Friday, June 22, 2012

How to choose a dissertation topic: Four pieces of advice (and a bonus tidbit)

Note from the blog moderator: This guest post is by Vilna Bashi Treitler.

Are you struggling with choosing a dissertation topic?

Choosing a topic can be one of the most important choices you will make in your professional career because it determines the first major piece of research for which you’ll be known, provides a focus for the group of professors you wish to solicit for your dissertation committee, and it is the first thing (along with the text of your letters of recommendation) that future colleagues will scrutinize when considering you for a job in their department.

The bad news is that all this can make choosing a dissertation topic pretty overwhelming. The good news is that I try to make the process somewhat easier by explaining to you how you might get started and avoid certain pitfalls. I have four pieces of advice to offer that I hope you follow, plus a tidbit that is not mandatory.

First, “push the envelope.”

You’ve probably heard a gazillion times that new research should “push the envelope,” but I’d bet that the likelihood that you had a clear explanation of what that means has not been given to you. Well, I’m going to explain it, right here, right now.

It is a phrase with a mathematical reference. An envelope is a term for the curve that encloses all other curves in a family of curves. When the term was used in aeronautics, it referred to the outer curve describing the limit of an aircraft’s performance. Test pilots were encouraged to push the envelope in order to test the aircraft, and the phrase made it to the common lexicon in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about test pilots, The Right Stuff. (Thanks, for the info, Michael Quinion, at!)

Envision the whole of sociological knowledge as contained in one big dataset, complete with keywords and subject headings. Surely, you would contribute something to the dataset that would ostensibly fit under a subject heading, and possibly a set of existing keywords, but to push the envelope your topic should meet three criteria.
  • It doesn’t repeat something that’s already in that dataset.
  • It is something that sociologists interested in the topic will want to read when searching on information on the topic. That is, your research is not just different from the other work on the issue, but also has an interesting take.
  • It is research that actually teaches researchers in your area of interest new information and will be useful to them when they are framing their own research projects. That is, not only is your research interesting, it shouldn’t be ignored if other sociologists want to do research in the same areas.
Honestly, you need only come up with a question that, when answered, would shed new light on what others have done before – but the idea is for that new light to truly have us look at things in a whole new way.

Second, ensure that your methods are matched to the theory you employ and vice versa.

I will give you an example from my own work that also illuminates the “pushing the envelope” idea. In graduate school, I studied international migration from both demographic and sociological perspectives. Most of the time, these were done with quantitative methods. That means that people used formulas to speculate about the ways migrants and potential migrants behaved, and they considered themselves to be right when their measures of statistical significance said that the research was onto something. But having lived with immigrants my whole life, I knew that there was more to their behavior that was not captured by the existing quantitative models. I also believed that to truly know what people are actually doing, one could and should just ask them! So I set about asking people about their migration history and experiences, and did this in several countries, in the hopes of tracing out how they actually formed their networks, and what these networks did to help the people included. So, my keywords were “migration,” and “networks,” but since my goal was to find out what migrants actually did, I had to use interviews. Since the networks crossed national borders, I had to do transnational interviewing. Since I had developed my theory from my own experience with immigrants, there was a bit of participant observation thrown in. And since I was asking about the migration experience – which could cover a whole lifetime of movement, job seeking, sending remittances, etc. – I really was also doing oral history. I had to do the methods it took to make the story complete and coherent. It didn’t matter (or shouldn’t) that (at that time) people didn’t normally do qualitative work in demography. That was my task because that my research question required it. But it also pushed the envelope, because it “unlocked the black box” that was the migration network, something that people had written a lot about, but never had explained neither what it was nor how it worked.

Perhaps you decide that (for example) you lack too much skill to try a certain type of method (either quantitative or qualitative) – if so, then ensure that you ask a question that can be answered by the method you choose. You can’t do ethnography and expect to answer a question like “With what frequency do the people with characteristic X take on behavior Y?” because ethnographies are not the best method for counting people’s activities and making predictions about behavior. Similarly, quantitative methods might not be the best to answer questions about how a particular group process evolves over time or why feelings about something changed between one generation and the next.

Develop your theory and methods together and you’ll have a much easier time of it! Choose a theoretical frame for what you wish to interrogate, and your methods will have to correspond. And know that particular methods answer only certain kinds of questions, and frame your question according to the method you choose.

As a side note: know that quantitative methods are nearly always required of graduate students, but not so with qualitative methods. Do yourself a favor and take a qualitative methods class anyway – then you have in your research toolkit the facility to answer perhaps any question you might think of, for the rest of your career!

Third, one's question should never be a question that can be answered with a "yes" or "no."

Let me give an example that might resonate with you. Say your interest is in the whole idea of the “post-racial” U.S. Say, too, that you think that post-racial is a stand-in for racial openness (as opposed to a kind of “colorblindness” that professes to ignore race altogether). So you pose this question: “Do people who have friends of various races (e.g., neither are their friends as a group all white nor all black) call themselves post-racial?” And let’s say the answer is yes. Okay, is that answer surprising? Maybe you have a dissertation that speaks to how some people define “post-racial” but it doesn’t sound like a terribly exciting one, and that answer surely doesn’t push the envelope. But worse, let’s say the answer is no. Um, then you have no dissertation at all. You have a hypothesis that you spent a whole lot of time researching, but then you have nothing to show for it.

The solution is to never pose a yes/no dissertation question. Instead, how about these dissertations?
  • Twenty-First Century Streetwise: The Post-Racial Redux. An empirical analysis of the way people on the street understand us to be currently living in a post-racial moment, and an understanding of what dissenters (those who think post-racialism is bunk) have to say about the state of racial affairs in 21st Century USA.
  • Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Sleeping Over Too? A comparative ethnography of contemporary urban cross-racial friendships in three US cities.
  • Post-racialism: A view from the Mid-West. How relevant is post-racialism to North Americans far from urban centers? How do post-racial moments occur in rural America?
  • New Views on How the Young Live Diversity. A quantitative network analysis of cross-racial and ethnic friendship networks among young people in the middle school years. (This is significant because racial differentiation, and the cliques that develop with that consciousness, tend to begin in the middle school years. If we’re really in a post-racial moment, should it not be the young people who will best demonstrate that through their own behavior?)
I’m sure you see the differences here. There’s no “yes” or “no” that can answer these questions. Best of all, no matter what the research working on these latter three questions finds he or she will still have a real dissertation once the research is complete.

Fourth, and last, some research questions are just bad ones.

You’ve thought through all the theory and studied the work of those who toiled before you. Now it’s time to write your dissertation proposal and your justification for undertaking your research. Here’s a big hint that you’ve not got a good question: your ONLY justification for taking on this project is that “no one has looked at this before.” You’ve got to have a better reason than that (and it should be one that “pushes the envelope, remember?). There are plenty of questions that haven’t been answered before now. Some of them just should not be answered! The question of whether black and Latino people who drink coffee from Starbucks are better parents than those parents who drink Dunkin’ Donuts coffee might be useful for the Starbucks Corporation to know, but that doesn’t make it a great dissertation. “But it hasn’t been done!” Um, no, and let’s hope it stays that way.

After you’ve done the work of envelope-pushing, theory/methods matching and yes/no vetting to find a dissertation topic, you’ll be in good stead. But then make sure you know the existing literature well enough and are engaged with it well enough that you have more to say than “…but these scholars have never addressed the question of [insert your dissertation topic here].”

Fifth (and this is the tidbit), make it “sexy.”

Sexy research projects well carried out tend to merit a better academic job. But what’s a sexy topic? Aaah, that’s the million dollar question.

Sexy topics are those that make people say, “Wow, now that’s interesting! I hadn’t thought of it that way before!” Sexy topics are new twists on old issues that make people sit up and take interest. Think of many of your academic idols, or those at the top of the business, and what idea put them on the map, and chances are it was a sexy topic. (I’m not saying we’re in a meritocratic system – not all good projects are rewarded, and surely some bad ones are – but you get the idea.)

Sexy is more than pushing the envelope. Pushing the envelope is required, but sexiness is not. Many a PhD is earned without having met the condition of sexy dissertation. PhDs go to people who have done their work, whether the work was sexy or not! But sexy is a great thing to have in your pocket, and sexy topics look especially good in job application cover letters!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ten Steps to Publishing Your Article

If you are looking for how to write and publish a journal article, my first suggestion is that you check out Wendy Belcher’s book: Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing. In this book, Professor Belcher provides valuable step-by-step instructions on writing and publishing.

Otherwise, here are ten steps from beginning to end for publishing an academic article.

Step One: Choose a journal.

The first step is to choose a journal – so that you know what you are aiming for. This post explains how to choose a journal.

Step Two: Find a model article.

Once you have selected a journal, choose a model article. You can learn how to do this here.

Step Three: Write an awesome introduction.

Now that you are ready to write, it is important to put your first step forward and write a stellar introduction.

Step Four: Write up your literature review.

Writing your literature review can be daunting. Here are six easy steps from beginning to end.

Step Five: Check your literature review to make sure it is effective.

Make sure your lit review distinguishes between conceptual and background literature.

Step Six: Write up your data analysis.

Here, you want to be sure that your data answers the questions raised in your literature review and introduction. This part will vary depending on what data you are using, but Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation by Sonja K. Foss has some good tips on how to code qualitative data.

Step Seven: Write your Conclusion

Patricia Goodson’s book, Becoming an Academic Writer: 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive & Powerful Writing has some great advice on writing conclusions, as well as lots of other advice.

Step Eight: Revise.

Your first draft should be just that – a draft. It is important to learn to write first and revise later. The concept of a "shitty" first draft is explained here. Another awesome technique is to use an after-the-fact outline to revise. It sounds like a lot of work, but it totally works!

Step Nine: Get feedback.

Don't even think of sending an article off for review without asking someone to review it first! Get feedback from your friends, colleagues, and mentors. Also, consider using a professional editor to make sure your article is as good as it can be.

Step Ten: Submit your article.

Then, submit, submit, submit until successful.

If you get stuck along the way, try the two week method of writing an article.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Twelve Steps from Dissertation to Academic Book

When I finished my dissertation, I knew I wanted to transform it into a book. I did not, however, know anything about the publishing process. As I am now finished with this long process, this is an ideal time for me to outline the steps so that others can know how to publish a book from the dissertation.

In this blog post, I will explain the book publishing process. However, keep two things in mind: 1) there is a lot of variation beyond what I describe here and 2) this is generally the process for the first book, not necessarily for the second or third.

My first book, based on my dissertation

Step One: Write the Book Prospectus

Although it seems daunting, a book prospectus is not a complex document. I describe the book proposal in detail here. Briefly, it contains: 1) a summary of your book that outlines the main argument; 2) a one-paragraph summary of each chapter; 3) a timeline for completion of the book manuscript; 4) a brief description of the target audience and potential classes for course adoption; and 5) the competing literature. Usually these are short documents. Mine have ranged from four to seven single-spaced pages.

Step Two: Submit the Book Prospectus

The second step is to find a press that might be interested in your book manuscript and to send them a book prospectus. I explain how to find a press here and how to contact the aquisitions editor here. Once you have selected the press and found out the name of the acquisitions editor, you can send them the prospectus.  Often, the press also will want one or two sample chapters. You can send your prospectus to as many publishers as you like. Most publishers list submission guidelines on their websites. These guidelines often indicate exactly what materials they would like to see: usually a prospectus, one or two sample chapters, and a two page CV.

Step Three: Submit the Book Manuscript

When acquisitions editors receive your prospectus, they make a decision as to whether or not they will send your book manuscript out for review. If they do not, they will send you a letter with their regrets. However, if they are interested, they often will call or email you with a request to see more materials. Some presses want to wait for the whole book manuscript to be completed. Others will send out just the prospectus for review. Others will send out 1-4 finished chapters. That depends on the book and the press. They will let you know.

Step Four: The Press Sends Your Manuscript out for Review

You wait between one and twelve months for the reviews to come back. If just the prospectus is under review, this will not take very long. If it is the whole manuscript, usually you will wait several months.

Step Five: You Get a Contract

The press makes a decision based on the reviews. They can decide to a) offer a contract based on the reviews; b) ask you to do more revisions and send it out for review again or c) decline to offer a contract based on the reviews. If it is c), you go back to Step Two.

Step Six: You Sign a Contract

If the reviews are favorable, the press will offer you a contract, which you first negotiate and then sign. Here are some items often up for negotiation: 1) who will pay for the index; 2) who pays for the cover and inside pictures; 3) who pays for the copy-editing; 4) the royalties rate; and 5) when and whether the book will be released in paperback. You may or may not be able to negotiate these items, but it does not hurt to ask.

Step Seven: You Revise the Manuscript

You revise the manuscript based on the reviews. Some presses will send it out for review again once you revise it. Others will review it internally and ask you to make further revisions. Still others will send it as is to the copy-editor after you make your revisions.

Step Eight: Copy-Editing

Once the book manuscript is revised, it goes to the copy-editor and they proofread the text. This usually takes 1 to 3 months.

Step Nine: Revision

You revise it again, based on the suggestions made by the copy-editor. You then send it back to the copy-editor who sends it to the press after your final approval. You usually have one month to respond to the copy edits.

Step Ten: Page Proofs

Your book is put into page proofs that you get to read and revise again. At this stage, however, you can only make very minor changes. You correct any mistakes and then it goes to the printer.

Step Eleven: In Press

The page proofs are sent to the printer, and you wait for your book to be printed. Printing usually takes a couple of months.

Step Twelve: On the Shelf

Your book is available for sale! Now that your book is for sale, be sure to include a link to the publisher's website or to in your email signature to advertise your book.

As made clear in these twelve steps, publishing an academic book is often a very long process. It is important to keep in mind that it can take years to publish a book, even after you have completed the manuscript.

For example, I completed the manuscript for my first book in May 2009 and sent it to a publisher who had agreed to review it. I received the reviews in November 2009, and the publisher offered me a contract on the basis of the reviewers’ evaluations at that time. I signed the contract and then revised the book according to the suggested revisions and returned it to the publisher in March 2010. In June 2010, I received and reviewed the copy-edits. In October 2010, I received and reviewed the page proofs. The book was released in February 2011 – nearly two years after I had originally “finished” the book manuscript! Keeping this timetable in mind is particularly important if your university prefers you to have a bound book when you go up for tenure.

Monday, June 4, 2012

What Is Your Vision? Beyond Time Management for Academics

There are a wide variety of books and blogs that will help you with time management as an academic. Kerry Ann Rockquemore's book: The Black Academic's Guide to Winning Tenure--Without Losing Your Soul has excellent tips for time management as does Advice for New Faculty Members by Robert Boice.

After reading these books and others (especially Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen), I came to realize that effective time management is a matter of aligning your every move with your long-term vision.

Before worrying too much about time management, give some thought to your long-term vision for your career. Many people, if pressed, can figure out a five-year plan for their career. However, it is much more difficult to imagine the long-term future. Despite the difficulty of doing so, it can be a great exercise.

To get an idea as to what your vision is, you must ask yourself:

  • Who am I? 
  • What do I want? 
  • Where do I want to be in twenty years?

If you are currently in graduate school, it is often hard to think beyond the immediate goals of finishing coursework, passing comprehensive exams, and defending a dissertation. If you are on the tenure-track, it can be difficult to even imagine anything beyond the goal of getting tenure. I don't expect anyone to provide an immediate answer to the question of what your vision is. However, I do think that it is important to reflect on this question and to realize that there is more than one career path, even for academics.

For example, some people may have the goal of becoming University President. Others may wish to become the President of their disciplinary association. Still others may wish to lead an institute, a social justice center, or a teaching institute. Some academics may want to be head of the department. Others might want to get tenure and start a business on the side, or spend most of their time gardening. The point is that there are many potential goals an academic could have. And, there are distinct paths to each.

If your long-term goal is to be the President of your disciplinary association, your everyday decisions should be distinct from a person whose long-term goal is to be the head of a teaching institute on campus. Ideally, your vision, your five-year plan, your semester plan, your weekly plan, and what you do each day should all be aligned.

In my blog: Get a Life, PhD, I have discussed the five year plan, the semester plan, the weekly plan, and daily writing. In this post, I am suggesting that these five levels of planning need to be in harmony.

Imagine going through life knowing that each action you take is aligned with your long term vision. That would be fundamentally different from making decisions on the basis of your immediate needs, and saying yes or no to requests primarily based on feeling external or internal pressure to commit to others.

I believe academics have the power to take control of their lives. I also believe that it is remarkably empowering to take control. Taking control does not mean shunning every request for service or refusing to attend meetings. Instead, it means seeking out opportunities for service, research, and teaching that will get you closer to your long-term goals and declining opportunities that do not move you in the direction you have decided you are going.

To take control of your career, follow these five steps:

  1. Develop your vision for your career. 
  2. Develop a five-year plan based on your vision. Check out Karen Kelsky's post on this as well as one here.
  3. Make a semester plan that will get you to your five-year plan. Check out this post as well on semester planning.
  4. Plan out your weeks so that you meet your semester goals. Here is another a great post on this.
  5. Execute your plan on a daily basis. For most of us, that means writing every day.

How To Get Your Writing Done

If you want to get writing done, you should know that daily writing is the best way to ensure consistent and amazing productivity.

Are you waiting for a strike of inspiration for you to write? Do you keep reading and thinking, hoping that the muse will visit you, and when she does, that you will produce pages and pages of prose? Or, do you wait until the weekend or the break to write, with the idea that you will have long blocks of uninterrupted time? If any of those questions resonate with you, you are not alone. Many writers think that they write best when they are inspired.


The truth is that inspiration is most likely to come when you sit down and begin to write.

A study by Robert Boice, reported in his book, Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing, provides concrete evidence for two concepts: 1) writing daily produces more writing and more ideas and 2) writing accountability works.

The Test: Does Writing Accountability Work?

To find out if daily writing and accountability can be effective, Robert Boice conducted a test with 27 faculty members who desired help with improving their writing productivity. He put the 27 faculty into three groups and examined their writing productivity for ten weeks.

The first group was instructed to write only if they had to write, but asked to keep a log of creative ideas for writing. The idea behind this group was that planned abstinence would lead to the production of creative ideas for writing when the time came.

The second group scheduled writing sessions five days a week for ten weeks, but was encouraged to write only when they were in the mood. They also were asked to take the time they had scheduled for writing to log a new creative idea for writing each day. The idea behind this group was that writing only when they were in the mood would be favorable for creativity.

The third group agreed to a strict accountability plan. They scheduled five writing sessions a week for ten weeks, and kept a log of creative ideas for writing. To ensure that they would write every day, the members of this group gave Boice a pre-paid check for $25, made out to a hated organization. If they failed to write in any of their planned sessions, Boice would mail the check. The idea behind this group was that forced writing would require the group to come up with creative ideas for writing. This group was based on the Clockwork Muse theory - the idea that if you write on a regular basis, your muse will show up each time you sit down to write.

The Results: Daily Writing and Accountability Work

Boice’s study revealed:

  • Abstinent writers produced an average of 0.2 pages per day, and only one idea per week.
  • Spontaneous writers produced an average of 0.9 pages per day, and one creative idea every two days.
  • Forced writers produced an average of 3.2 pages and one creative idea each day.

These results show that, contrary to what one might think, creativity can be forced. Sitting down and making yourself write every day is a great way to make those creative juices flow.

How to Write Every Day

The lesson here for writers is to not wait until you feel like writing to write – as that might not happen very often – but to schedule your writing every day, show up to your writing session, and keep track of when you do and do not write.

I suggest you try this method of becoming a prolific writer by scheduling in at least 15 to 120 minutes of writing in each weekday, and keeping track of how much you write each day.

If you are not sure how to write every day, here are ten ways to write every day:

  1. Write on a blank page
  2. Line-edit something you have already written
  3. Restructure a paper that you have been working on
  4. Pull together pieces of older documents you have written into a new paper
  5. Check references and footnotes for accuracy
  6. Outline or mind-map a new project
  7. Summarize or take notes on something you have read recently that might be relevant to present or future research projects
  8. Make a revision plan for a rejected article or a “revise and resubmit”
  9. Make tables, figures, graphs, or images to represent visually concepts or trends in a paper
  10. Create an After-the-fact or Reverse Outline

If you think of writing as only #1): Write on a blank page, it will be hard to do that every single day. However, it you are open to other kinds of writing, it will be possible to do at least one of these kinds of writing every day.

I try to do at least two kinds of writing each day, starting with the blank page in the morning. I am at my best early in the morning. That is my prime time. I use those early, fresh moments of the day to free-write and to create new material. Once I run out of steam, I might turn to editing something I have written or to checking references. If I get stuck, I will pull out a mind map and brainstorm ideas.

My routine each weekday, then, is to begin the day with writing or writing-related tasks. On a good day, I can concentrate for two hours. Usually, however, my mind drifts after an hour, so I take a break to check email or have some coffee, and put in another hour after my break. I keep track of the time I have spent working on writing so that I can be proud of my accomplishments, and so that I know when I need to stop.

I know that many academics reject as ridiculous the idea that one could or should write every day. To them, I would gently ask if they have ever tried it. And, I would add that it is not only important to try writing every day, but to commit to trying it for at least a month to see if it works for you. It is also important to have others to whom you are accountable and with whom you can share your struggles.

If you do try writing every day, let me know how it goes! If you are a seasoned daily writer, let me know why you keep it up!

For more tips and tricks on getting your writing done, please go here.

Welcome to the SREM Mentoring Blog!

Welcome to the Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities (SREM) of the American Sociological Association Mentoring Blog.

This blog will serve three primary purposes

1) Information: An online hub for information for SREM members related to professional success.
2) Questions: You will be able to ask questions on this blog and a volunteer will answer them. 
3) Safe Space: SREM will host a safe space where you can discuss issues with fellow sociologists who also research and teach in your area.

This blog is a work in progress, and thus the first step will be for us to post links to useful information. Once we have completed that, we will invite questions. Finally, we will host a discussion forum.

Sarangkot Flight

Here are the mentoring needs we have identified: 

Mentoring Needs

Needs that can primarily be met through providing information:

How to get writing done
Links to information
How to manage time as an academic
Links to information
How to secure funding for research
Links to information
How to plan large research projects
Links to information
How to network at conferences
Links to information
How to deal with stress
Links to information
How to publish articles
Links to information
How to publish your first book
Links to information
How to promote your work
Links to information

Needs that would be best met through individualized mentoring

How to select your dissertation chair and committee
One-on-one question
How to select a dissertation topic
One-on-one question
How to manage conflict
One-on-one question
How to manage professional relationships
One-on-one question

Something SREM can do

How to create a safe space and positive community
Create safe space online

Please let us know in the comments section below if you have any suggestions to add to the category "Mentoring Needs." We will add new posts as we are able to do so.