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Around this time last year, a few friends and colleagues — those with whom I was not as close — continued to ask about the outcome of my academic job search. “Oh, how nice!” “Where’s that?” “Are you excited to go there?” To put it politely, my decision to take a job at a liberal arts university was not without push-back from my department. Though I stood firm in my decision to accept a job at a department and university I liked, that is close to my family, and that presented the closest thing to “balance.” But, I could not help but feel a bit defensive against any sort of question regarding my decision. Even to a simple, polite, “oh, I haven’t heard of University of Richmond before,” I automatically explained my reasons for choosing it. It was as though I felt I needed to justify myself, to convince others that I was not a failure for not taking a job at a Research 1 university.
The notion that “it’s your life!”, even articulated begrudgingly by those who pushed hard for me to “go R1,” has — so far — proven true. Life goes on. Fortunately, it is going on with me in a place where I feel content. The funny thing is fighting to make a career decision that best suited my needs (professionally, health and well-being, politically, family) has shifted to being told that I am lucky. I am lucky to have a job (period). I am lucky to have secured a tenure-track job. I am lucky to have secured a tenure-track job after one year on the academic job market. I am lucky to be a professor now at 28, having gone straight through high school, college, and graduate school (which I finished “early”). Lucky?
I have already heard the line that 80% of what occurs on the job market is beyond one’s own control. Who knows what search committees want, what departments need, what Deans tell them they want, and how universities operate in terms of hiring? I definitely buy that. But, considering the prevalence of discrimination in the US including academia, I resent the assertion of luck in my success. Yes, let me rattle off my oppressed identities once again. I am a fat Black queer scholar who studies sex and sexuality, race and ethnicity, gender, gender identity and expression, and discrimination. No matter my efforts to “soften” my public image by deleting blog posts that might be too radical or militant, much of it was still out there and easy to find. Search committees were not beating down my door to offer me a job. And, those interviews and job offers that I received were a reflection of 80% that is beyond my control, 20% my publications, teaching experience, and committee’s letters — and 15% selling out throughout my graduate training. Telling me I am “lucky” is both insulting and a perverse view of how hiring decisions are made in academia.
I Souled Out
Let me think for a moment to see if I can pinpoint where it began. Like many kids with aspirations for college, and college students with aspirations for graduate school, I was involved in extracurricular activities, community service, and aimed for high grades. But, all of that felt like the hard work and sacrifice that was necessary for anyone. It was at the start of my graduate training when I realized I needed to start sacrificing who I was as a person in order to be successful.
I suppose the need to trade off bits of my soul in exchange for professional success first crystallized in my second semester. I attended a talk in my department on public sociology, and was disappointed by the speaker’s approach to make sociology publicly relevant and accessible. I came filled with rage, hating graduate school so much those days because racism had reared its ugly head right within one of my classes — on the first day, nonetheless. I wore a gawdy, baggy hoodie to signify “don’t fucking talk to me.” And, it worked. Blackness — specifically Black rage and Black militance — stood out, and seemed to make others uncomfortable.
I went to the National Sexuality Resource Center‘s (at SFSU) summer institute on sexuality that year, and was given life that I needed so badly at that point. I met queer people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, and of different academic stripes, who shared my passion for social justice and inclusion and my critical perspective. I cried at our award ceremony at the end of the summer institute because I did not want it to end. In between sobs, I said that I wished my fellow institute participants were my grad school cohort. I returned to grad school that fall ready to make it work, but on my terms. So, I got my tongue pierced. I noticed furrowed brows from one of my professors; I suppose saying something was out of the question, but facial expressions can say much more. I took it out that same day.
Grad school knocked me back on my ass that second year. I was still miserable, still debating whether to leave or transfer to another program. That winter, I got sick while visiting a friend. After a couple of days, feeling a bit better, I went to visit other friends. I suppose I was not as well as I thought. I completely missed a red light and hit a car going through the intersection. Fortunately, there were minor bumps and bruises, though both cars were totaled. I was staying with my parents for the holidays… and it was their car I wrecked. My mother was not happy with me. But, she set her anger aside because she had to care for me — I was sick once again, and now had a badly injured hand. Feeling so helpless over those remaining days of winter break changed something in me. I returned to my grad program knowing that it was my job to make the training work for me. After a year and a half of misery, I decided it was either time to change the situation to stop being miserable or just leave. Why waste any more of my life?
Making it work, at times, meant selling out. I said goodbye to any clothes that could be read as “too Black,” “too urban,” “too thuggish,” or “too militant.” I worked at being more patient with people who were not the most open-minded, accepting, or understanding. I stopped resisting advice from professors, which, admittedly, at times simply meant appearing more open to their suggestions. I slowly shifted into what I saw as the “good little graduate student.” And, it paid off.
- I solidified my use of quantitative methods, given its valued status in my department, and sociology in general.
- When applying to graduate schools, I decided on sociology over gender, women, and sexuality studies programs; I figured I could get a PhD in the former and get a job in the latter, but never the other way around. Then, I was discouraged from pursuing either the gender studies or sexuality studies graduate minors; instead, I made research methods (read: quantitative methods) my minor. I also decided on social psychology for my qualifying exam, not gender or sexuality as I actually wanted. So, besides a couple of courses, my graduate training is squarely in mainstream sociology.
- I continued to move toward marketing myself as a mainstream sociologist — one who is within a major subfield but happens to study a particular population. That is, I learned that studying LGBT people was not enough; one had to be a medical sociologist who focused on LGBT people. That is exactly how I marketed myself when applying to jobs.
- Socially, I pushed myself to interact more with those I saw as “making it.” How were these people going through the same program as me but without ever feeling miserable? Unlike the professional changes I was making, this did not last. These people were not miserable because they were not marginalized in the same ways as me (or at all). Unfortunately, this meant that they were unwilling to hear my complaints, or seemed to dismiss other students like me as responsible for their own misery.
Recovering My Soul
How far I had gone in selling out became apparent just in my last year of grad school. I sat on a panel about diversity in grad school and, more specifically, the challenges that certain students faced because of their marginalized status(es). A student in the audience, to our surprise, vented about all of the compromises they made to survive, and times they bit their tongue instead of challenging racist comments from their classmates. Their reflection struck a chord with me. Wow, how much of my own soul have I given up, compromised, or hidden in order to get ahead in my career?
I definitely see it today. As I look at my CV, I see few publications on sexuality — the very thing I went to graduate school to study. A colleague even remarked his surprise that my primary line of research is on discrimination and health; as much as I talk about sexuality, teach courses on it, and publicly write about it, he assumed sexuality is my primary area of research. My students, too, note their surprise, seeing two shelves of books on sexuality compared to half on health and half on discrimination. As I looked for paper awards in sociology to which I can apply, I realized I am eligible for those in health and none on sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, and the body. Some days, I do not even know who I have become professionally and intellectually.
I am still carrying on with suits and ties in an effort to “blend in.” This semester, a few former students noted that they sense I have my “guard up,” that I seem nervous or uneasy at times, leaving them to wonder who I really am. I am sure I have also made certain comments that piqued their interest in me enough to even think about these things or to notice. But, as open as I have been about making certain decisions about how I present myself, and it seems everyone knows, the joke is on me apparently. What good is a disguise if everyone knows it is a disguise? For my own well-being, it seems it is time to let go of this strategy because it is not helping and actually takes a toll. And, increasingly, I am seeing that attempting to blend in is doing a disservice for my marginalized students. Some seem to want me just to be me so badly because there are no others who are (exactly) like me. Why deny them that? Oh, right — tenure.
But, to my surprise, I am finding that I have joined a place that already knew who I am (it seems silly to think you can hide who you are when you have had an online presence since the start of grad school) and likes who I am. I was in job market-mode when i interviewed, so I was not fully conscious of the comfort I would feel politically. But, I do believe, at a semi-conscious level, I made a note of that benefit of this job (over others). I chose this job because I can do critical work, serve the local community, and blog (even about academia!).
A part of me wonders whether I would even have this job if it were not for the ways in which I souled out. Would I have been forced to stay in graduate school longer? Would I have fewer publications? Would I have been forced to teach more because I never received external funding? Would I have stayed miserable, maybe even dropped out of graduate school all together? Would I ever get a tenure-track job? Pessimism here is very tempting…
It is also tempting to say that I sacrificed in such big ways, it all paid off, and I lived happily ever after. But, I do not want to offer that as the moral of the story. I do not want to send the message to other marginalized scholars they can be successful with just a little hard work and selling out. If anything, I will accept that I made certain sacrifices to get ahead so that I can change that narrative. Ah, yes, and that serves as yet another vote for being authentic and comfortable where I am now. I see myself as no role model to my students if my success exists solely because of the ways in which I souled out.
I am not alone in making sacrifices to advance my career. And, this happens for marginalized folks outside of academia, as well. My point here, though, is to highlight that it does occur in academia. The implicit message sent is that success is narrowly-defined, which usually means that marginalized folks must work at downplaying their marginalization, their Otherness, to fit in the mainstream definition of success. Sometimes the messages are explicit, like the gender policing I have witnessed or experienced firsthand to “encourage” grad students to present themselves in masculine(-ist) ways. At times, it seems you have to choose the (limited) ways you can embrace difference, criticism, or militance because there is a threshold that one should not exceed if you want to be accepted at all.
It is my hope that speaking publicly about this, and regularly maintaining conversations like this publicly through this and others’ blogs, will highlight what many marginalized scholars face in their training and careers. More optimistically, I hope that these kinds of demands cease, that one’s unique social location, interests, and perspective are embraced rather than seen as inconsistent with traditional or mainstream scholarship. Pessimistically speaking, as tenure-track jobs become scarce, and people of color and women are overrepresented in contingent positions, I fear the pressure to conform and sell out will only increase in the years to come.
Yesterday, I shared two essays to share my own perspective on the controversy at my university. In 2012, one of the University of Richmond’s board of trustees members, Paul Queally, participated in an induction ceremony for an honor society for very wealthy people (Kappa Beta Phi). His comments, including sexist and homophobic jokes, have come to light in a book by Kevin Roose, which Roose wrote about in New York Magazine last week. Many students, staff, faculty, administrators, and alumni were left underwhelmed by the slow and limited response from the university, board of trustees, and Queally himself.
As a new queer professor at Richmond, I felt it important to speak out — not simply to criticize Queally, or the underwhelming response from the university, but also to make clear these values do not reflect the university community I have joined. By that, I mean this is surprising considering what I have seen at the university in my short time on the faculty, and that I will work to ensure that the university exhibits a commitment to inclusivity in actions, not just words. The links are below.
- “Hate is not a Richmond Value,” The Collegian (U Richmond’s student newspaper)
- “Hate isn’t a University Value,” Inside Higher Ed
In the winter issue of the newsletter of the Medical Sociology section of the American Sociological Association, you will find an interview by UGA sociology PhD student Jessica Seberger with me on social media use and the academic job market. Jessica, as the Student Newsletter Editor, has been interviewing recent PhDs about their experiences on the job market and in the early part of their career in academia, with a particular focus on using social media for research, teaching, and service. I was honored to be her latest interviewee!
You can see the full newsletter [download PDF] or just the interview below.
For my stint as student editor I want to explore how recent PhDs found and secured positions within or outside of academia and how sociologists (with a focus on medical sociologists) connect to others through technology. I intend to explore discussion with sociologists who communicate extensively through Twitter, those who use groups on Facebook as a resource for classroom material, those who have and maintain personal/professional blogs, and those who contribute op-ed pieces to major news outlets.
For this edition of the newsletter I interviewed Dr. Eric Grollman. Dr. Grollman recently received his PhD from Indiana University and has secured a tenure-track position at the University of Richmond. Dr. Grollman’s research examines the impact that prejudice and discrimination has on marginalized groups’ health, well -being, and world views. Within the last year he has also restarted a blog he started in graduate school. That blog, ConditionallyAccepted.com, provides a space for scholars who exist at the margins of academia. In the following interview we discuss his new position, his blog, and social media use by sociologists in academia.
JS: You’ve recently joined the University of Richmond as tenure-track professor. What made this position a good fit for you? How was your transition from graduate school to assistant professor?
Dr. Grollman: What I was looking for, on the job market, was a place where a good balance between personal life and professional life was possible. I’d heard this was more doable at a liberal arts institution. I also really wanted to work at a place where there was an acknowledged synergy between doing research and teaching. When I interviewed at the University of Richmond one of the professors whom I met with mentioned that they focused on this synergy, and I was drawn to that. I expected my transition to professor to be a bumpy transition, but making the switch from graduate student to professor isn’t as automatic as you’d expect. I also had plans to be politically neutral my first year but there were a couple of times where I stepped on political landmines that I didn’t know about and I had to deal with the consequences of that. So I was hoping to quietly focus on my work and establish myself but there was still political stuff that I found myself bumping up against.
JS: In the last year you’ve restarted a blog you started as a graduate student. What inspired you to start the blog? Could you tell me a bit about it?
Dr. Grollman: I wanted to play it safe while on the job market so I censored my online social media accounts while on the job market but that self-censorship took a toll. At some point I thought to myself, “I can’t do this anymore,” especially at a time when I was starting to see parts of academia that were really kind of ugly and upsetting [note from JS: see conditionallyaccepted.com for more details]. This was all when I was most socially isolated because I was working on my dissertation. So I started this blog where I planned to write about instances of discrimination and micro-aggressions, while keeping myself anonymous. But, I still felt it was too risky to do this while on the job market, so I deleted the blog. After graduating I still felt like there needed to be some space within academia, particularly for marginalized scholars who face these difficult and unfair experiences. I felt like these experiences needed to be highlighted so people can stop suffering in isolation. I found out later that many of my experiences were common, but I didn’t have those stories accessible to me. I hope that with this blog I can have this space where people are telling these stories, and talking about how they navigated through these experiences so we can make these experiences transparent.
JS: How have others responded to your blog within the field of sociology?
Dr. Grollman: It’s hard to gauge. I keep waiting for the shoe to drop, for someone to say, “Okay, you’re out of here, you’re fired.” So I’m still waiting for that but it hasn’t come yet. Ironically, I came to the University of Richmond thinking that this was a great place for me because no one would give me grief about blogging. Initially, I still kept it really private, in part so I could gauge the political climate. At colloquy, when new faculty are introduced to the full faculty body, my dean introduced me and said, “Oh, this is Eric Grollman, he’s a new professor of sociology and he blogs, sometimes personal and critical reflections.” My heart dropped because I was being outed in such a big way. I kept waiting to hear if there’d be repercussions to my blogging. So, I asked the chair of my department, “Do you all know that I blog?” and she said, “Of course, it’s so public, everybody knows.” She said that people like it and that it was part of what made me strong as a candidate. That is not what I’m used to. That just reinforced why Richmond is a good place for me. Outside of my institution I have heard good things. A lot of people seem to appreciate it and say, “Oh this is so inspiring, you’re so brave.” So it’s been good overall.
JS: Do you use social media in other ways as a sociologist (for example, in the classroom or at conferences)?
Dr. Grollman: I haven’t figured out how much I want to use it in the classroom and pedagogically. Right now if I want to share links with my students, I’ll show them the link at the start of class. It’s something I’ve been thinking about but I would prefer to do my homework first before I start using it. I do use Twitter to put out teaching questions like, “Hey, people who teach, what would you recommend for ___.” At conferences, sometimes I’ll “live tweet” with other people so others who are not in a session have a record of what was said. Also, using Twitter and other social media has created a nice academic network, even with people I wouldn’t normally connect with at conferences or in person. It has been good in that way, as far as using and sharing resources.
JS: Do you feel compelled to be “on” or professional with your twitter account at all times?
Dr. Grollman: I’ve been trying to figure out what the right balance is. I’ve been feeling too “out there.” I don’t censor myself too much; I post a hybrid of personal and professional on Twitter. It’s just me and what I would say (outside of class). Lately, I’ve been becoming unhappy because sometimes it opens me up to hostility as I become more visible. I’m not really ready to deal with that kind of hostility. We simply don’t have professional norms around how (and whether) to use social media, whether it “counts,” and what protections there are for those who use it.
JS: Some of the topics on your blog are pretty personal. How do you feel about self-disclosure as a sociologist?
Dr. Grollman: I think it’s underrated. My opinion is that our goal seems to be being “objective,” which we know doesn’t exist. In general we seem to discourage using the personal as a perspective, as a support for something. Pedagogically, you can’t ask a human to set aside their humanness to make sense of the social world. If we want to have a conversation about how racism shapes health, it’s unfair and nearly impossible to ask me to set aside my own experiences with racism and my health. (Keep in mind that this is not at the expense of existing research and theory.) Since we don’t put these stories out there, they’re not out there. I think there’s power in telling your personal experience, otherwise we just leave it invisible and pretend that it doesn’t happen. Blogging and Twitter are spaces where I can actually write about my personal experiences. It opens up these new spaces to have these conversations that are for public consumption. My intent is to provoke conversations about these sensitive issues. For example, writing publicly about my struggles with anxiety in graduate school, or experiencing racist hostility from other academics hopefully contributes to a chorus of voices that highlight how pervasive these problems really are.
JS: What advice do you have for graduate students or junior faculty with regards to social media?
Dr. Grollman: I have two bits of advice. The first is to think about the benefits and consequences of using social media. The benefits of it are being open and accessible, inspiring people, or speaking in ways that you can’t in journals or in the classroom. The consequences may be that since it is public, what we do outside of the classroom and in publications may trickle into our colleagues’ evaluations of our work. You have to be comfortable with what you put out there. There are some people who have been harassed, particularly women who blog or are on Twitter, when people don’t agree with what they’re saying. The second piece of advice is to take time to reflect on why you’re using social media. Because we haven’t crystalized its professional value, you have to be intentional and self-directed in deciding why you’re using it and what you want to come from it.
In an earlier post, I made my position clear — there are many reasons to blog as an academic. Let’s be honest, it takes a long time to get one’s research published in as an article or book. And, despite the amount of preparation (and grading…) that goes into teaching, we really only covering a slice of an entire field or subfield. And, our scholarship and teaching tends to stick behind paywalls; only those with access to academic journals and only those enrolled in college have the luxury of accessing them. And, don’t even bother thinking service is can to anything other than your department, university, or discipline.
So, blogging can serve as means to make scholarship, teaching, and advocacy more accessible. You can complement peer-reviewed journals articles behind paywalls with a short blog post summary of your research. This is true, too, for teaching (i.e., short post to introduce concepts or review prior scholarship) and service (i.e., blogging as intellectual activism). Or, blogging can feature aspects of your scholarship or advocacy that are outside of your typical work.
But, as with any sort of unregulated, non-reviewed, and public writing, academics who blog should seriously consider a few points of caution. Some of these I have worried over for some time, others are lessons learned from recent events.
It Doesn’t Count. Unfortunately, there is little chance that your blogging will “count” in evaluation for jobs, tenure, promotion, or other academic milestones. It does not constitute peer-reviewed scholarship. It does not constitute teaching. And, I would guess that few departments would even count it as service. If it serves as an important part of your scholarship — for me, I stand by it as a form of intellectual activism — it is at least worth finding out whether your department or university would recognize it as something more than a personal hobby. I am happy that mine see it as a form of service, so I continue to list this blog (as well as my time with KinseyConfidential.org) as service on my CV.
But, It Does Count. Although blogging may not officially count in your favor, it could unofficially count against you (how about that…). One’s colleagues and/or advisers may see regular blogging as a cute little hobby, but I fear their opinion about what you write could trickle into formal, “objective” evaluations. The new reality for the job market is one’s submitted application and anything accessible on the internet is fair game in search committee’s decision-making. (And, sometimes steps are taken to dig into not-so-public information on the web, i.e., via Facebook networks.) Besides the content, frequent blogging may also send the message that you are “wasting” precious time that could go toward your research. And, let’s not forget that our students are savvy enough to enter your name into Google and hit “Search.” I learned early on that I had students who were regular readers of my blogging for Kinsey Confidential; fortunately, they enjoyed my blog posts, and it seemed to add to my credibility in my course on sexualities.
You May Make Enemies. I have been pleasantly surprised to receive many compliments, praise, and even fan-mail for the (successful, I’d say) creation of Conditionally Accepted. And, my network of friends and colleagues has expanded through (and because of) my blogging and other social media use. But, others may begin to take you seriously enough to disagree with you. This may mean sometimes tense online conversations with other scholars. Or, you may become the subject of publicly expressed hostility. Even scarier for me was being called out by white supremacists; that made my heart race a little for fear of any physical harm.
You Might Get Sued. I knew you could piss people off as a blogger. But, no one told me you could be sued! I was not-so-pleasantly surprised several weeks ago to find an email threatening legal action unless I removed text from an old blog post. No, not copyright infringement style — slander! (Fortunately, that crisis was avoided.) I certainly wear descriptions like “provocative” with a badge of honor, but I would never aim to tarnish someone’s name, image, or reputation.
So, I am speaking from experience. It is possible, so be careful in how you speak about other people, even if you are simply quoting publicly accessible information. I also recommend obtaining umbrella insurance (that covers civil legal action like slander and libel) if you can afford it.
Stay In Your Lane! My biggest gripe, the one that has driven almost every blogging battle I have had with other scholars, is writing outside of your own expertise. With the respect and privilege afforded to PhDs (and, to a substantially lesser extent, future PhDs), I fear it is likely that any scholar’s written words can be taken unquestionably as expert opinion, even Truth. A few bad apples aside, the peer-review system bolsters confidence in researchers’ expertise. But, there is no peer-review for blogging. Besides the pressure not to blog at all, the failure of academic institutions to value it places no other constraints on what scholars blog about. So, aside from harm to your professional reputation, biologists may write film critiques and English professors could develop new theory on evolution.
I assume those examples are a bit extreme. But, I have seen colleagues veer slightly out of their own subfield. Staying safely within their discipline, they begin (maybe unintentionally) speaking as an expert on areas outside of their own training, research, and teaching. what really irritates me is their angered response when they are called on it. A polite request to “stay in one’s lane,” to allow people with more expertise to weigh in, are met with an effort to teach you a thing or two. I am not asking to add to the many ways in which “academic freedom” is already constrained. But, I call for a bit of reflection and responsibility here. Your public writing carries a certain level of weight and authority as an intellectual. It may be best to at least preface a post with “I am not an expert on this…” or conclude with links to others’ work or simply let the real experts do the writing. Frankly, I feel one of the greatest abilities of an intellectual is to know the limits of one’s expertise.
Start Blogging Already!
The aforementioned points of caution aside, I strongly encourage scholars to blog, however (in)frequently. I know of many pseudonymous bloggers, which allows some level of protection (but, it is not full-proof) for those worried about professional harm. If you simply want to write a blog post — just one — without maintaining your own blog, there are sites (like this one!) that would gladly feature a guest blog post. And, while blogging is not formally valued in academia, it can increase your visibility as a scholar, maybe even further demonstrate your expertise, and lead to invitations to either cite blog posts or publish them. So, give it a try — what are you waiting for?!
Other Blogging Resources
A few resources for academic blogging:
- Sociological Imagination has several blog posts on academic blogging, including “36 reasons you should blog about your research” and “Twitter for academics.”
- “Sociological Images: Blogging as Public Sociology” by Drs. Lisa Wade and Gwen Sharp in Social Science Computer Review (regarding their successful accessible blog, Sociological Images).
- “Illustrated Blogging Advice for Researchers” from Just Publics @ 365 (compiled by Dr. Jessie Daniels, who blogs at Racism Review).
- “Why Blogging is Great, and Tips for Starting” at SoapboxScience (at nature.com).
- “How Academic Blogging Can Transform Your Scientific Career“
- “Research on Academic Blogging: What Does It Reveal?” by Deborah Lupton
- “5 Ways Blogging Has Made Me a Better Scholar” by Balancing Jane.
- “Academic blogging: minority scholars cannot afford to be silent” at the Guardian. Also see, “Top tips for a successful blog” and “Top 10 don’ts for wannabe teacher bloggers.”
- Advice on blogging from Northwest History.
- “So, You Want to Start an Academic Blog? Four Tips to Know Before You Start” from Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza.
- “So You Want to Blog (Academic Edition)” from University of Venus (at Inside Higher Ed).
- “How Blogging Helped Me Write My Dissertation” by Maxime Larivé (at Chronicle of Higher Ed). Tenured Radical expresses similar thoughts, too.
- “5 Lessons from 3 years of blogging” from PhD Talk
- See academic blogging exemplars on our blogroll
Around this time last year, I had accepted the job offer with University of Richmond, took a very much needed break over the holidays, and returned ready to wrap things up for my PhD. Since I had not made a great deal of progress on my dissertation while on the job market, simply “wrapping things up” entailed starting, finishing, and defending my dissertation. And, then moving. Yep.
Oh, there were many things I thought “why didn’t anyone tell me?!” So, I write this post of advice to graduate students who will finish their dissertations this semester and move to begin a new job over/after the summer. I do not speak as an authority, certainly never having mentored graduate students; but, my own experience may offer something! I have in mind those finishing up PhDs and then beginning a tenure-track position, or some other position in academia that entails teaching and research. But, others may find this post useful, as well.
“Oh my gosh, the job market is soo stressful.” It certainly was. But, there was one thing I found substantially more stressful: the semester after, when you actually work on your dissertation. And, the reason why you never hear anyone say that? Those students are probably isolated at home or in their campus office having very little interaction with the real world. And, then they seem to quietly disappear, moving on to their new jobs. I say this only from my own experiences: this last semester will be the most isolating, stressful, self-directed, underwhelming, and require the greatest level of discipline thus far in your career (maybe even life).
Yes, I said what you think I said above. You probably will actually be starting your dissertation once the dust of the job market settles. I mean here the actual analyses and writing. (You have already defended the proposal, or done even more by now.) Ideally, you are finishing up by early summer. But, that does not account for the time you should give your committee to read your final draft before your dissertation defense. And, that does not account for last minute editing before that. And, that does not account for the time it takes to implement the very specific, tedious formatting that your university requires for submitted dissertations.
So, to work in a timely manner, you should (yes, strong words!) take note of your university’s deadlines for filing a dissertation and graduating. (This includes booking a hotel room for family who will attend graduation early, especially if you are at a big university in a small town! Also, renting/buying a cap and gown for graduation.) This stage is where the training wheels really come off. It is your responsibility to figure out what your university requires and by what date. At least at my graduate institution, there were complex instructions — certain things were due on certain days if you finished in May, or had to be formatted in certain ways if submitting your dissertation electronically.
A second suggestion is to create a work schedule. As I said, finishing will take a great deal of discipline. I set for myself 12-hour work days, but taking the evenings and weekends off were non-negotiable. So, I had my butt in my home office chair at 6am getting to work. I strongly recommend eliminating or at least temporarily suspending any other professional activities. Drop out of committees, suspend community service, put co-authored projects on hold, and stop publishing. If you can afford to (I know, I know — that’s why I said ‘if’), get out of teaching this semester. You have one job this semester: to finish a dissertation — one that 4-5 experts will be willing to sign their name to as sufficient for a doctorate. I will touch more on that later; but, I want to emphasize you need to minimize other distractions as much as possible.
Another strategy that helped me was to create an outline of analyses I would run, including supplemental analyses, to minimize data exploration. And, create an outline of what I would write in each literature review to minimize brainstorming before I had to write, and exploring existing literature. Of course, this was not a perfect strategy. But, I could afford to revise models, or even change how certain variables were measured, and look up more references for a literature review, because I went in with most of these parts already decided. Yes, the strategy to determine my analyses in advance may not work for qualitative or other methodological approaches; however you can, do some of the analytical preparation and work in advance!
You should also set aside time to decide when you will move for your new job, and to search for houses/apartments. I strongly recommend finishing up everything related to graduate school and then moving. And, as best as you can, finish before your job starts! Some universities or departments may place you on some sort of probation or temporary status if your degree has not been conferred by your university by a certain date (make sure you know this date!). If they don’t do this formally, you may be treated informally this way if you continue to finish your dissertation after you have started your new job. Give yourself a reasonable amount of time, maybe a little at a time each week, to house-hunt. And, I recommend actually making a trip to your new location before you move to get a feel of the town, preliminarily explore, and force a short mental break in the midst of dissertating. Ideally, you negotiated for compensation from your new job to house-hunt, maybe even connected with a realtor or another service; if not, I suggest asking if there are funds for this.
Decide up front what will be the best way to work, including editing. I found warming up mentally each morning was easiest if I continued to work on one empirical chapter at a time. I started with the chapter that was closest to completion — the one for which I had results because I used it as my job talk. Once that one was finished, I sent it to my chair for feedback. The unspoken agreement was that he had to approve, in his capacity as my chair, a chapter before any other committee member could see it. But, as the semester unfolded, I would have to wait a very long time to receive feedback from other committee members. So, I decided to seek out fellow students’ feedback — some because they do similar work, and others could comb my writing for clarity and grammatical errors. And, while I awaited feedback for one chapter, I moved on to the next. I left writing the conclusion for last, and drew heavily from my dissertation proposal for the introductory chapter.
I have heard of others who join a writing group, something that proves particularly useful at this last, hyper-independent stage. I flirted with the idea. But, I thought about reading pages and pages of another student’s dissertation-in-progress — I did not have the time or energy. This stage proved to be the most selfish and self-serving. I asked others to read my work and provide feedback, but I could not offer anything in return. But, once they reach that stage in future years, I can finally offer in return. I suspect a writing group can help if you have already established one. I would advise against starting anything new at this point.
I strongly recommend isolating yourself to finish. Fortunately/unfortunately, the department automatically backs away. But, other students may not know to leave you be. If you can, work at home or the library. BUT! You have to counterbalance this self-imposed isolation with taking care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. If you do not have friends or colleagues checking up on you, reach out to someone. Go out every once in a while. Leave the house every other day. Go for walks. Have some regularly schedule time that is a non-negotiable break (you know, like “weekends”), and take part or all of spring break off. Seriously! Your brain will need to recharge.
Although I suggest cutting off all other professional obligations, it may help to have some other mental stimuli. There were days that my brain felt like mush. And, I found sitting in isolation in my apartment, looking at Stata output and folders full of articles — all in the name of social science — ironic and a tad depressing. And, the constant self-censorship required for academic writing — “race discrimination” not “racism” — was exhausting, and threatened to impede my writing. So, I continued to blog, an outlet in which I was not constrained. Others have recommended blogging as a way to prevent writer’s block during the dissertation writing stage. I know well the professional risks, and some simply are not comfortable blogging, so any kind of writing may suffice — private journaling, poetry, spoken word, sending thank you letters, etc. You may find it useful to attend one campus event or talk, or even one per month, to ensure that you 1) interact with other humans, 2) are forced to shower, 3) are forced to walk, 4) are forced to breathe fresh air and see sunlight, and 5) are seen by others so that there is proof you are still alive.
A Note On A “Done Dissertation”
The most helpful advice I received to finish my dissertation was that “a good dissertation is a done dissertation.” So, as my committee expressed concern that one year to finish and secure a job was not enough time to write a “great” dissertation, I scoffed because it would sit on a shelf along side everyone else’s good, but completed dissertation. And, when the time finally came just to write the damn thing, perfection as the primary goal gave way to completion. And, if you have not heard this before, know that finishing does not mean by your standards (per se), by a journal editor’s or book publisher’s standards, or even your discipline’s standards. You are finished with your dissertation when your dissertation committee has decided it is finished; they are the sole gatekeepers whom you must satisfy at this stage. If they say to add something you do not agree with, add it — you can quickly remove it when you go to publish from your dissertation research. (Or, if it’s a secondary committee member, ask your chair if she thinks you need to add it. If yes, than do so and eliminate it post-dissertation.)
Hopefully, you will publish something from your dissertation research later on. So, I want to suggest that having something a little more than a “done dissertation” may prove beneficial down the road. I pushed back against my committee’s suggestion to produce a traditional, seamless dissertation, instead opting for an overarching introduction and conclusion, but otherwise distinct empirical chapters. I followed what some call the “three paper/chapter model.” At the start of my new job, I was able to send these chapters out with very little editing. If all I had was empirical chapters that reviewed results with little front end and conclusion, it would take more time to extract these as distinct manuscripts. Fortunately, my committee came around to the idea, as it was not the department’s norm. If they do not allow you to take this approach, do as much as you can to make the chapters distinct to minimize work later on. By today’s high standards for productivity, you cannot afford to waste time writing a magnus opus of a dissertation that does not easily translate into a book or a set of published articles!
Your committee, department, and/or university may have a set amount of time to send your committee your final draft before you defend. I have heard 2 weeks is minimal, so I aimed for one month to be generous. This is the first (or second) and last time you will have 4-5 experts sitting before to give feedback to improve your work and set your future research agenda. You definitely want to give them enough time, considering their busy schedules, to thoroughly read your 200-500 page “baby.” For me, the one-month window coincided with how far in advance I had to announce my upcoming defense. Also, if I were behind schedule, I would still be giving my committee a generous 3-week window.
Be sure to have factored in time to actually proofread your work! And, create a plan for printing and delivering your dissertation to each committee member in advance. Having a mini panic attack at the local Kinko’s as you try to get copies to your committee before the department closes at 4pm, and being told “that’s $170” to print 5 copies, is not fun.
During the time leading up to your defense, I advise one of two things. Leave this time to take care of the tedious formatting that your university requires for filed dissertations. Or, if you have already done this, work on a project you have neglected over the semester, only returning to your dissertation the day before your defense. Do not revise the content of your dissertation during this time! After your (successful!) defense, you will have tons of changes to make before you can file your dissertation with the college — and, your chair may want to approve the final document, too. Give yourself this time to take a bit of a break, at least to do mindless things or turn your attention to other projects.
One of the greatest achievements of your career (and your life!) will end in the most anticlimactic, underwhelming way. You go from securing a job (woohoo!), to finishing a draft of your dissertation (almost there!), to graduating (symbolic, at best!), to successfully defending (“Doctor” finally, but not really!), to submitting your dissertation to the college. Three months later you get your diploma. And, a month or two after that, you get copies of your dissertation, if you purchase them. When you are officially, officially done, it seems your milestone is already old news. I strongly recommend celebrating each and every step of finishing.
I had family come out for graduation in early May, including a family dinner. But, it did not feel “real” just yet because I had not even defended yet. By the time I filed and moved for my new job, I was ready to move on — or so I thought. I declined my mother’s repeated request to have a big family celebration — I was one of few to get a master’s degree, and the first to get a PhD on her side of the family (and, one of very few on my father’s side, too). “I don’t need all of this fuss about me; we already celebrated,” I insisted. But, in finding no fanfare for this major achievement as I started my new job, it became clear that I had not properly celebrated. A few weeks in, saying “you know, I’m proud of myself” out loud brought out an ugly cry that let me know I needed to do something to celebrate. This is trickier than college, which ends with graduation and a graduation party with family and/or friends, because graduation precedes actually finishing your dissertation and having your degree conferred by the college. So, make sure you celebrate at some point, if not every point!
Leave yourself enough time to properly move. Set a deadline to file your dissertation and wrap up any other loose ends, and then turn your attention fully to moving. And, once moved, give yourself time to explore your new home. Sure, you should make an effort to hit the ground running at your new job. But, you will benefit from having roots settled when the semester picks up. Get a driver’s license, update mailing addresses, register to vote, find a new doctor and dentist — all of those things that become annoyances later on when you are very busy! And, frankly, it is okay to take some time off to recharge your battery before starting the new job. If your field typically holds conferences over the summer, it may be fine to take a year off. (I went, but partially regretted it because of the costs, and I was too exhausted to network properly, and I had not yet shifted into “professor” mode — so I felt I wasted the time there.)
Once you do officially start your new job, which I recommend comes a couple of weeks (even a month or so) before the semester starts, take the time to prep your courses and get research moving. Your first semester will be a busy, stressful time of adjustment. If you start getting your “ducks in a row” early, you can coast a bit when the semester starts to overwhelm you. By the latter half of the semester, you will thank yourself for your late summer productivity.
Please read this! Of all of the things I wish I had known going into the final semester of graduate school, the most regrettable was not thinking ahead financially. Your meager stipend or fellowship will likely run out by the end of this semester, and then you will have no income until September or even October. That means living and moving on zero income over the summer! As much as you can, try to save beginning today! Hopefully, you negotiated with your new job for some sort of compensation for moving. If not, ask about it immediately. I suppose there are many things you will not know, but the financial crunch at this stage seems too pressing of an issue to (unintentionally) keep quiet.
So, here are the deadlines you will either need to set, self-impose, or for which to account in your scheduling:
- How long you will give yourself to write, revise, and complete each chapter
- When to factor in soliciting and incorporating feedback from your chair, other committee members and/or friends and other colleagues
- How far in advance you need to apply for graduation, book travel and hotel for visiting family and friends, and rent or purchase graduation regalia
- Allowing yourself enough time to coordinate each committee member’s schedule. Keep in mind some leave on the first flight after their last class of the spring semester!
- How far in advance you must provide your committee with the final draft of your dissertation for your defense
- How far in advance you must officially announce your dissertation defense
- Time to go through the detailed instructions for properly formatting your dissertation before filing
- How far in advance you must file your dissertation, and if there are special circumstances
- Time to house-hunt and then move
- Time to properly recover, relax, and recharge before beginning your new job
And, the expenses — some (or all!) of which come right out of your own pocket:
- Typical living expenses
- Graduation regalia, transportation and lodging for visiting family, graduation dinner
- Printing drafts of your dissertation (unless you print them on campus)
- Submitting, binding, and printing your final dissertation
- Transportation and lodging for a house-hunting trip, if you make one before moving
- Rental truck, boxes, storage, and other costs associated with moving
- Security deposit, first month’s rent, and any other initial expenses once you have moved (e.g., turning on power, groceries, driver’s license)
As I often do, I conclude with others’ advice and perspectives in recognizing that I can only speak for myself.
- “Stop Procrastinating to Complete Your Dissertation” by Tara Kuther
- “A Survival Guide to Starting and Finishing a PhD” by Nathan Yau
- “How to Write Up a Ph.D. Dissertation” (in computer science) by Jason Eisner
- “Surviving the Dissertation: Tips from Someone Who Mostly Has” via GradHacker; also, many other posts about the dissertation stage.
- “Getting It Done” by Fabio Rojas
- Demystifying Dissertation Writing by Peg Boyle Single
- “Finishing the Dissertation” by Renata Kobetts Miller
- Top 10 tips for surviving a PhD from The Thesis Whisperer
- “Thinking Beyond the Dissertation” via The Chronicle of Higher Education; also “So You’re Defending Your Dissertation Tomorrow!“
- “Tips for Submitting a Thesis, A Retrospective: After the First Draft” via makingbones; also, a few other posts about writing your dissertation.