Saturday, November 19, 2016

Seven Strategies for Success On The Tenure-Track

 Securing a tenure-track position in this academic market is difficult. Of course, once you have such a position, the trials are not over, as you now have to work to achieve tenure. And the very thought of working towards tenure can be overwhelming.  

Summit

However, I encourage tenure-track faculty members not only to think about achieving tenure but to be strategic and focused to ensure you are on the right path. Even if tenure is a few years off, new tenure-track faculty can take a few important steps now (other than, of course, work on publishing their dissertations, improving their courses and developing new research projects). Here are a few examples.

1. Check out the tenure documentation. What forms are you going to have to fill out when you go up for tenure? If possible, secure a copy of those forms so that you can see what information you will be asked to provide when you make your tenure case. Many colleges and universities have a mid-career or third-year review process, which is identical to the tenure review. That can help familiarize you with the process.

2. Develop an “aspirational tenure CV” for yourself. You should include in it all of the things you would like to have accomplished by the time you are up for tenure. If you are in the humanities, that probably will include a book and perhaps multiple articles. (If you are unclear about the expectations, this post has some suggestions for how to figure those out.) Also include conference presentations, service obligations, teaching accolades, invited lectures and anything else that you think will help you make your case for tenure. This will help you to see the bigger picture more clearly. Once you have your aspirational CV, use it to develop your long-term plan for tenure.

3. Create a list of your external reviewers. One of the best pieces of advice that I received on the tenure-track was to make a list of 12 people in my field whom I admire, and then to make it a point to contact them while I was on the tenure-track. If you write this list in your first year, you only have to contact two people per year over the next six years. You can reach out in a variety of ways. You can invite them to have coffee at a conference. You can send them a recently-published article of yours that you think they might find interesting. You can send them feedback or questions about an article or book that they recently published. I recommend contacting them in a way that feels natural or comfortable to you and that engages with your shared research interests. Most universities expect that external reviewers will be at similar or more highly ranked institutions than your own, so keep that in mind when you formulate your list.

4. Network to establish a national reputation. At many research universities, having a national reputation is a vital component of your tenure case. For that reason, it is important to make sure that other scholars are aware that you exist and know about your work. One example of a way to do this is to organize a panel at a national conference in your discipline. That will put you in touch with scholars in your field and increase your visibility. Another strategy is to invite prominent scholars to your campus. If your university has funds to do so, suggest people in your field to ask to deliver talks. (This also can permit you to check a name off your list from the previous suggestion.) In some universities, it is also expected that you will be invited to share your research at other campuses to demonstrate that you have a national reputation. Finally, a blog in your field publishes guest posts, try to publish your own on it. (In my field, Border Criminologies is an example of this kind of blog, and they accept guest posts.)

5. Figure out what kind of service you like. What is the right kind of service for you? Do you like serving on review panels? Do you like curriculum development? Do you like organizing seminars? Do you want to be on the athletics committee in the hopes of scoring free basketball tickets? Once you determine what kind of service you like, you may want to be proactive and search out those kinds of opportunities. That way, when other opportunities arise, you can say that you are already occupied with service tasks. It is, of course, crucial to know that you can say “no” to service requests, especially when your “no” is accompanied by a good explanation. When thinking about what kind of service opportunities you will seek out, be mindful of the expectations at your institution. Some institutions expect some form of departmental, university, community and national service. Other institutions are less concerned about national service yet have higher expectations for local service. Be clear about these expectations.

6. Teach effectively and efficiently. Robert Boice found that successful new faculty members spend no more than two hours preparing for each hour of class. Seek out advice from more seasoned colleagues about how to be a more efficient grader and more effective teacher. Ask your colleagues how much time they spend preparing for class and grading papers to make sure that your efforts are near the norm in your department. (See this blog post for additional tips.)

7. Know your evaluation criteria and use them as a guide. Your university may have straightforward criteria. When I worked at the University of Kansas, the evaluation criteria were: 40 percent research, 40 percent teaching, and 20 percent service, and I tried to make sure to spend about that percentage of time every week in each of those areas. (I actually printed out a document that said I would spend 3.2 hours a day on research, 3.2 hours on teaching, and 1.6 hours on service and stuck it on my wall.) Your university may not have such clear criteria, but you should be able to estimate how much value is given to each area and make an attempt to align your work hours with those expectations.

It can be overwhelming to be starting a new tenure-track position. But life on the tenure track does not have to be tortuous. Develop clear goals for yourself for tenure and work towards those a little bit every day. Six years is a long time to be stressed out and worried, so figure out ways that you can minimize that stress and worry. Do what you can to not only survive but also to thrive on the tenure track.

Reposted from: Inside Higher Ed

Friday, October 21, 2016

Doing Service Work on Purpose as a Full Professor

Everyone says that when you are promoted to Full Professor, the service burden increases dramatically. Having been promoted a few months ago, I can say that my service burden increased dramatically and immediately. This is not surprising give the research that shows that women put in an average of five more hours of service than their male counterparts. I should say, however, that my service burden this year is almost entirely self-inflicted. To put it more politely, I have been proactive with regard to my service responsibilities this academic year.

I have been proactive so that I can do the sort of service work that I find meaningful. For me, that means making the place I work more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. I work at the University of California, Merced. We are relatively unusual for a high-research-activity university in that our student population is very diverse. This year, 76 percent of our incoming class are first generation college students and 55 percent are Chicano/Latino. Our next largest ethnic group is Asians, who constitute 18 percent of our incoming class. Given the demographics of our student body, faculty diversity is a priority for me.

The Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Faculty at UC Merced
Although student body is primarily Latino and Asian, our faculty members are primarily white. Half of all instructional faculty are white; 21 percent are Asian; 14 percent are Latino, 3 percent are black, and 2 percent are Native American. These numbers, notably, include all instructional faculty, many of whom are temporary. The faculty members are less diverse as we move up the prestige ladder. Whereas 44 percent of all instructional faculty are women, only 22 percent of full professors are women. Minorities constitute 43 percent of all tenure-track faculty, yet only 25 percent of full professors. Of 373 teaching faculty, in 2015, there were 4 African-American lecturers, 3 Assistant Professors, and 2 Associate Professors. We still have no African American Full Professors. In 2015, Latinos made up 12 percent of the Assistant Professors, 9 percent of the Associate Professors, and 9 percent of the Full Professors. (Looking at the data more closely, we also see that a large percentage of our Latino faculty were born and raised in South America and Spain.)

In light of the disparities between our student body and our faculty, I decided to serve as the Inaugural Chair of the Diversity and Equity Committee of the Senate last year. Although diversity, equity, and inclusion are all important, we decided to focus most of our energies on faculty diversity for the moment, as our university plans to hire over one hundred faculty members over the next four years, as part of our $1.3 billion expansion. I find all of this very exciting: the opportunity to really build something!

The Diversity and Equity Committee looked into best practices for enhancing the diversity and equity of faculty, and we learned that other University of California campuses have begun using Faculty Equity Advisors. (One of the great things about creating a campus in the UC system as there are many great examples we can draw from so we never have to reinvent the wheel.) We thus spent the year developing a proposal to institute Faculty Equity Advisors on our campus. Our proposal was approved by the Divisional Council of the Faculty Senate, and the Provost agreed to provide the funds and institute the program this Fall. Yep, that’s right, less than a year from idea to implementation – one of the very satisfying things about working on a small and growing campus.

This academic year, I agreed to serve as the Chair of the Diversity and Equity Committee again and also as one of the four campus Faculty Equity Advisors. We will be hiring nearly fifty people this year, with many of those searches happening in cluster hires. We have cluster hires in Sustainability, Inequality, Power and Social Justice, Human Health Sciences, and Adaptive and Functional Matter. These 16 positions are open rank and in almost every discipline, so if you haven't applied: what are you waiting for?

But, I digress. I was telling you about the Faculty Equity Advisor.  As Faculty Equity Advisor, my role is to:

  • Meet with Unit Chair or Dean to discuss composition of Search Committee and explain the importance of a diverse Search Committee.
  • Meet with Search Committee Chair. Discuss Search Plan, advertisement, and active recruitment strategies. Ask Search Chair to work with Search Committee to develop diversity benchmarks for candidate pool.
  • Review and approve Search Plan.
  • Meet with Search Committee to discuss implicit bias, the development of evaluation criteria, and how to evaluate the Contribution to Diversity Statement.
  • Review applicant pool to ensure applicant pool approximates availability pool in terms of diversity.
  • Review and approves finalist list.
  • Provide guidance to Search Committee with regard to on-campus candidates. Ensure candidates are connected with any relevant affinity groups on campus.


As you can see from the job description, being a Faculty Equity Advisor requires a lot of meetings. It also requires getting up to speed with the literature on best practices for faculty diversity. Luckily, there are tons of online resources. Even better, they tend to make similar recommendations.

The reports on best practices tend to recommend talking about diversity and implicit bias with Search Committees, doing broad outreach for searches, developing clear evaluation criteria, and having diversity on Search Committees. We have tried to implement these practices and I look forward to letting you know at the end of the year what works and what does not.

I also look forward to reading your feedback on our approach as well as ideas for strategies that have worked (or not) on your campus.

This is the first year of the Faculty Equity Advisor Program, and I am excited to see what the outcomes are with regard to the 50 hires we will complete this year. I will write a post and the end of the year to report on what we have learned with this effort.

And, in case you were wondering, I have still been getting my writing in, as that will always be my priority. With the increased service responsibilities and the concomitant need to be on campus more, I have been waking up at 5am every day, writing for at least one hour, going for a quick run, and then going to campus to take care of business.


Friday, September 23, 2016

How to be a prolific academic writer

I often hear academics worry they are not putting enough time into writing. But, how much is enough? For me, two hours of writing every weekday is more than enough time to be extremely productive.

For the past ten years, I have written for two hours a day, five days a week, and taken at least four weeks of vacation every year. With that schedule, I have written more than many scholars will write in their entire careers.

Writers writing #ccretreat14
Writers writing for two hours a day at the Creative Connections Retreat

I am telling you this not to brag, but to make the case that two hours of writing can be more than enough. Of course, this does not mean that I write for two hours and then sit around and eat cherries for the rest of the day. In contrast, I write for two hours, and then spend the remainder of the workday responding to the 50+ emails I get on a daily basis, attending meetings, reading, preparing class, teaching, and doing many of the other tasks required of academics. Each day, I carve at least two hours out of my day to write. (In case you are wondering what I mean by "write," here is a list of ten ways to write every day.)

These two hours a day have been more than enough for me. I began daily writing nearly ten years ago, in January of 2007. Ever since I began, I have endeavored to write for about two hours each day. I rarely write for less than one hour and almost never write for more than three hours, even during summer or when I am on research leave. With this consistency, I have written a lot over the past ten years.

What have I done in 10 years?

I have written, revised, and published 12 peer-reviewed journal articles.
I have four articles that were published between 2005 and 2008. I would not count those as part of this tally, as two of them were accepted prior to I began daily writing. The other two had been written, but required some revising. We can definitely count the other 12 articles I have published since 2009 as I began writing those from scratch after 2007.

I have written, revised, and published 15 book chapters and invited articles.
As for my book chapters, I will not count the four book chapters I published in 2008 or earlier, as those had already been at least partially drafted by the time I began daily writing. I have written and published 15 book chapters and invited articles since 2007.

I have written, revised, and published 4 books.
I have published five books. My first book, Yo Soy Negro: Blackness in Peru, is based on my dissertation, which I defended in 2005. I had already begun the revisions by 2007 but certainly spent a lot of time between 2007 and 2010 revising and re-revising it until I finally sent off the final version in February 2010. I wrote my other four books from scratch since 2007.

I have written and published lots and lots of blog posts and online essays.
I have also published 74 OpEds and online essays in addition to about 150 blog posts.

So, what can you accomplish by writing for two hours a day, five days a week? In my case, it looks like in ten years, you can write four books, 15 book chapters and essays, and 12 articles. A normal tenure review is about half that time – five years. And, half of what I have accomplished in these past ten years would exceed the bar for tenure in most places. Finally, this is a conservative estimate as I am not counting the three articles and two book chapters I have under review nor the edited volume that is nearing completion.

A lot has happened in these ten years. I moved to Chicago for a one-year post-doctoral fellowship. I spent a year traveling to four countries to do research for my book, Deported. I moved to Merced to start a position at UC-Merced. Each of these moves derailed my writing patterns temporarily. But, the important thing is that I have always eventually been able to get back on track and find my writing mojo.

In sum, carving 30 minutes, an hour, or two hours out of your schedule every day for writing is a great way to achieve tremendous productivity. Instead of feeling as if you have to write all day every day, I encourage you to write a little bit every day and see what you can accomplish.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

How to Write an Effective Diversity Statement for a Faculty Job Application

Faculty job postings are increasingly asking for diversity statements, in addition to research and teaching statements. According to the University of California at San Diego website, “[t]he purpose of the [diversity] statement is to identify candidates who have professional skills, experience, and/or willingness to engage in activities that would enhance campus diversity and equity efforts [emphasis added].” In general, the purpose of a diversity statement is to assess applicants’ commitment to enhancing diversity and equity on a campus. These statements are an opportunity for applicants to explain to a search committee the distinct experiences and commitment they bring to the table.

[2009.05.16] UC Merced 2009 Commencement With Michelle Obama

So, how do you write an effective diversity statement? If you are a job candidate who actually cares about diversity and equity, how do you convey that commitment to a search committee? (Note that if you do not care about diversity and equity and do not want to be in a department that does, don’t waste your time crafting a strong diversity statement -- and you need not read any further in this essay.)

My first piece of advice is: Do not write a “throwaway” diversity statement. Some job applicants think that writing a diversity statement that shows they actually care about diversity and equity may be too political. Thus, they write a blasé statement about, for example, how they encourage students to come to class in pajamas if they feel comfortable. That is not an effective strategy because it does not show a genuine commitment to diversity and equity.

Of course, it is true that many faculty members overtly reject campus efforts to enhance diversity and equity. However, it is also true that search committee members who do not care about diversity do not read diversity statements. Just like search committee members who do not care about teaching gloss over teaching statements, those who do not care about diversity gloss over diversity statements. So, don’t bother writing a statement directed at faculty members who do not care about diversity. Write one for those faculty members who will take the time to read your statement carefully.

I can assure you that many faculty members truly care about diversity and equity and will read your statement closely. I have been in the room when the diversity statement of every single finalist for a job search was scrutinized. The candidates who submitted strong statements wrote about their experiences teaching first-generation college students, their involvement with LGBTQ student groups, their experiences teaching in inner-city high school, and their awareness of how systemic inequalities affect students’ ability to excel. Applicants mentioned their teaching and activism and highlighted their commitment to diversity and equity in higher education.

Here are seven additional suggestions to consider as you write your diversity statement.

  1. Tell your story. If you have overcome obstacles to get to where you are, point those out. If, in contrast, you are privileged, then acknowledge that. If you grew up walking uphill to school carrying two 20-pound sacks of rice on your back, by all means, tell that story. If you were raised with a silver spoon in your mouth, acknowledge your privilege. Either way, use your story to explain how you can empathize with students who confront challenges on their way to achieving their educational goals.
  2. Focus on commonly-accepted understandings of diversity and equity. Concentrate on issues such as race, gender, social class and sexual orientation. Don’t try to tone down your statement by writing about how it is hard to be a Kansan in Missouri, for example. Instead, write about racial oppression, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, or some other commonly-recognized form of oppression.
  3. Avoid false parallels. By that I mean, do not equate the exclusion you faced due to being a Kansan in Missouri with the exclusion an African American faces at a primarily white institution. You do not have to be an African American to have insight into the challenges they face, but if you do not have experiential knowledge of racism, then do not claim it. Instead, focus on writing about what you do know about. If you feel comfortable getting personal, you can write about your own experiences of privilege or oppression. But you don’t have to get personal; you can cite statistics or studies to make your points.
  4. Write about specific things you have done to help students from underrepresented backgrounds to succeed. If you have never done anything to help anyone, then go out and do something. Sign up to be a tutor at an under-performing school, build a house with Habitat for Humanity, or incorporate anti-racist pedagogy into your teaching. In addition to having a rewarding experience, you can write about it in your diversity statement.
  5. Highlight any programs for underrepresented students you’ve participated in. If you have had any involvement with such programs (e.g., McNair Scholars Program), describe that involvement in your statement. This involvement can either be as a former participant or as a mentor or adviser to someone who has participated. These kinds of specific examples show that you understand what effective programs look like and how they work.
  6. Write about your commitment to working towards achieving equity and enhancing diversity. Describe specific ways you are willing to contribute. You can mention your willingness to contribute to pre-existing programs on the campus or you can express interest in creating new programs based on models at other campuses.
  7. Modify your statement based on where you are sending it. Your statement for a land-grant institution in the rural south should not be the exact same one you send to an elite institution in urban California. Look up the demographics of the institution to which you are applying and mention those demographics in your statement. For example, if the university you are applying for is a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), you should be aware of that. Or, if it has a well-known scholarship program for underrepresented minorities, you should mention that program.

Diversity statements are a relatively new addition to the job application packet. Thus, search committees are still developing assessment tools for such statements, and many campuses lack clear guidelines. Nevertheless, you can use this novelty to your advantage by writing a stellar statement that emphasizes your record of contributions to diversity and equity as well as your commitment to future efforts.

Reposted from Inside Higher Ed

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

You and Your Chair: Buddying Up Or Staying Detached

This is a guest post by Noelle Sterne.

Dissertation coach, editor, scholarly and mainstream writing consultant, author, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues. In her academic consulting practice, Noelle helps doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion. Based on her practice, she addresses these students’ largely overlooked but equally important nonacademic difficulties in her handbook Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles.

If you’re at the dissertation writing stage, your most important relationship (other than the one with your chocolate/peanut butter cups stash) is the one with your chair. Your chair can be your best friend or worst nemesis. But there’s no getting around it; if you want to get done, finally, and graduate with those proud letters after your name, you need your chair.

Quiet corner

When your chair is friendly, forthcoming, and responsive, you may be tempted to make moves toward becoming friends. When your chair is too formal and standoffish, you may be tempted to ignore him or her entirely, or as much as the required paperwork allows. Either extreme is a mistake, and you’ll likely regret it later.

I’ve learned in my academic coaching and editing service for doctoral students that they often experience terrible times with their chairs, and for many reasons. If you are mystified why you’re having such troubles, let this article be a little primer.

Chums
The relationship with your chair especially is (or should be) close by nature, both personally and professionally. Yet boundaries should exist, personal and professional. An open and sociable chair easily tempts you to be the same. Especially if you’re on a campus, when you sit in the chair’s office for your appointment, the chair may confide in you with complains about the spouse, kids, teaching load, and all the other backbiting faculty. Or your chair may offer you private research work or invite you out for a beer.

If your chair pours out marital woes, juicy as they may seem, do not tell your friends or study group colleagues. Tell no one. Nod empathetically and forget it all. Do not reply in kind with your own saga of a shattered engagement or horrible boss.

If your chair offers you employment, such as research for his or her latest tenure-chasing project, you may feel special, singled out, and blessed. Understandable, but much as you may need the funds, watch out. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that if you take the job, you’ll be in the chair’s good graces forever. Never so.

If your chair invites you out for a beer, of course you’re flattered. Go if you wish, but again, a caution. After a few short ones, you may assume that your new buddy-chair will quickly approve every first draft. Sorry.

When your draft is returned riddled with critiques and hard questions, you’re crushed. You wail, “But we’re friends!” And you go into a funk that seriously puts you behind in your chapters.

Longtime dissertation chair and professor Leonard Cassuto recognized the temptations that can beset chairs in the student relationship. He admonished chairs not to use their students as personal assistants (one chair had a doctoral student pick up his dry cleaning), not to brag or complain about their job, not to compliment students on clothes or personal tastes, and definitely not to “friend” them on Facebook (“Remember, Professor, Not Too Close,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 22, 2013). The very same advice goes for you.

The temptation for too much chumminess may loom more powerfully if the professor invites or insists on a mutual first-name basis, assuming professional collegiality. Don’t be lulled by this request. If the chair insists, call him or her by first name, uncomfortable as you may feel, but remember that first names do not friends ensure.

Strangers
As you may already know, some chairs keep distant for as long as they can. Longtime dissertation advisor and distinguished sociologist, Michael Burawoy commented on the cogent reasons for such a policy: “faculty are often only too happy to oblige with such a laissez faire model. It’s neither intellectually taxing nor time consuming” (“Combat in the Dissertation Zone,” American Sociologist, 2005, 36[2], p. 51).

As you completed your chair hunting, you may have rejoiced when your new chair consented to the honor. Then you never heard another word, voicemail, or text. You wondered but, a little apprehensive, kept pushing on your draft. Your many emails and messages have gone unanswered.
It’s time to push for a response. Pepper the chair with more emails, texts, and phone messages. If necessary, enlist the department secretary, department head, other faculty, and dean of the school.
In a reverse situation, if your chair demonstrates responsiveness but you feel you can chug on without your chair’s input, you’re making an enormous mistake. After all, you know the basics of dissertation structure and you have gotten praise on your academic writing . . . .

When you maintain too much distance, though, your chair may assume you are arrogant and overconfident about your topic and dissertation writing. Your chair rightly expects and should have input into your work.

If you disappear for months and then present a doc accompli, chairs, being human, will likely feel ego-attacked. Once they get their actual or virtual hands on your draft, they may attack it in return. Your entire proposal that took hard-labor months without chair input can be torpedoed by a torrent of tracked changes.

Unavoidable Transference
A last important point that bears on chairs as both chums and strangers: Your chair is not your father, mother, older sibling, or favorite aunt or uncle. Cassuto pointed out the almost inevitable element of Freudian transference in the chair-dissertation student relationship. This is the projection of thoughts and feelings about an important person from your past onto a present important one, and the projection colors all interactions.

The transferential relationship—both ways—cannot be denied. Your best defense is acknowledgment. Confide in your partner or a friend: “He’s just like my never-pleased father.” “She’s like the mother I never had—caring, nurturing, in all ways.” “She reminds me of my demanding, picky aunt with her insistence on details.” “He even looks like my older brother, whom I still idolize.” When you find yourself reacting to the chair, stop and ask yourself. “Who am I reacting to?” To handle your feelings without irreversibly damaging the relationship with your chair, go to friends, family, even a therapist.
Burawoy compared his own dictatorial style of advising to that of a woman colleague:
She saw herself in loco parentis, caring for her students’ many needs, knowing details about their lives and they about hers. I, on the other hand, care only about the dissertation and the rest will have to take care of itself, unless, of course, it interferes with academic progress. (p. 50)
Observe your chair and identify for yourself the predominant style. Labeling will help you spot transference and deal with your chair more rationally.

The Ideal Balance
So, what’s the best kind of relationship with your chair? On both sides, one that is friendly and professional, in which each of you is open yet discriminating of what not to share. You are both primarily interested in your topic and focused on making your dissertation the best it can be.
More advice: Stay in touch regularly. Some chairs schedule monthly meetings, in person or by Skype.

Tell the chair what part of the work you are engaged in; ask a few questions. Be as considerate of your chair as you wish him or her to be to you (the golden rule of committee gamesmanship).
Admittedly, given all the psychodynamic implications of the relationship, the balance is fragile and can be tipped disastrously by one discourteous email. Balance takes maturity and good judgment. Keep your eye on the prizes: your chair’s final approval and your gushing thanks in your Acknowledgments. And envision yourself in the hall wearing cap and gown and your chair sitting in the front row, beaming.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Writing a Literature Review: Six Steps to Get You from Start to Finish

As Get a Life, PhD is approaching two million (!!) page views, I am pulling out some of the "Greatest hits" from the archive. The post below is the most read post of all time on this blog, with over 125,000 views. I often share this post with my students as they embark on their first literature reviews. And, we read Foss and Walters' book every year in my graduate Writing and Publishing class.


Writing a literature review is often the most daunting part of writing an article, book, thesis, or dissertation. "The literature" seems (and often is) massive. I have found it helpful to be as systematic as possible in doing this gargantuan task. This post describes one system for writing a literature review.

In their book, Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation, Sonja Foss and William Walters describe a highly efficient way of writing a literature review. I think it provides an excellent guide for getting through the massive amounts of literature for any purpose: in a doctorate program, for writing an M.A. thesis, or an article in any field of study.

Academic Book Stack


Step One: Decide on your areas of research

Before you begin to search for articles or books, decide beforehand what areas you are going to research. Make sure that you only get articles and books in those areas, even if you come across fascinating books in other areas.

Step Two: Search for the literature:

Conduct a comprehensive bibliographic search of books and articles in your area. Read the abstracts online and download and/or print those articles that pertain to your area of research. Find books in the library that are relevant and check them out. Set a specific time frame for how long you will search. It should not take more than two or three dedicated time sessions.

Step Three: Find relevant excerpts in your books and articles:

Skim the contents of each book and article and look specifically for these five things:

  1. Claims, conclusions, and findings about the constructs you are investigating
  2. Definitions of terms
  3. Calls for follow-up studies relevant to your project
  4. Gaps you notice in the literature
  5. Disagreement about the constructs you are investigating


When you find any of these five things, type the relevant excerpt directly into a Word document. Don’t summarize, as summarizing takes longer than simply typing the excerpt. Make sure to note the name of the author and the page number following each excerpt. Do this for each article and book that you have in your stack of literature. When you are done, print out your excerpts.

Step Four: Code the literature

Get out a pair of scissors and cut each excerpt out. Now, sort the pieces of paper into similar topics. Figure out what the main themes. Place each excerpt into a themed pile. Make sure each note goes into a pile. If there are excerpts that you can’t figure out where they belong, separate those and go over them again at the end to see if you need new categories. When you finish, place each stack of notes into an envelope labeled with the name of the theme.

Step Five: Create Your Conceptual Schema

Type, in large font, the name of each of your coded themes. Print this out, and cut the titles into individual slips of paper. Take the slips of paper to a table or large workspace and figure out the best way to organize them. Are there ideas that go together or that are in dialogue with each other? Are there ideas that contradict each other? Move around the slips of paper until you come up with a way of organizing the codes that makes sense. Write the conceptual schema down before you forget or someone cleans up your slips of paper!

Step Six: Begin to Write Your Literature Review

Choose any section of your conceptual schema to begin with. You can begin anywhere, because you already know the order. Find the envelope with the excerpts in them and lay them on the table in front of you. Figure out a mini-conceptual schema based on that theme by grouping together those excerpts that say the same thing. Use that mini-conceptual schema to write up your literature review based on the excerpts that you have in front of you. Don’t forget to include the citations as you write, so as not to lose track of who said what. Repeat this for each section of your literature review.

Once you complete these six steps, you will have a complete draft of your literature review. The great thing about this process is that it breaks down into manageable steps something that seems enormous: writing a literature review.

I think that Foss and Walter’s system for writing the literature review really can work for a dissertation, because a Ph.D. candidate has already read widely in his or her field through graduate seminars and comprehensive exams.

It may be more challenging for M.A. students, unless you are already familiar with the literature. It is always hard to figure out how much you need to read for deep meaning, and how much you just need to know what others have said. That balance will depend on how much you already know.

For faculty writing literature reviews for articles or books, this system also could work, especially when you are writing in a field with which you are already familiar. The mere fact of having a system can make the literature review seem much less daunting, so I recommend this system for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a literature review.

PS: A spot has just opened up in the Creative Connections Retreat. Apply soon if you are interested.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Ten Suggestions to Help You Choose Your Perfect Dissertation Topic

This is a guest post by Noelle Sterne. Dissertation coach, editor, scholarly and mainstream writing consultant, author, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues. Her recently published handbook addresses graduate students’ largely overlooked but equally important nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).

If you’re beginning or in the throes of your dissertation, you may know from other long-suffering students that the work engenders a love-hate relationship, with all the exasperations, frustrations, teeth-clenching, and eye-rolling, and occasional affection, elation, and fulfillment (eventually) of a primary human relationship. Therefore, your topic, like your partner, should be one that initially excites you and sustains you throughout the inevitable rages and reconciliations, desires to divorce yourself from it or run back to its scholarly arms, and finally settle into a consistent satisfying relationship.

As a longtime coach of doctoral candidates, I’ve seen many students in their first passion commit to a topic that would take 50 scholars, even with laptops, group writing bootcamps, and resuscitating Netflix subscriptions, 75 years to complete. Other candidates take on topics because their professors suggest them and the students believe the professors will help get articles published. Or students think the topic is “hot” and they’ll have an even better chance of publishing. None of these reasons will support your passion for your topic.

It’s almost axiomatic that many people choose concentrations and careers because of early personal experiences. A woman becomes an oncologist because she couldn’t save her mother from Stage 4 cancer. A man raised in poverty becomes a financial counselor to help businesspeople succeed in neighborhoods like his own.

Such motivations also generally guarantee sustained interest in a dissertation topic. Here I offer you ten suggestions, with questions and examples, to help you narrow down the perfect topic you’ll be living with for a long time.

1. Revisit your childhood dreams. How did you see yourself? What “professions” were your play favorites? Many kids like to play “doctor” (not that kind), and Mary, one of my clients, loved to play “nurse.” She showed me photographs of herself at age five with an impressive collection of play bandages, ointments, even casts, and a doll house she’d made into a “clinic.” Today, with her doctorate, she’s director of a regional hospital.

2. Review your favorite undergraduate and graduate course papers. Which did you really like doing? Which did you get As in? What about your master’s thesis? Would you feel excited expanding it? Lynn was an elementary school reading teacher who really cared about those stuttering, struggling readers. When she leafed through her course papers and reviewed her master’s thesis, she saw that the comparisons of different reading programs were her best work. Her dissertation topic? A comprehensive comparison of two elementary school reading programs for their relative effectiveness. Now a Ph.D., Lynn is a professor who teaches aspiring elementary reading and literacy teachers to help even more struggling readers.

3. Think about troubling experiences you’ve had, as in the examples above. Would you like to help remedy their causes? Negatives can be powerful motivators toward positive actions and activities. And think of all the people you’ll help. Before Philippe immigrated to the United States, he had been a secretary to a government cabinet member in his native Caribbean country. He daily witnessed the poverty, illiteracy, lack of jobs, and suffering of so many of the people. His dissertation topic explored literacy programs that could be implemented throughout the country to help raise the educational standards. With his degree, Phillipe was appointed to a government position in education to institute large-scale national literacy and job training programs.

4. What topic has fascinated you for a long time? What do you want to jump into and explore? Jill, a registered nurse in her 40s at a regional hospital, observed how older nurses were discriminated against. She longed to explore the assumptions and possible myths that administrators held in hiring, making assignments, and firing these nurses. Jill’s dissertation and the article she developed from it became valuable additions to the literature—and helped change hospital policies.

5. What especially meaningful experiences have you had that you want to know more about and know will make a difference? During surgery, Derrick had what he swore was a near-death experience. He delved into the research, interviewed many people who had had similar experiences, and even scored an interview with a major author on the subject. Derrick’s dissertation dealt with near-death experience theories and testimonies. He is now revising his work into a book and has a publisher interested.

6. What would you like to be known for? The answer to this question is likely inherent in your choice. In the examples above, the students’ passion for their choices drove their ambitions. Don’t be modest. Think about what you really know you can contribute—like Lynn and Phillipe.

7. Don’t be deterred or discouraged if the topic has been “done.” Even if you discover that many scholarly articles have been published on your topic, your slant will be different. You can use those articles to show how your study is better, different, and worth not only the doctorate but publication.

8. Dream: Imagine how the topic can be used in your dream job and how you look forward to devoting your professional life to your interest. Sandra was a geriatric care counselor advising adults on the placement of their elderly parents in appropriate care facilities. She felt needed and fulfilled, knowing she was helping both generations toward the best choices. Imagining her dissertation topic, Sandra saw how she could identify and discuss the many elements involved in placement. Exploration of this topic would help her professionally to broaden her knowledge, enhance her abilities, and open her mind to new counseling techniques. After obtaining her degree, Sandra gave several presentations, published her findings in an elder care journal, and established a private consulting practice.

9. If you’re not in your dream job or career, paint mental pictures of the one you are aiming for. Observe and talk to others in this or a related career. What topic did they write on? How did it help their careers? What pointers can they give you about topic choice? Have they successfully transitioned from the dissertation results to real-world application? Do they seem happy and enthusiastic? You’ll learn a lot about the “right” and “less-than-wonderful” choices others made, what they learned, and how you can use their experiences to help make your own best topic decisions.

10. Finally, listen inside for the topic that’s right for you. If you meditate, in your sessions silently ask the question about topics. You may be “led” to certain people, scholarly literature, movies, or magazines that clarify or confirm your choices. If you don’t meditate, keep asking yourself the topic question and stay aware and open. Several possible topics may occur to you. Test them against the suggestions here and keep listening to your intuition.

Choose one or two of these recommendations to explore each day. Don’t push or strain but relax. Let your unconscious lead you. Remember how important the choice is and how it will influence and direct your career and life. You deserve the perfect dissertation topic, and you will reach your answer.

© 2016 Noelle Sterne
Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).