Tag Archives: how to succeed in graduate school

How to Write a Proposal Abstract

Today we look at the paper/conference proposal abstract.  This is a critical genre of writing for scholars in the humanities and social sciences.  Usually between 200 and 500 words long, it is a short abstract that describes research/a talk/a journal article that you are GOING to write.  This is in contrast to the abstract of the research/dissertation/article that you have already written.

Mastering the paper abstract is one of the most important skills you can acquire while still a graduate student.  Learn the tricks of the paper abstract and you have the ticket in hand to a steady ride of conference and publishing opportunities.  These are the conferences and publications that a few years down the line, set your c.v. apart from your peers, and land you that job.

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The paper abstract is highly formulaic.  Let’s break it down.  It needs to show the following:

1) big picture problem or topic widely debated in your field.

2) gap in the literature on this topic.

3) your project filling the gap.

4) the specific material that you examine in the paper.

5) your original argument.

6) a strong concluding sentence.

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Each of these six elements is mostly likely contained in a single sentence.

Sentence 1:  Big picture topic that is being intensively debated in your field/fields, possibly with reference to scholars (“The question of xxx has been widely debated in xxx field, with scholars such as xxx and xx arguing  xxx]”).

Sentence 2:  Gap in the literature on this topic.  This GAP IN KNOWLEDGE is very, very bad, and detrimental to the welfare of all right thinking people.  This is the key sentence of the abstract. (“However, these works/articles/arguments/perspectives have not adequately addressed the issue of xxxx.”).

Sentence 3:  Your project fills this gap (“My paper addresses the issue of xx with special attention to xxx”).

Sentence 4+ (length here depends on your total word allowance, and more sentences may be possible):  The specific material that you are examining–your data, your texts, etc. ( “Specifically, in my project, I will be looking at xxx and xxx, in order to show xxxx.  I will discuss xx and xx, and juxtapose them against xx and xx, in order to reveal the previously misunderstood connections between xx and xx.”)

Sentence 5:  Your main argument and contribution, concisely and clearly stated. (“I argue that…”)

Sentence 6:  Strong Conclusion!  (“In conclusion, this project, by closely examining xxxxx, sheds new light on the neglected/little recognized/rarely acknowledged issue of xxxxx. ”).

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Start by writing out your own version of the sentences above, succinctly if you can, but without stressing about your word limit too much.

Once that is done, edit to your word count.

One of the key points of the paper abstract is that it is very short, and every word must count. No fluff, no filler, no blather.

Remove wordy phrases like, “it can be argued that,” “Is is commonly acknowledged that,” “I wish to propose the argument that”—these are all empty filler. Work in short, declarative sentences.

If you are wondering—how do I make an argument when I haven’t written the paper yet?  Well–that’s the challenge.  Come up with a plausible, reasonable argument for the purposes of the abstract.  If you end up writing something different in the actual paper itself, that’s ok!

Make sure that your final product shows your:

1) big picture

2) gap in the literature

3) your project filling the gap

4) the specific material that you examine in the paper.

5) your argument.

6) A strong conclusion.

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For your reference, here are two abstracts that demonstrate how the principles above work.  Each has parts missing, as noted.  Inclusion would have strengthened the abstract:

1.  Access to marriage or marriage-like institutions, and the recognition of lesbian and gay familial lives more generally, has become central to lesbian and gay equality struggles in recent years [Sentence 1–Big problem].  [Sentence 2–Gap in literature MISSING here].  This paper considers what utopian fiction has to offer by way of alternatives to this drive for ever more regulation of the family [Sentence 3–Her project fills the gap]. Through analysis of Marge Piercy’s classic feminist novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, and Thomas Bezucha’s award-winning gay film, Big Eden, alternative ways of conceptualizing the place of law in lesbian and gay familial lives are considered and explored [Sentence 4–Her specific material in the paper]. Looking to utopia as a method for rethinking the place of law in society offers rich new perspectives on the issue of lesbian and gay familial recognition [Sentence 5–Her argument, weak]. I argue that utopian fiction signals that the time is now ripe for a radical reevaluation of how we recognize and regulate not only same-sex relationships but all family forms [Sentence 6– a strong conclusion.].

[Imagining a Different World: Reconsidering the Regulation of Family Lives. Rosie Harding. Law and Literature. Vol. 22, No. 3 (Fall 2010) (pp. 440-462)]

2.  History, it seems, has to attain a degree of scientificity, resident in the truth-value of its narrative, before it can be called history, as distinguished from the purely literary or political [Sentence 1–Big problem]. Invoking the work of Jacques Rancière and Hayden White, this essay investigates the manner in which history becomes a science through a detour that gives speech a regime of truth [Sentence 2–Literature, no gap mentioned]. It does this by exploring the nineteenth-century relationship of history to poetry and to truth in the context of the emerging discipline of history in Bengal [Sentence 3–Her project fills the gap]. The question is discussed in relation to a patriotic poem, Palashir Yuddha (1875), accused of ahistoricality, as well as to a defense made by Bengal’s first professional historian, Jadunath Sarkar, against a similar charge in the context of Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s historical novels [Sentence 4–Her specific material in the paper]. That the relationship of creativity to history is a continuing preoccupation for the historian is finally explored through Ranajit Guha’s invocation of Tagore in “History at the Limit of World-History” (2002) [Sentence 5–Her argument, weakly stated].  [MISSING Sentence 6—a strong  conclusion].

[History in Poetry: Nabinchandra Sen’s “Palashir Yuddha” and the Question of Truth. Rosinka Chaudhuri. The Journal of Asian Studies. Vol. 66, No. 4 (Nov., 2007) (pp. 897-918)]

Good luck with your abstract!! And be sure and get in touch with Karen at kelsky@uoregon.edu if you need some help.

 

(this post originally published by Karen on http://theprofessorisin.com.)

 

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What Should Grad School Types Do Over the Summer?

Summer is upon us. Long, lazy days at the pool, barbeques, beers, suntans…. Um, no, not if you’re a graduate student or planning to be one. No, for you, young gra-(duate student)-sshopper, summer is for work.

Not for you.

What kind of work, you ask? That’s a good question. And there are several possible answers. Here are some, in no particular order:

Plan 1: Enroll in summer classes and get some credits out of the way.
Plan 2: Enroll in summer research/independent study credits and work on an independent research/writing project.
Plan 3: Work to save money for graduate school.
Plan 4: Get into an internship or summer research program off campus that provides hands-on training in a related field.

All of these are excellent options, and everyone will have a different set of personal circumstances (budget, family obligations, etc.) that will influence their choices.

But overall, Plan 1 may be relatively short term thinking, in terms of preparation for getting into and out of the best graduate school programs with the best funding package. To achieve that, you need to stand out with independent research experience and ideally, a published paper to your name. Plans 2 and 4 are your best bet to achieve that.

Similarly, Plan 3 is a commendable and responsible choice, and it is never wrong to save money. But by the same token, if you focus your energies on Plans 2 or 4, it MAY transpire that your graduate school years are completely funded by generous fellowships, leading ultimately to an excellent full-time job.

When I advise students, one of the primary points I try to drive home is that you should always EXPECT and AIM FOR and do everything possible to PREPARE FOR an abundantly-funded graduate school experience.

In other words, do NOT start out expecting and planning to painstakingly scrape through graduate school with a punishing cycle of part time work and loans.

This initial mindset may play a large role in which of the four summer plans above that you choose. While a summer job can definitely help you put a little money away, that money will not go far in covering graduate school expenses. A summer internship or research project, while possibly costing more up front, may well make you competitive for a top-tier funding package at your ideal graduate program.

None of these outcomes is guaranteed of course! There is always risk in every choice. But with careful advising, especially consulting with potential advisors and directors of graduate study at the programs you most want to enter, you can gather the information to make the best informed choice.


How is Graduate School Different from Undergraduate?

Undergraduate students considering graduate school are often confused about what exactly graduate school IS.

That is understandable. Graduate school is kind of mysterious, and if you haven’t had family and friends who have gone through it, it’s very difficult to discern from the outside what makes it different from undergraduate study.

In a nutshell, graduate school is advanced schooling that allows you to *specialize* in a particular field. Where undergraduate study is generally meant to be broad, graduate school is narrower and deeper. The Masters degree is somewhat specialized, and the Ph.D. degree is highly specialized.

In practice, in terms of what you actually DO once you enter a graduate program, the primary difference is where the main initiative for learning rests.

In undergraduate study, initiative substantially rests with the professor, department, and university.

The professor conceptualizes, creates and teaches the course. The department creates the major. The university sets the distribution requirements.

The student fulfills these pre-determined expectations, and gets credit toward a degree. While the student definitely brings dedication and hard work, the work is mainly fulfilling expectations set by others.

In graduate school, by contrast, the initiave for learning rests with the student above all. You are the engine of progress, and responsibility for conceptualizing goals, charting a course to meet those goals, and staying on track toward those goals, rests squarely on your shoulders.

Professors *advise* but they rarely direct your study.

Coursework itself plays a diminishing role after the first year, and more and more you’re expected to do independent research that you conceptualize and execute on your own.

Even in your classes, the interpretations, evaluations, questions, debates are initiated by the students. The onus is on you to:

read in depth
develop a critical analysis of the reading
SPEAK UP
ask questions
develop scholarly opinions
learn to support your own positions.

And on a larger career scale, in terms of what job you get after finishing, the onus is on you to observe trends in the field, to find and pursue conference opportunities, educate themselves about hiring, and to get yourself to departmental events, particularly job talks.

The advisor’s role is typically more reactive than active.

Too many new graduate students don’t understand this difference and waste valuable years floundering around waiting for some professor to tell them what to do and how to do it.

Remember, once you’re in graduate school YOU are the master of your fate! Take the reins and run!


The Personalities of a Graduate Program


Ah, Departmental Politics. The downfall of many a hapless graduate student. So many personalities, so many treacherous waters. How to navigate them?



This is without question the best book (in combination with Getting What You Came For [Robert Peters, 1997]) available on succeeding in graduate school and leaving graduate school gainfully employed.


If I wrote a book on graduate school, it would be this book.


The only caveat I must mention is that it IS, as stated in the subtitle, geared to graduate students in the Humanities.  Those in the sciences and professional fields may find some parts not entirely applicable.  Nevertheless, as an overall guide to graduate school, this one is IT.


Today I want to introduce a section of the truly wonderful first chapter, The Culture of a Graduate Program.

This section, pages 34-36, introduces the “ubiquitous personalities” found in American university departments.
Every would-be graduate student should learn to identify these personality types and understand thoroughly which type your advisor is, which types your committee members are, and what the potential pitfalls of each can be.


The types are drawn directly from Semenza.  However, the discussion following each one is my own, based on my own experience as a student and a colleague in 4 different departments.


•The High Priests and Priestesses:  The commonly regarded “superstars” of the program.  Oftentimes the most productive, with the widest national and international reputation.  Highly respected for their productivity and leadership.  Oftentimes come with monumentally massive egos to match.  Usually make excellent advisors, as long as you can cope with the ego factor.


•Deadwood:  Tenured faculty who ceased making original scholarly contributions to their field (and similarly, ceased to stay up to date in teaching or active and responsive in service) at some point in their career.  They can’t be fired, and they are just marking time until retirement.  Never, under any circumstances, have one of these as an advisor.  You can immediately tell if someone is deadwood by doing an internet search and finding that they have published nothing, attended no conferences, and won no major grants or awards in the past decade.


•The Black Sheep: The faculty member in a department who feels, justifiably or not, isolated, marginalized, and persecuted intellectually and/or socially.  They often turn this marginalization into a badge of honor, and indulge in paranoia and delusions of grandeur.   They may legitimately work in an area of the discipline that runs counter to the rest of the department’s focus.  Or, they may just be paranoid.  In any case, they will often try to reach out and collar new graduate students and turn them into “loyalists.”  Most graduate students are flattered until they realize this is a dead end intellectually and politically in the program.  Beware of the Black Sheep as advisor.  There are far more potential risks than benefits in most cases.


•The Careerists:  Generally younger faculty members who are absolutely, single-mindedly, fixated on building their reputation, status, and political influence in their scholarly fields.   They will be focused intensively on getting the next grant, attending the next conference, organizing the next symposium, publishing the next article, and editing the next book.  Assistant Professors, still seeking tenure, should legitimately be careerist to some degree, as it is necessary to building the kind of high powered resume that guarantees tenure.  However, for many faculty, the habits of careerism that begin early in the career are hard to break, and in fact only intensify over time.  Careerist senior faculty may or may not make good advisors.  They can teach you priceless skills in networking, self promotion, and chutzpah.  However, given their propensity to be constantly jetting off to the latest conference in Singapore, Amsterdam, and/or South Africa, they can be very, very difficult to actually meet with.


•Service Slaves:  Almost 100% of the time women, Service Slaves are untenured or tenured faculty members who are unable to say no when the department creates the committees that keep it running—ie, search committees, curriculum committees, grievance committees, advisory committees, etc.   Sacrificing their own research productivity to departmental needs, they are the “perpetual associate professors” who stagnate in salary and status, with little to show for their selfless work in keeping the department functioning while other, far more selfish individuals, garner prizes, praise, and raises.   Service Slaves generally make warm, fuzzy advisors who might even bake you cookies for your birthday.  But they fall short of the ideal advisor, being negative role models for scholarly productivity, self-promotion, and clear personal boundaries.


•The Curmudgeons:  Every department has at least one senior greybeard, nearly always male, who stumps about complaining about the downfall of the field, the discipline, the department, the university, the world at large, and who generally sets himself up to resent and resist every curricular and administrative change that comes under discussion.  Curmudgeons can be secretly sweet and good natured, or openly hostile and antagonistic.  Either way, you must never have a curmudgeon as an advisor.  They can serve as an informal mentor or committee member as long as counterweighted by younger, more forward thinking committee members.   But as primary advisors, they are a mistake.  They’re primary contributions lie in the past, and they are backward looking.  You need someone focused on the future, and who thoroughly understands the brutal, heartbreaking conditions of the contemporary job market.  Do not, under any circumstances, be seduced by corduroy elbow patches, grey hair, and warm welcomes!!!!   You need someone as your advisor who is in the very prime of their career.


To be continued……



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


The 5 Top Mistakes That Women Make in Graduate School

Next week I’m offering a new workshop for the UO McNair Program:  “Yes You Can!  Women and Graduate School.”

( Wed Feb. 26;  PLC 51 11-1:30; RSVP to Carrie Stampe at stampec@uoregon.edu if you’re interested in attending).

It’s a workshop I’ve led quite a few times in different forms, formally and informally, over the course of my 15 years in academia.

I created it, and keep leading it, because I just can’t bear to watch all the ways that women shoot themselves in their collective feet in academia (and other professional settings too).

Starting with myself.  I made a lot of mistakes on my path through graduate school, my first job, tenure, move to a new institution, and departmental headship.  And I watched my female colleagues make them too.  And then I watched my students make them–most especially the graduate students I’ve mentored personally through their Ph.D.s.

The mistakes arise from a single source: Women’s lifelong training, in our culture, toward various forms of self-effacement, both obvious and subtle, that undermine their authority in the institution, handicap their effectiveness in speaking and acting in the institution, and block their feelings of entitlement to claim the rewards of the institution.

I work with some powerful and fierce women.  Heck, I am a powerful and fierce woman.  But even so, one after another of us falls prey to patterns of speech and thought that position us as “less than,” “secondary to,” “less deserving than,” “less intelligent than,” “in service to” the professors, administrators, and colleagues we encounter in the university.

Let me be clear:  At this point in feminist time, it’s not likely that any woman in the American academy would consider herself less intelligent or capable or deserving than an equivalent man, simply by virtue of her gender.    And for sure I’m not claiming that women are to blame for sexism and institutional gender discrimination, which persists in large and small ways! (the topic of other posts).

What happens is subtler.  What I am claiming is that women are frequently far from their own best advocates.  Women tend to speak and behave in patterns, usually unconsciously and derived from their socialization from childhood, that through their repetition, “perform” a “role” of being less intelligent and capable and deserving than some imagined peer or competitor.  These same patterns are ones that men, by and large,  because of their socialization from childhood (and of course with some exceptions), avoid.

Here are the top five ways that women undermine their own authority:

1)  Ending their declarative sentences and statements on a verbal upswing or “lilt” that communicates self-doubt and deference.

2) Waiting their turn to interject contributions instead of diving in assertively, and seeking a collective experience rather than firmly expressing an individual viewpoint.

3) Leading with, and defaulting to, what they “don’t know” and “can’t do” and what “won’t work.”

4) Having a weak handshake and deferential body language, including smiling too much, laughing too often, trailing off, taking up too little space, and defaulting to questions rather than statements.

5) Expressing themselves in a disorganized, circular, non-linear manner that muddies their main point and obscures the goal that they set out to accomplish through the interaction.

The end result of years of such repetitions of these patterns is that women students and faculty accrue less status and fewer rewards at each stage in their career within the academic institution.

While women together have to combat institutional sexism and the glass ceiling, women individually can vastly improve their scholarly achievements and career prospects by being alert to self-defeating patterns of thought, speech, and behavior from their earliest days in the field.

And that’s what my workshop does.  Especially when we get to the role playing.   From shaking hands to asking for a letter of recommendation, to expressing major disagreement with a colleague—we learn how to display the decision, confidence, and authority that gets results.