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Twenty-One Things Academics Hate

Published February 11, 2013 by Tabby

‘Professor, why are we doing this?’

While every job has their annoyances, this post includes those specifically encountered by graduate students and those working in academia. Unless you actually work in this field, do not automatically assume we all have cushy, easy jobs and just like to complain about the lack of coffee packages for our Kurigs. Like others, we also face extreme high unemployment and debt, low salaries, and underappreciation. There have been several articles released lately on how Ph.D.’s are facing reliance on foodstamps due to unemployment or low salaries despite earning four college degrees. So why do we endure this craziness and suffering? Because we love it…and we are slightly masochistic.

Madison Moore, “21 Things Academics Hate,” Thought Catalog, January 13, 2013 (accessed February 11, 2013).

1) Being unemployed. Not that other people don’t hate being unemployed, too. But unless you’re a lucky person who has already secured that coveted mirage of a tenure-track job — and even then you’ve only got six years to get it together — being in academia means that, at some point, you could be an unemployed person with a lot of degrees!

2) REVISIONS. (Everything that is done must be redone at least twenty times before it comes close to being good enough)

3) Ratchet departmental politics. There are always office politics in any career. But in academia, everybody’s heard the story about how so-in-so didn’t get tenure because the department chair kind of hates her or thinks her research is silly. Or has been on a search committee where somebody thinks a candidate who works on anything after 1832 is totally irrelevant. Or how about why we can’t have the department holiday party at Stephanie’s house because Stephanie and Blake do NOT get along.

4) Being in debt — credit card debt — from all those broke ass years in graduate school.

5) “The Administration,” because it seems like they get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to make things as complicated as possible, for everyone, at all times.

6) The “heterosexual matrix” and/or patriarchy.

7) When people ask how the dissertation/book manuscript/article is coming along and you honestly don’t know because you haven’t touched it.

8) Formatting academic articles to the exact specifications the journal requires. And you thought academia was just about ideas — HA!

9) When Word freezes when you’re in the middle of a streak of brilliance and you forgot to save your stuff.

10) Feeling anxious about every interaction with a senior scholar, because senior scholars are the GATEKEEPERS. Do they like me? OMG do they think I’m an idiot?

11) When someone asks a long-winded question during the Q+A that has absolutely nothing to do with what your talk was on, so now you have to maintain your composure, smile and respond WITHOUT seeming like an A-hole.

12) When student papers begin with sweeping claim like “since the beginning of man.”

13) Going on the job market.

14) Tenure reviews.

15) Being underpaid for the amount of work you do. You’re teaching four classes a semester, plus you’re on 12 committees and you have a book manuscript to work on. And if you don’t find the time to finish that, you’re gonna get fired!

16) Overly negative reviews from blind, peer review publications. Because the reviewers don’t know who you are, that means they get to be even meaner.

17) When students email you about the grade they got at the end of the semester, instead of putting the work in DURING it.

18) Anxiety and the diverse medical issues associated with it.

19) When someone has ripped several key pages out of a library book.

20) If someone says that academia isn’t a “real” job.

21) BEING TOLD THEY HAVE THE #1 LEAST STRESSFUL JOB IN THE COUNTRY.

I am working on my fourth degree, have a professional job, and still eat ramen at least once a day

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How to Fail a Ph.D.

Published October 23, 2012 by Tabby

This is a great blog I found elsewhere. I’m so guilty of many of these and they make complete sense. And I agree getting a Ph.D. is monastic.

“10 easy ways to fail a Ph.D.” http://matt.might.net/articles/ways-to-fail-a-phd/

The attrition rate in Ph.D. school is high. Anywhere from a third to half will fail. In fact, there’s a disturbing consistency to grad school failure. I’m supervising a lot of new grad students this semester, so for their sake, I’m cataloging the common reasons for failure.

Read on for the top ten reasons students fail out of Ph.D. school.

1. Focus on grades or coursework
No one cares about grades in grad school.

There’s a simple formula for the optimal GPA in grad school:

Optimal GPA = Minimum Required GPA + ε
Anything higher implies time that could have been spent on research was wasted on classes. Advisors might even raise an eyebrow at a 4.0

During the first two years, students need to find an advisor, pick a research area, read a lot of papers and try small, exploratory research projects. Spending too much time on coursework distracts from these objectives.

2. Learn too much

Some students go to Ph.D. school because they want to learn.

Let there be no mistake: Ph.D. school involves a lot of learning.

But, it requires focused learning directed toward an eventual thesis.

Taking (or sitting in on) non-required classes outside one’s focus is almost always a waste of time, and it’s always unnecessary.

By the end of the third year, a typical Ph.D. student needs to have read about 50 to 150 papers to defend the novelty of a proposed thesis.

Of course, some students go too far with the related work search, reading so much about their intended area of research that they never start that research.

Advisors will lose patience with “eternal” students that aren’t focused on the goal–making a small but significant contribution to human knowledge.

In the interest of personal disclosure, I suffered from the “want to learn everything” bug when I got to Ph.D. school.

I took classes all over campus for my first two years: Arabic, linguistics, economics, physics, math and even philosophy. In computer science, I took lots of classes in areas that had nothing to do with my research.

The price of all this “enlightenment” was an extra year on my Ph.D.

I only got away with this detour because while I was doing all that, I was a TA, which meant I wasn’t wasting my advisor’s grant funding.

3. Expect perfection

Perfectionism is a tragic affliction in academia, since it tends to hit the brightest the hardest.

Perfection cannot be attained. It is approached in the limit.

Students that polish a research paper well past the point of diminishing returns, expecting to hit perfection, will never stop polishing.

Students that can’t begin to write until they have the perfect structure of the paper mapped out will never get started.

For students with problems starting on a paper or dissertation, my advice is that writing a paper should be an iterative process: start with an outline and some rough notes; take a pass over the paper and improve it a little; rinse; repeat. When the paper changes little with each pass, it’s at diminishing returns. One or two more passes over the paper are all it needs at that point.

“Good enough” is better than “perfect.”

4. Procrastinate

Chronic perfectionists also tend to be procrastinators.

So do eternal students with a drive to learn instead of research.

Ph.D. school seems to be a magnet for every kind of procrastinator.

Unfortunately, it is also a sieve that weeds out the unproductive.

Procrastinators should check out my tips for boosting productivity.

5. Go rogue too soon/too late

The advisor-advisee dynamic needs to shift over the course of a degree.

Early on, the advisor should be hands on, doling out specific topics and helping to craft early papers.

Toward the end, the student should know more than the advisor about her topic. Once the inversion happens, she needs to “go rogue” and start choosing the topics to investigate and initiating the paper write-ups. She needs to do so even if her advisor is insisting she do something else.

The trick is getting the timing right.

Going rogue before the student knows how to choose good topics and write well will end in wasted paper submissions and a grumpy advisor.

On the other hand, continuing to act only when ordered to act past a certain point will strain an advisor that expects to start seeing a “return” on an investment of time and hard-won grant money.

Advisors expect near-terminal Ph.D. students to be proto-professors with intimate knowledge of the challenges in their field. They should be capable of selecting and attacking research problems of appropriate size and scope.

6. Treat Ph.D. school like school or work

Ph.D. school is neither school nor work.

Ph.D. school is a monastic experience. And, a jealous hobby.

Solving problems and writing up papers well enough to pass peer review demands contemplative labor on days, nights and weekends.

Reading through all of the related work takes biblical levels of devotion.

Ph.D. school even comes with built-in vows of poverty and obedience.

The end brings an ecclesiastical robe and a clerical hood.

Students that treat Ph.D. school like a 9-5 endeavor are the ones that take 7+ years to finish, or end up ABD.

7. Ignore the committee

Some Ph.D. students forget that a committee has to sign off on their Ph.D.

It’s important for students to maintain contact with committee members in the latter years of a Ph.D. They need to know what a student is doing.

It’s also easy to forget advice from a committee member since they’re not an everyday presence like an advisor.

Committee members, however, rarely forget the advice they give.

It doesn’t usually happen, but I’ve seen a shouting match between a committee member and a defender where they disagreed over the metrics used for evaluation of an experiment. This committee member warned the student at his proposal about his choice of metrics.

He ignored that warning.

He was lucky: it added only one more semester to his Ph.D.

Another student I knew in grad school was told not to defend, based on the draft of his dissertation. He overruled his committee’s advice, and failed his defense. He was told to scrap his entire dissertaton and start over. It took him over ten years to finish his Ph.D.

8. Aim too low

Some students look at the weakest student to get a Ph.D. in their department and aim for that.

This attitude guarantees that no professorship will be waiting for them.

And, it all but promises failure.

The weakest Ph.D. to escape was probably repeatedly unlucky with research topics, and had to settle for a contingency plan.

Aiming low leaves no room for uncertainty.

And, research is always uncertain.

9. Aim too high

A Ph.D. seems like a major undertaking from the perspective of the student.

It is.

But, it is not the final undertaking. It’s the start of a scientific career.

A Ph.D. does not have to cure cancer or enable cold fusion.

At best a handful of chemists remember what Einstein’s Ph.D. was in.

Einstein’s Ph.D. dissertation was a principled calculation meant to estimate Avogadro’s number. He got it wrong. By a factor of 3.

He still got a Ph.D.

A Ph.D. is a small but significant contribution to human knowledge.

Impact is something students should aim for over a lifetime of research.

Making a big impact with a Ph.D. is about as likely as hitting a bullseye the very first time you’ve fired a gun.

Once you know how to shoot, you can keep shooting until you hit it.

Plus, with a Ph.D., you get a lifetime supply of ammo.

Some advisors can give you a list of potential research topics. If they can, pick the topic that’s easiest to do but which still retains your interest.

It does not matter at all what you get your Ph.D. in.

All that matters is that you get one.

It’s the training that counts–not the topic.

10. Miss the real milestones

Most schools require coursework, qualifiers, thesis proposal, thesis defense and dissertation. These are the requirements on paper.

In practice, the real milestones are three good publications connected by a (perhaps loosely) unified theme.

Coursework and qualifiers are meant to undo admissions mistakes. A student that has published by the time she takes her qualifiers is not a mistake.

Once a student has two good publications, if she convinces her committee that she can extrapolate a third, she has a thesis proposal.

Once a student has three publications, she has defended, with reasonable confidence, that she can repeatedly conduct research of sufficient quality to meet the standards of peer review. If she draws a unifying theme, she has a thesis, and if she staples her publications together, she has a dissertation.

I fantasize about buying an industrial-grade stapler capable of punching through three journal papers and calling it The Dissertator.

Of course, three publications is nowhere near enough to get a professorship–even at a crappy school. But, it’s about enough to get a Ph.D.

Things to Never Ask or Tell a College Professor

Published October 5, 2012 by Tabby

Working as a college professor while attending college has opened my eyes to both sides of the roles/experiences of professor and student. To me, I tend to have a better understanding of my students because I can still relate to them and know what it is like going through classes. On the other hand, sometimes I catch myself almost attempting to take control when a discussion in a class I’m taking is lagging. Sometimes a double edged sword, but I love every minute of it.

While I can relate to them and understand what they are going through, sometimes I get caught off guard by s**t some students say. I’m excited that my brain-to-mouth filter works much better than in the past but instead of blurting out whatever my cynical and tactless brain comes up with, I have been rendered speechless with a blank stare at the student. (I’m trying to work on my poker face but so far have just been able to prevent a stank-eye) There are some things I’ve been told/asked or my colleagues have been that I could never imagine having the guts to ask or tell a professor. I’m sure a lot of it is that they don’t think before they ask or realize what it means to us but on the other hand, some of it comes from the self-entitled spoiled little special snowflakes.

This list is by no mean complete or encompassing everything college professors experience. It is also not meant to be an insult against all students as an “all students are stupid” rant. I really, really enjoy teaching and love my students. Yes, there are days I would like to throw a book at them, but for the most part, they are quite lovely. I see myself as their instructor, guidance, and cheerleader. I WANT them to succeed, and I see myself as teaching them how. I try to teach them not only a basic understanding of my field (history) but also skills to succeed in other classes and life in general.

Anyways, unlike the exhaustingly cheerful highly-caffeinated cheerleader, I have sore spots. This list covers quite a bit of them. The first ten are from the article “10 Questions You Should Never Ask Your Professor,” by Jill Rooney, Ph.D. and the rest are from me or other professors. Keep these in mind before you ask a professor a question and never forget you can always ask questions from other students!

1. “Did we do anything important when I was out?”

This is my least favorite question in the entire world. I have heard many answers to this from my colleagues, everything from patient explanations of the course content to “ask your classmates for their notes.” The smart ass part of me just wants to say, “No, we couldn’t possibly get on without you here and prayed for your safe return.” I just tell them to check the syllabus and get someone’s notes. A better way to ask is: “How can I get the material I missed when I was out?”

2. “Why do we have to learn this?”

(Insert fingernails on chalkboard sound here). *Shudder. When a student asks this, I mostly hear “This is stupid and I shouldn’t have to be here.” Especially since in all of my lectures, especially in a freshman class, I explain how it’s relevant to today and thus, why it’s important. I have yet to really come up with a professional and polite answer to this question. It’s mostly a brief stare and repeating why whatever I’m talking about is relevant to today or can translate into a life skill or “because it makes you into a well-rounded educated person.”

3“Do we need the book?”

Are you really asking this-or do you think we professors just randomly pick books off the shelf and assign them because we find it amusing to watch you read a book you don’t need? Of course you need the book. Sometimes you need it for actual use in class; sometimes you need it to read on your own as a supplement to the course content. A good rule of thumb is that if it is listed as required on the syllabus, you need it. If you have a financial difficulty with purchasing required textbooks, as many students do these days, talk privately with your professor, who can direct you to the appropriate resources.

4“How much work do we have to do in this class?”

This one is another temper point for me. I just want to immediate retort, “Get out.” As a college student by choice, you don’t have to do anything. But as you chose to take the course, you should be prepared to do the required amount of work, which is outlined on the syllabus. You can try to skate through it like some students, who only do the minimum amount of work, but that’s risky-and one thing I can guarantee you is that having to take the course all over again when you fail is really quite a lot of work. A better way to handle any concerns about the work load is to ask your professor for tips on how to handle the work load. We’re always more than happy to help out with such suggestions. And, at the end of the semester, if you have a 59.99 and I know you’ve purposely been doing the minimum, I’m not going to round up your grade because you don’t deserve it. Professors will help way more if you are actually trying and being a productive human being. (Thank you to a couple of science and math teachers for sympathy As).

5“When will final grades be posted?”

This was contributed by the folks over at Profology on Twitter, who added the related question, “can you email me my final grade?” This is an interesting one, because as a rule professors of course don’t mind sharing your grade with you–it’s our job! They are your grades and you are entitled to them. But there are certain things we cannot do, based on federal law-including e-mailing your grade or publicly posting them-because that violates student privacy laws. The real problem here is that you already know when your grades will be available because the syllabus usually explains that. This question is related to one highlighted as a no-no by Florida Gulf Coast University: “Do you have our grades yet?” The answer is always the same: “No, I don’t. I’ve been too busy eating bon-bons by the Jacuzzi to grade your papers. But I’m sure that Jeeves will be through with them forthwith.” Grading takes time!

6“How many footnotes/sources do I need?”

The answer to this one is also always the same: You need as many footnotes as you require to appropriately cite your sources and to support your argument. There is no other measure. I’m pretty sure you’ve been told this before.

7“Do we need to know this for the exam?”

Similar to the “why do we have to learn this?” question, this one is always a joy for professors to hear because it assumes that only the stuff that will show up on the exam is worth your time. Educator Gabriella Grossbeck (@ggrossbeck on Twitter), told me that she usually replies, “Where were you?” because the student is responsible for following course content and instructions. The answer I always give is “I don’t know,” because I never re-use exams and create new ones every semester. That’s also a useful answer to hold onto in your head, because a good exam answer brings in as much material as possible and demonstrates thoroughness.

8Do you have a stapler?

What am I, a walking office supply store? Being prepared for class is your responsibility, not mine. Also, stop asking to borrow my pen! Show respect for your class, your professor, and yourself by taking your responsibilities seriously. Besides, these are special teacher pens, and if I loan you my pen, I will lose all my professor powers, like Samson and his hair.

9“Can I leave early?/Is it OK if I go to my club meeting?”

Sure, you can do both. You can do anything you want because you chose to take this course and it is yours to do with as you wish: pass, fail, whatever. This question is much better asked as, “Will I fail the class if I don’t take it seriously and value my social life and extracurricular activities more?”  I think you already know the answer to that question.

10“Are you sure you that’s right?”

Yes. Yes, I am. I’m the professor. Unless you’ve gone to graduate school and have developed an expertise in this field since enrolling in the course, you would be advised to ask this question in a better way: “I’ve heard/read/been told by another professor something different from what you just said. Can you explain this a little more?” That gives us an opportunity to really delve into the issue and help you link together the material you may have learned in other courses, which helps create a general body of knowledge for you. Also, it’s not an insinuation of incompetence on our part. It’s an invitation to academic debate. We love that!

My additions

1. Asking anything you already know the answer to

I get this somewhat often. I’ll have the one student that is not only an overachiever (because that’s perfectly awesome) but an aspiring teacher’s pet. It doesn’t work in college the way it works in high school. I can tell when a student asks a question he/she already knows, just to be speaking in class or to appear smart or to be doing extra work. It doesn’t impress me and it just annoys me and the rest of your classmates. Yeah, they know when you’re doing it too.

2. Can’t you just give me an A?

This one was asked of me while passing out a study guide. I’m serious, and so was he. Again, my filter stopped the knee-jerk response of “get out.” You EARN grades. You (or your parents, scholarship foundation, government) are paying to BE there, not for the grade. And honestly, I get paid the same whether you pass or fail. It’s much more frustrating when I get asked this in a class with several other students that attend every class and put forth real effort. What does he think I’m going to say? “Sure! See these students that have been working their asses off all semester? I’m just going to throw them all under the bus and give you an A for gracing us with your presence once every three weeks because you’re just so special.” If this question ever occurs to you, you need to go away and really think about why you’re even in college in the first place.

3. Can I get an extension on this assignment? I’ve been really stressed lately.

Disclaimer: if there’s a serious, real emergency, such as an emergency room visit or death of close relative, yes I do consider extensions or assignment substitutions. Otherwise I take absolutely no late work whatsoever. You have deadlines in the real world (job) and you will here too. In addition, that means I have to do more work to grade your late work and get it posted instead of doing it with all of your classmates. No, not happening.

4. I didn’t have time to study for this test. I had a lot of math homework this week.

I got this statement written at the bottom of a test. I simply wrote back, “time management skills.” It’s college, you’re going to take multiple classes at once. If the workload is too much, don’t take so many courses. College is also a great place to learn multi-tasking. I will not shape my courses to what other professors are teaching. That’s your problem, not mine.

5. The student who never stops talking…ever.

This one isn’t really a specific question or statement but a common problem. I’ll have one student every semester that while a perfectly fine person and student, will constantly interrupt class with inane commentary. Most of the time they don’t realize they’re doing it and it’s hard to stop them without seeming rude. But it is the professor’s job to keep charge of the discussion and class time. By all means, participate and contribute to class, but is your statement relevant and provide information to the class? Also, keep your comments short and get to the point quickly. I think this annoys other students more than it does me. This person will always sit as close as possible and when they start speaking, I can see immediately see twenty sets of eyes roll. I’ve been in classes with these types of people and when the professors failed to keep the class moving forward, as soon as the interruption started, I’d start balancing my checkbook or something to keep from strangling them. (I’d like to thank a certain graduate from UCO who kept a certain person from interrupting my thesis defense because you were sure I would kill him/her. You’re a hero).

6. Asking me to explain what I just finished explaining

I understand that sometimes our minds wander, mine is no exception. It is one of my pet peeves to be interrupted by someone asking something I had just said because they weren’t paying attention. If your mind has wandered, ask a fellow student or wait until the end of class to ask.

7. What are we doing today?

Trying to find Narnia. As innocent as this question probably is, it’s still slightly grating. I outline in the syllabus the topic of discussion and chapters for every single class. Check the syllabus. It’s always in the syllabus.

Do you have questions you hate to be asked as a teacher or as a student?

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