ve got some people on the hook to write letters, you need to get them the info they need. At minimum, this means sending them some information about the scholarship/school/job you’re applying for and instructions for where/how to mail the letter, including a deadline. Ideally, though, you should provide as much material as possible about the scholarship/school/job AND about yourself so that the letter writer can tailor their letter. Remember, the goal is for your recommenders to write detailed, personal letters, so let them know more about you and your reason for applying. Give them a copy of your application or goal statement or writing samples if you’re comfortable sharing that with them.

If you ask for multiple letters for various things you’re applying for, I also suggest providing the letter writers a spreadsheet or calendar with deadlines. When I asked for a bunch of letters when I applied for professor jobs, I sent each recommender an Excel spreadsheet listing details about each letter. For each letter, I provided the following information:

  • the name of the department and university I was applying to (e.g., University of North Carolina School of Journalism & Mass Communication)
  • the name of the actual position I was applying for (e.g., assistant professor public relations)
  • the contact person to address the letter to (e.g., “Dr. So-and-So, search committee chair” or if there isn’t a specific person listed, just “search committee members”)
  • the job description (e.g., a link to it if it was online)
  • a few notes about the position (e.g., insider info you may have, whether you met the employer at a job fair a few months ago, who you may know at the company, and so on)
  • a few notes about what you’d love the letter writer to say (e.g., I put things like “for this letter, I know they’re looking for someone with new media expertise in addition to public relation competence, so I’d love for you to really emphasize how my research addresses new media and society”)
  • who else I had asked to write a letter for me (this helps the letter writer see who else is writing for you. If they know, for instance, that you’ve asked someone else who knows your teaching skills better than they do, then they feel less pressure to cover that issue in their letter)
  • instructions for submitting the letter (e.g., an email address to send it to; an online system to upload it to; whether the envelope needs to be sealed, signed, and given to you to include in one large application packet; a mailing address if it needs to be mailed; and so on. Providing them a pre-printed envelope with postage on it is a nice touch, especially if you’re asking for tons of mailed letters from people, but generally your recommenders can spring for the stamp)
  • the deadline for sending the letter (and if it’s a “received by” deadline vs. a “postmark deadline,” you should explain this, too)

Following the Rules & Following Up

Follow all the rules for an application process. If they absolutely do NOT want more than three letters of recommendation, then don’t send four. But if they just simply say “three letters required,” then you shouldn’t necessarily feel boxed in to just three letters. If you think a collection of four letters speaks to your strengths the best, then send all four. But try not to send five or more for a three-letter application.

If your application and letters are submitted as part of an online system (which is increasingly common), then you can probably track your status to see if/when letters are uploaded and your application is complete. But if this is not the case, it is perfectly acceptable to inquire with the employer/scholarship/school whether the letters were received and your application is complete and valid. If you know all of your letter writers mailed their letters in a week ago and you haven’t heard from the employer/school/scholarship that they’ve received them and your application is good to go, it’s OK to shoot someone at that organization an email and ask. This isn’t an opportunity to sell yourself; it’s just an opportunity to innocently ask if your application was received in good order.

If you follow these guidelines for asking for a letter of recommendation, you’ll be in good shape. And I certainly know if more of my students used this format, I’d be in good shape. I’m interested to know if this information is helpful. Leave a comment here if this was useful for you.

Mastering the Cold Call

I mentioned back in an August post that I’m a big fan of cold-calling and cold-emailing as a way to open doors for oneself. Cold-calling involves picking up the phone and calling someone you don’t know at all. These calls usually involve you introducing yourself, asking for something, or inquiring about potential employment. The premise of the cold call is that 1) you’re good enough, and 2) they just haven’t met you yet. Cold-calling should always be a supplement to other forms of networking, such as getting involved in local industry groups, connecting with people on LinkedIn, leveraging your friend and family networks, and asking people you know about leads.

Cold calls require a lot of guts, a lot of time, and a lot of resilience, but when cold calls pay off, the joy is immense. Consider the rifle and the shotgun. Rifles fire one bullet and have a lot more precision than shotguns. Shotguns, on the other hand, spray an imprecise bunch of small projectiles at a target in the hopes that at least one will hit it. Cold calling is definitely a shotgun approach to networking, but there are ways to improve your aim over time. I’ve had a LOT of success cold-calling in my career, and I can’t tell my students enough how much they need to start cold-calling, too. Here are my tips for cold-calling/cold-emailing.

Know Thyself

First off, you have to know what you want and what your strengths are. If you’re looking for an internship in PR, for instance, you need to know what you enjoy about PR and what your ideal internship would look like. Figure out your needs and your wants in an internship, For instance, you probably need either money or college credit out of an internship, so prepare to make that your minimum requirement. Identify your ideal scenario. Again, if you’re looking for an internship in PR and you really want to do a paid internship in the sports industry specifically, then your ideal scenario would involve doing exactly this for the local professional sports team. My advice is to start with the ideal and work backwards toward the situations you’ll tolerate. Why start with the ideal? Because you just may land it on your first attempt. In any case, though, you need to know what you’re good at, know what you’re looking for, know what kind of situation you’ll accept, and be prepared to act fast if an opening is available (e.g., have a resume and portfolio ready).


You’re probably going to have to send out a lot of calls/emails before something sticks. A LOT. I once called more than 80 PR firms to inquire about internships before I finally found one (note: the internship was a great fit for me, but I didn’t end up taking it, though, for other reasons). If you call, you’ll leave a lot of voicemails that won’t get returned. If you email, you’ll get a lot of unanswered requests. But occasionally, you’ll get a lead that you can pursue.

Look at it this way: the worst thing that can happen is you’ll get a lot of “no’s” and unreturned calls, and the majority of the time you’ll be seen as a go-getter who is trying to drum up some opportunities. But the best thing that can happen is that you’ll land a dream opportunity that will open up a series of doors for yourself for the whole first stage of your career. Most people stick to and stick to the lists of internship opportunities available in their schools, and so on. But most people aren’t picking up the phone and trying to generate new opportunities. You need to be this person.


When you contact people that you don’t know and ask for something, you need to be polite. You’re butting into their headspace, after all. Always emphasize why you think you’d be a good fit for the company and why the company would be a good fit for you. And ground your calls/emails in loftier concepts; don’t just say you want an internship with anyone, but rather say you want to have a valuable learning experience with exactly that one company. Ask for simple things, like the opportunity to apply for an internship rather than the opportunity to have the internship. Don’t ask for handouts–ask for opportunities. You’d be surprised how often this gets you in the door. In all cases, though, be brief and professional and courteous. Throw in some flattery, but don’t suck up. And make your cold calls and emails personal and specific; don’t make it seem like you’re blasting out hundreds of copies of the same email. Research every organization you contact and tailor your cold call accordingly.


Finally, remember in a cold call that you’re trying to emphasize what you’ll contribute as much as what you’ll get out of an opportunity. Back to the internship example. The point of an internship is to supply a bit of free labor to an organization in exchange for getting an insider’s look into how the organization/industry operates. It’s a learning experience for you, but it should also very much be a benefit to the organization. Hopefully, the organization won’t just require you to make coffee and make copies, but that may happen, and you need to be enthusiastic about it. You can also emphasize that you think you’d bring some good energy, a college student’s perspective, and some great ideas to the mix, and you just want an opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture of that organization.

Organizations are always looking for talented people and good ideas, whether they’re actively hiring for a position or not. And you never know when someone at the organization just rolled out of a meeting where everyone seemed overworked and they needed to start thinking about hiring someone (but they don’t have the money to do so or the time to interview candidates). You could be the perfect solution as an intern, and they may just say “OK, you’ve got the internship. When can you start?” Just remember that those organizations that have posted a job announcement know precisely what their needs are. But all organizations have needs, and you may find yourself fulfilling those needs before the organization can even crystallize what those needs are.

Recent Cold Call Successes

I’ve had a few cold call successes recently. This semester, I wanted to include some guest speakers in my PR classes, and I wanted these speakers to represent a variety of perspectives. I cold-emailed PR folks at Logo (MTV’s LGBT channel) and PR folks at Lowe’s Home Improvement (headquartered in the state), and both attempts were successful. Without having any prior connections, I was able to make new ones with these organizations, bringing valuable professional perspectives into my classes and making (what I hope are) some long-term professional connections. In time, I’m hopeful these connections will benefit my students, the organizations, and me. And no one gets “used” in this process, either. I was surprised to see how eager the Lowe’s and Logo folks were to speak to classes, which reminded me that professionals are sometimes eager to give back to classes and teach a bit of what they know. It’s fulfilling for them in some ways, and their talks are fulfilling for my students.

Another cold call success was when I picked up the phone last summer and called the U.S. Curling Association. I was writing an article for Flow about curling’s TV success in the Winter Olympics, and I wanted to get some stats about the growth of curling. I linked up with USCA’s PR person, and I ended up contacting her again later in the summer to see if USCA was interested in being the client for my PR Campaigns class. And they agreed.

I wouldn’t have made these great connections without having the guts to shoot cold emails into the abyss.

Why Management Consulting Wasn’t for Me

About a year and a half ago, my job-hunting anxiety was pretty high. Despite my hard work, I was unsure whether there would be any good professor jobs. I started looking beyond the bounds of professor life to see what other career possibilities existed for someone with a Ph.D. in communication.

One of my advisors on my Ph.D. committee was Karim Lakhani, a professor at Harvard Business School. I remembered from his experience that he had worked for Boston Consulting Group prior to finishing his Ph.D. I poked around the BCG website one day and noticed that they actively recruited people with Ph.D.s, not just people with MBAs. Perhaps this was a career option for me.

I started doing a lot of research into management consulting. It sounded challenging, intellectually stimulating, it paid very well, and it set people up to have interesting and successful careers down the road. Why not? I applied to all of the major consulting firms – BCG, McKinsey, Bain, Booz, and some others. Well, at least all of the firms that allowed me to apply. Many of these firms only recruit from top, Ivy-caliber schools, and at least one of these firms (I can’t remember which one) only provided a drop-down menu with these dozen or so schools to choose from in the application. Being from a lowly state school, I wasn’t even able to apply to one of the firms. But I did apply to the rest, and it turned into an interesting experience.

McKinsey & Company eventually expressed interest in my application. I was invited out to their Silicon Valley office for an interview August 2010, just days before I would do a speed-dating round of mini-interviews for professor positions at several schools at the AEJMC conference. When it rains it pours I suppose.

I was really impressed by the whole McKinsey process, and I have to admit I got a little starry-eyed with the “executiveness” of it all. The on-site interview consists of a multiple choice math test (seriously), as well as some “not for a grade” practice group case studies with some of the McKinsey associates. I say “not for a grade” because we were assured the case studies were truly just for practice in case we got invited to an additional (final) round of interviewing, but I find it hard to believe we were all flown in to just take a multiple choice test.

The math test was literally the hardest test I’ve ever taken. Supposedly, no one has ever gotten a perfect score on the test, and I believe that. I’m positive I did really poorly on the last third or so of the (very fast) test, and I probably missed several in the first two-thirds of the test, too.

Before and after the test, we had a moment to meet other people there for the interview – about 20 of us total. This was a fascinating interaction. All of us were non-MBAs with advanced degrees, mostly Ph.D.s. Only two of us were from the non-hard sciences or economic sciences – me, plus one other person studying psychology. In the small talk, it also became evident that everyone except me was from Stanford, Berkeley, or USC (and one person from Harvard who happened to be dissertating in California). And I’m pretty sure I was the only grad student in the mix who taught rather than worked in a lab, and I was definitely the only one who was also working a few part-time jobs. This was certainly an elite and privileged bunch of candidates, and in hindsight I’m proud to have been deemed worthy enough to interview alongside them.

The group case study part went well enough, I think. As the associate presented the case study and asked for responses and ideas, everyone else in my group stuck to the logistics aspects, the finance aspects, the…science-y aspects. I contributed ideas from the marketing, communication, customer service, etc. realm. Generally speaking, it was clear who the humanities person was in the group (me), because I thought about the human, customer experience, and the science types thought about the operations aspects. Kind of interesting.

In the end, I already had an email saying I did not make it to the next round by the time I boarded the plane home. I was disappointed I suppose, but in retrospect I’m grateful I didn’t advance. After the dazzle of the process wore off and after I talked with some friends who had actually been these kinds of consultants, I realized management consulting really wouldn’t have suited me. And here’s why:

  • Consulting for a company like McKinsey is for young, single people. You travel a ton (on the road like 4+ days a week), so maintaining a healthy relationship with a spouse, let alone trying to have and raise kids, seems impossible. The consultants I know also drink quite a bit. It’s not that they have drinking problems (none of them do), but it’s kind of the only thing you have time to do at the end of a long day, on the road with coworkers, hanging out at the hotel bar. On the other hand, they make a ton of money, so at least they’re drinking the good stuff. It’s a life full of travel and cocktails and hard work and independence – ultimately it’s a life for young, single people who are intensely focused on career. That’s not really my thing these days. My wife is my priority, and I don’t really enjoy travel (especially work travel).
  • It’s a job with long hours. A consultant friend I know told me that it’s even more work than it seems. On one level, you’re trying to tackle enormous problems for companies, and on another level, you’re billing sometimes millions of dollars from these companies. Because you’re the outside team that’s been brought in to solve the problem for a high price tag, you’re expected to arrive early and stay late. The client wants to see you working hard, sequestered in the conference room pouring over data and charts and such. They want to see you earn the money. It’s not a 9-to-5 job. It keeps going until everyone else in the office has left, and then you continue working at the hotel (over a good cocktail). It is thoroughly exhausting work.
  • It’s not as innovative as it seems. This reason is a bit controversial, and if some McKinsey person finds this blog, I bet they’ll contact me to argue otherwise, but I’ve heard this from two different consulting friends. Elite management consulting is made out to be this cutting-edge, mindblowing, innovative experience where a giant company brings in the consulting team to solve the biggest problems ever (e.g., help us expand our company into China in two years, or help us keep our airline profitable while still providing great destinations and amenities, or help us streamline a billion dollars out of our operating budget). In many cases, the consulting team (of about 5 people) brainstorms and comes up with this killer solution. But in many other cases, it’s pretty straightforward work, and the lead consultant on the team dictates to the rest of the team how they will attack the problem and what existing consulting firm tools they use to do it. It’s much more about following orders and executing the lead consultant’s vision than it is about innovating new ways to solve tough business problems.
  • For me, there are moral and ideological issues. McKinsey, at least, emphasizes that consultants never have to take on clients they disagree with (e.g., if you’re against smoking, you never have to work on the cigarette company account). I believe this, but I also have an issue with working at a firm that helps these kinds of clients at all. I’m also pretty fundamentally opposed to the evils of big corporations (and, frankly, free market capitalism entirely). Helping any major corporation cut costs by laying off thousands of members of the working class, outsourcing jobs overseas, using cheaper environmentally unfriendly materials, and so on makes me a bit uncomfortable. I am certain I would have confronted some really difficult ethical issues as a management consultant, and I’m not sure I would have had a voice to express these concerns.

In the end, McKinsey was the only consulting company that expressed any interest in me, and ultimately I didn’t meet their standards. Talking about why management consulting wouldn’t have been a good fit for me in hindsight is not so much about sour grapes. Hopefully this is helpful for others (perhaps other grad students) who are interested in a non-academia job. Management consulting is the right thing for some people, and the payout is enormous, but it just wasn’t for me. I’m thankful McKinsey took me seriously, though, and I’m thankful I ended up as a professor, where I belong.

Avoiding Vague Panels

I frequently see people posting on academic listservs that they’re looking for additional panel participants to round out their panel submission. In my opinion, panels should be proposed sparingly. They’re kind of a back door way to get into a conference, really, because they 1) are not blind reviewed, 2) confront less scrutiny, and 3) are usually composed of abstracts rather than full papers. If you want to propose a panel, it should have some focus.

If you’re trying to put together a panel for a conference and you’re looking for people to join you, then you should at least be wanting to pitch a panel on a relatively narrow topic. Simply wanting to make a panel on “video games” or “family communication” or “rhetoric in politics” is not enough.

What a broad topic panel says is “Hi, I’ve written a paper on [a relatively narrow topic] but I am doubtful it is good enough to get into the conference through the individual paper competition route, which is why I’m trying to submit as part of a panel with other people. But, my paper is so specific that I have to abstract the topic to a generic level to have any hope of rounding up 3 other people to submit papers with me for this panel.”

And/or it says “Hi, I have a vague idea of what I think might be a cool paper for this conference, but I don’t have the time or talent to actually write a full paper in time to submit to the conference…so I’m looking for some other people to join forces with me so we can make a convincing frankenstein of a panel on a coherent topic and have a better chance of getting into the conference and getting my university to pay for me to visit [exotic location] for this conference.”

Come on people. No conference panel should be about “video games,” or “family communication,” or “rhetoric in politics.” Panels should be specific and interesting and cohesive: “gender representations in video games marketed at pre-teens,” or “family communication strategies for dealing with a relative’s substance abuse,” or “the rhetoric of the ‘tea baggers’ in response to Obama’s policies.” These would be much more interesting and panel-worthy ideas.

And if you would just focus on writing a good, solid scholarly paper, then it will get into the conference through the paper competition. Let the program planners figure out the best way to organize papers into panels. That’s what their job is for.

S.O.S.: Shiny Object Syndrome

Academics are easily distracted. We love to learn, and since we know that we can earn a living writing and talking about the stuff we like to learn about, we are are driven even more to explore the world of knowledge. But sometimes we can get a little off track and start chasing everything that glitters. At worst, this can distract you to the point where you never land in one place and start being productive. And at best, even if you’re able to publish everything you take an interest in, you’re still going to come out looking like you’re scattered, never a real expert in anything.

Shiny Object Syndrome will eventually strand your career on a deserted beach. It might be a pretty beach, and you might have a lot of fun by yourself. But you're still stranded.

I call this problem Shiny Object Syndrome. Or, if you prefer, think of it as S.O.S., meaning “I’m sinking and I’m distressed.”

S.O.S. is characterized by acute interest in narrow topics. For grad students, it usually is patterned after their course schedule. If a grad student takes a course in feminist history and he or she suddenly wants to deep dive into that topic, fine. But if in the next semester that same grad student takes a course in health communication and suddenly shifts course, that may be the beginnings of S.O.S.

After a while, if the grad student keeps changing his or her direction any time something interesting gets in his or her field of vision, then the grad student can be diagnosed with full-blown S.O.S.

Pop sensation Rihanna likes beaches, too, but she'll never be stranded on one. Why? Because she focuses her career on making pop songs. She doesn't venture into bizarre places with her artistic interests, and thus she does not have S.O.S. Plus she'll never be stranded because her song "S.O.S." made her enough money to buy her a yacht and a crew.

Want to cure your S.O.S.? Here’s how:

  1. Find a research topic you can be fully passionate about for a long time. There are a number of ways to do this.
  2. Make a clear distinction between thinking about a topic because it’s interesting and because you’re taking it for one course in your graduate career vs. diving head-first into a topic every semester and writing about it. It’s OK to be curious and interested in many things, and by all means you should support your colleagues who pursue these interests. But YOU need to focus on just one thing, and you need to do it well.
  3. If you must indulge your many interests, budget your time for these activities – think about writing on various topics that are not directly in your research area the way you would think about a hobby. Then, find an outlet for it. This could be a blog you maintain, or you could find suitable venues for publishing your work. Just don’t devote so much time to so many things that you pull your attention away from your main area of expertise.

Don’t be a flake. Don’t contract S.O.S. And don’t confuse the joy of learning with the joy of being a good scholar.

Getting Inspired by a Research Topic

First off, I’m going to slow my roll a bit. When I started really blogging here waaaay back two weeks ago, I tried to post every weekday so that I could get in the habit of actually maintaining this thing. I’m happy to say I successfully got in the rhythm, but now it’s time to slow down a bit. Why? Because I’m all over the place, writing about tips for graduate students, news events, personal news, and even watermelons. But really, why am I slowing down? Because the semester started, and I have far less time that I used to.

In any event, here’s another post. I’ll try to make them quality posts since I’m doing them a bit less often (my goal is still 2-3 per week, though, which isn’t bad).

Today’s post is about how to find a good research topic. This applies mostly to grad students in the humanities and social sciences, not grad students in the natural sciences. The reason is that natural scientists tend to link into an established lab during their graduate careers, which kind of determines their topic.

Many grad students have an immense amount of pressure to find a topic for their dissertation as quickly as possible in their graduate career. This is partially true. The benefit of finding a topic early is that you can make your coursework and comprehensive exam studying very focused, which in turn makes the dissertation writing stage efficient. But the downside to latching onto a topic so soon into grad school is that you tend to get in the habit of selectively listening in classes and only deeming articles “important” in your head if they somehow apply to what you’re doing.

Still, it’s better to have a topic in mind early, so that you don’t pass your comprehensive exams and say to yourself, “Wow, what do I do now? I have to write a dissertation and don’t really know what I want to write about.” Here are some tips for finding that magical topic:

  • Get outside your discipline. Interdisciplinary work is all the rage in academia these days, and for good reason. We’ve become so siloed in our system of graduate education that we struggle now with how to build bridges across disciplines to address real, complex social problems. So if you’re, say, a communication graduate student, be sure you’re reading a bit of the scholarly literature from public policy, or architecture, or sociology, or some other discipline. It’ll help you identify hot trends in other disciplines that may not have made it to your discipline yet, and you could position yourself as the one who bridges the gap with your own work. Also, don’t be shy about contacting folks in other disciplines to collaborate, to find out what the must-read articles in their discipline are, and to scope out potential supervisory committee members.
  • Read the news. The most interesting research topics are the ones that somehow link into current events. This doesn’t mean you have to be studying phenomena as they unfold, though that’s a really exciting place to position yourself. But it does mean that if you choose an obscure historical or literary topic, you should make sure it has some relevance today. Oil spill in the Gulf? You can write about how press coverage today framed the story. OR, just as interesting – you could write about political responses to oil spills throughout history. Both make for an interesting research topic because they relate to something happening today.
  • Monitor the popular press. Scholars should never only read scholarly work. As I said in the previous point, they should also keep an eye on the news. But beyond that, scholars should read a lot of magazine articles and blogs. There are at least four reasons for this: 1) you can stay up on the trends, similar to the way a news story does, except with even greater depth and feature coverage; 2) you can get a glimpse into a very complex or narrow topic through the accessible language of a magazine writer or blogger. This is important especially if, say, you’re interested in nanotechnology or something really technical and cutting edge but don’t exactly know how to sift through the dense scholarly literature yet; 3) you get the first analysis of a major issue. Scholarly literature takes at least a year to be published, but a good journalist or blogger can crank out some pretty good analysis of a topic in a matter of days. This means sometimes a magazine has the most cutting edge scholarly-ish analysis of a topic; and 4) popular press articles help you identify key figures and points of tension in a debate. Magazine articles, for instance, will feature commentary from interviews with opinion leaders and scholars on the topic at hand. This helps you identify important authors of key pieces of literature.
  • Solve a problem. I’m of the opinion that research should have a purpose, and ideally that purpose is to improve the lives of the downtrodden or preserve the natural environment rather than to simply build more knowledge. The most interesting – and challenging, demanding, and complex – research topics are the ones that aim to tackle a real-world problem. Don’t just analyze a TV show because you think it’s an interesting, rich text. Analyze it because there are messages in the show that have some real bearing on people’s lives, and you’re going to do research on that show in order to intervene in the way that show bears on people’s lives. Do something that matters. You’ll end up sticking with your research topic long after you finish your Ph.D. You essentially ride your dissertation topic all the way to tenure. So try to make what you do matter in some way, so that you don’t feel uninterested in it in a matter of a few years, and so that you can say when you earn tenure somewhere that all the work you did (perhaps funded by taxpayers if you work at a public university) actually did something worthwhile in the world.

If you stitch these things together you can usually turn up some really great topics. Keep your eye out for interesting stories, emerging trends, new technologies, and hot topics in other disciplines. And above all, try to make what you do matter in some way by solving a real-world problem.


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