Monday, June 25, 2012

How to choose a dissertation topic

Note: This week, I am sharing with you a great post by Vilna Bashi Treitlerwhich has been posted over at the SREM Mentoring blog.

Are you struggling with choosing a dissertation topic?

Choosing a topic can be one of the most important choices you will make in your professional career because it determines the first major piece of research for which you’ll be known, provides a focus for the group of professors you wish to solicit for your dissertation committee, and it is the first thing (along with the text of your letters of recommendation) that future colleagues will scrutinize when considering you for a job in their department.

The bad news is that all this can make choosing a dissertation topic pretty overwhelming. The good news is that I try to make the process somewhat easier by explaining to you how you might get started and avoid certain pitfalls. I have four pieces of advice to offer that I hope you follow, plus a tidbit that is not mandatory.


First, “push the envelope.”

You’ve probably heard a gazillion times that new research should “push the envelope,” but I’d bet that the likelihood that you had a clear explanation of what that means has not been given to you. Well, I’m going to explain it, right here, right now.

It is a phrase with a mathematical reference. An envelope is a term for the curve that encloses all other curves in a family of curves. When the term was used in aeronautics, it referred to the outer curve describing the limit of an aircraft’s performance. Test pilots were encouraged to push the envelope in order to test the aircraft, and the phrase made it to the common lexicon in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about test pilots, The Right Stuff. (Thanks, for the info, Michael Quinion, at!)

Envision the whole of sociological knowledge as contained in one big dataset, complete with keywords and subject headings. Surely, you would contribute something to the dataset that would ostensibly fit under a subject heading, and possibly a set of existing keywords, but to push the envelope your topic should meet meet three criteria.
  • It doesn’t repeat something that’s already in that dataset.
  • It is something that sociologists interested in the topic will want to read when searching on information on the topic. That is, your research is not just different from the other work on the issue, but also has an interesting take.
  • It is research that actually teaches researchers in your area of interest new information and will be useful to them when they are framing their own research projects. That is, not only is your research interesting, it shouldn’t be ignored if other sociologists want to do research in the same areas.
Honestly, you need only come up with a question that, when answered, would shed new light on what others have done before – but the idea is for that new light to truly have us look at things in a whole new way.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Can you buy a house in a 3-day house-hunting trip?

In August, I will be moving to a new academic position – I will be an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. This news is very exciting. It also means I have to move myself and my family from Lawrence, KS to Merced, CA.

Our home in Lawrence, KS - now for sale or rent.
We own a home in Lawrence, and would like to own one in Merced. Thus, UC Merced offered to pay for me to make a trip to Merced to look for houses. They specified that they would pay for two or three nights in Merced – which they presumed would be enough time to find a place to live. I was not sure if I agreed, but figured I would give it a shot.

I did know two things: 1) Life would be much easier if I did in fact find a house; and 2) Finding a house would require some research beforehand.

Before my house-hunting trip, I talked with several colleagues about desirable neighborhoods and schools. I mostly consulted with one colleague who has done research on schools in Merced and who has two young children. I decided to trust her judgment and look in the neighborhoods she suggested.

Another colleague recommended a real estate agent. I contacted him, told him I was planning a house-hunting visit. He asked me to let him know the parameters of my search and I told him my preferences in terms of

  • School district
  • Number of bedrooms
  • Price range

I also told him that I preferred a house that had hardwood floors, a pool, a big yard, and in a neighborhood with large trees.

The real estate agent sent me an online list of about 80 houses that met those specifications. I looked at the list and selected those that I wanted to see. It was a bit daunting, as there were so many houses, and they ranged in value from $115,000 to $300,000. As I was looking at the houses, it became clear that there were a couple of neighborhoods where I probably did not want to live – as the houses were all brand new and cookie cutter and there were no large trees. Still, it was hard to know without seeing the houses and neighborhoods.

I arrived in Merced on Sunday evening, and had dinner with fantastic new colleagues. I should note that I was already exhausted after attending a four-day conference in San Francisco. So, I tried to get back to the hotel early and sleep.

The real estate agent met me at 9am and we began to view houses. I had chosen 26, and he brought printouts with color photos and we set out to look at each of them. The first house on his list was one that I thought I was going to love. It was one of the more expensive ones, and I really liked it from the pictures. However, when we got there, I realized that the layout was not actually ideal, and that maybe it wasn’t the perfect house.

As I saw more and more houses, it became clearer to me what I liked and what I did not like.

I do not like:

  • Wallpaper
  • Linoleum
  • Houses that are too wide open – meaning there is no quiet space.
  • Houses that are too closed – where you can’t see everyone else
  • Small yards
  • Neighborhoods with no trees – too much sun!
  • Houses with little or no natural light.

I do like:

  • Houses with a pool.
  • Hardwood floors – except in Merced there really weren’t any houses with real hardwood floors.
  • Houses that have a study – or a separate family room.
  • Houses with open kitchens.
  • Large yards.
  • Large windows.
  • Big bathtubs.
  • A house where you don’t have to get in a car each time you leave the house.
  • Fireplaces.

Towards the end of the day, we went to a house that had a separate family room, an open kitchen that looked out onto a large family room with a fireplace, four bedrooms, a pool, and a hot tub. It was not as nice as some of the other houses we had seen, but the issues it had were not that difficult to fix – the kitchen floor has linoleum and the front entrance has a fairly unattractive tile. My husband knows how to fix both of those issues. I decided that I probably liked that house.

Later that afternoon, my wonderful new colleagues invited me over for a cook-out. I took the piece of paper with the house description on it and asked for their feedback. They all agreed that it was in a great location. I found out that the house is next door to a great elementary school where my younger daughter could go, and just one mile from the middle school where my twin daughters could go. It is also just a few blocks from a great park and an awesome bike path. You also could walk to a coffee shop and a grocery store from the house.

The house in Merced, California!

I called up my real estate agent and told him I wanted to see the house one more time. He picked me up and we went back over there. I looked it over, took some pictures to show my husband, called my husband, and we decided to put an offer on the house.

I met with a lender, and got pre-approved for a loan. I also reviewed some options with her and decided on a low-interest 15-year loan. I couldn’t believe how low the rate was – 2.75 percent! The UC system also offers loans for faculty, but it appears those are variable interest rates, so I went with this loan – an FHA loan. By putting down 10 percent, the mortgage insurance is fairly low - $40 a month, and it seemed like a great deal.

I left town the next day and heard from the real estate agent that the sellers had a counter offer. I reviewed it and it was reasonable, so I accepted it. The next step was to order the inspection and appraisal. I did that. The house passed inspection with relatively few issues and the house appraised just above the asking price. Things were looking good.

Now, we are in the final stages, and it looks quite likely that this will go through. At this point, we are just waiting for the sellers to agree to make some repairs and for the loan to finalized. If this actually works, we will be very happy to be the proud owners of a new home in Merced, California!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Feeling Overwhelmed? Take a break!

Are you feeling overwhelmed this summer with deadlines looming, your email inbox bursting, and obligations piling up? If so, I suggest you take a counterintuitive action: take a break!

You need to pull yourself out of a cycle of overwork and regain a sense of control over your life and work. The best way to do this is to take a break.

My three month Vacation

It is simply not true that you have to work all day, every day to be a successful academic at a research intensive university. In fact, trying to work beyond your personal limits, not taking days off, and not getting enough sleep are counterproductive. You cannot do excellent research when you are sleep-deprived, cranky and overworked.

Unfortunately, this is a cycle many academics fall into. They get behind, struggle to catch up, and fall deeper and deeper into a hole of exhaustion. This strategy does not work. If you are over-extended, drowning in deadlines and haven’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks, my first suggestion to you is to stop working. Take the weekend off. Do something entirely unrelated to work on Saturday. On Sunday, relax, have breakfast with friends or family. Take a long walk. Go to the museum. Revitalize your creative connections. On Sunday afternoon, sit down and make a plan for the rest of the week.

Make a reasonable plan, one that has you going to sleep at 11pm and waking up at 7am. A plan that leaves time for meals, for exercise, for friends, for family. A plan that leaves time for life.

Trying to work all day, every day will not work. Not sleeping enough so that you can grade more papers, finish that book chapter, or file one more receipt is counter-productive. Instead, get a good night’s rest, and approach the tasks with new vigor in the morning.

Coming to terms with one’s own limitations can be hard. But, it can also be enlightening and liberating. Once you realize that you really cannot work all day, every day, there will be no more guilt about not doing so. If you know that opening up that laptop at 11pm does not mean that you will sneak in one more task, but instead will lead to a bad night’s sleep and a harried tomorrow, it makes much more sense to turn the laptop off, turn on some soothing music and go to sleep. Tomorrow morning, you will finish in five minutes that task that would have taken your exhausted mind 30 minutes to complete at the end of a long day.

If taking a break sounds like the most counterintuitive thing possible, that is probably all the more reason you should take one.