Most grad school application deadlines are due around January 1 and after that they won’t reopen again for another year. If you’ve ever walked the halls singing “Yo ho, yo ho, a PhD life for me” in a pirate accent, it’s not too late to make the big decision: Should you ruin your Christmas vacation by working feverishly to rush out a less-than-perfect application, or should you wait until next year?
If you really need the break next year and you’ve already got an incredibly awesome gig lined up, cool. Otherwise, take a deep breath, and take the 3-point shot. First, there’s no such thing as a perfect application – even if you wait a year. Second, you’ll either get accepted (a big pirate “Yo Ho!”), or you’ll learn what you need to do to improve your shooting percentage.
Here’s some super-short answers to some questions you might have:
• “How can I afford it?” Most PhD programs have assistantships that pay your tuition and living expenses.
• “Should I retake my GRE test?” Probably not enough time. If you think you have a good score, but you think it could be better, go ahead and apply. You can always retake the test next year and really focus on prepping for it.
• “What do I write in my Statement of Purpose?” Four things: 1) Why you want a PhD so bad that you are singing about it in the hallway, 2) what you will do with a PhD, 3) what specific topics or questions you’re interested in, and 4) why that school’s a great fit.
• “Who should write my recommendation letters?” Ask the best-known researchers you know in the field that you are applying. Next, ask anyone you’ve done research with. Third, ask whoever knows you best and will write these before the deadline.
• “How many schools should I apply to?” Since you’re doing this at the 11th hour, I’d limit yourself to three schools: Your dream school, your “best-fit” school, and a safety school. Otherwise, if you had lots of time, you might apply to as many as 10. (The third time I applied, I applied to 14).
• “If I don’t get in to my dream school will it hurt my chance for next year?” Nope. They either won’t remember you applied (they might have 100+ applications), or they’ll think you’re persistent. And as someone once told me, "The P in Phd stands for 'Persistence.'"
With three weeks to go before the deadline, the most important part of your application is your Statement of Purpose. At this point, you can’t change your GPA, you can’t retake the GRE, and you can’t hang out at the mall hoping to make best friends with a Nobel Prize-winning recommendation letter writer.
What you can do is to write and rewrite your Statement of Purpose. Then have your recommenders give you comments on it. Many students are too shy to ask for this feedback, but it’s the most important thing you can do right now. I didn’t ask for feedback on my Statement the first time I applied, and I got into exactly -- hmmm -- zero PhD programs.
If after reading all of this, you’re still humming “Yo ho, yo ho, a PhD life for me,” take the plunge. Being an academic is a tremendously rich and rewarding calling. Pick three schools, apply, and when you hear back from them, we can talk about course corrections.
Good luck with a great career.
[Originally posted around December 7]
Last night was Halloween. Taking my daughters and their friends Trick or Treating is pretty amusing. Since one of the couples from my Lab didn’t have plans, I asked if they wanted to join us in the 2-hour Viking-like pillage of the neighborhood. The woman showed up as a pink fluffy unicorn and her husband (a graduate student) showed up . . . as me.
This reminded me of grad student days. Even though I didn’t meet much with my advisor, I was really impacted by him. Not so much by how he did research (those days were past), but more by the way he viewed the world and the way he said things to me. Small example: When I was applying for jobs, he asked for a list of schools where I’d like to apply. When I showed up with my Top 30 list, he could have easily said, "Be realistic" or “Are you smoking crack again?” Instead, he said, “Let’s cast the net wider.” A subtle choice of words, but things like this must have made a difference.
Here's why I say that. A couple years after I miraculously graduated, one of my buddies visited me in New Hampshire for a long weekend. While visiting, he asked why I had replaced my broken-down grad school car with a different type that was just about as old. I said, “Because I really like the way it looks.” He then said, “Didn’t your advisor have the exact same car in that exact same color of white.” Why yes, he did. Hmmm . . .
For Junior Faculty, it’s easy to develop tunnel vision that's only focused on your research. By doing so, we can overlook the legacy or long-term impact we will have on advisees, grad students, and teaching assistants. You can leave these students with a real gift, or you can leave them with a lump of coal. They may not remember the details of your theories, but they may remember how hopeful or excited you were about them or about the field. They might not remember any paper you published, but they may remember how you treated them when you were clearly distracted and stressed about something else.
For Grad Students, don't worry about becoming the Mini-Me version of your advisor, but you might be influenced more by them than you realize. Fortunately, you can partly control this. First, you can have some control over who you have as an advisor or mentor. It might take some work to switch away from an abusive or disinterested advisor, but it can be done. Second, you can also choose what it is from those encounters that you want to focus on, repeat to others, and replay over and over in your mind. "Let's cast the new wider" x 100 replays = Good. "Are you smoking crack?" x 100 replays = Bad.
Last night was spooky Halloween. Today is saintly All Saints Day. No advisor or mentor is all spooky or all saintly. Fortunately, you can choose what you focus on. Choose carefully. You might end up with the same car they had.
Two years ago, I had no real idea what a "retracted" journal article was. I had never thought of it, or known anyone who had had one. If someone would have asked me, I would have probably said, "There must be something about it that was wrong."
Two years later, I've had a some journals ask me to rerun analyses and to show original paper-and-pencil surveys from as far back as 2000. When we haven't been able to do so (didn't save the hard-copy surveys or can't track down the coauthor who did the analysis), some of the papers have been retracted because they can't be fully validated.
Since then a few people have asked me if they can believe Article X or Y because they were retracted. I absolutely believe in these articles. The general conclusions are the same, and even if the original hard-copy surveys and original analyses done a number of years ago can't be found, new reanalyses (often done with different statisticians) generate similar conclusions.
On Monday, one of my coauthors pointed out an insightful article that Dr. Stephen Holden had written for The Conversation website titled, "Retraction of a Journal Article Doesn't Make It's Findings False."
One of his many points is that “Retractions may be important signals of reduced confidence in a finding, but they do not prove a finding false. This requires replication.” Social science moves forward because of replication and not rereanalyses.
The Gold Standard of science is when independent researchers can run about the same study and come up with similar conclusions. This is why I wish I had published more detail in the method sections of some of my papers. Instead, when the editor said “Cut out 1000 words,” we cut it out of the methodology section or the references and stayed focused on the idea. Today, you can include all of the methodological detail and post on an online appendix if there isn’t room in the paper.
Looking back, I’d also archive all of the analyses of my coauthors instead of assuming they’ll always have them on their computer or assuming they’ll never be needed. Coauthors can lose laptops, change computers, or leave academia.
As for saving the original pencil-and-paper copy of surveys and coding sheets . . . do so if you have your own warehouse (the photo above was taken in 2005 in Illinois in what was supposed to be my garage). Otherwise you can collect it in a retrievable electronic form (if you think electronic collection won’t affect the results).
Academics is an incredibly enriching calling. As you move forward in a happy career, I hope this is the only time you have to read about a retraction.
A week ago a writer for the Atlantic asked me if I had any advice for young scholars. I have lots and lots of advice, but here’s an expansion on three quick points I shared.
1) Being a scholar and an academic is an unbelievably great calling. It is totally enriching, and you can't let some of the bumpy times that you see me going through dissuade you from a great career.
2) No paper’s perfect, and you need to find the right balance between perfection and completion -- between perfecting something versus completing it. There's tons of "perfect" dissertations that have never been completed. There's tons of "perfect" papers that have never been submitted. You want to balance off polishing the perfect paper for 20 years with trying to make sure that if there were any errors they probably wouldn't change the basic conclusion.
3) You can do research to impress other academics, or you can do research to solve problems. Doing it for academics is more prestigious, but doing it to solve real problems in the real world is very gratifying — very enriching. Having someone say, “I do something differently because of your research, and it works for me” takes away some of the the sting of embarrassing mistakes.
For 30 years I have hoped my research would make people healthier and happier. That's been my specific mission, and it's very motivating. If your research is pointed at a mission that's important to you, it can be incredibly motivating , , , even in bumpy times.
How do you pick the perfect dissertation advisor?
A couple months ago I was at a reception where I met a PhD student from a distant department. Let's call him Jack in the Behavioral Nano Hermeneutics Department. At some point he mentioned his goal was to have his dissertation proposal nailed down by the end of the summer. I asked Jack if he had a committee in mind, and he said, “Oh, yeah, my adviser’s the most famous guy in this field.”
Picking the hottest, most famous person in a field is one way to pick an adviser. After all what could go wrong?
Case Study #1. A number of years ago at a different university, I had a good friend who was starting her PhD in environmental engineering over a second time. Her first go-around had been after she chose the “most famous” person in her field at the most famous school in her field as her adviser. She hated it, hated the school, and ended up leaving with what she called “a consolation Master’s degree.” She said her famous adviser had never around, never cared about her, never thought she was smart enough or working hard enough, never liked her ideas, and that he played favorites with the more advanced students.
Case Study #2. I too had originally chosen the “most famous” person in my field, and things didn’t work out. As a 3rd year PhD student I thought I was going on the job market. Instead I was told my funding was being eliminated, and that I had 4 months to find a new dissertation adviser, a new dissertation topic, and to defend that topic, or I would be asked to leave the program (probably without the consolation Masters).
One conversation rescued me from having to start a PhD a second time a different school. Three shell-shocked days after being blind-sided, I was talking to a friend who was a professor in the medical school. I told him what had happened and about my confusion. He said, “If I knew you were going through this, I would have told you what I tell my graduate students. ‘When it comes to picking a thesis committee, you pick your best friend to be your thesis adviser, your favorite uncle to be one committee member, and your favorite cousin to be your other.’”
This is a radically different approach than what I had used, what the environmental engineer had used, and what Jack was using. The advice was to “Pick your best friend to be your advisor.” Not “the most famous” person in the department. Not even the person whose research interests are most like yours. Pick the person who likes and believes in you and your best interests. You might not be as “hot” when you graduate, but you might be a lot more likely to graduate in the first place.
I’ve been thinking about this because this past weekend I looked up “Jack” to see if he wanted to take a dissertation break come over and meet some of my grad students. On his department’s website, I noticed that he was about the only 3rd year student who wasn’t a formal part of any of the research groups in the Lab of his “famous advisor.” That was like me. Fortunately, I was given a second chance.
Picking a star-spangled dissertation or thesis committee that you think will make you “hot” on the job market is a great strategy for Super-Duperstars. For the other 90% of us, we should pick one that will help us graduate.
It was time to move this website over to this new account. Good news
It means having to rebuild every page from scratch. Bad news.
The last three or four months of blogs are being transferred over and posted. Ones that are older than are available here (for now).
Thanks for moving with me.