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.
"School’s starting, and I didn't get anything done this summer.”
I’ve heard this every August, and I’ve said this every August.
Whenever I’ve asked professors and PhD students what percent of their planned work they got accomplished over the summer, no one has ever said “All of it.” Almost everyone says something between 25 to 35%. Everyone from the biggest, most productive super stars with the biggest lab to the most motivated, fire-in-their-belly PhD student with the biggest anxiety.
We are horrible estimators of how productive we’ll be over the summer. I was in academia for 35 years (including MA and PhD years), yet every single summer I never finished more than 30% of what I planned. How can we be so poorly calibrated? We never learn. We never readjust our estimate for the next summer. Next summer we’ll still only finish 25-35% of what we planned to do.
There are only two weeks in the year when I’m predictably down or blue. It’s the last two weeks of August. It’s not the heat (I mostly stay indoors). It’s not the impending classes (I love teaching). It’s not all the beginning of semester meetings (I loved my colleagues and loved passing notes to them under the table). Ten years ago, I realized that I felt down the end of every August because I had to admit “school’s starting and I haven’t gotten jack done all summer.” The beginning of school is the psychological end of the Academic Fiscal Year.
One solution to our August blues lies in understanding what times of the year we do like most, and to see if we can rechannel those warm-glowy feelings to August.
If you had to guess the #1 favorite time of the year for most academics, you’d probably guess “The end of school.” The #2 favorite time of the year you might guess would be the “Winter or Christmas break.” What would you guess the third favorite time of the year is?
Surprisingly, I’ve heard people say it’s when they turn in their Annual Activity Report (AAR). That’s the summary document they turn into their hard-to-please Department Chair that summarizes what they’ve accomplished in the prior 12 months: What they published, who they advised, what new things they’ve started, what new teaching materials they’ve created, and so forth.
Snore. How could writing an Annual Activity Report be a highlight?
Because it shows in black-and-white that we didn’t sleep-walk through the year. It reminds us that the publication that we now take for granted was one that we were still biting our nails about last year at this time. It reminds us of our advises who were stressing over their undergraduate thesis a year ago and who have now happily graduated. It reminds us of the cool ideas we've into hopeful projects -- ideas we hadn't even thought of a year ago.. Going back in a 12-month-ago time machine shows us what we did accomplish. It turns our focus toward what we did – and away from what we didn’t.
Once we cross things off of our academic To-do list, we tend to forget we accomplished them. August might be a good time to do a mid-year AAR. It might not turn our August blues into a happy face yellow, but might at least turn it to green. A green light for a great new school year.
Have a tremendous school year.
For some fields, 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!
One summer on the way out to the parking lot, a senior professor once told me that if he didn't have a summer project finished by the Fourth of July, he knew it wouldn't get finished. Since it was about June 28th on the day he said that, I flashed on all of my unfinished projects and was horrified.
I also pledged to not let that happen and to double-down after the Fourth to "get er done." Over the past 20 summers since then, I've worked with something I call a 3-3-3 weekly recap to keep the summer moving forward while still having lots of fun.
Here’s how a 3-3-3 Weekly Recap works. Every Friday I write down the 3 biggest things I finished that week (“Done”), the 3 things I want to finish next week (“Doing”), and 3 things I’m waiting for (“Waiting for”). This ends up being a record of what I did that week, a plan for what to focus on next week, and a reminder of what I need to follow up on. It helps keep me accountable to myself, and it keeps me focused on finishing 3 big things instead of 100 little things. Here’s an example of one that’s been scribbled in a notebook at the end of last week:
Even though you’d be writing this just for yourself, it might improve your game. It focuses you for the week, it gives you a plan for next week, and it prompts you to follow-up on things you kind of forgot you were waiting for.
Sometimes I do it in a notebook and sometimes I type it and send it to myself as an email. It doesn’t matter the form it’s in or if you ever look back at it (I don’t), it still works. I’ve shared this with people in academia, business, and government. Although it works for most people who try it, it works best for academics who manage their own time and for managers who are supervising others. They say it helps to keep the focus on moving forward instead of either simply drifting through the details of the day or being thrown off course by a new gust of wind.
If you work with PhD students or Postdocs, it could help them develop a “Finish it up” mentality, instead of a “Polish this for 3 years until it's perfect” mentality. It’s also useful as a starting point for 1-on-1 weekly meetings. If they get in the habit of emailing their 3-3-3 Recap to you each Friday, you can share any feedback and perhaps help speed up whatever it is they are waiting for. Especially if it’s something on your desk. Ouch.
Good luck in pushing 3 To-Dos off your desk and getting things done this summer. I hope you find this helps.
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