How to Be a Good Graduate Student (and get a job)
June 25, 2001 v. .7
You are a student. You are here to learn how to produce knowledge, and how to disseminate knowledge through research and teaching. Hopefully your research and teaching will make the world a safer, more just, more healthy, and/or more wealthy place. That's nice.
Imagine you are on the job market. Your file is one of 100, maybe 200, files for the same job. All of the sudden, you are a product. Pure and simple. You have to sell yourself. You have to make people willing to buy you.
Your career in graduate school is one of product development, culminating in product marketing.
You need to do three related things to give yourself the best odds of success:
A. Write a great dissertation.
B. Accumulate an impressive professional track record.
C. Get great letters of recommendation.
The Great Dissertation
In many ways, this is the core activity. Without a great dissertation, all is lost. It is the meat of what you will sell, the basis of the spinoff articles, grant proposals, and conference presentations that will form most of your track record, and it will be the basis for most of your recommendations.
The great dissertation must advance scholarship in its area, be exceptionally well-researched, have solid and defendable methods, and be clearly written and argued. Ask your advisors and read more for more on these criteria.
If you do not write about something that you feel strongly about, you may not sustain the often grueling campaign which is grad school. On the other hand, if you ignore theoretical trends, substantive fashions, methods debates, and so forth, you may have a hard sell ahead. On the other other hand, if you chase fads, you may get beat to the presses, end up going out in the post-fad phase, and produce something of less enduring value.
An Impressive Professional Track Record
A great dissertation is not the whole game. You will need some publications, some conference experience, some service, etc. to help put polish on the product. Note how these things reinforce: give many presentations and teach a course or two in your area, and you'll give a much better job talk. Serve on a search committee or three, and see how others put their packets together and what sells and what does not.
In addition to whatever excellence you have generated, a key word in junior faculty searches is "trajectory." The track record indicates your trajectory. Do well.
Great Letters of Recommendation
Without stellar letters you are sunk. The key to stellar letters is to give your professors something(s) stellar to rave about. Nothing helps a letter like a credible "best xyz in 5, 10, 15 years" or in my whole career (which from me not saying much...). Notable specific achievements create specific facts in the letters. Give people something to talk about.
From courses to committees, always be creative, constructive, thorough, serious, and excellent. Exceed expectations.
On relative gains concerns: Surely, you are competing against your peers. But you will all do better if you work together to critique each other's work, talk about ideas, and so forth. Being part of an intellectual community is good for all.
While you are a product, and that sounds cynical, quality does win out. Hires are very a very serious business that consume time and money and create colleagues. All schools want to hire the best (save those who feel threatened by excellence). Do your best while following your heart and head, and you will have done all you can do. What is idiosyncratic in searches is how different committees define excellence. It often comes down to issues of fit among a number of good candidates.
Principal related handouts: How to do well in jobs and internships, How to write a cover letter, Oral presentation hints. Stephen Van Evera, Guide to Methods for Students of Political Science (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), has some solid practical advice on writing dissertations (as well as writing well and working with theory - though some debate some of his arguments on case selection).