Friday, November 30, 2018

Get a Stuck Dissertation Moving Again: Tips for Faculty and Students


I’m a faculty member and a program coordinator for our doctoral program. A significant part of my job is to advise doctoral students and to chair dissertations. Students and their dissertation chairs often call on me to help students make progress. At any given time, I’m usually working with 5-6 students who are actively completing their dissertations. Needless to say, I have experienced my fair share of students who are struggling with their dissertation and have even stalled.

So Many Reasons for Stalling

Why are students struggling? There are numerous reasons. Students who did perfectly well during coursework can still have a difficult time with the dissertation because it’s a very different exercise. The structure and inherent accountability of coursework is less present during the dissertation. Whereas there are often real, concrete consequences for not meeting a deadline during coursework, missing a deadline while writing a dissertation may have few direct costs. Students are often expected to do a substantial amount of independent work, which requires a level of discipline that does not come naturally to many of us. Plus, the reality is that it is difficult to really prepare a student for all facets of the dissertation. There will be something that pops up in your dissertation that probably wasn’t adequately covered in coursework.

On top of all of these reasons, doctoral students are adults. Even if they are highly talented and motivated, being an adult carries additional responsibilities and life complications. My students have families, sometimes even multiple young children. They are working full-time and must do so in order to support their families. They have jobs that are often demanding, asking that they work more than 40 hours per week. I have had students who have moved because of a spouse’s job or had to leave their current position in the middle of the semester. I have had multiple students have babies and multiple students lose parents during the program and often in the middle of their dissertation. Simply put, getting stuck is common. In fact, I would say it’s rarer for a student to have a completely un-interrupted dissertation journey. I’ve had to figure out some strategies to help jumpstart a stalled student. And there are also some things stuck students can do to help themselves get unstuck.

Faculty/Chair Strategies

When I meet with students or advisees who are struggling to make progress, I approach the conversation from a place of empathy. I haven’t had a single situation where a student simply wasn’t writing due to lack of motivation. This doesn’t mean that scenario is impossible, but in my experience, students are usually stuck for very good reasons. They want to work on their dissertations. They want to finish, and in some cases, they feel a deep sense of commitment to their family and mentors to see the program through. It’s common for my students who are stuck to feel profound guilt, especially those who were successful during coursework. That guilt often confounds things and makes getting started again harder.

Tip #1 - Don’t make students feel guilty. Listen to their experience and express understanding. Let them know there is always path forward.

My next strategy is to develop a personalized plan for the student to help them take a step in the right direction. Note that my goals are modest. I don’t say that we’re going to go from stalled to finished overnight. My students tend to get stuck in two places. The first place is early in the process, trying to write their 3-chapter proposals. I think the proposal is the hardest part of dissertation writing because it’s basically breathing life into a project that doesn’t exist. There’s no prompt from an instructor, no syllabus. It requires a ton of reading to make even incremental progress. When problems arise at this moment, I do a couple of things.

First, I ask whether the student is certain about the topic or purpose of the dissertation. One of the most frequent causes of a stalled dissertation, in my experience, is misalignment between a students’ passions/professional experiences and their topic. Provided a student is not too far along, it can do wonders to hit the reset button and identify the right topic/purpose. If/when a student is happy with their topic, I then push them to ensure their purpose and research questions are crystal clear before they move on to anything else. To this end, I have students write a 2-page purpose statement culminating in their research questions. This is the foundation from which I have them build. Lastly, I often encourage students to size down their ambitions. Many students in these early stages get overwhelmed by the perceived enormity of the dissertation. I try to have them look at the dissertation differently--as a single project to make a contribution to our understanding of education practice. Additionally, I try to break down the dissertation into more manageable pieces, like a series of papers that fit together. This seems like a no-brainer, but I see chairs make a common mistake like telling a student to “just go write chapter 1” or “send me a proposal draft.” I view this as a non-starter.

Tip #2 - Make sure there is alignment between a students’ passions/professional experiences and dissertation topic.

[A faculty colleague suggested students keep a list of “problems of practice,” which I think is a really smart idea for students.]

Tip #3 - Have students write a 2-page statement of purpose before they do anything else. Use this as the basis for developing the rest of the dissertation.

Tip #4 - Size down the scope of the project and break it into manageable pieces.

Tip #5 - Don’t just tell a stuck student to go write a chapter. If they could do that, they wouldn’t be stuck. Help them take a first and second step.

A second moment where students often get stalled is right after collecting their data. There are a couple of reasons for this. One reason is that students seriously underestimate how long and how taxing data collection, data cleaning, and data analysis will be. Students frequently share with me their dissertation timelines and build in hardly any time at all for data collection and analysis. As a result, they aren’t prepared for the challenges related to data collection and analysis. Second, it seems like many students during their coursework practice writing proposals and literature reviews. Few of them have the chance to present and write about results/findings. They don’t always have a great visual for how their chapters 4 and 5 should look and what content to include in those chapters. Confusion, uncertainty, and lack of experience can deter progress. If this is the case, I try to energize students by reminding them that, in many ways, the final chapters are the downhill of the dissertation journey. They are often the experts of their data, and there is far less referencing of literature, which can make writing move a little faster. Many students are excited during data collection, and I try to re-capture that energy to motivate them for the final push. Second, I provide examples of dissertations that use similar methods to help students visualize possible ways of presenting findings. Lastly, I walk through my own research to share with students my approach and thought process when sharing and discussing findings.

Tip #6 - Remind students not to underestimate the challenges of data collection. But help them see that, once they have their data collected and cleaned, they are on the downhill.

Tip #7 - Data collection is often an exciting part of the research process. Help to re-capture that energy to motivate students to the finish line.

Tip #8 - Share dissertations that use similar methods and walk students through your own process for sharing/discussing results/findings.

Student Strategies

Stuck students can do some things to help themselves get moving again. At the end of the day, students have to start writing--their chair can’t write the dissertation for them. I can’t tell you how many times a student tells me: “I must graduate this semester.” I always say, “Okay, what are you going to do to make that happen?”

Some of my students who have been able to get unstuck try to “start fresh.” What do I mean by this? They recognize that their old ways of working or approaching the dissertation were not working. They acknowledge they needed to make a change and readily embraced a new strategy. They are often very receptive to my advice. Many of them also try to not dwell in the past, which was a source of guilty, and instead look to the future with optimism.

Tip #1 - Don’t sit and dwell on past challenges and failures. Get some help, develop a plan, and start fresh.

Some of my students aren’t stuck, exactly, but they’re not moving towards a final product. Why? They are struggling to take feedback and make changes. This drives chairs crazy. What’s the point of giving you all this feedback if you aren’t doing anything with it? My mentor as a graduate student told me that the best scholars take feedback gracefully. I think about this all the time. Some of the best students I have advised, and students who have been able to make steady progress, take feedback and act on it. They also take notes during meetings, and some of the really organized ones type up their notes and send them to me so we each have a copy of our discussions and plans.

Tip #2 - Make the edits and changes your chair advises. Take feedback gracefully. Take notes during meetings and email them to your chair afterwards.

I have had a few situations where a student has wanted to change chairs when they are stuck. Let me be the bearer of bad news: rarely is the chair the problem. If it’s the case that you aren’t writing or doing what you are supposed to do, changing the chair isn’t going to help much. Having said this, there are some instances in which a student and a chair don’t work well together. I have had a situation like this, and the student was able to make progress working with someone else.

Tip #3 - Don’t blame your chair if you’re not writing. Switching up a chair only helps in rare circumstances.

Students shouldn’t let fear prevent them from advancing. I have had a few students who have not come to me for help because: a) they were worried I would be mad that they missed deadlines or b) they were worried I would think less of them. The results is that sometimes they wait weeks or months before they reach out to me. Stop that! As faculty, our job is to educate students and to help them complete their degree. I realize not all chairs are going empathize and some might even be frustrated. But the best way to get a stuck dissertation moving again is to reach out for help and keep channels of communication open.

Tip #4 - Don’t let fear keep you stuck. Reach out for help at the earliest signs of stalling.

My last tip is to try to limit the number of prolonged breaks you might take. Writing a dissertation is intense, and taking some time off to collect your brain and recharge your batteries can be beneficial or even necessary. However, regular, prolonged breaks can really impede progress. It requires that students spend time getting back into a rhythm and re-learning what they were doing. Similarly, chairs have to re-learn your project and get back into the swing of things. The thing about momentum is that if you stop, it takes more energy to get moving again.

Tip #5 - Limit prolonged breaks; aim for slow and steady progress.

The bottom line is that getting stuck while writing a dissertation is common. I hope some of these tips are helpful and hope students and faculty alike will share with me other strategies that have helped them get moving.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Tips for Faculty Jobs in Higher Education at Public Regional Universities

Since I began as a faculty member at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, I have become an advocate for public regional universities. This didn’t happen overnight. After working and studying for seven years at a public research university, I spent my first year on the job underwhelmed by what my public regional university had to offer. Over time, I came to appreciate many things about my university and to recognize the significance of public regional universities in college opportunity. I also learned the many ways in which a faculty career in higher education/student affairs differs at a public regional university. In other words, I went through transition--one that was occasionally rocky.

Truth be told, I was clueless about faculty jobs in general and the unique characteristics of public regional universities in particular. My transition likely would have been smoother had I done a little research. Now that I frequently write about public regional universities, a few people have reached out to me for tips. What should someone pursuing or taking a faculty job in higher education/student affairs at a public regional university expect? Rather than continue to send long emails, I figured I would compile a few tips in this blog post. I’ll be drawing upon my own experience, as well as my research on public regional universities. Even so, I can’t guarantee these tips apply to all faculty jobs at public regional universities, so as intrepid job searchers reflect and prepare, I suggest they do a better job than I did at learning about the specific places to which they are applying.

Tip 1 - There is fantastic diversity within the public regional sector. The first thing to recognize is that “public regional” and “regional comprehensive” are umbrella categories for a group of institutions that can differ quite dramatically in terms of size, student demographics, mission, and so forth. You might come across articles talking about faculty jobs at “teaching institutions.” I encourage you to keep in mind that, even if an institution falls into one of these categories, it still has a distinct culture and organizational identity. Not everything you read about these institutions in the general will apply in the particular.

Tip 2 - Teaching is prioritized in multiple ways. This sounds like a bit of a “duh,” but there are a few nuances worth considering. You will frequently read that faculty members teach more at public regional universities. What does this mean in practice? Henderson (2007, 90) emphasized that public regional universities are “teaching institutions” because “faculty members teach more...in terms of credit hours, teaching load, number of students, or a mixture of indicators.” In other words, faculty members at public regional universities often teach more courses, which means they also need to devote more time to preparing courses, responding to student concerns, and grading. But they also are expected to do significant advising of students and to demonstrate a commitment to improving as teachers by attending professional development and other activities. So, certainly consider the number of courses you will teach, but also realize there is much more to the value placed on teaching.

Tip 3 - Graduate education is relatively new to many public regionals. Most public regional universities focus on undergraduate education. The vast majority now offer graduate degrees, but these degrees are relatively new and are often at the master’s level. Because graduate enrollments are modest and undergraduate education remains the focus, you can expect less infrastructure for graduate education broadly. What do I mean by this? There are probably fewer services for graduate students and less financial support for graduate students. As an example, my university is still catching on to the idea of graduate assistantships, and most of our administrative graduate positions only offer a stipend--they do not cover tuition. My students have very few pots of money from which they can draw if they want to present at a conference. All of these factors can significantly influence graduate students’ experience. It sometimes means that faculty members who work with graduate students have to fill the gap in terms of services. Don’t expect that the infrastructure for graduate education you had as a doctoral student will exist at your new university.

Tip 4 - At many public regionals, teacher preparation is king. Many public regional universities began as normal schools to prepare teachers. So, it’s not uncommon for teacher preparation to still be very important at these institutions. This means that within colleges/schools of education at public regional universities, teacher preparation receives the most attention and support. In my experience, this means that graduate programs are shortchanged, and many people have little idea what the field of higher education/student affairs is. I have described elsewhere often feeling like my program, which only educates graduate students in a non-K-12 field, is like working on a small island in a teacher preparation sea. After coming from a university with departments dedicated to higher education, educational measurement, and education policy, it wasn’t well prepared for how important teacher preparation was and what this meant for non-teacher preparation programs in the college.

Tip 5 - Research still matters, but resources can be scarce. The nature of research as a faculty member at a public regional university could receive its own post. You can expect to do research at public regional universities and for research to be included in promotion processes. The extent of this inclusion will vary, and some public regionals conceive of research activities in broad ways. Research many not always mean empirical studies leading to publication. At my institution, we are expected to publish 1-2 research artifacts (which includes more than peer-reviewed journal articles) per year on average as we prepare for tenure. Many people choose to exceed this expectation. In general, research expectations at my university have increased, and I hear from many faculty members that the same is true at their institutions. This sometimes means that research expectations have increased while resources have remained constant. In general, you can anticipate fewer resources for research compared to peers at research universities. By resource, I’m talking about money, but also about that most important of resources: time. To give you a concrete example, I receive about $1,000 of guaranteed conference travel money per year. Now, there is always other money for which I can apply, and I’ve almost always been able to attend conferences. But applying for money to go to conferences takes time that could be spent doing other productive things. Our largest institutional research grant is $5,000. So, this gives you some sense of what I’m talking about. The positive is that I generally feel very little pressure to pursue external research grants. The negative is that, if I wanted to pursue external research grants, institutional support can leave much to be desired. 


Tip 6 - Advice for new faculty doesn't always apply well to public regionals. You will read many advice columns for new faculty and see many tweets about how to be successful. Much of this advice is written by more public-facing scholars, many of whom are at research universities. For example, there has recently been a great deal of advice about preparing for rejection and navigating imposter syndrome. One of the suggestions I read was to "aim high" with journal submissions, meaning submit your work to top journals, even if you are rejected multiple times. This isn't bad advice, but it can be challenging to implement at public regional universities. We have less time to dedicate to research and fewer research projects in the pipeline. Because we still have research expectations for tenure, we may not be able to afford having an article perpetually under review or being tied up with revisions just to land an article in a top journal. We have to be judicious about where we sound our work for publication because the risk of rejection is higher when you don't have a plethora of projects to soften the blow. My point isn't to ignore all advice coming from faculty at research universities, but rather to selectively apply what fits in your context and to seek out advice from others in a similar situation.

Tip 7 - Non-traditional program structures are common. As a graduate student, I didn’t take a single online course. Everybody was in the classroom, and we met throughout the day. By contrast, the program in which I teach is hybrid, so we meet every other week. Some of the students join via a distance education technology. And we always have classes in the evenings. All of our summer courses are entirely online. This means that I had to take many of the mental models I had of teaching and either alter them or toss them out the window. From what I have gathered, many higher education/student affairs programs at public regional universities are similar in that they are hybrid/online. You might want to think about your comfort with online teaching and be prepared to teaching during evenings, weekends, and so forth.

Tip 8 - Service is difficult to avoid. You often hear advice from senior faculty members or faculty members at research universities to be selective about service and even avoid it. I think this is good advice, even for faculty members at public regional universities. However, the realities of faculty life at public regional universities make this difficult to do in practice. Financial limitations and culture often mean that faculty members do a significant amount of departmental, college, and university service. Many are also involved in community-engaged research and/or teaching. Many public regional universities don’t have funding for administrative support personnel to lighten the administrative load for faculty members. I was protected from service in my first year, though I later learned this wasn’t common. And by my second year, the protections were gone. I tend to enjoy service, so it hasn’t been a big deal for me. Nevertheless, be prepared that, despite all of the advice, you may be dedicating more time than you realized to administration and service.

Tip 9 - You can have a fulfilling faculty career at public regionals. My last tip for now. Although my post may seem to take a negative view of public regional universities, I want to end by emphasizing that faculty careers at these institutions can be wonderful. They are not lesser alternatives to jobs at research universities. They are simply different, and you may experience a transition like I did. I have had a wonderful experience at my public regional, and I often think my job is preferable to the demands that prevail at research universities. I feel part of a supportive academic community, and only rarely do I feel envious of people working in the “big name” programs. So, you can expect to find rewarding, fulfilling work as a faculty member at a public regional university.

These are just a few tips, and I’ll likely think of a few more right after I hit “post.” If you have questions about faculty life in higher education/student affairs at a public regional university, please comment or tweet them to me @kevinrmcclure. I’ll try my best to update this list as I think of new tips. Below are a few resources to enhance your understanding of these institutions. I hope you find this information helpful and sincerely hope you consider faculty jobs at public regional universities!


Additional Resources
Finnegan, Dorothy E. 1991. “Opportunity Knocked: The Origins of Contemporary
Comprehensive Colleges and Universities.” Working Paper 6, New England Resource
Center for Higher Education.

Henderson, Bruce B. 2007. Teaching at the People’s University: An Introduction to the State Comprehensive University. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc.

Ogren, Christine A. 2005. The American State Normal School: An Instrument of Great Good. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Orphan, Cecilia M. 2015. “‘Democracy’s Colleges’ Under Pressure: Examining the Effects of Neoliberal Public Policy on Regional Comprehensive Universities.” PhD diss.,
University of Pennsylvania.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Breaking! The Acceleration of Knowledge Production in the Era of 24-Hour News


Last week, for no particular reason, I shared a few thoughts about the nature of knowledge production in academe via Twitter. By “knowledge production,” I’m referring to the process by which experts, such as professors, create new knowledge through research. I lamented how a preoccupation with new and cutting-edge research makes it easy to overlook excellent, still relevant research from two decades (or more) ago. Our gravitation towards the novel and shiny coincides with an acceleration of knowledge production--a perceptible increase the speed at which research is created and the frequency at which new knowledge products are released. This blog post explores some reasons for the acceleration of knowledge production in academe, including the influence of the media.

Acceleration of Knowledge Production

If you’re familiar with academic culture, you’ve likely heard the phrase “publish or perish,” which describes the pressures that professors experience to publish their research in order to be rewarded and recognized, namely being granted tenure. These days, many professors tell you they experience pressures not just to publish, but to publish regularly. Most of the professors I know are working on multiple research projects simultaneously, and they have several manuscripts under review and/or in press. The goal it seems is to have a steady stream of research being published, and more is always better for career advancement. This strategy has, not coincidentally, emerged in a highly competitive academic labor market, which leaves many people believing the only protection against precarity is producing in excess.

The result of this mad dash to publish regularly is that many professors feel they don’t have enough hours in the day to complete their work. They finish one writing project just to start another, meet a deadline just as the next approaches. This cycle of trying to publish more and more--with no finish line--has obvious consequences for mental health and has contributed to a “slow professor” movement. Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeger wrote a book on the subject, which seeks to help professors slow down and “act with purpose, taking the time for deliberation, reflection, and dialogue, cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience” (p. 11). Sociologist Jana Bacevic has an excellent blog post on this in which she questions whether professors can truly read all of the knowledge being produced and argues that one means to resist neoliberalism in higher education is to simply publish less. I encourage you to read her post.

Reasons for the Acceleration

There are multiple reasons for the acceleration of knowledge production, and I’ll only briefly mention some of the more obvious reasons before focusing on some that are less obvious. Some of the more obvious reasons include heightened competition for jobs, sponsored/grant money, and various recognitions coveted by professors (e.g., keynote speaker, editorial board member). Institutions have contributed to this competition by reducing tenure-track positions, emphasizing publication counts and other quantitative measures of research productivity, and elevating research in tenure evaluations as part of strategies to accrue resources and prestige. And, let’s be honest, professors do a fair amount of self-harm by pushing themselves to publish more and more, seeking to be “known” and avoid slipping into perceived irrelevance.

There are a few other reasons, some of which I haven’t seen discussed much, which may contribute to the acceleration of knowledge production in certain fields. I have written elsewhere about the increasing use of quantitative research methods in my field, and I have a sense that this might be true of other fields. This trend could contribute to the acceleration of knowledge production among those who are particularly adept at mining datasets with statistical analysis programs. I’m not suggesting that quantitative research is fast, easy, or sloppy. Nevertheless, I think it is possible to go from research questions to complete manuscript at a faster speed using quantitative research methods compared to qualitative research methods, which may entail interviewing/transcribing, field work, and/or archival research. As more people have started using quantitative research, it’s possible research is happening faster and being released more regularly. I'm curious to hear from others if they think this is true.

Higher education has been under assault in the last few decades, which has resulted in a de-legitimization of professors and their contributions to knowledge production. This has created space for other knowledge producers to emerge. I can’t help but notice that many media companies seem to now be in the business of data analytics, producing stories with sleek infographics.  Additionally, there is an abundance of non-profits, consultancies, and philanthropic organizations that produce their own analyses and reports. Professors are now attempting to disseminate their research in an extensive ecosystem of knowledge producers, and many of these non-academic producers have significantly more time and financial resources. Every time I log on to Twitter, I see a new report or story from a major newspaper, funder, or think-tank being announced. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (though I’ll reiterate my point above about how feasible it is to consume all of this information). However, I again ask if the development of this ecosystem is accelerating knowledge production. In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, there’s a breaking story every 30 minutes. We may have a similar phenomenon happening as professors hustle to produce research and keep up with other knowledge producers.

Parting Thoughts

I’m troubled by the acceleration of knowledge production because I’m not yet convinced it is yielding enhanced outcomes. In fact, it is possible that there is significant wastage or inefficiency in how we’re pursuing publication right now. There may be redundancies of effort, inaccuracies in results, and hours of time spent reviewing work better spent reflecting on big questions. I’m also concerned that the normalization of the speed at which research is presently produced will make it increasingly difficult to undertake projects that require time. Does the nature of knowledge production today make it possible for someone to spend multiple years working on an important research question, even if the product is just one manuscript? Ultimately, I agree with Bacevic that we ought to step back and slow down. Give thought to the pressures pushing us to publish and deliberate on our own motivations. I’d like a little less culture of “breaking news” in research and a little more “taking a break.”