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PhDs Are Taken, Not Given

At the recent annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, I found myself giving advice to current graduate students left and right.  To those one year away from going on the job market, I informed them that this was their “pre-market year.”  It would behoove them to begin networking now (if they have not already) so that it feels more genuine than does networking while on the job market.  From my experience, job candidates tend to act and look — and even smell — as though they are desperately seeking employment.  Job seekers’ interactions with other scholars tend to be more calculated, forced, and atypically open (“I’ll talk to a plant if it might get me a job!”).

PhDs Are Taken, Not Given

To another mid-career graduate student, I shared the advice to “kick the doors down” to progress in his dissertation research and ultimately finish graduate school.  Though there seems to be much discussion about preparing to finish graduate school and pursue jobs, I recall feeling lost in progressing from finishing coursework to beginning my dissertation.  I knew what needed to be done, and had a couple of great ideas for dissertation topics.  But, it seemed that I was stuck with no feasible options, yet the entire universe of possibilities.

In a personal reflection to make sense of my anxiety and ambivalence, I noted:

I am at the critical juncture of starting my dissertation, beginning to prepare for the academic job market, and deciding upon my future as an academic.  I feel so certain of the direction in which I am headed, even with a concrete dissertation idea (that will not work due to data limitations).  But, I feel a bit lost at the moment.  Now that I have completed all of the early obligations and requirements for my graduate program, I feel that the onus is on me to progress to the final stages.  Honestly, if I disappeared for a while, I am worried no one would check up on me.  Even if teaching, having to come to the department would be the only thing forcing contact with professors.

It became clear to me what steps were needed to move forward:

For certain, these final stages are inherently unstructured.  There is no official timetable.  But, more importantly, I know that these are the days when I need to step up as an independent scholar.  If my advisors are not on me daily, I should still be making daily progress.  I am capable of making this transition.  So, I need to just do it.  Now is the time to step up to decide my priorities and back-up plans and the consequences for making certain decisions over others.  Let’s do it!  Now!

Upon realizing that it was my job, in becoming an independent scholar, to reach the next step, I had to stop asking my advisors what would be a feasible dissertation topic.  The time came to tell them what I would pursue in my research.  They helped steer me away from topics that probably would be hard sells on the job market (e.g., marginalized topics), and pushed me to ensure that data were available and that the proposed chapters tied together well.  But, I had to step up to declare what my dissertation would be on.

Even beyond the content, I had to push my committee to allow me to set a one-year timetable for myself for completion.  Fearing that I might miss out on increasing my job marketability (for top research intensive schools), my committee would have preferred that I stayed an additional year.  Nope – I aimed for six years and, fortunately, they agreed to support me (e.g., letters of recommendation, etc).  As I reminded them, it was my decision to make and (if I failed) regret.

In a way, it felt that I had to take my PhD, rather than wait for my committee and department to give it to me.  I declared my dissertation topic, and solidified a schedule to complete it, and secured a job that I love so far.  My committee served to advise me, but the days of advice-as-directive were over.  My transformation to become an independent scholar required it.  I do not know for sure that this is an intentional aspect of graduate training programs.  But, it was in my case.  And, I share this story as advice, for I see others who sit in ambivalence about making the next step in their graduate training.

A Note On Male Privilege

The above sentence was originally the last.  But, I went to bed (I usually write posts a day or two in advance of posting it) thinking that my advice may not work for everyone.  Well, I already know that there is no one-size-fits-all gem of advice.  Specifically, I wondered whether women graduate students (and women scholars in general) are as free to make decisions for their career and simply update their advisers later.  That is, was my assertiveness allowed as yet another privilege that I am afforded as a man?

Since academe is not immune to sexism and masculinist values, I know it is a safe guess that, yes, much of my academic career has been advanced by male privilege.  I’m quite attuned to the barriers I have faced as a fat brown queer person.  What has been a slow evolving consciousness is that these barriers are not as bad as they could have been if I were either trans* or a (cis)woman.

I bring this up to give a note of caution that this advice may not work for everything.  Though I regularly felt as though I had to bite my tongue, I was not faced with the gendered expectation of women to placate others.  Sadly, I have seen first hand that women are sometimes told what they will be doing (or not doing) rather than the other way around.

Other Resources

I hate to end this post suggesting that my advice may not be so useful (to everyone) after all.  So, I am hopeful other scholars will contribute their own stories and advice that will give different perspectives, highlighting different constraints and opportunities.

  • Going Rogue” (snippet: “At some point, all graduate students must go rogue. By that, I mean I had to figure out how to make decisions about my research and writing without relying on my advisers for direction.”)
  • Demystifying Dissertation Writing by Peg Boyle Single – I strongly recommend this!  It put into words the suspicions I had that I was at a stage where I was totally independent as a scholar.  Single also has great practical activities to make quick and less self-doubting progress on your dissertation.
  • AcademicLadder.com —  don’t know much about this personally, but have friends who loved the program.


  1. And then there were two... says:

    Yes, there is a significant difference for women – and I would argue even more so for those with children. I went from a dual-career academic couple entering the market in my final PhD year to a single mom trying to finish the dissertation, parent an infant, and thankful to family that at least had a spare room for a crib. For myself, the job market is not about merely being a good “fit” and a solid hire – it is also about being desperate for job security, and income that keeps food on the table and bills paid. This is the brutal honesty of academics that have few resources, and obligations to more than their research or teaching passions.
    Having said that – it is liberating to be so honest about that very desperation. At least I have a roof over my head.

  2. […] stressful, self-directed, underwhelming, and require the greatest level of discipline thus far in your career (maybe even […]

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