Category Archives: Learning the lingo

“Is That Your Final Answer” Or, Why Students Ramble

Students tend to ramble.  And the further into their graduate studies they get, the more likely they are to do it.  The question that must be asked is: why?

I was working with a Ph.D. student last week on  interview responses for an upcoming fellowship interview, and for the first time, I understood the answer to this question.

Students ramble because you are afraid to stop talking. Because if you stop talking, then your answer is finished. And if your answer is finished, then you have to commit to it. And it has to sit there, and either be right, or wrong. One way or another, you sink or swim on that answer.

And nobody wants to do that. Nobody wants to be pinned down as having answered a question in one particular way, because what if that way is the wrong way? What if that isn’t what they “want to hear”? So, you say to yourself, somewhere—probably unconsciously– “if I just keep talking, maybe I’ll suss out what they really want to hear, and then I can say that! Because, whatever they want to hear, I’ll say! If I just knew what it was!”

(This is the close cousin to the related problem that students often jump in before the questioner has finished talking. Why? Because you want to look like you “already thought about that,” and “didn’t really need to be asked,” and “really, should and would have said it already if you’d had a chance, but in any case will definitely tell you everything you could possibly want to know about it right now.” Because you’re afraid to look stupid. And if for some reason you left something OUT of your answer, then you have failed to tell them what they “want to hear.” So the slightest peep from the interviewer has to be met with an avalanche of new talking, talking which will surely cover everything they could possibly “want to hear” on the subject.)

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Guess what? If you want to have a career in academia, you have to commit to your final answer. You actually have to speak in declarative sentences with a strong falling tone at the end that signals, aurally, the period.

You have to stop, and then wait. Wait while your interlocutor processes what you said, reflects on it, and then responds with thoughts of her own.

And guess what? She might disagree with you. Yeah, she might. And you still have to respond in declarative sentences.

Here’s how this looks, in a sample dialogue drawn from a typical interview scenario for a tenure-track position at a university:

Interviewer: What text would you use for the introductory course?

You: I would use Martindale.

Interviewer: Oh….? Why?

You: Because I think Martindale does the best job of bridging social and political economic viewpoints. He’s not the strongest on contemporary developments, of course, but that can be augmented with other readings. For the basic textbook, I think he gives the best and most thorough overview.

Interviewer: I used Martindale last year and I thought it was terrible. The students hated it. It was disappointing because I’d heard such good things about that textbook.

You: Really? That’s interesting. What happened, do you think? What did the students dislike?

Interviewer: They found his writing too hard to follow, and the format was confusing.

You: Interesting. When I’ve used that textbook students have given it positive feedback. But that may be because I make them study guides of each chapter, and walk them through the chapter the first day we cover it in class, alerting them to the parts to focus on for the lectures and exams.

Interviewer: Ohhhh, what a good idea! I’ll bet that would help. We should talk more! I’m ordering my books for the next term this week, and I’d like to talk with you more about the options.

You: Perhaps over dinner after my talk today? I’ll look forward to it.

OK, what happened here? What happened here is that the interviewee stuck to his guns. He had a position, he stated it clearly, and he defended it. He did not panic and fall down when the interviewer took an opposing viewpoint. And what happened as a result? He had a meaty, substantive exchange with the interviewer that resulted in him coming across as a credible, authoritative and effective teacher. It resulted in a deeply satisfying dialogue. It also ended with the interviewer wanting to know more.

And that, dear readers, is where you want your interviewers to be. You want them eager to know more, and ready to ask for it.

Now, here’s how that usually goes, for the ramblers among you:

Interviewer: What text would you use for the introductory course?

You: I would probably use Martindale, although, you know, there are a lot of good options out there and I’ve heard good things about Nelson, and Richardson, and you know of course, NO textbook really covers everything so you always have to augment, but I’m sure you already know that….!

Interviewer: Ok, ok!  So, anyway, why would you use Martindale?

You: Because I think Martindale is pretty good on social and political economic viewpoints, although, you know, a lot of people say that he’s not that great on contemporary developments, but that isn’t always the main thing, because sometimes I assign other readings for that, like the Patrick piece from the Annual Review, and this great article I found on current theory that was in this one reader out of Routledge, and even though sometimes those are too hard for undergraduates it’s pretty important that they get a sense of the field….so, um, yeah, what was the question?

Interviewer: I used Martindale last year and I thought it was terrible. The students hated it. It was disappointing because I’d heard such good things about that textbook.

You: Oh, wow, really? Oh gosh, I never even thought of that. I wonder if my students thought that? You know, a few of them DID say to me that it was kind of hard to follow and I noticed that their quiz scores were really low in the beginning, so I was trying to figure out what to do, and I thought of maybe making study guides that would help them, so I made some and it seemed to help, but you know, it’s hard to say, and I should really look at some other textbooks, like maybe Nelson, which is what my advisor used when he taught that class and I was his TA, so yeah, I hope maybe I can ask you what has worked for you because you know I’d definitely do whatever was expected for the way the department teaches that class……. you know?

Interviewer: Ummmm, ok. So moving on to the next question….

Here’s what happened in this case. In this case, in the candidate’s abject eagerness to “please” the interviewer and say whatever it is that he thinks she “wants to hear,” he ended up doing several things:

  • overwhelming his interviewer in several panicked, inarticulate monologues.
  • squelching all opportunity for collegial dialogue.
  • undermining his own authority and credibility as a teacher.
  • reinforcing an outdated subordinate identity as a graduate student TA.
  • burying the effective teaching method that he devised to deal with the text, which was creating chapter study guides.
  • boring and alienating the interviewer, who drops the subject and irritatedly moves on to another question.

In short, the panicked, rambly effort to just keep talking until some kind of magic “right answer” will present itself…… that effort is precisely the behavior that bombs the interview and disqualifies the candidate as an effective teacher, a confident professional, and most of all, an appealing colleague.

The fact is, there are not that many “right answers” in an academic setting. Sure, there are sometimes strong ideological orthodoxies that some departments adhere to, and it’s important to keep all of your antennae alert to those. But you can discover many of those by thorough research ahead of time.

The fact is, there are fewer orthodoxies per se, then there are opinions. Because academics specialize in having opinions. And in order for you to make an impression as a credible academic, you too must have opinions, strong opinions, that you’re prepared to state clearly, and defend.

That doesn’t mean being a jerk. The best speaker and scholar is the one who is open-minded and pleasant. But not one who is a doormat, and who is so afraid of offending someone that he literally won’t stop talking because his“final answer” might be wrong.

No, ramblers, that has to stop. Ask yourself, “is this my final answer?” And be ready to say, “yes.”

[This post is adapted from one originally published at Karen Kelsky’s other blog, The Professor Is In.  The opinions expressed on that other blog are those of Karen Kelsky personally and do not necessarily reflect the position of the University of Oregon McNair Scholars program.]

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Karen’s Foolproof Research Proposal Template

Unveiled here:  Karen’s Famous and Foolproof Research Proposal Template.

This Research Proposal Template has won hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money for multiple graduate students and scholars in the social sciences and humanities over the past 15 years.

You may share, but please credit Dr. Karen Kelsky of the McNair Scholars Program at the University of Oregon (see also at The Professor Is In, http://www.theprofessorisin.com).

Let’s walk through this step by step.

The first step is to identify what large general topic of wide interest that your specific project relates to.  These are topics that anyone, including your grandmother or someone sitting next to you on a plane, would say, “oh, yes, that’s an important topic.”  Examples include:  immigration, sustainable energy, changes in the family, curing cancer, new social technologies, environmental degradation, global warming, etc. Until you can identify a really broadly interesting theme that your project relates to, you will never be successful in applying for grants.

This is because your application must *excite* the readers, and the readers are likely from a range of different disciplines.  They will not all be interested in your discipline’s narrow debates.  They want to know that your work and your intellectual and scholarly vision are wide, and broad, and encompassing.

Once you have established your wide, much debated, topic, you then identify two bodies of literature relevant to your own training that dealt with this topic.

If you are an anthropologist, and your research is on Haitian communities in New York City, for example, you will start by pointing to the wide debates on immigration in America.  Then you will write, “scholars in many fields have addressed these important questions.  Within cultural anthropology, scholars such as xxx, xxx, and xxx have all explored the role of cultural beliefs in shaping immigrant communities.  Within Caribbean Studies, meanwhile, scholars such as xxx, xxx, and xxx have focused on the specific demographic and economic trends which have fueled outward migration.”

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This brief survey will be no more than 3 sentences long. And indeed all of the above must be done in two paragraphs and no more.  Complain, claim that it is “impossible,” and then get it down to two paragraphs.  Because it is only the Introduction to the “Kicker” Sentence, the axis on which your entire appeal for funding rests. And the Kicker Sentence must be on the first page.

The Kicker is your “HOWEVER” sentence.   The “however” sentence is the crux and the anchor of your entire proposal.

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It reads like this:

“However, none of these works have addressed the central question of XXXXXXXX.”

XXXXXXX in this case is YOUR view of what is most essential to an accurate understanding of the big topic, but which  has never to date been studied by anyone else.

This brings you to the GAP IN KNOWLEDGE:  “Despite much excellent work on themes such as XXX and XXX, scholars examining the transformations in immigration in America have not yet fully explored the importance of XXXX in creating and sustaining these communities.”

Now for the URGENCY:

“Yet, without such an understanding, we are left with an inadequate analysis that creates the condition for ill-informed policy decisions and a self-sustaining cycle of misunderstanding and resentment….”

Now for the HERO NARRATIVE.

“This study will remedy this gap in the literature by examining the class and racial politics of an immigrant Haitian community in New York City in order to more fully elucidate the heretofore unrecognized relationships between XXX and XXXX in one highly contested immigrant context. ”

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Remember, YOU are the HERO who is going to save us from ourselves and our inadvertant but devastating ignorance about the true significance of XXX!

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This is immediately followed by a CONCRETE AND UNMISTAKABLE STATEMENT OF YOUR RESEARCH PROJECT (One of the most common grant proposal mistakes is to never include a single and foregrounded, easily identified sentence encapsulating your research project) :

” This study will focus particularly on XXX.  Through a close and fine-grained analysis of XXX, I will show  that in contrast to previous assumptions, in fact immigrant communities are XXXXXX.”

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The rest of the essay then provides substantiating evidence.  In other words, concrete evidence that the project is doable, by you, according to reasonable and well thought out disciplinary methods and timeline.

SPECIFICS:  This is one to two paragraphs of more specific information about the background, context, history, and limitations of the research.  This demonstrates that you’ve looked into the project thoroughly and are familiar with it from several angles.

LITERATURE REVIEW:  This builds on the very brief references in the first paragraph, and demonstrates that you have, in fact, read the major literature related to this topic.  All citations must be complete and correct.  Zero tolerance for misspellings or typos.  All sources MUST, without exception, be listed on the attached bibliography.

METHODOLOGY:  These are the specific methods that you will use to conduct the research.  These differ by discipline.

TIMELINE:  This is a month-by-month (or week-by-week) plan of research.  What will you do when?  Be specific!  Name dates!

BUDGET:  This is a general list of costs and any already committed funding sources.  Break down your legitimate research expenses, including lab supplies, field supplies, travel both large and small, books and materials, internet or computer access fees, etc.

All of this substantiating evidence is meant to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you will CORRECTLY UTILIZE the grant money once you receive it.

Finally, you cannot finish without a  STRONG CONCLUSION.  Even one sentence suffices, but do NOT neglect to include it.  It may read like this:  “I expect this research to contribute to debates on XXXXX and play an important role in shaping debates on XXXX and XXXX in the coming years.”

This Conclusion demonstrates that you are a master of both the micro and the macro implications of your project.  You have an unassailable timeline and budget, but you also have your eye on the wider scholarly world and your role in it.

Do all of this, my friends, and you will walk away with generous, abundant funding for your every project.  You will have the leisure to do the best work, and the best work will in turn legitimize you for the next major grant for which you apply.  You will be on the “GRANT GRAVY TRAIN“, and that is the key to the most successful and fulfilling academic careers.


The A+ Graduate School Essay

As we continue on our path of learning the strategies for success in applying to graduate school, I will now introduce your guide to all things personal essay-related:  The A+ Graduate School Essay.  This pamphlet summarizes my years of wisdom and advice related to writing the personal essay.

As I wrote in yesterday’s post, the personal essay for your graduate school application is the single most important element of the application, and arguably the single most important piece of writing that you will do in the early part of your career.

The A+ Graduate School Essay teaches you the key things you need to know to write a brilliant personal essay.

A spectacular essay will be instrumental in bringing you years of graduate funding in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A mediocre essay will play a large role in consigning you to a graduate school life of overwork and debt.

And of course a really poor essay will keep you from entering graduate school at all.

This pamphlet summarizes the core techniques for writing the essay that will get you admission WITH FUNDING!   Share freely, but if you repost, please give full credit:  “Written by Karen Kelsky, Ph.D., McNair Program, University of Oregon [with this URL]”

Read and learn!  And comment!  I want to hear your thoughts!

The A+ Graduate School Essay


How Much Time Should You Spend on Your Graduate School Application?

One of the most frequent questions I get when I advise undergraduate students considering graduate school is:   how much time should I spend on my graduate school application, especially my personal essay?

The short answer is:  two months.

You should plan to spend at least two months working on your personal essay/statement of purpose for your graduate school application.

Why two months? 

Because the best essays get you into the best programs with the best funding package.

Let’s break it down.

Consider that even the most minimal funding package includes a tuition waiver and a stipend.

For the sake of argument, let’s value the tuition waiver at $12,000 annually, the cost of graduate tuition at a moderately priced state university.   Let’s assume a 40%  TA appointment, which carries a stipend, again at mid-level state university rates, of approximately $15,000.  Together, these equal $27,000 a year.  Keep in mind that the vast majority of graduate programs end up funding multiple years (even when they don’t guarantee it up front).  Rarely does a student enjoy funding one year only to have it withdrawn the next.  So, multiply $27,000 by five years (a very abbreviated Ph.D program indeed!), and you come to $135,000.

Now consider the amount of work that went into your application.  Say, for the sake of argument again, that you spend 2 hours a day, 7 days a week, for two months.  At 10 hours a week for 8 weeks, you have dedicated 112 hours of work.

That comes to about $1200 per hour of work.

Is $1200 an hour an outcome you can get behind?

Now let’s dream bigger.  Suppose your stellar essay gets you into a private university with an abundant endowment.  Their graduate students enjoy multiple year funding with NO teaching requirement!   Your 5 years of funding could now encompass tuition waivers worth $40,000 annually and $30,000 in stipend.  $70,000 a year for 5 years?  $350,000 in funding.  For 112 hours of work.

Is almost $3200 an hour an outcome you can get behind?

Get to work on that essay.

Expect to put it through 20 or more drafts.

Expect to show it to 10+ readers. Make sure these readers are professors and advisors at your university.  Pull every string you can to obtain help.

Make sure to have it read by faculty and advisors in different academic fields and subfields, to ensure it speaks across a broad audience.

Expect to labor over EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE.

In fact, expect to labor over every single word.

Include not one wasted word, not one line or phrase that does not communicate something specific about your and your plans, that does not advance your core theme and argument, and that does not SHOW (rather than TELL) your exceptional and concrete plans, preparation, and aspirations.

Expect to see your wonderful, compelling, original draft, that you slaved over for hours, torn apart, criticized, and rejected by your academic readers.  Expect to tear your hair out and maybe shed tears.

Expect to pound your breast and claim that it is “impossible” to say all you “need” to in “only two pages.”

Then, get it down to two pages.

There is no single endeavor that you will engage in, possibly in your entire working life, that will yield such generous, abundant, and life-changing results as your graduate school essay.  Write a stellar one and a path to success opens, bringing with it the time and leisure to truly relish graduate school and think the great thoughts and attend the local and national events that lead to brilliant dissertations and jobs.

Write a mediocre one and the path may still lead to graduate school, but a graduate school that carries with it the stress of indebtedness and the strain of overwork as a inadequately funded Teaching Assistant.

Naturally, a bad one will not lead to graduate school at all.

Now, get to work on that essay.


What’s the Difference Between an Assistant, Associate and Full Professor? And Why Should You Care?

Do you know the difference between assistant, associate and full professors?    And most importantly, do you know why it matters to YOU when you are looking for people to write your letters of recommendation for graduate school?

An assistant professor is a faculty member who does not yet have tenure.  This probationary period lasts for 6 years in most cases.

An associate professor is a faculty member who has received tenure.

A full professor is a faculty member who has received tenure and who has produced a significant body of work post-tenure to qualify to be promoted to the highest faculty status.

All three of these kinds of professors are legitimate, full-time faculty members who can serve as your advisors and write your letters of recommendation.

While full professors have the most status to bring to their letters, an assistant or associate professor who knows your work intimately and enthusiastically supports you may well write a more effective letter.  The key is that the best letter will be specific, detailed, substantial in length, and warmly focused on you and your talents and potential.  A letter that is short, vague, and general, even if written by a high status professor, will ultimately carry less weight.

If you have a full professor writing you that lengthy, detailed, specific, and warm letter, then you’re golden!