What They Didn't Teach You in Graduate School 2.0

Brian Taylor

February 27, 2012

When you receive a doctoral degree and find your first job, you will be exposed to the realities of academic life. What will it be like? How should you navigate that particular real world you are thrust into?

Most students, even those who taught part time before earning a Ph.D., have only the vaguest concept of what it's like to work in the academic world. Our hints here are based on what we have seen after long careers in higher education. They do not reflect the way we think academe should be or could be.

When to apply for a faculty position. For Ph.D. candidates, the timing of your job applications will be determined by your progress in completing the degree and your financial situation. All things being equal, we recommend applying after your proposal is approved and you are well along on your dissertation. Don't wait until your dissertation is completed, approved, and turned in. Although you don't want job hunting to interfere with the successful completion of your Ph.D., you also don't want to graduate and then wonder, "Where will I work next year?"

Not-for-profit or for-profit for your first or second job? If you've spent years obtaining your Ph.D. and worked in a research environment, you will find that most for-profit jobs are geared toward teaching only, with standardized course content that you have little or no say about. You're a hired hand to teach what you're told to teach.

Should you become involved with them?

Our first response is no (but see our next hint)—certainly not as your first or second academic job. Working for one will do almost nothing for you professionally, and you won't have research time. In our opinion, the downsides far exceed the benefits.

Exceptions to the previous hint. If you're a graduate student who needs teaching experience or needs to supplement your munificent doctoral stipend, for-profit institutions give you instant experience. Often your students are mature, older than you, and far more interested in your subject than 18- to 22-year-old undergraduates are.

If you have your Ph.D. in hand but not the academic job you long for, a for-profit can be a stopgap. However, we have two caveats:

  • To be hired later in a permanent appointment at a nonprofit university with a strong research requirement for its tenure track, you need to keep your research going.
  • For an appointment at a teaching college, become an adjunct in a not-for-profit college to show that you have teaching experience in that sector.

In either case, tell the not-for-profit's search committee that you took the for-profit job to improve your teaching skills while looking for the right place to spend your career. Remember, faculty members in the nonprofit sector almost invariably look down their noses at the for-profits.

Summaries lock in the material. Once you're teaching, save time at the end of a lecture for a clear, succinct summary of what you have presented. Ask yourself, what key points should your students remember? Similarly, begin each class with a summary of what you presented in the previous session. At times, the short-term memory of distracted undergraduates is as unreliable as that of some senior citizens. Students need to be reminded what happened on Tuesday.

Encourage questions. Establish ground rules. The students should ask questions when they have them, not wait silently for 15 minutes until it is "question time." Students who are confused by a concept will become totally lost in a subsequent discussion that builds on the concept unless you clarify it right then. However, students also should raise their hands when they have a question and wait for you to call on them. Do not answer questions that are shouted out, especially, "What did you just say?" Of course, if the students do that often enough, they're telling you that your voice, or their hearing, is going.

Teach to the students' frame of reference. Learn as much as you can about their educational experiences, particularly in your discipline, and about their work experiences, hobbies, or leisure interests. Consider asking about educational and professional experience in a carefully structured first assignment (but stop short of asking intrusive personal questions).

Later, try to frame answers to students' questions with metaphors and examples they can relate to. For a nursing student, use medical metaphors. For an athlete, use sports metaphors. For a political-science major, use examples from politics, say, in another country. Local or national politics in the United States can be tricky because the student's political views may be far different from yours.

By learning from the experiences and perspectives that your students bring to the table, you will enrich your own understanding of your field.

Undergraduates don't recall much from seven or more years ago. We all use stories from our past to make a point in class. The stories humanize the material and increase student interest. However, if the stories are too old, 18- to 22-year-old undergraduates won't know what you're talking about. Examples are movies, books, references to events (particularly events abroad), old computer technologies, and software. If it happened seven or more years ago, it is beyond their recollection. The period of recall is a little longer for older students and graduate students.

Travel is a major fringe benefit in academe. The amount of travel varies by field and by institution. In most fields, one or more major meetings a year take place at the national and regional levels. Despite financial stringencies, most institutions pay your way if you are on the program or involved in recruiting (usually restricted to senior faculty members). Furthermore, each meeting is scheduled in a different location. Because it is easier to win approval for a short trip than it is for a long one, take the opportunity to attend nearby meetings whenever they occur.

Making (or not making) a fortune through publishing and public appearances. As a professor, you have (or can create) opportunities for making money beyond your campus salary. For some opportunities, people will come to you and clamor for your services, while for others, you will need to go out and solicit clients. Here are some opportunities categorized by their potentially (but not certainly) large payoffs: writing textbooks; writing popular nonfiction (e.g., history, public policy) or fiction; performing in public (if you are a musician, singer, actor, or lecturer); consulting in industry or government; owning or running a business on the side; being a professional expert witness; and serving on a board of directors.

Changes are in the wind across academe that may affect you—for example, many argue that tenure will not be here forever. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your point of view, academe moves slowly. That's why much of what we advise will stand you in good stead for a considerable fraction of your career. But it's important to get as much advice as possible as you make the transition from graduate student to faculty member.

Paul Gray is a professor emeritus of information systems and technology, and David E. Drew is a professor of education, at Claremont Graduate University. This article is adapted from "What They Didn't Teach You in Graduate School 2.0." This second edition of their book has been significantly expanded with new information. The original edition was published in 2008.