Monday, July 25, 2011

Things that make me Productive and Happy

As a grad student or new professor, you'll likely be spending hours (and hours, and hours) sitting in your office doing supposedly scholar-like things.  Here are some things I've found extremely useful for writing and conducting research while sitting in my office.  Maybe they'll be useful in thinking about what you'd like in your office to help make you more productive, happy, or both:

Perfect for slouching!
1. A High-Back, Comfortable Rolling Chair with Arms.  I prefer a rolling/swiveling chair with 'arms' that can fit right up to my desk and that also allows me to 'slouch' in it while writing (my preferred writing position, bad back be damned!).  My current chair also has the ability to lean back pretty far without tipping over (don't ask how I know the limit of this), which allows me to put my feet up on my desk when I'm reading a physical book or paper. One of the most important things, for me, is that it is a 'high back' chair that I can actually lean back in, if I so choose,
Flawless Victory!
without the top of the seatback breaking my spine in two like a sweet Moral Kombat finishing move.  I've tried the smaller 'secretary' chairs before, and they always end up hurting my back after a week or so.  Part of that could be that, in the words of a friend, I'm "big as sh*t!", but I like to think that it's instead because I'm now a professor, not a secretary, and so my body desires the finer professorial things in life. (But seriously, it's probably because I'm big as sh*t and should lose some weight.)

The reality of dual monitors
2. Dual Monitors.  The jump in productivity this option gives you is simply amazing.  I have a 17" laptop that's essentially a desktop replacement, and use an external monitor attached to it that lets me use dual-screens.  I can be writing in a manuscript on one, and have Stata, EndNote, Google Chrome, PDF files, etc. open on the other without having to swap back and forth. It's also nice when I'm using the Stata program for something, and can have the syntax file open for editing at the same time. Most laptops will automatically be able to support dual monitors (that is, the laptop screen and 1 external monitor), but small laptops and netbooks may not, so keep this in mind when selecting a laptop.  Also, dual monitors on a desktop may require a special video card (or multiple video cards), that may not come standard on an off-the-shelf desktop.

Screenshot of Endnote
3. Citation Tracking Software.  I use EndNote, though I know others who think it has a massive learning curve to get to work right (and even then, it's prone to bugs and crashes).  Using any kind of citation software that links in with your writing software (I use MS Word) will save you countless hours of formatting citations, cross-checking things, and making the bibliography at the end.  Also, with the right software, you can also keep track of your notes and have PDFs of the actual articles linked to each citation entry. If you don't have a citation manager, start NOW, and throw everything you get your hands on into it. The time you take setting up the entries initially will pay dividends for years to come.

Like a filing cabinet,
but actually useful!
4. Dropbox Software.  Dropbox is software that lets you store files in your online 'Dropbox', but it acts as if it's a simple folder on your computer that you can drag and drop files into, rename things in, etc.  The best part, aside from the automatic backups stored offsite (and the backup history option, which has saved my ass in the past), is that you can link multiple computers to a single Dropbox account and thereby 'sync' all of your important folders and files between these computers.  I have my EndNote file/folders in my Dropbox, and this lets me get to my citations from wherever I am, assuming I have EndNote installed on that computer.  I also installed Stata into a folder within my Dropbox folder, allowing me to use it from any of my three linked computers. You can get your free 2GB dropbox account here:  They also have paid accounts with much more space.

AAA Battery Quickly Drainer
5. Noise Canceling Headphones.  When doing work that doesn't require a lot of 'quiet time' concentration (like data cleaning), I like to listen to music through a pair of Phillips noise cancelling headphones.  They run on a single AAA battery, and you can definitely hear a difference when the noise cancellation is turned on (background noise is more 'hushed').  They still work great as regular headphones when turned off, and they're the type that cover the entire ear.  If you're looking to buy a pair of these, make sure you get the active noise canceling kind, and not the passive noise isolating kind.  The difference is that the active noise cancelling ones electronically damper external noises, while noise isolating are ones that just try and physically block out the sound waves.  The only trick is to these headphones is that you need to remember to turn off the headphones when you're done, otherwise they can double as a AAA-battery-quickly-drainer (with all due respect to Mitch Hedberg, R.I.P.).

Yep, that's about right
6. A Red Pen.  While most of my writing is done electronically, when I'm proofing or otherwise reviewing something, I like to actually print it out on paper and go through it page by page, marking errors as I find them and making notes in the margins.  For that, I can use red ink to make any changes, and it's easy to spot them later when I go through and fix the electronic document.  I also learned at one of my previous jobs that by putting a small checkmark in the right margin whenever you make a change on the paper, it's easier to find all of your changes later on no matter how minute they might be.  As I transfer these changes to the electronic document, I circle the checkmark in the margin to show that the change has been made.  Red pens are also great for grading papers, as there's nothing that says 'Wow, this is totally wrong' to undergrads as a graded paper that's filled with red ink.

They come pre-sticky.
Try not to think about how they do that.
  7. Sticky Notes and a Large Writing Pad.  When I'm reading articles (typically online as electronic PDFs), as things pop into my mind I jot them down on a pad of paper under a heading that relates to what I'm doing (e.g., "Media examples to use in paper").  When I have something that I want to remember later and it's REALLY IMPORTANT, I'll put it on a sticky note and place the note on the wall next to my desk.  These notes might be something like an important phone number, a formula I'm going to need to refer to over and over again over the next few weeks, or snippets of data that I'll need to reference in my methods section (like how many cases were excluded from a sample and for what reasons).

Meet Bunga Bunga.
Yes, he's holding a
severed head.

8. Interesting Things to Look At.  So I typically stare at a computer screen for hours and hours on any given day.  That's a horrible thing for both my eyes and my sanity.  When I need a break, it's nice to just push back from the computer and looks elsewhere.  Whether that's staring out the window, or at the pictures/things around my desk, I need something to keep my mind distracted from the computer screen.  So rather than staring at a blank wall, I've got a couple of weird statutes (see image on the left for an example), paper weights, pictures of my family, and other interesting posters that I like looking at.  I like to think they keep me sane, but even if they don't, they at least make for interesting conversation pieces when someone stops by my office.

Surrenders faster than
a regular coffee press

9. French-Press and Coffee/Accessories.  So I admit, I'm not coffee's biggest fan.  When served black with nothing in it, it tastes absolutely horrible.  To me, coffee is mostly used as a medium to provide my mouth with copious amounts of sweetener (Splenda) and sugar-free hazelnut or french vanilla creamer.  However, a cup or two in the morning does help me focus on working on my research, so I figured if I'm going to drink coffee, it'd better be damned good coffee.  I also don't want to drop $2-4 per cup at Starbucks.  Therefore, I bought myself a little french press ($10) that's good for a couple of cups of coffee at a time.  I buy a couple of pounds of good coffee (1# decaf, 1#...umm... caf? recaf? whatever.) at a time (use the 'french press' crush setting!), store it in a couple of airtight containers ($5 each), supply the Splenda and (powdered) creamer I previously mentioned, and have a nice big coffee mug and associated coaster.  Since I have access to an office water-cooler that provides (almost) boiling hot water, I can make my own french-pressed coffee whenever I want, with very little effort and expense.  The only pain to this method is having to clean the grounds out of the press every day, but that only takes a minute or two in the restroom sink, and if I'm saving a few bucks per cup, I can't really complain all that much.

Science and History
combined! Muahaha!
10. A/C, a Small Fan (and Associated Paperweights).  I'm the type of guy who likes cool weather, preferably 65 degrees with a breeze.  My office has self-controlled A/C, and on my desk, I've got a small fan and a few paperweights placed strategically on important piles of paper that I don't want to blow away (I obviously don't care if the unimportant papers blow away).  The paperweights also offer an opportunity to provide something interesting to look at (see #8).  One interesting type of paperweight I'm currently fascinated with are old glass power-line insulators.  You can find them cheap at flea markets and antique stores (~$5/each), and every one is a unique piece of history. They're about 3-4" in height, and maybe 2.5" in diameter.  Other ideas for paperweights could be small statues, office suppliers (tape dispenser?), those large blocks of sticky notes (see #7), or deactivated metal grenades (yes, I've thought about this, and will be checking with my department head soon...).

I'll add more things as I think of them, and if you have any recommendations, let me know!

Picture Credits: Headphones Sticky_Note Glass_Insulator Red_Pen Dual_Monitors Others:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How to start getting over perfectionism

One topic that I hear over and over again is how one can get over the OCD/nit-picking/self-doubting that goes on when in a Ph.D. program (especially when writing a dissertation). This also applies to writing individual articles.  I've thought a lot about this in the past, and I've come up with some things that I think could be useful.  Well, at least they worked for me.

This was my first 3 years
in the Ph.D. program...
1. To start with, I fully believe that it takes at least a few years working on something before you stop feeling like a complete dumbass (i.e., that your work is inadequate, that you don't really know what you're talking about, that you'll disappoint people, etc.). For instance, as a new Ph.D. student without a prior MA degree, I felt like a dumbass for the first three years I was in the program. The good news is this will likely pass. Eventually, you'll realize you're the expert on your topic (for me, something just *clicked* one day), and the self-doubt will start to lessen (though I doubt it ever really goes completely away).  To help with these feelings, my advice is to talk with more senior PhD students who have almost completed (or just completed) their dissertations and I'm sure they'll tell you something similar.  (If not, they're probably lying to you.)

I'm finished! Well...
maybe I'll revise my
intro chapter just
ONE more time...
2. Related to #1, talk to others in your program, especially those further along than you! Ask them when they began to feel like an 'expert', when they stopped nit-picking over their writing, etc. Their answers will probably help you realize that 'good enough' is really the mantra of successfully finishing the dissertation. A 150-page 'good enough' dissertation that is successfully defended is worth much, much more than a 600-page behemoth that the student won't ever wrap up and defend out of a fear of missing errors, rewriting sections, etc. 

One rejection! Ah, Ah, Ah!
Two rejection! Ah, Ah, Ah!

This also goes for publishing articles.  At a lecture I attended at the ICPSR summer program regarding the publishing process, a senior poli-sci scholar (with a hefty and impressive CV) noted that he routinely averages 2-3 rejections per paper before it successfully hits in a journal. After I read that, my own (fairly new) rejection-to-R&R average of about 2-1 didn't bother me as much. That said, it still stings every time I get rejected (even editorially, pre-peer-review), and I usually take at least a week before I read the reviews in detail.  Any sooner and I get headaches from clenching my teeth at the obvious stupidity of the reviewers.

This is me standing on top of my
first solo-published article!
Another good example came from a professor I spoke with just before I started writing my dissertation.  He said when he first started in his Ph.D. program, his advisor (a very prestigious scholar in the field) looked at his first attempt at writing a paper and basically said it was a pile of garbage (in not so many words). But also said that that was to be expected for a first attempt. Over time, he got better at it, and now that professor has tenure at one of the top schools in the field. That talk really helped calm my nerves when it came to writing my own stuff.  [Side note: I've also had the "We need to talk..."-talk about my sub par writing in the past, and while it stung at first (really for about a year afterwards), I got over it, and I like to think my writing is at least slightly better than it was.  (Though I'm still not a fan of the 'tough love' school...)]

This is what I imagine all copy
editors look like, including
the constipated expression.
3. Related to #2, my first solo-authored journal publishing experience helped me get over some of the nit picking and worrying. Frankly, the publishing process is full of little fights over what to fix (especially during the R&R process, and then again during the copy editing process). Some of the wording the copy editor chose as a 'fix' was simply atrocious (while probably technically correct, it sounded like sh*t in the real world, at least to anyone but a copy editor). For my first solo-published article, I had a 2+ page list of things that I wanted the copy editor to change BACK to the original wording (proper English be damned!). A friend of mine who recently went through the copy editing process on his article noted that the copy editor ended up changing back only half of a very specific phrase in the manuscript that they had initially 'fixed' incorrectly. He realized this when he received the final (unchangeable) proofs.

There were also some other things for my own first solo-article that I would have liked to address in my publication, but simply didn't have the time or space to attend to without writing an entire second article filled with minutiae. So what ended up getting published was 'good enough', got me a line on my CV (and likely my first job), will get me a little name recognition in the future (hopefully), and I have a solo-published article that I will NEVER, EVER read from beginning to end (for fear of seeing typos, etc.). 

F*ck no I didn't proofread my
acknowledgements page!
4. Related to #3, the dissertation is similar to that process of 'letting go' of perfection. You won't be able to find every typo, I promise. My own (recently finished/submitted) dissertation has one glaring typo on the acknowledgement page ("You're" instead of "Your"... for f*cks sake...), and a misspelled first name of one of my professors that I'm thanking (a "y" where an "i" should be, ugh). This happened because I *only* proofread my acknowledgements page 5 times or so (with 2 outside proof readers), instead of the 20+ re-readings of the main body of my dissertation.

But realistically will anyone notice? Maybe, especially now that I said this on my blog. Will anyone care? Doubtful (even, I assume, the professor whose name I misspelled -- sorry in advance). And if they do care? Well, they can start their complaint letters with "Dear Dr. ...". And that is what counts. I did a dissertation that was good enough to pass (though I like to think it's was/is fairly impressive piece of work), successfully defended it, and now it is likely that no one is going to take the time to read it ever again except for other PhD students of my advisor who are looking for a model of what is passable (and the blog readers who want to see the typos for themselves...).

Good enough!
So, all this boils down to how to cope with the OCD/nit-picking/worrying of writing a dissertation, getting through a program, writing an article, or anything else for that matter.  My advice in a nutshell is to talk to people who you think have conquered this problem, and listen to them talk about their deeply-held insecurities (both former and present) that still are in the back of their mind. You'll realize that 'good enough' writing is just part of the game, and much of your worrying and re-re-revising of things is just wasted energy that you could be using for other more productive things.

Picture credits: Copyeditor Phone_Guy Garbage_Pile Old_Man Count Dumb_and_Dumber Highway

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Should you get a PhD? Things to consider.

One thing I never considered when initially looking into MA and PhD programs was that it might, in certain cases, be not such a great idea to pursue a PhD.  While it turned out to be a good decision for me (at least, it seems so thus far), I figured it might be useful to write a post about this issue.  This is not meant as a checklist to decide if a PhD is the right or wrong decision, but rather is meant to be a list of things that the potential PhD student should think about when deciding whether to pursue a PhD, or other opportunities instead.

You said I can make $15,000
per year for five to ten years?!?
1. Do you currently have a good-paying job?
If so, then you will probably be in for a bit of a shock when it comes to the salary of a PhD student.  While I've heard of stipends for Social Science PhD students getting as high as $40,000 in very specific programs/cases (and that amount didn't cover tuition...), more realistic is in the $15,000-$25,000 per year range.  This amount may or may not include summer salary, and may or may not involve 'actual' work (depending on if you receive a fellowship or an assistantship).

Still, assuming you won't have a sugar-daddy or sugar-momma supporting your PhD pursuits, don't have a string of income properties providing you constant rent money, or generous parents who will pay your living expenses, living on that salary may require some sacrifices or creativity.  For me, entering the PhD program in 2006 (when stipends were even lower) meant I took around a 70% decrease in my annual salary.

Also a holder of a Sociology BA degree...
Thankfully I had a sugar-momma/wife who was bringing in big bucks with her Sociology B.A. degree. Still, despite having the earning power of both a grad student and an entry-level case manager in the family, it was still quite a change in our lifestyle after I started the PhD program.  Even after finishing the PhD and receiving a very competitive job offer for an assistant professor position, I will still be making much (much, much) less compared to my friends/coworkers whom started about the same time as me in the non-academic job I left for the PhD, mostly because they have been dutifully (and successfully) climbing the career ladder for the 5 years I spent in grad school.  So yeah... It is very unlikely that a PhD will make you rich (see #2), although it hopefully will still result in a fairly comfortable life once you actually finish.

So, what does this mean for someone considering a PhD program in the Social Sciences?  If you can't possibly see giving up the finer things in life that you currently enjoy in your well-paid job (e.g., eating out regularly, buying newer model cars, living in a fancy apartment, buying food that doesn't begin with 'top' and end with 'ramen', etc.), and you won't otherwise have a sizable stream of income aside from the PhD stipend while in school, you might want to reconsider getting a PhD, or at least reconsider going full time for it.

2. Do you want to be filthy rich when you 'grow up'?
Notice that he was never
referred to as Scrooge
McDuck, PhD... probably
one reason why he was rich.
Getting your PhD in a Social Science field, especially if you intend to pursue an academic job, will not make you rich.  In fact, you may make less money as an academic with a PhD than you would in a non-academic job with an MA but no PhD. (This doesn't count academics who write popular introductory textbooks.)

For example, the median academic salary for a recent Social Science PhD graduate in 2009 was $55,000 (Source).  Going into industry provided a somewhat higher salary, while being a Post Doc provided a somewhat lower salary.  While this salary can provide for a pretty comfortable life, especially if you live in a low cost of living area like much of the midwest or south, you're not going to be a millionaire anytime soon because of it.

Further, if you have to take out student loans while you're in school to cover living expenses or other bills, those monthly payments afterwards can take a serious chunk out of your take home salary (more about funding and PhD programs in a later post). (NOTE: I firmly believe that you should not go into a PhD program if they do not offer you either full tuition remission or a comparably-larger stipend.  Taking out (low-interest) student loans can sometimes be useful, especially to pay off other, higher interest debt, but don't pay tuition for a PhD with student loans!!!)

3. Do you like to leave your work at work?
Oh how I miss
that sweet, sweet
overtime pay...
One of the things I liked about my pre-PhD-program job was that at 5pm (or 6pm if I wanted to make an hour of sweet, sweet overtime pay), I could go home and largely forget about work until the next day.  Yes, it was stressful trying to meet various deadlines, but most of the stuff I did could only be worked on while at work (due to security clearances and stuff).  Once I left for the day, I couldn't really do anything for my work, so I (usually) didn't have to worry about it.

The PhD program is not like that.  You won't be able to consistently show up for classes, work for an hour in your office afterwards, and then take the rest of the night off.  You'll have homework (at least, at first), assistantship duties (which could involve grading assignments, prepping to teach courses, research projects with tight deadlines, etc.), studying for comps, and (eventually) work on your prospectus and dissertation.  There will constantly be something you should be reading (whether for courses, teaching, or your research).

You should probably get used to
empty parking lots when you are
working on your dissertation...
If you don't put in some after-hours work, you could find yourself slipping behind in classes, being unprepared to teach a class (which is one of the worst experiences in the world), and not making a lot of progress on your dissertation.  So, if you pursue a PhD program, you should plan on working at least a few (if not a majority of) evenings each week, and some weekends, especially while you're still taking courses. While a lot of this work can be done from the comfort of your couch, it's still work that needs your attention and mental energy, and it can be taxing both mentally and physically (especially if you like to slouch while reading...).  That said, once classes are over, depending on your assistantship duties you can largely make your own hours, which is a nice perk if you're not a morning person.

The wife and I were also going
to run a small B&B in our spare
time... seriously, we bought
books about it!
4. Are you only willing to live in one specific place? 
When I first started the PhD, I had dreams of becoming a professor and being able to live in the small little village in the Northeast somewhere, teaching a couple classes and then sitting on my porch reading to the sound of leaves falling off the trees.  

After a couple years in the program, I became more knowledgeable about the different types of schools that offered advanced (MA/PhD) criminology/criminal justice degrees in my field.  Needless to say, the states I was most interested in living had very few schools that offered what I would be teaching.  Most of the states that had these programs were in the midwest or the south (like, the south-south...). Once I decided I was really interested in a job at a research-oriented
This probably would have been
me driving to work had we
ended up in the "south-south"
 program, I realized that there were very few of these schools in the Northeast US, and most were in very urban cities (e.g., NYC, Philadelphia, etc.).  Further, since schools almost never hire their own PhD students for tenure-track positions right after graduating, I had effectively burned one of my top choices for my first job by choosing to get a PhD there. (Not that I regret it now, as choosing a great program for your PhD is more important than going to a less-great program and hoping the great program will hire you for your first post-PhD job).

This led me to consider other areas of the country, starting with the mid-Atlantic and north/eastern-Midwest.  I knew convincing my wife to live anywhere BUT the Northeast was going to be tough, so I started early.  Over the last couple years of my PhD program, I slowly hinted to her about working in different states that weren't in the Northeast.  I talked up the benefits of flat cornfields (you can see twisters coming from miles away!), the Canadian wilderness (free healthcare for bear attack wounds!), and deserts (we can pretend we're at a beach that's simply run out of water!). Each state/area I brought up with her was a little further away than the last.  In perhaps a year I had my wife talked into living in about 50% of the US, and by the time I went on the market, I was able to talk her into 'okaying' my application almost anywhere in the US, Canada, and the UK.

Sorry Memorial U.,
I really did try and talk
my wife into living in
Newfoundland, but she
absolutely hates seafood.
Note that I said almost anywhere...  I wasn't able to talk her into some parts of Canada or the deep south (the south-south).  Still, just because my wife and I were willing to live almost anywhere didn't mean that I was able to choose where I got a job.  I sent out perhaps 50 applications to a wide range of programs (Criminal Justice, Criminology, Sociology, Public Policy, etc.), and ended up accepting an offer just before Christmas from a great department in a state I would have never considered a few years ago, simply because it wasn't in the Northeast.  When I visited the state for my interview, I was amazed that it wasn't what I was expecting (in a good way!), and that I could really see myself and my family living there.  When my wife and I went out to look for housing (after I accepted their offer), we realized that we really enjoyed the culture, the 'scenic vistas', the weather, and discovered that we could be very happy here, possibly for a very long time (obviously depending on tenure success and a few other things). 

Dr. Fussy was able to live
in his preferred area, but
had to make sacrifices.
The bottom line was that if I had stood firm on needing to live in a very narrowly defined section of the country, I would have missed out on applying to a number of great programs, and probably would have had to go back on the market the following year.  

Another thing to realize is that the academic job market really is a crap shoot for a new PhD, no matter how much you try and prepare in advance.  It's almost completely random which schools will be posting jobs for assistant professors, the specialties they will want to hire in, the people making up their search committee, and many other things that can all affect whether you get called for an interview for any given job posting, let alone get an offer.  

As it was, I only received the offer I ended up accepting because the first candidate they offered the position to turned it down to accept a job much closer to his family. (I know this because that candidate was/is my friend, and we were very open with our interviews/offers/etc. throughout the job market process -- more on the job market and the need for friends during that process in a later posting).

Beautiful, but flat as hell... are you
willing to live here for 3+ years?
So there are some questions you need to think about when it comes to getting a PhD, and where that might end up sending you in search of a job: Do you have an 'ideal' section of the country you want to live in?  Are you flexible and willing to explore other areas of the country you may have never visited or otherwise considered?  Is your spouse 'stuck' in their job and unable to move?  Are there a lot of potential places to work in your ideal section of the country?  Would you be willing to give up a great job simply because it's not in your ideal section of the country?  Would you be willing to work at a less-than-ideal job in order to be in that ideal section of the country?

5. Do you have realistic job prospects?
Related to #4, do you have a realistic idea of what the job market is like?  In 2009, about 73% of PhD graduates in the Social Sciences (including Psychology) had a 'definite' job or post doc lined up (Source Table 38).  That means that more than 1 in 4 new PhDs did not have anything definitively lined up after they finished.  Are you only interested in working at an R1 (very high research intensive) university when you graduate?  Do you know how many of those jobs are posted each year?  Do you know how many new PhD grads are competing for those jobs?

Yeah, the job market is a little like that...
Without needing to do much digging, I can tell you that there are relatively few R1 jobs each year compared to the number of candidates on the market.  In fact, there are relatively few academic jobs each year period.  For instance, in 2009 there were about 368 PhDs in awarded in Sociology (Source). That same year, there were a total of 324 assistant and open-rank academic jobs advertised (by U.S. institutions) with the American Sociological Association (Source, see Table 1).  Of these, perhaps half were at PhD granting departments, and one third were at R1 programs (Source, see Table 6). Not all of these resulted in filled positions.  Even assuming that some of new Sociology PhDs went into non-academic or non-tenure-track positions, when you consider how many people are searching for jobs (let alone trying to get 'good' jobs, whether that involves teaching or research), and that the assistant professor ranked jobs are also drawing applications from PhDs who have already been out a few years, as well as from non-Sociology departments (e.g., Economics, Public Policy, Psychology, etc.), you have the makings of a very tight job market for new candidates.
Not too far from the truth...

Therefore, you need to be realistic about what type of job you're going to get upon graduation, and whether you'll be happy in less-than-ideal jobs (What if you had to teach 5 courses per semester?  What if you had to adjunct for a couple years?  What if you had to live in a 'crappy' area of the country (see #4)?).  If you enter the PhD program with the 'R1 or bust' mindset, you might end up finding out what 'bust' really means.

6. Are you willing to devote 4+ years to the PhD?
In 2009 the median time in graduate school to earn a PhD in Social Sciences was between 7 and 8 years (Source - Table 28).  That's a damn long time to be working on a PhD, so you need to be sure you really want this, and are willing to put in that time.

Side rant: Yes, there are some people who can finish their Social Science PhD in 3 years.  You're probably not one of them (sorry).  If you do not already have a Master's degree in a related field, I'm almost positive that you're not one of them (again, sorry).  This is because for someone with a Master's degree, you'll likely take courses for the first year and a half, and then have comps to defend, a prospectus to write and defend, and then the rest of the dissertation to write and defend.  Without a Master's degree in a related field, you'll probably be adding another 1.5 years of courses to that schedule (2.5-3 years of courses total). So, the question is whether you are willing to devote 4 or more years to getting your PhD?  If you do finish in 3 years, great!  But don't be fooled into believing that 3 years from start-to-finish is typical, because it simply isn't.

This kid already has two AJS
pubs and an in-press ASR,
and he defends next week.
Another thing to consider is your marketability when you finish. Sometimes taking a little longer may make you much more marketable.  For instance, finishing a PhD in 3 years means you'll probably be on the job market at the start of your third year.  Is this going to give you enough time to make a solid CV?  If you have no publications by then, and want an assistant professor job at a research university, you're going to have a very, very hard time competing for those jobs. If you'd prefer a teaching-focused position, then what are the chances you'll have a significant amount of teaching experience by your third year?  Would you realistically be competitive with someone who took 5 or 6 years to finish, and had 2-3 more years of teaching experience in the mean time?  The only time I can think of that finishing a PhD quickly won't matter for marketability (at least as much) is if you're looking for a job [probably in the private sector] that only cares about the degree being completed, and not any of the other accomplishments like teaching or publishing.

Publishing a paper from
start to finish can take
longer than the gestation
period of a baby elephant.
Further, you're unlikely to have many (if any) publications by then simply because writing a solid manuscript can take months and months, if not years, depending on the length of time you have to spend collecting and analyzing data and then writing.  Once you have something you're willing to send out for consideration, the publication process can take upwards of a year from initial submission to final acceptance (assuming you get an R&R on the first try and revise fairly quickly).  It may take another year (or longer) for the article to come out in print. Thus, if you go on the job market after a little over 2 years in the program, it's probably unrealistic that you'll have a solid C.V. by then unless you either 1) started publishing while in a prior MA program, or 2) got hooked up with a major research collaboration/project your first semester in the program, and was put on a paper already being written (in which case you're probably not first author).

7. Do you have a good support system in place?
My friend Sara recommended I add this one, and I think it's a great question.  The PhD can be done alone, but it's much, much harder than if you have a support system helping you through, keeping your spirits up, providing non-academic outlets, and generally helping to keep you a) sane, b) fairly motivated, and c) from dropping out in disgust.  I'll post more on building a support system in grad school in a later post, but you should be asking yourself who is going to support your decision to go to grad school, who is going to help you get through grad school (whether that means letting you bitch to them about the program once and a while, helping you proofread your dissertation, providing a person to bounce ideas off of, or simply helping to make dinner when you're exhausted from a full day of classes and teaching), and who isn't?

In Summary:
All of this may sound like I'm trying to talk you out of a PhD, but that would be far from the truth.  All I wanted to emphasize with this post is that there are a lot of things to consider when first considering a PhD, let alone when you later choose programs to apply for (more about this later).  Finishing a PhD is a LOT of work, and a lot of people don't ever finish.  Further, even finishing a PhD is not going to guarantee you a job, nor will it guarantee you a high salary or the ability to select where you live.  So you should consider what you will be giving up to pursue a PhD, what you want to do with a PhD, the realistic opportunities you'll have after graduation, and the type of life you'll lead as a PhD.  Just make sure you're making an informed decision to pursue (or not pursue) a PhD.

Photo Credits:  Phone_Guy Homeless_Woman Cash_Money Elephant Baby_Scholar Thunderdome Homeless_Sign Scrooge_McDuck Memorial_University Burger_Flipper_Getty_Images Quaint_Town General_Lee Empty_Lot Cornfield

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why and How I Chose a Ph.D. (or, "wow, what a dumbass")

I've been asked (many times) why I chose to get my Ph.D.  The short answer is because I don't like to get up early in the morning.

If only you knew how much
this reflects my real life...

Ok, that's probably too short to be a blog post, so I'll provide a little more detail.  I majored as an undergrad in a field that provided pretty good job stability, while also teaching me
This would have been me for
between 20 and 30 years...
fairly useful technology skills.  I landed a pretty sweet sounding job right out of college, and made a fairly comfortable living.  But the job was one of those 8:30 - 5:00 (or later), dress in a suit and tie, constant under-fire deadlines that changed from minute to minute, three different bosses, CC-my-bosses-on-every-email, hoping for retirement to kick in type jobs that wasn't very 'fun'.  My coworkers were pretty great, and we had a lot of fun goofing off, but the job itself was mostly shuffling papers to and fro under strict deadlines.  I couldn't see myself spending 30+ years sitting at my desk doing this job, because I know I'd only be counting down the days until I retired.

No mother, I'm not gonna
be a cop or a lawyer
So, after a lot of worrying about my future happiness, I decided to go back to study the field I took courses in 'for fun' during my undergrad days.  This field was criminal justice/criminology, which is based on sociology but focuses on things like crime, deviance, laws, and society's response to criminals.  This was my undergraduate minor, and I held a solid 4.0 in it (my overall GPA was a respectable 3.82).  So I decided to 'go big or go home', and looked into what it would take to get an advanced degree in that field and be able to quit my job to attend grad school.  My wife was totally behind my decision, particularly since it meant we would be moving closer to our families while I was in grad school.

So with only my close friends at work (and my family) knowing what I planned to do, I looked into what programs offered good degrees in the general Northeast area.  I settled on applying to one M.S. program in Forensic Psychology, and one Ph.D. program in Criminal Justice.  Both were relatively close to my and my wife's families (15 minutes and 1 hour 45 minutes, respectively).
Hindsight is 20/20...

Looking back now, applying to 2 programs was a horribly stupid mistake on my part, as I should have sent out 5-10 applications to ensure I was accepted into at least one school. I was pretty naive when it came to the whole 'grad school' thing, and so I figured I would have one long shot (the Ph.D. program) and one safety school (the M.S. program).

Once I settled on where I was going to apply, I contacted some of my faculty contacts from my undergrad program (two from the minor, one from my major) and asked them to write letters of recommendation.  I was lucky enough to have not pissed off my professors, and all three agreed to write letters for me. I studied for the GREs and did pretty good (Word of wisdom: You WILL think you have failed the GRE when you finish it.  Get the scores anyway). I compiled the various documents I needed (transcripts, etc.), and wrote my letter of interest.

I apparently wanted to be a TMNT,
because my wife was a hottie?
Let me take a moment to highlight my letter of interest.  It was probably the single most cliche piece of garbage I have written since middle school.  Even after my co-worker and good friend Will helped me revise the letter, it was still the equivalent of a steaming pile of liquid feces.  The letter read something like this:
"Hiya Professory Peoples! When I look at my wife, I realize that I love her a whole bunch! So I want to learn about crazy/bad/criminal-type people so that I can protect my wife from them and *sings* "Save The Day!"  I'm good with the words and stuff, and can also type on the computer!  Let me in to your program and I'll be happy! Holla back, son!"

Where they stored
my application files 
...this, kids, is a prime example of why you need to f*cking rock the socks off your undergrad courses and impress the sh*t out of your professors while you're there.  Without an awesome transcript and great recommendation letters (I assume?), I'm pretty sure my application would have been used as backup toilet paper for the Dean's personal rest room (or wherever Deans end up pooping. Come to think of it, I have never seen/heard a Dean going to the bathroom, so perhaps they just store it all up until they retire?).  As it is, I'm pretty sure my letter of interest gave a number of admission committee members a good laugh and is probably in one of those secret "Examples of what not to do" files that professors keep.

So once everything was finished, I sent out my application packages (with the check for the application fees, of course) and waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.  My applications were sent in for a December 31st due date, and I didn't receive a letter from either school until mid-March.

This was me, realizing I might
be stuck at my job forever...
The first letter arrived from the (safety school) M.S. program.  As I opened the letter in front of my wife, my check for the application fees floated out and onto the floor.  "Sh*t, that ain't good..."  I read the letter, which basically stated the program had recently imploded and was being put on an 'indefinite hold' starting with this year's admissions.  So, with no safety school as a backup, I sweated it out for a few more weeks while the Ph.D. program made a decision.  During that time, the eyelid twitch I had developed due to the stress at my job flared into a full on, 24/7 "I might be having a mini-stroke" twitch.

During the same time, I had also thrown in my resume in for a couple of different interesting sounding jobs, and had received an in-person interview (at my expense... cheap bastards) for a job that I realized only afterwards I was definitely under qualified for. (They wanted a senior level database/networking analyst, and I knew how to make a fairly simple database and use the Internets...).
"F*ck yes I'll accept!"

While I was waiting for the outbound flight to the job interview, I received a call from the Dean of the Ph.D. program.  She said they would like to admit me, and were interested in flying me out for the visiting weekend! (At their expense!  Bling bling!) I completely blew the job interview (but who cared at that point, right?), and prepared myself (and my wife) for the visiting weekend.  Fast forward just over 6 years from the visiting weekend, and I had finished my Ph.D.!

So, what's the moral of this overly long story?  Well, there are a few things that come to mind:

1. Know what you're getting into (more on this in future posts).

2. Don't mess up your future prospects by being a dumbass as an undergrad.

3. You don't HAVE to keep working the same deadend job until retirement, assuming you have the resume/skills/contacts/etc. in place to let you jump to another job or opportunity.

4. "I want to protect my wife because she's a hottie" is not a good framework for a letter of interest. (More about applying to grad school in a later post).

5. Have more than 1 long shot and 1 safety school, in case one implodes and the other isn't tricked into (somehow) accepting you.

6. If you develop a nervous twitch in your eye from stress, you should probably find a new job (or otherwise cut out what is stressing you out).

7. Related to #4, even a sh*tty letter of interest might be overlooked if the rest of your application is impressive for some reason.

8. Making simple databases and browsing the Internet effectively does not make one qualified to be a 'senior level database/network administrator'

Picture credits: Garfield Bored_Guy Dog_Butt TMNT Toilet Beaker Handcuffs Phone_Guy

A Confession of Sorts

Yes, I'm a doctor. No, not that kind of doctor.

Yep, it's definitely cancer...
or a burn... or something else...

I'm not an M.D. I can't fix your broken leg. I can't diagnose the mole on your arm. I can't write you a prescription for your infected toe. In all honesty, I'm not the kind of doctor that actually helps people.

I regressed the sh*t outta this!

I can, however, regress the sh*t out of a set of variables, tell you what's a significant predictor of something else, and what that probably means for policy. So that's something, I guess...

This blog is meant mostly for myself, so I can have something to work on that doesn't involve teaching or research per se, but still involves my experiences with academia. Hopefully some of this will be useful to people considering the PhD, in a PhD program already, or in a new tenure-track position... but no promises.

I'll try and update this at least a couple times a month, but again, no promises. If you have an idea for a blog post or want (public but anonymous) advice on something, by all means send me a message and I'll see what I can do.

Picture credits: Mole Model