Lessons for New Ph.D.s

Jason Brennan explores five things every new grad student should know but people often don't tell you.

August 6, 2020
 
 
Istock.com/Rudall30

A professorship is good work if you can get it, but you have to get it. Right now, especially as COVID-19 imperils universities’ finances, it’s a buyer’s market. However bad the academic market was two years ago, it will be worse for the foreseeable future.

With all that in mind, how do you make your time in graduate school work for you? Here are five things all new Ph.D. students should know.

No. 1: If you want a faculty job, you should start working for that job on the first day of graduate school. When you graduate, you compete against hundreds of candidates, many of whom will have extensive networks and publication records superior to those of most assistant professors. Hiring committees stuck sorting through 500 dossiers might spend no more than a minute scanning your file.

The only way to pass the first cut is to look great on paper. That depends on how you spent your time in graduate school. Grad school is now less a time for development and more like an extended audition. That might be regrettable, but it’s what academe has become.

No. 2: If assigned to work as teaching assistant, make your time in class work for you. As a TA, you’ll attend your professor’s main lectures for two hours a week. During those hours, don’t sit back and congratulate yourself that you already know the material. Use that time productively. While your professor lectures, prepare anything you’ll need for your own discussion sections, such as handouts, slides, games or activities.

Better yet, you should think like a teacher and determine how you would present and explain that same material. Grade papers and quizzes. Take the time to design your own syllabus for that same class. If you’re a TA for Government 101, you should finish off the semester with your own version of Government 101 fully prepared and ready to go. If you have to serve as a TA 10 times in 10 distinct classes, then by the time you graduate, you should have 10 or so classes prepped. If you later get a faculty job, you will already have all those classes prepared.

No. 3: Write articles, not term papers. Most of your graduate classes will require you to write a 30-page final paper. If you want to have a competitive CV when you go on the market, you should use your classes to write articles for publication. Get advice about what topics are of interest to the field at large and to blind peer reviewers. Write a first draft of your term paper early in the semester -- even if that requires you to read the course materials early, such as over winter or summer break. Spend the semester perfecting that paper and then send it out for review. If you can graduate with a few articles published in top journals, you won’t be guaranteed a job, but your chances are far higher.

No. 4: Start trying to publish early. Beginning your second year of graduate school and at least until you have tenure, you ought to have three papers under review at all times. If a paper gets rejected, read the comments, revise it slightly if need be, then submit it elsewhere. If you always have three papers under review, you’ll probably end up with an impressive CV, and then a job, and then tenure.

You can’t afford to wait until your fourth or fifth year of grad school to begin this. You might need to spend two to three years revising and modifying a paper before it finally is accepted by a good journal. Journals often take six months or more to decide whether to accept a paper. You might have a paper rejected five times before it’s accepted. To have a couple A-level papers published when you on the market means having five papers out for review in your third or fourth year.

No. 5: Recognize that you probably can’t get any job your adviser can’t get. It may not be fair, but the statistics are clear: colleges and universities use prestige to sort job candidates. For instance, the top 60 English departments overwhelmingly hire from the top six Ph.D. programs. Law schools overwhelming hire from the top four programs. When hiring committees decide whom to interview or hire, they use the applicants’ university and their adviser as a proxy. An economics Ph.D. student from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is almost certain to get a good job, while a Ph.D. student from the 125th-ranked English program almost certainly won’t.

The best way to estimate what kinds of jobs you might get is to see what jobs recent graduates from your program have obtained. The market is getting worse, so assume you’ll have to do more and look better on paper than those recent grads.

If your program rarely places people, you should strongly consider transferring. Perhaps get a terminal master’s degree and use it to apply to a doctoral program with a better placement record. That might offend your advisers -- the people whom you need to write letters to help you move -- but they ought to have your best interests at heart. If they want to support you, that often means helping you move on.

Success today requires hitting the ground running, starting the first day of grad school. You must professionalize right away and seek every distinction you can. You must be strategic and calculating. Maybe that’s too bad -- maybe the academy should not be like this -- but that’s how it is.

Bio

Jason Brennan is the Flanagan Family Professor at Georgetown University and author of Good Work if You Can Get It (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020).

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

We are retiring comments and introducing Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

 
Back to Top