PhD retrospective
February 21, 2011 4:31 AM   Subscribe

PhD filter: What do you wish you had done or known, as you started your PhD?

What do you wish you had known as you started your PhD?

How would you shape your topic differently? How would you handle yourself at conferences? What sort of overall strategy would you pursue for your career? Would you pick a more esoteric topic or a more mainstream one? What is the most important trait in your advisor? How did you keep him/her happy?

I'm especially interested in
- People who are happy they did the PhD, have gone onto successful careers (not necessarily in academia), etc.
- Social science PhDs (economics, psychology, sociology -- not humanities, hard sciences)
- PhDs *outside* of America (UK, Australia, Canada)

If your advice is "Get out now!", please let me know what you think you could have done differently to be in a different position -- even if the whole system is quite flawed.

posted by metametababe to Education (35 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
[Humanities, but nevertheless. Sweden. Happy with what followed:]

Better, smaller chunks of deadlines. Less coffee. Better separation of leisure and worktime. Writing hour every day. Better basic research skills as per this, for example.
posted by Namlit at 4:55 AM on February 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Also, if you're happy with what followed, can you tell me what you ended up doing with the PhD?

(And don't let me discourage American, non-social science people -- I just wanted to encourage those to respond.)
posted by metametababe at 5:00 AM on February 21, 2011

Here are four that I've found important:

- submit abstracts to conferences that require papers. It's a really good externally imposed deadline and forces you to write.
- have a good data organization strategy and reference management system (I recommend learning latex).
- share and collaborate with your peers as much as possible. It's much more fun, and you learn so much more.
- learn some sort of scripting language (Python for general things, and R for statistics). I know you are not in the hard sciences, but these two things have radically changed what I can do in my work. No more wasted hours formatting hundreds of .csv files!
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 5:06 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

In my experience a good supervisor can make or break you. Pick your supervisor with care.
posted by gadha at 5:31 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Social Sciences here.
-I second the write a little bit everyday. It's a habit that I still haven't really enforced, but it's important.
-I second the reference management system. Mendeley is free. And highly recommended. Start entering your references now, while they're manageable. If you start too late, you'll never catch up.
-Choosing an advisor is basically impossible when you start, because you know so little about them. Unfortunately, starting is also the time when you need to choose one. Two good characteristics to have are 1) they actively want to work with you (as opposed to just being willing) and 2) They have money to support you for the approx 5 years it will take to finish a Ph.D.
-Get some teaching experience and some teaching evaluations (both student and faculty). This will help you find a job.
-Videotape yourself teaching once in a while. This will help you improve your teaching.
-In research, document everything. Before every interview, before every experiment, write down your theoretical assumptions and what you think is going to happen in excruciating detail. You will be surprised by your subjects, and it's very easy to forget that surprise, to incorporate what you've learned into your understanding without looking back. Looking back, and contrasting your understanding now to your understanding then is critical to explaining why your research is important (I couldn't have learned this result without doing this experiment).
-I agree on the scripting language, I would recommend something that does regular expressions, like perl. Being able to batch process text files is a really useful ability. Learn regular expressions.
-For conferences: Every field has a different style. Find out what talks are like in your field and adopt that style. If you use slides, do not put anything on your slides you would be tempted to read verbatim. Instead put something interesting on your slides (a diagram, a picture, an equation, whatever) and talk about the details of that.
-(America, UK, possibly elsewhere) Learn to drink like a scholar. Top shelf liquor in hotel bars, usually served neat. Learn the nuances of whiskey. This will help you get into the old boy's club even if you're neither.
posted by yeolcoatl at 5:41 AM on February 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

I didn't complete my degree for a wide variety of reasons. The biggest thing I should have done differently was take some time off between undergrad and grad school (or, I suppose, before entering undergrad). That perspective would have been extremely valuable.
posted by Gorgik at 5:51 AM on February 21, 2011

Advice from MeFi user finnb, who did his PhD outside the US.
posted by brainwane at 5:59 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

The most important thing of all, for me, was something completely unrelated to the specific questions you actually ask. But, I really do believe that this can make or break many people's graduate school careers. For me, the most important thing was to memorize the following statements and then repeat them often:

I am not as stupid as I think I am.
It doesn't matter if other people are smarter than me.

If you can't learn those two truths and feel them as true, graduate school may be a form of psychological torture.
posted by meese at 6:09 AM on February 21, 2011 [23 favorites]

How would you handle yourself at conferences?

Drink less. Maybe don't drink at all. I mean this very seriously.
posted by ootandaboot at 6:18 AM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Arts PhD here, Canadian who did her PhD in Ireland. While I don't regret getting the PhD, my day job is *not* in my field. So, maybe not exactly what you're looking for, but here's my two cents:

When I started my graduate work, my ultimate goal was getting into academe. In retrospect, I made a number of important mistakes that prevented me from being able to go down that route. One was deciding to do the PhD overseas. Sorry to any Irish reading this, but the Irish can be pretty protective and parochial when it comes to their academies. Although I worked there, networked there, presented papers there, when the time came to start looking for work after graduation, I found a lot of doors closed to me because I was a foreigner. And, of course, returning to Canada, I had no networks here. Had I stayed here in North America, I think I would have had a better chance of getting work.

I'm not motivated by prestige very much, so when I went looking for a supervisor, I looked for one who could teach me, not for one who was lauded as the hot property of the university. While she was good and I learned from her, she turned out to not be very plugged in to the scene, and that also made a difference for me. Had I picked a more influential professor to supervise me, things might have gone differently.

Pick a school with lots of other grads in your area around. Talking to other grads, being able to bounce ideas off them, having debates, colloquia, etc. are all incredibly valuable for a new grad student. The UK system of working on your own sucks eggs in this respect.

The temptation is always to study something you're passionate about, but universities don't tend to hire someone who's specialty is really narrow. They need to see a "fit" between what you can do and what they need. So picking a subject is super-important, as is knowing how that subject does or can extrapolate to the bigger picture. The most successful academics I know are those whose chosen subject straddles more than one subject area. This shows that there's lots of different possible avenues for you to explore in further research, and shows that you have at least some expertise in a number of areas. This makes you more attractive to the department that will eventually hire you, since you'll be asked to teach more than just subjects in your narrow specialty.

As some others have noted, if you're not getting scholarships or funding of some manner, you need to re-think. Footing the bill for a PhD on your own is a recipe for never finishing it, in my experience.

All that said, having a PhD in the working world is kind of wierd, but it can be good. You'll have an enormous number of research, analytical and information processing skills at your disposal, you'll have developed quite a bit of situational and people skills (always a huge plus in the working world), and you can WRITE! Don't underestimate how valuable clear writing is to a businessperson. The skill set alone will make you attractive to a lot of enterprises, and you shouldn't spend much time at the bottom working your way up unless you piss someone off.

But don't tell your co-workers you have a PhD - that sets off a chain reaction of competitiveness that's like putting on the One Ring. Suddenly, instead of the real world, you'll find yourself in a cold, dark place with hungry wraiths baying for your soul.

I tell myself it's my secret identity. Mild-mannered manager by day, unremarkable and bland by design. But by night, I run a choir, I perform, I'm learning a dying language, I'm volunteering on steering committees, and I hide in my fortress of solitude and score choir pieces.
posted by LN at 6:23 AM on February 21, 2011 [9 favorites]

Me: UK, social science PhD, led to decent academic career.

Definitely get a good referencing system set up a early as possible, cross reference and keyword everything so you can find documents again. This will save time later.

If you don't know how to set up a template for a word document (and I have had PhD students who don't) now is the time to learn.

1: How much control do you have over your topic? Sciences can be on rails, defined by the funder, etc. Social sciences, often not so much. You don't need to be in a hurry to pick a topic. Read around, follow up different ideas, wander a bit before settling on the your topic. Often in the UK, even if you start with your funder or supervisor giving you a title or paragraph with a subject you can still wander away as long as you keep on track with something that will meet the needs of the PhD exam. Honestly, this is an important point, so long as you can hand in something of PhD quality at the end it doesn't matter to your university how close to or far from the original idea it is. However...

2: ...make sure you take your supervisor with you. They can kick you out, and if you piss one off your ability to defend yourself may not be good. In the UK they get final say over whether your thesis gets examined or not. Generally they will be happy if you are doing intellectually interesting stuff and can support arguments in favour of where you are going, etc. Do accept their advice as regards points below.

3: You will not be changing the world. Every PhD student starts off thinking they are going to do something huge that will demonstrate something amazing. Some time in the second year they will hopefully realise they are not and get down to the slog of doing something interesting but not world shattering. *Generally speaking, these are the sensible ones.* You will read about people who did world shattering PhDs, they are few and far between, some are household names. During your studies you will probably meet a few people who plan to follow in their footsteps, some of them stilll don't get the message 10 years or more into their studies. (NB, many UK institutions will now kick you outy after 4 years.) Therefore...

4: ...find an area you are interested in, pick a manageable bit that you think is big enough to be worthwhile but small enough to be done in 3 years and get to work. Delineate your parameters by the end of year one (at the latest) then stick to them (within reason).

5: If you want to be an academic after you finish then get some journal articles published as early as possible, preferably so they are published by the time you are on the job market. In the UK, conferences are nice for networking but conference papers are of zero practical value to a social science career. Conference papers can be uyseful for forcing you to write to a deadline, but consider how a conference paper can eb turned into a journal article as a prioity. If you get journal articles then you indicate (i) that you know what UK academia is about and (ii) offer a chance of being submittable for the REF or whatever form it takes after 2013. Your supervisor can offer advice on submiting papers and which journals to aim for, journal impact factors are the metric to check.
posted by biffa at 6:28 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Focus on your topic early. Changing topics is costly time wise.
Only take classes that are required or serve you - a method you need, a potential committee member, a construct you need to learn about. Class that sound fun are a waste of time.
Class papers should be dissertation chapters or papers that can be published and establish you expertise.

Don't be too interdisciplinary. If your goal is to get a tenure track job, pubs in non-discipline journals and conferences won't be viewed as valuable.

American social scientist. Left academia. If I had been wiser, I could have possibly gotten a TT job. Now working (temporarily?) In government.
posted by k8t at 6:39 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Based on previous questions, I'd also suggest not going to the UK if you want to be in American academic circles.

Being a public intellectual may not go over well with faculty or your fellow grads.
posted by k8t at 6:46 AM on February 21, 2011

[UK, sort-of Humanities, Struggling on the Job Market 6+ years after graduating even though I've written a book yadda yadda but hey do I sound bitter in this post?]

Assuming you want a career in academia:

1. Pick a topic which will be popular and trendy aroundabout when you plan to graduate

2. Pick supervisors & advisors who will be considered giants in your field when you graduate

Those might sound flippant or impossible, but they are hugely important. There is time to stop, look, listen and assess the direction you think your field is going in. Make sure you're heading that way too. Just because your topic is interesting, novel and intellectually worthwhile does not mean that in 3-5 years time anyone will want someone who can teach in that style or about that topic in their Department.

General advice even if you don't:

3. Take this opportunity to learn as many languages as you can. It's tragic how many UK PhDs (myself included) graduate as functional monoglots, and if your programme or College offers languages - leap at the chance.

4. Ambition is not a character flaw; strategic planning for publication and other promotional activities is valuable.

5. If you're not enjoying it at least some of the time, you're doing it wrong. It is the best job in the world.
posted by AFII at 7:02 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Near the end of your PhD, it's quite easy to get into a situation where you are (1) trying to finish & write up (2) looking for a post-PhD job and (3) running out of funding/money. Any one of those three things would be quite stressful on their own; having all of them going on at the same time can make for a rough time. If you can arrange things in advance so that you don't have to deal with these three things all at once (e.g. write up as you go along; line up a job well in advance of finishing; secure extra funding, etc) then you'll have a happier time.

/UK, 3 year PhD, biology
posted by primer_dimer at 7:11 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Get into the best school you can possibly get into. If you don't know how schools rank with respect to your discipline, find out. It's cold out there right now, and if you go to a school that doesn't have a fantastic, world renowned program, it's going to be very tough to find a good job when you get done. It's going to be tough no matter what, but that will make it very tough.

(If you have any second thoughts about removing yourself from the workplace for at least five years to develop skills that won't be very marketable when you finally finish...if you would not be alright with failing to get an academic job after graduating...then yes, get out now.)
posted by voltairemodern at 7:20 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

(UK, humanities, now working in academia, very happy with my job. Advice here is geared towards getting an academic job.)

I wish I'd better appreciated how important publications were for academic jobs. I've seen quite a few pre-interview presentations, and department discussions about who to hire; I've never seen anyone even get shortlisted without a good selection of existing and forthcoming publications. Doesn't matter how shiny your PhD is without that.

Plus, publishing turnarounds can take forever. For my first article, it was five months from submission before a revise-and-resubmit verdict, four months from resubmission in revised form to an acceptance, and six months of minor haggling over corrections and proofs before the whole thing was finally okayed and I got to write 'Forthcoming, [date]' on my cv. Two years from initial submission to seeing it in print. Gnarg. It is never too soon to start trying to get stuff published.

The actual topic of my PhD thesis was less important than I thought it was; the broader areas I could make it fit into when describing what I did were more important. Writing the Best PhD Ever, that was going to totally reinvent the field and so on and so forth, was not important; having a finished PhD (that I could later mine for journal articles) was. Conferences are useful, but they cause an unwarranted amount of stress among PhD students. You won't get kicked out of academia if some elderly professor at the back of the room fell asleep during your paper. (You'll do yourself a favour if you turn your conference papers into journal articles, though.)

Get good at filtering useful information out of general academic grumbling. In my field, there's an ever-increasing pressure to bring in external funding, and a growing change from the old model of small, individual grants to large, multi-person projects. This is really useful information to have, but all the PhD students I know seem to have heard of it is "It's terrible that academia is all about the money these days." Well, yes, maybe, but that's not useful information. Knowing how the funding system works is.

Write a lot; back up regularly (take it from me, you don't ever want to see "The file thesis.doc has become corrupt and cannot be opened"); try to eat decent food and spend at least some time in every day outside; get involved in things with your fellow postgrads, both socially and professionally (if you get the opportunity to work on a postgrad journal or organise a postgrad conference, go for it); don't fall for the workaholic lie that any non-working minute of your time is wasted; and really don't fall for the idea that your PhD is a time of happy seclusion, away from the world of real academia, where all you have to do is work on your PhD for several years and not worry about what follows until you're done. Everything bad you have ever heard about the academic job market is true, and it does not smile upon people who aren't thinking about it until they've got their PhD in hand.
posted by Catseye at 7:24 AM on February 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

I learned that it's not a good idea to choose an untenured assistant professor for an advisor, no matter how fun and exciting the research. Things got bad when mine failed to get tenure and had to leave. I almost had to leave with a masters and start over in another department, but finally just barely managed to finish the Ph.D.
posted by Ery at 7:34 AM on February 21, 2011

Things I did not do, but wish I had done:
1. Make time to do something fun every week or at least every few weeks.
2. Learn about job prospects in your field, how the hiring process works etc.
3. Network more during conferences. This is related to (2) above.

Things I did:
1. Towards the end of my program, I realized that a) I knew more than I thought I did b) Still don't know a lot. And that's okay. (I'm in academia because I'm a lifelong student and enjoy it)
2. Learn research techniques early on in the program.

(In academia/ business school/U.S)
posted by prenominal at 7:38 AM on February 21, 2011

I hated my (psychology) PhD with a fiery fiery passion, but love my post-doc position now. The difference? My advisors. The most importance piece of advice is to find out as much about your potential advisor as possible, the good and the bad, and to make sure you are reading between the lines on what people are telling you. Find out how often people in the lab go to conferences, they are good places to meet others and broaden your knowledge, but many advisors find them a hassle to go to. Find out how much people are publishing in the lab (if that's something your field does a lot), if there's a low number of publications that can hint at a bigger problem in the lab, either the advisor is lazy or the quality of work is low or the advisor is a control freak who can't let anything leave until it's perfect. In short, find out EVERYTHING about your advisor and be honset with yourself as to whether or not they are a good fit for you. You will be spending way too much time dealing with this person and they can make or break your PhD experience.

Similarly, but to a lessor extent, find out how much support you'd have in the department, and, if you will be teaching, the degree to which the university placates the students. Many private universities don't want to have any unhappy students so that they don't lose out on money, which while sounds great, means that they want you to do everything to make them happy, even if the cost is them learning anything.

Find out a system to organize the papers you read and your notes on them, this is harder than it seems and I'm still working on it.

(Aside: I take offense at your saying Psychology is not a hard science btw. Sure some of it is fluffier, but the cognitive neuroscience aspect of Psychology is just as hard science as biology, and it's people within the disciple considering it a lessor science that drags it down, not the material.)
posted by katers890 at 7:44 AM on February 21, 2011

(UK PhD, social sciences, waiting to hear about post-doc grant applications.)

First, what meese said. Imposter syndrome is rife, and I don't know anyone who didn't get it at some point or another. One thing that helped me with this was reminding myself that everyone's PhD is different: if someone else is writing a conference paper while you're still trying to get your experiment to work properly, it's not because they're more competent, it's just because they're at a different stage of their research.

Having a good advisor can make a really big difference, but it depends a bit what your social style is what things get included under the definition of "good". My PhD supervisor was pretty much the best supervisor imaginable, and a lot of what motivated me during rough patches of the PhD was that I didn't want to let her down. It was also really important to me that I could go into her office and cry if I needed to. I would not have wanted to work with someone, no matter how eminent in the field, in front of whom I could not cry; but ymmv.

For your research topic, remember that the PhD is a chance to prove you can do a large-scale research project; it's probably not going to be your magnum opus. Don't worry about doing anything enormously groundbreaking; just do something doable that's interesting enough to keep you going. (If you're anything like me, you'll spend a year in the middle sick of your topic anyway, but you need to consider it interesting in a macro sense.)

It took me the first year (of a 3-years-and-change program) to really feel like I had a grasp on the literature at all. Don't panic at the beginning when you're reading and it's hard to figure out what connects to what and how. You'll get there eventually.

Go to conferences! They're fun, and besides, you need to meet people: knowing people is how you get a job. Also if you have any connections at departments at other universities, especially in different countries, try to do a placement there. You'll meet more people, and get a different perspective on your work. If you're lucky you can also get a conference paper or publication out of this. (In my field, at least, a lot of conferences require you to submit a 4-page paper before the conference; this is a great way to get some publications without having to have everything organised for a full journal paper.)

When you're writing the thesis, set yourself a daily word limit, and when you hit it, stop for the day and go do something unrelated. (As in, "go to a local museum", not "work on something different for the rest of the day.) This may be controversial but I'll say it anyway: you don't have to work yourself to death to finish the PhD. Work until you're tired and then stop. If you spend 4 mostly-effective hours at work most days, you'll accomplish as much or more as the people who are in 12 hours a day but faff because they're too tired to concentrate for most of that time - and you'll probably be a lot less stressed.

Doing a PhD can be really emotionally hard, but it's really rewarding, and I don't think there's any lifestyle that's better overall - work whenever you want, travel to conferences and hang out with interesting people. Good luck!
posted by SymphonyNumberNine at 8:10 AM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

US PhD, psychology, loved it and enjoy my (non-high-stress) academic job

I agree with previous commenters about the choice of the advisor being a big deal. Within psychology, it often matters how connected or skilled your advisor is vs. the prestige of the program. Find someone you're comfortable working with and can introduce you to others at conferences. Do collaborative work and be a person others want to work with, even in grad school. Those people allow you to get outside your little sphere and can help with letters later at tenure time.

If you're able to talk honestly with your prof, you can set up arrangements that work for both of you. I had the classic absentminded prof, but he told me that bugging him about anything was fine. Having that permission made it so much easier to do that without worrying about pissing him off.

Definitely attend conferences. It's often where you'll have your best ideas, especially if you attend talks from speakers in areas that aren't your narrowly defined area. Find a way to connect what you're interested in with an applied focus, and share your research with people outside of the research world (at schools, civic meetings, the local paper, etc.)

Realize that dark days often lead up to defenses. I hated myself, my work, and the whole program in the month before being done with the thesis, comprehensive paper, and dissertation, but as soon as I was defending it everything became almost glorious and I loved the whole experience again. That's normal, from what I gather from others.

Talk to others in your program about the overall tone of defenses. In my program people rarely failed a final defense, because the proposal defense was where you got stopped if there were issues, or individual members would tell you that you couldn't continue on. It was helpful to have that thought in the back of my head.

Take time to hone those teaching skills, even if you plan on a research university position. It can help you with presentation, all around, and will likely lead to a more enjoyable classroom experience.
posted by bizzyb at 8:48 AM on February 21, 2011

(In my field, at least, a lot of conferences require you to submit a 4-page paper before the conference; this is a great way to get some publications without having to have everything organised for a full journal paper.)

I want to reiterate a point here, in response to this. Conferences are fun, and as a PhD student are one of the few places where you might be able to talk to a peer about your specialist topic. they are good for networking and for discussing ideas. However, in the UK academic system there is a massive gulf between the value of a conference paper and the value of a refereed journal article. A conference paper might, just might, add a little something to get you an RA job. It will have no value in getting you a lectureship. None. Not one little bit. When you apply for a lectureship all the little bits that fill up your CV will make no difference, the only thing the professors interviewing you will care about is if you have journal articles and have brought money in (or since this is near impossible for a non-lecturer, have a very good idea of where the money will come from and how your ideas will secure it). Journal articles and money are the only important thing in getting your lectureship. Not teaching experience, not conference papers, not anything else.

My advice would be is that you only write a paper if its results/conclusions will directly inform your thesis. This is desirable as published refereed results look much better and are easier to defend in a viva. You only write a conference paper where there is a good chance you can convert it to a journal article.
posted by biffa at 8:53 AM on February 21, 2011

More specific to questions:
I do wish that I had started writing earlier on in the process, and pushed to get more publishable work. I had a prof who was late in his career who didn't push me much, although I had good funding from him. So my publication record isn't so great. I also wish that I'd been brave enough to introduce myself and start chatting with big people in the field from the very start, but I found this did come with time.

I'm in a tenure-track position at a small liberal arts college, so the focus is on undergraduate teaching and research.
posted by bizzyb at 8:55 AM on February 21, 2011

U.S., psychology Ph.D., have worked in both academia and industry.

The best advice I got was in my first year. A grad student who was defending his dissertation told me, "Don't try to change the world in grad school. Get your requirements done and get out. Nobody's going to give a shit about what you do until you have a Ph.D. behind your name, and if you spend 10 years in school doing all these awesome projects it's less likely that you'll actually get a job doing what you want to do."

His advice worked for me. I did the bare minimum, and I was one of the few people out of my program on time (5 years) and I have a job, which is more than I can say for a lot of the people in my program who spent a lot of time publishing in grad school and now can't find jobs for various reasons (one thing I've heard is that they're overqualified for lower-level jobs and face extremely stiff competition for the tenure-track positions). Also, it took the stress off a lot--I actually enjoyed grad school, and it wasn't until after I got my Ph.D. that I discovered that a lot of people feel like it's full of suffering.
posted by Fuego at 10:04 AM on February 21, 2011


In general, act like you are already an (idealized) professor/colleague rather than an underling/student. Even though in the early stages you may feel like you don't know anything/enough, always remember that you are the captain of the ship. Don't wait for anyone else to steer the ship. Have your own "program" from early on, and then that behavior will feel natural and not like something you need to apologize for. You need to seek out the problems that interest you, seek out resources and develop skills (ie take the hard classes, do the traveling or grunt work) you need to tackle the problems that interest you. Don't get into the habit of bowing and scraping and apologizing for how you don't know enough, or changing your program to something you truly don't care about, or thinking of yourself as "just a grad student" - those habits, once engrained, are hard to break.

Don't gossip, don't get involved in interpersonal dramas or departmental politics - be friendly but keep a polite distance from this stuff. You are there to develop your skills and tackle specific problems that interest you. Don't get involved in grad student griping over conditions, the future of the academy, etc. That stuff - even if true - is a distraction from getting what you need and getting out - getting on to the next step, which is where you are really aiming.

Don't expect personal affirmation from your supervisor. You might get it, and that's great, but in many cases supervisers are too busy or just not the type to give affirmation. So build a life where you get affirmation from other sources, and where you are making progress toward the skills you need to tackle the problems you're interested in.

Do cultivate interests and hobbies outside school. Meet people who are not in your department, who are not in grad school, if possible.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:23 PM on February 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

And about the job market - if you want an academic career, look NOW at the job ads for your field, especially ads from places you would like to teach (type of school, geographic area). What subfields are they asking for? What "extra" courses do they want you to be able to teach?

As a general rule you'll do better on the job market if you can teach the math-intensive courses that all majors have to take, but which not all faculty want to teach. So beef up your math credentials and get comfortable teaching that sort of thing. (This will also stand you in good stead if you end up deciding to leave academia.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:27 PM on February 21, 2011

I did a linguistics PhD in Australia and am glad I did. I am now happy, with a postdoc, but I did spend three years after the PhD working in shitty "research assistant" aka data entry jobs, before getting the postdoc funding. I probably couldn't have afforded to hang around that long looking for an academic job if I hadn't had my husband's salary, but on the other hand, I would have been much more flexible geographically if I hadn't been married to another academic, so it all balances out.

How would you shape your topic differently?
This is a really big deal. I would do a completely different topic. I chose my topic because it felt open-ended and I wanted to be flexible about which direction to take it, depending on what I found. This was perhaps a mistake.

Also, I chose a very theoretical topic, based on a sort of synthesis of other people's data. This was definitely a mistake. One of the big things that makes or breaks your qualification for jobs in linguistics is whether you have fieldwork experience. Your PhD is totally the time to get this, because when else will you have so much time (and funding) to travel for six or more months at a time? I finished my PhD with no fieldwork experience and hence there were a bunch of jobs that I couldn't even apply for. I also didn't have my own data set at the end, which limited further research I could do.

Also perhaps I wasn't even ready to be the person who interprets everyone else's data. I'm not sure why I thought I could make better sense of it than them. I was a bit disappointed with the way my topic worked out in the end. Finally, it was not my first choice topic - my first choice one was a bit risky, and I would have had to upskill a lot to approach it. I still wish I'd taken that risk.

My postdoc topic is way sexier, and more interesting to people outside of linguistics too, and it's amazing what a difference that makes. I'm getting more invites to present on it, collaborations, and even just talking about it to random people gets them excited, not glazed-over.

How would you handle yourself at conferences?
Pretty much as I did. Network as much as possible, even "just" with other grad students. You can end up in all sorts of interesting collaborations that way. Ask questions. Present good papers. Attend every conference you can afford to. Especially at least one international one, if you are based in Aus or elsewhere that's a bit isolated.

What sort of overall strategy would you pursue for your career?
This is also important. There is no one-size-fits-all model for academia, even for people who DO want an academic career. I didn't realise that. People told me: if you want an academic job, you need publications, teaching experience, experience serving on committees, experience organising workshops, editing volumes, presenting at conferences... You can't do all of these, so I just did what came easily, which was teaching, conferences, committees, editing work... All of these opportunities just got handed to me. And I ended up with an excellent CV for applying for tenure-track research-and-teaching jobs. Which I couldn't apply for because of my geographical limitations (see academic husband, above).

If I had had good advice it would have been: hey, you are geographically very limited. The chance of a real job opening here is almost nil. You will need grant funding. All grant-giving organisations care about are publications. Get lots of journal publications now. Forget the teaching/admin/service/networking. You can do that later.

This is clearly not the advice for everyone, but the point is you have to look at the specifics of YOUR life: limitations, strengths, plans, and maximise what you can do to make YOUR life work. Don't just do what everyone else does.

What is the most important trait in your advisor? How did you keep him/her happy?

My advisor was pretty awesome. The most important thing was that she was actually interested in my topic. So she listened to what I had to say, and thought about it in her spare time, and came up with suggestions and references and other stuff. And she believed in me. I kept her happy by being pretty honest about where I was - admitting if I didn't have the chapter I had promised, not avoiding her or going AWOL. And by working hard and finishing on time. I felt like we had a really collegial relationship, not so much student-teacher. There was no strong sense of power games, and we respected each other a lot.
posted by lollusc at 3:13 PM on February 21, 2011

More about topics:

I chose a "what" question. "What happens when...?" Whats are uninteresting, because what we really want to know after we find out "what" is "how" and "why". If you can, pick a "how" or "why" question instead of a "what".

Secondly, you want something that is unique enough to you that you aren't going to get scooped, and that the only way the rest of your field can find out the answers to your questions is to come through you (i.e. read your papers). But at the same time, you want something that is INTERESTING to the rest of the world. You don't want them to ignore you tucked away in your little corner.

A good way to deal with this in the social sciences is to get (preferably collect, or at least code up or add value to) a dataset that other people will be interested in, but that only you will have access to (for a while, anyway). In linguistics, you pick a language that is hard to get to geographically, isolated and little-known, but that is really really fundamentally interesting for some reason (e.g. it's the only living descendant of the X group of languages, or it's the Eastern-most branch of the Y family, or it's the only language that has both Z feature and Y feature and currently the field is awash with speculation about the relationship between Z and Y. Or you pick a language that anyone writing a handbook of e.g. creoles, or mixed languages, or languages or East India or whatever is going to have to include in order to be complete. )

I'm sure there are ways to adapt these guidelines to other social sciences fields.
posted by lollusc at 3:28 PM on February 21, 2011

Quick response to biffa: my impression is that this is very field-dependent. In my field there are a few major conferences which publish proceedings which have similar value to a peer-reviewed journal article in terms of accumulating publications. But this is not the case for all conferences, and certainly the main value of going to conferences is meeting people!
posted by SymphonyNumberNine at 3:38 PM on February 21, 2011

My PhD was in the U.S., but it was in the social sciences (anthropology), so for what it's worth, as someone who floundered around adjuncting for a few years and then gave up after 4 years trying to land a tenure-track position:

Present at conferences, early and often. Submit papers therefrom for publication. I had a strong teaching record (I started adjuncting as an ABD and had taught several upper-level undergrad courses by the time I graduated) but no publications, and I think it was the latter point that really sunk me on the job market.
posted by drlith at 4:37 PM on February 21, 2011

I'm posting this before reading the replies so it's not too coloured by other responses, so apologies in advance if I'm repeating points.

I have a PhD in criminology and my better half has a PhD in psychology, both from (different) Australian "Group of 8" Universities. I'm currently an unhappy post-doc, and mrs damonism is a very happy ex-academic consultant. I wont presume to speak for mrs damonism other than to note that I don't believe that she regrets doing her PhD, but she's much happier now that she's out of academia.

My PhD took me a long time to complete – something like 10 years. I didn't have a PhD scholarship, and I worked part-time for pretty much all of it, which contributed to how long it took. On the plus side, I got lots of valuable research experience working part-time doing it, but I wouldn't recommend spending that long.

Personally, I don't think it really matters what your topic is. Chances are, once you've handed in your thesis, no one will ever ask you about it again. It certainly wont shape what the rest of your career will be like. Contacts you make whilst doing your PhD will be ultimately much more important than the topic itself. The only place it might be important is if you publish bits of it, you can reference them for grant applications.

So, advice. Go to all the conferences (especially international) you can afford – even if it means paying for it yourself. At these conferences, ignore the implied social status difference between you (as a PhD student) and all the other folk there. That is, chat with the distinguished professors. Wrangle yourself invitations to go out to lunch with them. Get pissed with them in the bar at the end of the day. In my experience, many PhD students have this us-and-them approach to other academics and tend not to engage with them (or put them up on a pedestal), which is a mistake. They're often (sometimes, anyway) fun people. And the connections you make there will be useful forever.

Publish whilst you are a PhD student. Good academic jobs these days really boil down to your publication record. Publish in good journals if you can, but make sure you're publishing somewhere. Because if you don't you're going to be job-hunting against people who have. If you need to spend six months more to finish your PhD because you're publishing, do it. The PhD is the high barrier to entry to academia, but that also means everyone has one. It's the publications that matter beyond that.

Academia isn't for everyone. I have posted here before on the Green about how you're deluded if you think a PhD guarantees an academic job. I hear getting an academic job sucks everywhere, but I have lots of good experience about the extent to which it sucks in Australia.

You need to be willing to pick up and move to where the jobs are. You almost certainly wont get a job in the institution where you did your PhD (and there is a school of thought that doing so is something of a black mark against you).

If you do get a job, the reality (in Australia) is that it'll be a contract (five years if you're lucky), with no guarantee of renewal. In this country, there is no such thing as tenure any more (effectively, anyway). Your attractiveness as an academic employee depends almost entirely on your record of publications and grants. If you're hard-working and can find a good network of colleagues to co-publish with and get grants with, you'll be fine. If not, you'll find it much more challenging.

Personally, I think the job prospects are much better outside of academia. Sure, you don't have the freedom an academic does, but your career isn't quite as at the mercy of journal editors and grant expert panels. If you have marketable research skills (and if you have done a research-based PhD there is no way you couldn't have them) there are jobs out there. There aren't *heaps* of them, but they come along more regularly than academic jobs. I know plenty of people with PhDs who are working outside academia (mostly in the public service, but I live in a place where 90% of the population works for the public service, so that's probably sampling bias on my part).

Finally, back to the PhD. Choose a topic you're personally interested in. It's going to become your life for the next 3-infinity years, so make sure it's one that will make you happy. Don't do it because of the job at the end (because at this point you have no idea what that will be), but because you want to do it. Find a supervisor who isn't an arsehole, if you can, but ultimately if you're doing a PhD in somewhere like Australia where it is almost entirely thesis-based, if you're competent and self-motivated, you should be able to survive even an arsehole supervisor.

That was all pretty long and ranty and probably somewhat filtered through the lens of my not necessarily representative experience, but happy to answer any follow-up questions.

(As to what I ended up doing with mine, I'm currently in a pretty dead-end post-doc with few opportunities to publish, and hoping to escape it, but I have also worked in research-specific jobs in the public service, have generally enjoyed them, and hope to get back to one in the near future.)
posted by damonism at 4:54 PM on February 21, 2011

U.S., now tenure track assistant professor in English, but this applies to every field... publish.

Three things, all aimed at getting you published before you go on the market:
1) submit abstracts to conferences. This will *force* you to write.
2) publish. Don't waste anything - if you have a conference paper, turn it into a journal paper (uhh, not sure how this works in the Social Sciences - in English conference papers do not go into proceedings, so this kind of recycling is kosher. YMMV.).
3) if you get "revise and resubmit" from a journal - do it. Don't be crushed by the comments and throw out the paper in a fit of self doubt.

As someone who is regularly on search committees: the people that get to the top of the pile of applications now often have as many publications as the last generation needed to get tenure.
posted by media_itoku at 6:44 PM on February 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Experimental science:

Six months in the lab will save you a day in the library.

Yes, I wrote that right. Read the damn literature.
posted by lalochezia at 9:42 PM on February 21, 2011

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