grad skool rool?

Fabio mentioned he’s planning an update of his Grad Skool Rulz. Several months ago I read a book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. While I wouldn’t recommend the whole book, I do adore the quote that Newport uses for his title, which comes from Steve Martin. As Newport tells it:

“Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear,” Martin said. “What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’… but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’”

The implication for academia for me is that I think it’s common for aspiring sociologists–especially if in the throes of Bourdieu–want to think about academia as a game and think about advice in terms of figuring out how to play the game. And of course there are political elements to academia, and every accomplishment involves the subjective judgments of others (although this is even more the case for stand-up comedy). My worry is that it’s easy to get distracted by all that and miss the main task, which is: work toward trying to be able and do excellent things.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

11 thoughts on “grad skool rool?”

  1. I think there is an Enlightenment/individualist/rationalist bias in the idea that if someone buckles down and writes the dissertation of the century and leaves it under a tree somewhere, surely they will be offered a chair at Princeton shortly after. Science is a conversation and getting published and recognized means paying attention to audience concerns.

    Audience concerns are exactly the same thing as “mere politics.”

    I think the real problem is that academics distinguish themselves (pace System of Professions) from mere journalists, PR people, politicians, advertisers, etc. by denying that they are indeed chiefly in the business of getting and sustaining attention in a conversation aimed at persuading people of their own tendentious and motivated ideas.

    We are not above those “games” and I think our product would be much improved by becoming more honest and refined about how we play.


  2. “work toward trying to be able and do excellent things” I like the way this is phrased, because it recognizes that this is an effort and a process, not a dichotomy.

    Re audience: yes audience is part of excellence, because excellent work is always in dialog with other work, always has a context that bounds it. This is not the same as mere politics IMO.


  3. The more I think about this, the more I love it. But I also wonder if it’s possible to get grad students away from the “game” idea when it’s all around them.

    As DGS, I often think about how different things were when I applied to grad school. There simply wasn’t access to all the information there is today. I sat down with the ASA Guide to Graduate Schools and flipped through it, looking for people who did social psychology. I had a professor or two read my personal statement, sent off a writing sample, applied to a few schools, and waited. The paucity of information in those early internet days was exacerbated by coming out of a small department, with professors who had high course loads and little involvement in the ASA, but I had just enough information to be successful. My professors knew I was good, they knew people in those graduate programs to personalize a recommendation, they encouraged me to learn regression on my thesis, yet I was not obsessed like so many students are today (like at the gradcafe site that Graham linked to the other day).

    Grad school was the same way. We paid attention to what the successful people before us had done, but not like we were learning a game. We were learning the types of questions that successful people were asking, watching the way that they talked about material and interacted with faculty. We paid attention to where they presented and how they framed their work, the faculty who provided good mentorship and those whose students floundered. We weren’t looking for a secret handshake or a short-cut to the top. We were being socialized to be good sociologists.

    It might be the economic reality of today combined with the amazing access to (often bad) information, but more often now I hear about students who want to study X because there are lots of jobs in it, or will not use Y method because it won’t get published in ASR, or absolutely have to meet Z, rather than learning to do what they want to do and learning to do it well.


    1. That all resonates with me, Jessica. If you thought the Gradcafe board was crazy, check out the econ one. One thread on there, the year I applied, got two hundred thousand independent page views (and it wasn’t even a flame war I started! ;) ). Competition has grown, and I think it is supply and demand that’s driving it.

      Demand for Ph.D.s has increased faster than increases in program sizes nor dramatically in hiring. So students look to progressively more marginal ways to distinguish themselves. I don’t think this is debasing education, though, rather improving it.

      I think students are *adding to* the basics of their training that have been constant since Ye Olden Mail Applications with the GRE retake freak outs, networking freak outs, rather than these elements *substituting* for the academic core.


      1. Maybe. But my experience is that we all have a finite amount of mental energy, and expending it on worries about things that aren’t our actual work can easily come at the cost of things that are.

        If you think about it that way, then the question isn’t whether anything matters besides the quality of one’s scholarship (of course other things matter to career outcomes), but rather, whether on the margin it’s a good idea to tilt one’s energy a bit farther toward doing better work or a bit farther toward better networking. My guess is that, for most people, putting the extra effort into actual scholarship is a better strategy. It is only a guess. But it seems to me that the difference in career rewards between good and great work is wildly disproportionate, and it’s worth shooting for great.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah I agree there’s a tradeoff, but I don’t think it’s totally zero sum. And for any particular person, where the maximum is along that convex surface really depends on which side of it you’re currently on. You and Jeremy could be right that the average person is too far on the gaming side of it and needs to reallocate.


      3. “I think students are *adding to* the basics of their training that have been constant since Ye Olden Mail Applications with the GRE retake freak outs, networking freak outs, rather than these elements *substituting* for the academic core.”

        Unfortunately, I don’t think that this is the case. Some are, certainly. But there is a sense among current grad students (and perhaps not in the top programs, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t rather widespread) that they can “get rich quick,” so to speak, if they just figure out the secret recipe. I have to agree with gradstudentby day here in that the time they spend working on that recipe often takes away from time on other things. Even worse, it can even make them think that those other things – reading deeply, learning about other subfields and methods, attending department talks, etc. – are less important, leaving them with a shiny publication or social network with little of substance behind it.

        There’s something that students are exposed to in grad school that fuels this. Like you say, I don’t think that this is true of most of the students who are applying to programs. They’re using this additional information to tweak what are already outstanding packets. But then something happens in grad school, perhaps related to the finite amount of time that gradstudentbyday mentions, where students waste a lot of time searching for the secret door in the library at the expense of exploring all that the shelves they’re pulling on hold.


      4. Jessica, I think I and the other grad student internet addicts would raise our hands and agree that there’s a tradeoff between this stuff and more serious work. So you’ve got me there, but there’s some history here, too.

        Students now have access to networking in a way that they never would have before, and this opens up information that was institutionally embedded (and protected) before. The inside baseball has come out. Internet and cheap air fare imply way more extra-institutional interaction among external students and faculty. This is arguably good for professional mobility and meritocracy.

        So I think considering how the technology (transportation and comm. tech.), incentives (increased competition) have changed is important. That doesn’t mean that old advice you and Jeremy are conveying isn’t good advice: that working hard on serious work is extremely important.


  4. I think the kind of superstition Jessica is talking about (finding the “secret recipe”) is probably a common psychological response to the reality of there being far fewer tenure-track jobs than people who very much want one.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Posting in the main thread instead of reply to reply, but thinking about all those replies. Two thoughts. First, I think schools and students vary. I’m afraid I see some students (maybe it is my fault) who hit job market time never having asked themselves what they are going to need to be competitive on the job market. So I don’t think it is a bad thing to think about those issues, even as I agree with Jessica’s comments and Jeremy’s initial post that focusing too much on “what makes me competitive?” and too little on “how can I do good work?” actually makes you less competitive. Most of us need to earn a living, and you ought to figure out what it is going to take to be able to do that.

    And the second. I think too many people misunderstand networks and imagine it solely as kissing up to as many high status people as you can. But really, networks in science [or intellectual inquiry, if your standpoint is anti-scientism] are where information flows around, When you are in the networks, you know what is going on in your subfield, who is doing what, what the interesting problems are, and where the cutting edge is. Because the cutting edge is two years away from publication. People respect you in an academic network when you are bringing interesting ideas and good work into that network. They don’t respect you if all you are doing is posturing and trying to act important without actually adding any good work to the mix. Or even if you are a really nice person but are not adding anything to the idea pool of the network. So yes, networks matter, I try to talk my students into going to conferences because I believe they are important. But it isn’t “just politics.” I think of it as finding the people whose work you think is really interesting and stimulating to your own thinking and, if you are good at what you do, those people will find your ideas and work interesting, too, because you share common interests.

    Liked by 6 people

  6. Yes! As jobs got more scarce, I think we might’ve overemphasized careerism and underemphasized innovation and creativity in grad “professionalization” training. I’m doing a li’l session on prosems for DGS’s at ASA and these seem like timely and important issues to discuss…


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