Good Students Aren’t Always Good Scholars

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

Graduate School is Not an Extension of Undergraduate Education

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

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

Grades Don’t Matter

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

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

Why Academic Entrepreneurship Will Set You Apart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ethics of Class Projects with “Real World” Clients

Many university courses now require students to work with real-world clients. This is especially true in professional schools (e.g., journalism, public health, government, business). The public relations students in our journalism school, for example, will work with at least two client organizations during their time in the major: once in the PR Writing course to produce tactical materials for community non-profit and campus organizations (through the university’s service-learning center), and once in the PR Campaigns capstone class, where they develop a campaign proposal for a client of the instructor’s choosing.

But are there ethical considerations with this kind of class-client work? Certainly. There’s a broad set of concerns that applies to non-profit and for-profit clients, and then there is a whole other level of concern with for-profits.

Broad Concerns about Class-Client Work

When students enroll in a course that features client work, they usually don’t have much say in who the client is. It’s the instructor who often chooses the client, or sometimes it’s a set list of clients assigned to the class by a campus-wide service-learning center or an already established relationship between the department and a community client. This can be problematic for students, especially if they disagree with the mission and values of the client. This is the case whether the client is non-profit or for-profit.

Most instructors are wise to avoid organizations that many students may find controversial, such as organizations with religious missions and organizations with explicit political leanings on hot button issues (e.g., abortion, guns, same-sex marriage, immigration). But some instructors, who may have close connections to these organizations through their research agendas or community service work, will assign these clients to the class anyway.

On the one hand, an instructor can make the case that “PR practitioners, especially junior-level ones, rarely have a say in what clients they are assigned to work with, and this a lesson in learning to be professional and separate work and personal opinion.” I don’t buy this, though. If a student has a deeply held opinion that, say, gay marriage is wrong, then it is my obligation, even if I completely disagree with them, that the student be allowed to seek an alternative client rather than work with a gay rights advocacy group. I think the discussion about “PR practitioners rarely get to pick their clients” is appropriate in these cases, but I don’t think, after some attempt to persuade a student, that student should be required to work with a client he or she cannot reconcile with. This is especially true for courses that are required to satisfy a major, and especially if the student does not have another section of the class to switch to or some other option.

Why? Because even in the professional world people have a right to opt out of working with a client they have strong personal beliefs about. Many firms have policies about this that allow employees to switch clients for personal reasons. And practitioners are always free to quit the job. But a student who is about to graduate doesn’t have quite the same kind of freedom to walk away.

Another broad concern about class-client work is the disclosure of conflicts of interest to students. Students are entitled to know if the instructor or academic department is receiving some benefit for working with a particular client. If a department sees the client organization as a development/fundraising prospect and this class-client project may help push that client toward a big donation to the department, then this should be disclosed to students. In some cases, too, an instructor may serve on the board of a client organization, or he/she may be benefiting from insider access to the client organization for the purposes of conducting research, or any number of benefits. These should be disclosed to students, as well. And students should have the freedom to choose whether they work with the client in light of these disclosures.

Specific For-Profit Client Concerns

When a class’ client is a for-profit business, there’s an added layer of ethical considerations. Class-client relationships are supposed to be mutually beneficial. Students gain valuable experience with real clients and build portfolios of work that help them find jobs or get into grad school. And the client gets some kind of work product, which can include research, strategic consultation, ready-to-use PR and advertising materials, websites, and so on. These clients can sometimes see enormous benefits from the work of students. If a client is a for-profit business, this means a surge in profits, all based on the work done, for free, by students.

In a public university, where a state’s taxpayers partially cover the cost of attending college, this for-profit relationship becomes problematic. What is essentially going on, albeit indirectly, is that taxpayers pay a university to educate students, and part of that education involves students doing free work for businesses, who in turn make a profit off of that labor. Indirectly, this means that businesses are getting some taxpayer money through the filter of the university classroom, all without the public being informed that this is going on. And all based, usually, on an instructor’s personal preference for a business that will reap the benefits. Yes, taxpayer dollars are given to businesses all the time, including by public universities, which pay vendors for various products and services to help the institution function. But these arrangements follow specific acquisition guidelines from the state, including broad RFPs and fair dealing with historically underutilized businesses (i.e., minority owned businesses) in the state. When an instructor selects a for-profit client for his/her class to work for, this fair dealing is not happening, and taxpayers would have a difficult time finding this out.

And now that corporations are officially people and money is speech, there’s no telling what these¬† for-profit clients are likely to do with the benefits of their free student labor. At the end of the day, it’s just simply not right for students and taxpayers to pay universities money so that universities can put students to work for free improving the bottom line of businesses, who in turn owe nothing back to the university or the state.

The implications of working with for-profit clients should be explained to students, and students should have a right to opt-out and pursue other clients.

But How Will Students Gain Experience Working with For-Profits?

There’s a valid point here. If students go through an entire PR program, for example, and all they ever do is work with non-profits, then how will they be equipped to work with for-profits when they graduate? Well, to a large degree, non-profit PR and for-profit PR is similar. It’s a similar campaign process, similar concerns, etc. But there are differences. Here’s how students can get this experience:

  1. They can get internships with for-profit businesses. This is the most common thing students do to get for-profit experience. So long as it’s communicated to students that they won’t be getting much (if any) for-profit client experience in the major, then students should know to seek these experiences on their own. This is what internship credits are for. (But wait – if a student gets internship credit and no pay to work for a business, isn’t that the same issue? Kind of, yeah. But at least the taxpaying public is more aware of what internships are about. The definition and scope of what an internship is appears in a department’s course catalog, which is approved by the university and thus endorsed by the state and its taxpayers. But the scope of a PR campaigns course, according to the catalog, is about teaching the process of a campaign, not necessarily about doing work with a for-profit business. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. Plus, students are also free to choose who they work with and if they do an internship at all.)
  2. Instructors can offer a non-profit and a for-profit option in a class. If I assign a for-profit client to my PR Campaigns class, for instance, I always make sure there’s a non-profit client option. Basically, I have two clients for students to choose between. I also make full disclosures to my students. I think this element of freedom solves a lot of the problem. No student can really complain that they were forced to improve the profits of a business in order to get a degree from a public university.

In sum, there are things to watch out for when classes work with real world clients. Conflicts of interest with any client – for-profit or non-profit – should be disclosed to students, and students should be free to do something else if they don’t agree with the client. That “something else” could be working independently with another client, taking another section of the course, or something comparable. For-profit clients present an entirely different set of concerns, and students (and the public) should know these concerns and have similar freedoms. And if students want to get experience with a for-profit client, they can do this in at least two different ways, without being forced into anything.

Thesis and Exam Defenses

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

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

What is a Defense?

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

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

When to Defend

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

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

What Happens in a Defense?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preparing for a Defense

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

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


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

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

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

Finding the Right Publication Venues

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

Prestige vs. Likelihood of Publication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Affiliated Journal or an Independent Journal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Online Journal or Print Journal?

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

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

Watch for Special Issues

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

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

Other Publication Possibilities

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

Book reviews and literature reviews

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

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

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

Case studies, practical application, and teaching notes

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

Features, comments, and responses

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

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

Short formats

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

Alternative scholarship

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

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

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

What About Book Chapters?

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

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

No One Will Read Your Dissertation

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

Seriously. No one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you have to get your dissertation done first.

Announcing a new journal

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

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

CFP for New Journal:

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.