There once was a legendary, larger-than-life professor. If Marvel’s 137th movie of this year is named UltraProf, it would be based on John Shank. He taught a dry subject (think Accounting), but his charisma and his orchestration of his class made each class session seem like 60-person David Mamet plays. Every class had passion, drama, and some surprising reveal at the end that people still talked about ten years later. Here’s a quote:
As a teacher John was at home at any level, and always brilliant. I could offer the testimonials of others, however, what brought his classroom performance home to me— and it was a performance in the truest sense of the word—was watching him at an Accounting Round Table at Pitt’s business school. He held 50 top financial officers in the palm of his hand while he presented his material. They were busy individuals with many things on their minds and schedules, but not a one left until John had answered their last question. I can assure you that their staying until the end was not out of courtesy (Bernberg 2008).
Although the opposite is true, some believed he was only about style. This is because he wore Brooks Brothers braces, walked with a MVP swagger, drove a Dartmouth green sports car, and he had a runway model wife who was like some VP of Finance somewhere. His office was professionally-decorated with French draperies, super-thick Dartmouth green carpeting, and a massive 18th century French desk which sat in the middle of the room so his desk chair could face the doorway. Even his two huge perfectly groomed dogs were effortlessly well-mannered. On Saturdays he’d come to work, and they’d sit on either side of his desk and face the door. They were like lions on either side of a throne, and he was like Odin . . . or John Wick. His dogs keep eternal vigilance. My dog wets on me and then licks my face.
This was 1992. Because he had about the highest MBA teacher ratings at Dartmouth's Tuck School and I had about the lowest ratings, he let me sit in on his classes so I could suck less . . . so I could learn better teaching strategies and classroom management skills. One Saturday during a Tuck alumni reunion, I stopped by his office and told him I had overheard some alumni who were still talking about what they had learned in a class they had taken with him 10 years earlier.
He looked up over the top of his half-glasses, and said, “That’s what they’re supposed to do. It means I’ve done my job.”
He said his goal isn’t to teach students to get a great first job (or to, analogously, get a high score on the GRE or MCAT), his goal is to teach them to succeed for wherever they will be in 10 or 20 years. Although he got outstanding teaching ratings, he brushed them off by saying that teacher ratings mainly measured the moment – they mainly measured the warm feelings a student had at the time. Ratings might capture style (which he was very good at), but they may not always measure long-term substance.
Last week, the school year ended. A lot of amazing teachers will take their course evaluation ratings and use them to improve their classes for next year. John’s view was that we need to also focus on the long-term impact of our courses.
I regret that I never had the presence of mind to ask him how he did it -- how he knew what long-term impact to aim at. Since he was on boards and did a lot of consulting with upper management, I suspect he taught his courses like he was teaching board members and upper management. That is, when he was teaching, he treated them like they were high level managers. That’s one way to do it.
A second way to try and teach for long-term impact might be to ask. After they graduate, it will be more apparent to them whether your course helped them live a better life (more useful, meaningful, successful, or whatever), and how your course might be improved. It’s easier to get this feedback than you might think. You’ve probably saved your class lists (somewhere) from 5 years ago. You might have their emails, or the alumni office will have both their emails and their snail mail addresses. You can simply ask them.
Ten or fifteen years after I left Dartmouth I was in Boston, and I rented a car to drive up to visit John. I wanted to thank him for being so generous, and I wanted to prove to myself that his office, desk, and dogs were as amazing as I remembered them. There was a different name on his door. I was too late.
I love the idea of trying to teach for a long-term impact. It’s like trying to create long-term memories. I sometimes think I can remember everything John said to me because he was always so intentional with every conversation. Just like he was with his classes.
At the next reunion, if his former student’s aren’t talking about what they learned 30 years ago, they’ll be talking about how hard he tried. That itself was a great lesson.
A close friend of mine believes successful PhD students have three things in common: They're smart, they work hard, and they have good judgment. The secret sauce here is "good judgment." Although smarts and hard work are important, most PhD students would have never been admitted if they weren't already smart, hard workers.
But having good judgment is more elusive. It includes things like knowing what's "interesting" and what isn't, knowing what's worth worrying about (and what isn't), knowing what's important to prioritize, knowing how to solve a people problem, knowing whether to persist on a project or to move on, and so on.
But advising a PhD student to "Have great judgment" is like advising a football team to "Score the most points." It doesn't tell them how. You can't say "Have great judgment" and then say "Next question," "QED," or drop the mic and walk out.
Maybe there's two types of judgment -- technical judgments and nontechnical judgments.
For graduate students, building technical judgment is about learning the whys of research. One way to build better technical judgment is to boldly ask lots of "Why?" questions of your mentor, advisor, or of an older student: "Why did you send it that journal? Why didn't you use a different method? Why did you ask the research question that way?" Most of us shied away from asking technical judgment questions because we didn't want to be irritating or look like we didn't belong. Most professors I know actually like to answer these questions, and they love to see an engaged student step out of a silent huddle.
Developing good nontechnical judgment is trickier. Yet this is the critical judgment you need to troubleshoot how you can be a better teacher, or whether to choose the risky dissertation you want to do versus the safe dissertation your advisor wants. It involves figuring out how to deal with your off-the-chart stress level or whether you should take a job at a teaching college or go into industry. Our tendency as a graduate student is to get feedback from peers in our same year. A more effective one may be to get it from recent graduates or from professors who have seen cases like these and know how they worked out. You can even get nontechnical advice from professors you know in other departments. The best nontechnical dissertation advice I got was from a Medical School professor from my church. It was straightforward, unbiased, kind, and based on lots of students he had known.
As professors, we can help to build better technical judgment by encouraging questions about our research judgment calls, or we can give it as color commentary or as context when we discuss a research project. But again, helping students with nontechnical judgments is trickier. One way to do this is in the third person. This can be by discussing a problem that "their friend" is having or by discussing a relatable case study.
Here's one approach to building nontechnical judgment. I used to teach a PhD course where we'd meet in my home for a casual last class session. The first half of the session would be a discussion about graduate student success and the last half would be dinner. Each student had been asked to anonymously write down a dilemma that "one of their friends" was facing that was being a roadblock to their success. We'd mix these 9-10 dilemmas up, and we'd relax in the living room with a glass of wine and discuss them one at a time. For each one, we'd talk about similar experiences, options, solutions, and so forth. By dinner time, we had a more balanced perspective and some suggested next steps for many of the dilemmas.
Over the years, it seemed that about 70% of these dilemmas were about the same 7-8 issues. These were like the issues mentioned above -- "risky vs. safe dissertation," "stress level," "leave academia," and so on.
Here's a second approach to building nontechnical judgment. Given how similar these dilemmas were from year to year, I wrote up 1-page PhD student case studies that involved slightly fictionalized people who were facing these common problems. These case studies were in the syllabus for the course, and we'd take the first or last part of each class to talk about that week's case study. The common dilemmas faced in your field may be different, but the enthusiasm your students would have in discussing them would probably be the same.
Some people might be born with great judgment, but for the rest of us, it's a lot of trial and error and a lot of asking bold questions. If you're a graduate student, you've got a lot more license than you might think to learn from trial, error, and bold questions. If you're a professor, there's a lot we can do to help them.
On a late afternoon about 20 years ago, I stepped into a slow elevator with my college’s most prolific, famous, and taciturn senior professor. After 10 seconds of silence, I asked, “Did you publish anything yet today?” He stared at me for about 4 seconds and said, “The day’s not over.” Cool . . . very Clint Eastwood-like.
As academics, we have great, productive days and we have bad days, but most lie in-between. If we could figure out what – other than an “Accept Without Revision” letter – leads to great days, we might be able to trigger more of them in our life.
Think of the most recent “great day” you had. What made it great, and how did it start?
For about 20 years, every time a colleague told me they had a great day, I’d ask “What made it great? How did it start out? About 50% of the time its greatness had to do with an external “good news” event like a paper getting accepted, a grant getting submitted, a great class, or a gracious letter from a former student. The other 50% of the time, the reason for “greatness” was more “internal.” They had a super productive writing day, they finished a paper, or they had a breakthrough idea.
External successes are easy to celebrate with these colleagues. Internal successes are more ephemeral, so it’s interesting to explore what was the trigger that made today a great day and what was it that sabotaged yesterday.
When people had great days, one reoccurring feature was that they started off great. There was no delay between when they got out of bed and when they Unleashed the Greatness. People said things like, “I had this idea last night, and I just got up and started writing,” or “I started on this revision right when I got up and had it half done by breakfast time.”
One of the most productive Grand Ole Dads in my field told me that he got up six days a week at 6:30 and wrote from 7:00 to 9:00 without interruption. Then he kissed his wife good-bye and drove into school. When I asked how long he had done that he said, “Forever.”
About a year ago, I started toying with this hypothesis: "Your first two hours set the tone for the whole day."
Think of your last mediocre day. Did it start out mediocre? That would also be consistent with this hypothesis.
We can’t trigger every day to be great, but maybe we have more control than we think. If we focus on making our first two hours great, it might set the tone for the rest of the day.
What we need to decide is what we can we do in those first two hours after waking that would trigger an amazing day and what would sabotage it and make it mediocre. For me, it seems paper writing, editing, exercise, or meditation are the good triggers, and it seems answering emails, reading the news, or surfing are the saboteurs.
Here’s to you having lots of amazing days. One’s where you can channel your best Clint Eastwood impression and say, “The day’s not over.”
This season starts the beginning of job market Speed Dating in lots of academic fields. It’s when all of the schools who have jobs and all the PhD students who want jobs get together at their annual job market conference and speed date.
If a speed date goes well, a school will call you in about two weeks and ask you out on a campus date. If that 2-day campus date goes well, you get the engagement ring and get the job. If the 7-year engagement goes well, you get married with tenure.
But this all starts with the 45-minute speed date at the conference where there’s about a 1 in 3 chance that you’ll get called back. Two common questions: 1) How do I ace a conference interview, and 2) how do I know if I aced it?
Your advisor and friends have given you a big list of “dos and don’ts” for your interviews. Things like do act interested and do know lots about their school, and things like don’t act smarmy or arrogant and don’t dress like Spiderman or your favorite D&D character.
There's no perfect way to predict whether you’ll get a campus visit, but you hear lots of rules of thumb:
• The best day to interview is the second morning.
The next best is the first afternoon.
• The two best interview times are either 10:00 AM or 1:00 PM
• The more interviewers in your room (vs. skipping),the better your chances
• The more “fun” the interview seems, the better your chances
• The more questions they ask about your dissertation, the better
When I was on the rookie job market, I thought it would be useful to know which of these was the best predictor of a call-back. If a person knew that, they’d know when to schedule interviews with their favorite schools, whether to be serious or funny, and whether to encourage lots of dissertation questions. A few of my friends got together, and we came up with a list of about ten things we thought would predict how well an interview went. We all then rated each one of our interviews on these 10 things.
We then pooled everything together and ran a logit regression on whether we ended up getting a campus interview date at each school. Only 1 thing was significant. It wasn’t the timing of the interview or our subjective rating of how “fun” it was. Instead the only predictor of whether we got a campus visit was how many questions they asked about our dissertation during the conference interview.
Makes sense – except this was negatively related. The schools that asked us lots of questions about our dissertations DIDN’T fly us out for a date.
At the time, we thought maybe they realized we were doing a lot of handwaving in our theory section. Or maybe the deeper they dug, the more holes they found that we hadn’t yet plugged.
I now think there is another explanation. If we spent 35 minutes of a 45-minute interview talking about only 1 thing, the school only has 1 thing to judge us on (other than our advisor’s letter). It’s like a speed date where the person spends 90% of it talking about their vacation to Hawaii or their doily collection. We end up learning a lot about Hawaii or doilies, but not enough about them to want to call them back for a date.
A few years later, I was unexpectedly on the job market again as an assistant professor, and I did things a bit differently. Instead of spending 35 minutes droning on about a single project or two, I wanted to make sure we talked about a lot more than just Hawaii. That way, a broader set of connections could be made, and the people who hated Hawaii might find other things they could be interested in.
For all of the adrenaline-pumped PhD students at their job-market conference, it’s probably not the best strategy to spend the whole time talking about only your dissertation or only about Hawaii. The more other “good fit” connections you can make in the interview, the more likely you might be called back for a first date.
At this point, no last-minute finishing touches on your dissertation rap will help you ace your interview tomorrow morning. Instead, tonight's better spent learning more about your potential date – especially any unique overlaps you might have in common.
Good luck on the job market!
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.
How to graduate, get a job, get tenure, solve problems, and make fewer mistakes.