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How to be an external examiner

I’m going on sabbatical in six and a half weeks (who’s counting?) and as a result I’m on a mad throw-out binge trying to clear out my office for a fresh start.

I found, among many, many other surprises, a copy of the external examiner’s report on my own doctoral dissertation. I’ve blanked all recollection of this from my mind since 2004 and I was nervous as I sat to read it. It’s about two-and-half pages of single-spaced text, that’s really evenhanded in its assessment. First off, in retrospect I’m impressed that we got such a well-known external. Scott Bukatman was a get. Thanks, Heather! Second, when I posted about finding this, on Twitter, some people expressed a profound unknowing about what an external examiner’s report should be. And it’s true: no one trains professors to do these. I wasn’t trained. Many students are never allowed to see the reports (at the University of Waterloo, it is at the external’s discretion whether the report can be shared with the candidate, with a presumption of not, and if yes, only after the defence has taken place.) I have never seen a guide on how to write one, but sooner or later most of us with tenure will be examining theses, and this work is too high-stakes and too important to leave to chance.

Lucky me that I was the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies for three years. In that time, I saw every report on every dissertation, probably something like 20 in total. I had seen a few before that, including for students I supervised and whose committees I was on. I have also examined several myself, now, so I know what it’s like to write them.

The best reports are formative as much as they are summative–that is, they seek to teach as much as to manage the gates, if you will. Especially if revisions will be required, it’s important to be clear and proactive in expressing not just what the dissertation fails to do, or what it does wrong, but also in suggesting a path forward. Perhaps a dissertation clocks in at 500 pages–easy enough to say “This is far too long and it must be shortened”. But better to say instead “This dissertation is overlong and should be reduced in length. Chapters 2 and 3 largely repeat the same point, while all the other chapters are distinct from one another–perhaps the candidate could condense these two into one. Other chapters spend too much time rehashing what has just been written: substantially reducing the preamble for each chapter would make this a stronger dissertation, and a more appropriate length.” Don’t worry–there’s always check boxes where you essentially give a grade to the whole dissertation, so the force of your judgement will be very visible.

IMG_2139
Don’t let the cat help write the report; she’s really mean.

The best reports make detailed and specific reference to the text in framing their feedback on the dissertation as a whole. Such information, which normally the examining committee sees ahead of time, will give everyone a sense of the particular issues you might raise in a defence, and are later useful in guiding student revision. Saying something like, “This is written in a very flat style that makes the main argument difficult to care about” might be true, but imagine a candidate trying to understand what that means as she contemplates the 500 pages in front of her and thinks about how to address that criticism. More helpful might be something like, “The candidate employs passive verbs throughout, and sentences of nearly uniform length and construction, which makes this text less dynamic than it could be. Also, by mostly foregrounding the secondary criticism at the fronts of chapters, sections, and even paragraphs, the candidate is hiding her own ideas by placing them in much less prominent positions.” That is feedback that gives clear direction for improvement.

The best reports balance kindness and generosity with critique. When, as a professor of 13 years standing and frequent receiver of reports from Reviewer 2, I read the comments I’ve made up above, I am applauding my own pedagogical astuteness, but a candidate is going to receive them like this: “My external examiner thinks my dissertation is too long and I’m a bad writer and I don’t have any original ideas and I’m an idiot and she hates me.” I mean, that’s how I read Bukatman’s comments on my own dissertation at the time, but I see now, he was right about everything, and at the core, he was also very generous and full of praise though that was nearly impossible for me to see. It is your job as an examiner, then, to find some praiseworthy elements of the flatly-written, over-sourced, too-long 500 page dissertation you’re examining. Perhaps you can say, “The candidate’s secondary and primary research is clearly extensive, comprehensive, and well-nigh encyclopedic: this is to be applauded, and speaks to the great care with which this project has been handled.” Perhaps you can say, “Despite some infelicities of writing and construction, there are very clear original contributions to the field in this work: Cute Animal Studies will benefit from this deeply researched and minutely argued case for the Bassett Hound as ‘the next Corgi’ and I encourage the candidate, once suitable revisions are made, to share this work in a series of articles in refereed journals.” Perhaps you can say, “The candidate has show great skill in marshalling and explaining a hugevariety of sources in this work, evidencing a clear eye for both detail and a strong instinct for categorization.” Those portions of your review which aim to praise should have no clauses that undermine this praise–no buts. You have plenty of other sentences for that.

The best reports are attentive to the institutional norms of the host university. Each university has rules about formatting, about length, about what the different “grades” you can assign mean in that institutional context, about timelines, about length and detail required in the report, about responsibilities for attending a defence. Scrupulously attend to these, even if no one tells you what they are–it’s easy to Google this stuff, and you save needless back and forth if, for example, you are about to fail a dissertation for being too short at 150 pages, but that is considered well within the acceptable range at the university in question. A lot of stress arises from cross-institution mis-communication. This is especially true for international projects. Look it up. Save someone (possibly yourself) from a lot of gray hair and stress.

The best reports are complete and handed in on time. Period. Someone’s tuition, graduate career, and professional opportunities are at stake. At my university, most pragmatically, there are hard cut-off dates for graduation requests, as well as staggered full- and partial-tuition-refund deadlines. Please do not dally. It can cost thousands of dollars for the candidate.

The best reports are long enough to offer meaningful feedback. Usually, these can run between three and six single-spaced pages of text. That’s a good guideline.

For junior report writers, the best advice I can give you is to read as many reports as you can get your hands on. Ask if your department has any you can see. Ask your friendly colleagues in your department or in your field if you can see reports they’ve written. Exposure to a range of (anonymized) reports will go a long way to help you accustom yourself to the genre. The stakes are very high, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t admit you don’t know what you’re doing–it means you have every right to ask for guidance. I hope this little guide helps. Faculty who’ve done this a lot, do you have anything to add?

Next week, maybe I’ll write about how to conduct yourself at a defence, if you like?


Funny story. I have read probably six dissesertations in part or in whole since July. I was getting salty about it, and went to recalibrate my own expectations by looking at my own dissertation, which has sat unmolested on its shelf for more than a decade. I was looking to have a moment of hubris pricked–what I found instead was that it was way better than I remembered it and after discussing it on Facebook with a wide variety of people, I’ve lightly rewritten and sent it off, all 85,612 words, to an academic publisher. So, honestly, you never know what benefit you’ll get from reading other people’s dissertations, is the upshot of this wee anecdote.

#alt-ac · #post-ac · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · grad school · job market · mentoring · openness · PhD · reform · student engagement · students · transition

From the Archives: Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me During My PhD

The new school year is well underway, and so is the work I do with our Career Development Committee, a group of graduate students, postdocs, and research associates (who are very much like the STEM world’s version of contract academic faculty). The CDC’s mandate is to provide career development education that helps students and fellows find awesome non-academic careers, and they’re very good at it.

Their big fall event, Career Night, is happening tonight. They bring in 10 alumni or other graduate-trained people in their networks and then do what is in essence a series of short informational interviews. This time, we have everyone from an assistant provost to an academic acquisitions editor, with people from regulatory affairs, government policy, small-business ownership, research administration, and industry science also in the mix. A small group of students and fellows chat with one of the invitees for 25 minutes about their graduate training, their career path to the present, and what advice they have for others looking to move into a non-academic careers, and then they switch, and switch again.

By the end of the night, each person has had a chance to talk with three professionals, and to mingle and network with as many more as they want during the open part of the event. I wish I had access to a similar event during my PhD, and that I had gotten some of the good advice I know my students and fellows are going to get during Career Night. I know I’m not the only one, so here’s what I hope people learn tonight that might also be useful to you, or your students.

***

1. Be Realistic, and Open, About What Comes After Grad School

In the recent America-wide survey by Duke University graduate student Gregory Brennen, the data showed that 83% of graduate students started their PhD expecting to become a tenure-track professor. This is in stark contrast with the current data on how many PhDs actually end up in tenure track jobs—most estimates suggest that fewer than 50% of PhDs end up in any kind of academic job (that includes contract teaching) and that only between 15% and 25% ever secure tenure track jobs. Given this reality, graduate students need to prepare for, and embrace, the multitude of possibilities open to them after they complete their degrees. And they need to remember that being an academic is just a job, and that the are tons of interesting, fulfilling jobs doing other things. Mine is a good example.

2. Make Strategic Decisions About What You Do During Your Degree

 

As a friend kindly reminded me after I kept claiming that I got lucky in ending up in my job, we make our own luck. What seems random is actually, when you look back, a series of strategic decisions that lead to a whole host of post-degree opportunities. In my case, that strategic decision was to take a research assistantship in lieu of teaching during the fourth year of my PhD. While many PhD students fund their studies by teaching, and that’s a wonderful opportunity for people who are looking for careers in education, that may not be the best choice for people who are looking to do other things and need a different set of skills. These other opportunities are also extremely useful academically. Research or graduate assistantships are a big one to consider, as is doing an industry-partnered internship with Mitacs. So might be going on an international exchange, or selecting a graduate co-op program (which UBC now has in English, and Aimee tells me Waterloo is going to develop.) In my case, the research assistantship, researching graduate student professional development programs, let me develop the skills, knowledge, and experience that got me my job as a Research Officer.

3. Take Advantage of the Resources Available on Campus

As grad students, it’s easy to believe that most of the student support services available on campus are there for undergraduates, but that is emphatically not the case. There are a myriad of resources available on most campuses to help graduate students make the most of their degrees, to help them navigate the academic job market, or to help them transition out of academia or into an #alt-ac or #post-ac career. The Career Centre is a great place to start, and they can provide assistance with academic and non-academic job searches; Advancement can often connect grads with alumni in the fields they’re interested in; most Canadian universities now have graduate student professional development programs that offer a whole host of workshops and seminars; Mitacs offers a full suite of free transferable skills workshops; and many faculty members can, sometimes surprisingly, provide guidance and support in the search for jobs in and outside of the academy. It can be scary talking to faculty about plans to abandon the tenure track–believe me, I know–but the culture of silence around #alt-ac and #post-ac transition isn’t going to disappear until we all start talking about it.

4. Consider Creating A Shadow C.V.

One of the most important things graduate students can do to demonstrate to people outside of the academy that they have the needed skills is to have evidence that you’re capable of working outside of the academy. Especially for PhDs, the assumption that we’re overeducated and lacking in practical skills can be hard to overcome without demonstrated outside experience, and having at least one example of non-academic work experience to put in a resume can go a long way toward helping graduate students mentally connect the skills they’ve honed as a graduate students with those that crop up on job postings, and to help overcome the feeling that there’s nothing they’re qualified to do but be a professor. People have started calling experience developed alongside academic work, but not included in academic documents, a “shadow C.V.” In my case, I took a year off between my Master’s and my PhD to work in publishing and continued tutoring and editing throughout my degree. Other people I know have done summer placements, taken part-time jobs, done industry-partnered internships, or created web-based consulting and writing firms that allow them to work on their own time.

6. Learn How to Talk About Your Skills and Research to People Outside of Academia

Academese and English can sometimes seem like two different languages, and this is a major barrier to people with graduate degrees trying to make their qualifications and research make sense in contexts outside of the academy. It’s only natural. Communicating highly specialized research to non-academics isn’t a skill that most academics at any level practice all that much, other than the inevitable attempts to explain your work to your mother, or to someone you meet at a party. This is certainly changing, though. But opportunities to practice do exist, and graduate students should take advantage of them: compete in the Three Minute Thesis; take workshops on clear language writing; practice translating research into non-specialist language. Doing this can seem very non-intuitive for grad students, especially for those who have been academe for a long time, but once they learn how to do it, the relationship between what they do as academics and what shows up in job postings often becomes painfully obvious, as does the potential impact of their work outside the academy. This is, as a side benefit, and increasingly strong focus for many granting agencies, a number of which also now require clear-language or lay research summaries.

7. Think About What You Really Want to Do

Many PhD students are committed to being professors without actually knowing what the life, and the job, of a professor is really like. Our archives here at Hook & Eye can be pretty illuminating. Parts of it match up closely with the starry-eyed dream, but others definitely don’t. Meetings are endless and often frustrating. Grading is a slog. The pressure to publish and get stellar teaching evaluations can be debilitating. Students are disengaged. Service takes up far more time that people realize, and there’s never enough time for research and reflection. Graduate students should be figuring out what it is they really love about academia, and thinking about other jobs that might let them do those things more. The book So What Are You Going to Do with That? includes some fantastic exercises, ones that helped me realize that the things I love to do and am good at doing–coordinating, facilitating other people’s work and success, communications, writing, mentorship–are key components of all sorts of #alt-ac and #post-ac jobs, including my current one.

8. Think About What You Really Don’t Want to Do

As PhDs, we’re indoctrinated to believe that we should be willing to give up everything for a tenure track job. At some point, I shrugged that indoctrination off and made a list of the things that were more important to me than tenure: I didn’t want to move, wait until I was 40 to have kids, spend most of my life grading papers, spend multiple years as a contract professor, or write things that no one would ever read. For me, those were pretty convincing reasons to give up on the idea of becoming a professor, which requires total mobility, limits reproductive choices, requires far more teaching than research for most people, and mostly values journal and book publications that most people won’t read. The most important thing I had to convince myself of–and that we must tell graduate students, over and over–is that choosing where to live, desiring to have a child without worrying about compromising doctoral work or chances at tenure, refusing precarious employment, are totally legitimate life choices that are okay to voice aloud, despite the tendency of academia to suggest that if you aren’t willing to sacrifice your whole life, even your whole identity, to being an academic, you’re a second-class citizen. It broke my heart, in a good way, to have a whole gaggle of female Queen’s students come up to me after my talk and thank me for saying out loud that my desire to have kids before I was 35 was a factor in my decision making. It is for many people, and that’s something that should be discussed openly.

The other important part of this equation is to get graduate students talking to people they know in academia and outside, and find out from them what their jobs are really like. So long as we perpetuate the belief that academia is the only worthy place of employment, and that a professorship is the only truly fulfulling and engaging job, graduate students will ignore a whole host of career possibilities that might be a much better personal and professional fit.

9. Don’t Conflate Who You Are With What You Do

This is an obvious one, and a hard one to avoid–but if graduate students can avoid the trap of believing that they are academics, and that if they don’t get to continue to be academics they’ll be nothing, they’ll save themselves a horrible and painful identity crisis if the time comes that the professoriate becomes an unobtainable dream. A professorship is just a job. It is not a vocation, or an identity, and graduate students are so much more than the single career option the academy tells them is worthy.

10. Enjoy the Ride
 

Getting paid to read for comps. Taking classes totally outside of your area because you can. Auditing things purely for interest. Debating theory over far too much wine. Style-stalking your favourite professor. Choosing conferences based purely on location. These are some of the best parts of grad school, and they should be relished, and they often aren’t because PhDs are too busy conferencing and publishing and professionalizing and shadow-CVing and comparing themselves to all of the other PhDs they know. Yes, those things need to get done (minus the last one) but statistically speaking, the chances of getting to stay in academia on a permanent basis are slim. Enjoy the ride while it lasts.

***

So, dear readers, what do you think? What advice would you give to current graduate students facing the reality of a terrible academic job market? What advice do you wish you had gotten during your PhD?

#alt-ac · #post-ac · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · grad school · job market · mentoring · openness · PhD · reform · student engagement · students · transition

Things I wish someone had told me during my PhD

I was invited, about a month back, to give a talk at Queen’s University to a mixed group of grad students, adjuncts, faculty and staff on hacking your graduate degree for maximum post-PhD flexibility. I hosted a similar session for some students at my university today. The point of the talk is that graduate students can make strategic choices about the opportunities they pursue during their degrees,  and that these opportunities can help them develop a variety of skills, a strong professional network, and a compelling body of work which can make it easier for them to pursue a variety of career paths inside and outside of the academy. What I wanted to do was have an honest conversation about the things I wish I had known during grad school, things that would have made my time there even more enjoyable and productive, and that would have made my eventual transition onto the #alt-ac track (both mentally, and literally) more seamless and painless. And how does one hack one’s graduate degree, you might ask? Here’s my advice. (Do note that it places the onus on graduate students, who were my original audience. The conversation about what faculty and administrators should be doing, and about why some of this shouldn’t be the responsibility of our PhDs, is for another day.)

1. Be Realistic, and Open, About What Comes After Grad School

In the recent America-wide survey by Duke University graduate student Gregory Brennen, the data showed that 83% of graduate students started their PhD expecting to become a tenure-track professor. This is in stark contrast with the current data on how many PhDs actually end up in tenure track jobs—most estimates suggest that fewer than 50% of PhDs end up in any kind of academic job (that includes contract teaching) and that only between 15% and 25% ever secure tenure track jobs. Given this reality, graduate students need to prepare for, and embrace, the multitude of possibilities open to them after they complete their degrees. And they need to remember that being an academic is just a job, and that the are tons of interesting, fulfilling jobs doing other things. Mine is a good example.

2. Make Strategic Decisions About What You Do During Your Degree


As a friend kindly reminded me after I kept claiming that I got lucky in ending up in my job, we make our own luck. What seems random is actually, when you look back, a series of strategic decisions that lead to a whole host of post-degree opportunities. In my case, that strategic decision was to take a research assistantship in lieu of teaching during the fourth year of my PhD. While many PhD students fund their studies by teaching, and that’s a wonderful opportunity for people who are looking for careers in education, that may not be the best choice for people who are looking to do other things and need a different set of skills. These other opportunities are also extremely useful academically. Research or graduate assistantships are a big one to consider, as is doing an industry-partnered internship with Mitacs. So might be going on an international exchange, or selecting a graduate co-op program (which UBC now has in English, and Aimee tells me Waterloo is going to develop.) In my case, the research assistantship, researching graduate student professional development programs, let me develop the skills, knowledge, and experience that got me my job as a Research Officer.

3. Take Advantage of the Resources Available on Campus

As grad students, it’s easy to believe that most of the student support services available on campus are there for undergraduates, but that is emphatically not the case. There are a myriad of resources available on most campuses to help graduate students make the most of their degrees, to help them navigate the academic job market, or to help them transition out of academia or into an #alt-ac or #post-ac career. The Career Centre is a great place to start, and they can provide assistance with academic and non-academic job searches; Advancement can often connect grads with alumni in the fields they’re interested in; most Canadian universities now have graduate student professional development programs that offer a whole host of workshops and seminars; Mitacs offers a full suite of free transferable skills workshops; and many faculty members can, sometimes surprisingly, provide guidance and support in the search for jobs in and outside of the academy. It can be scary talking to faculty about plans to abandon the tenure track–believe me, I know–but the culture of silence around #alt-ac and #post-ac transition isn’t going to disappear until we all start talking about it.

4. Consider Creating A Shadow C.V.

One of the most important things graduate students can do to demonstrate to people outside of the academy that they have the needed skills is to have evidence that you’re capable of working outside of the academy. Especially for PhDs, the assumption that we’re overeducated and lacking in practical skills can be hard to overcome without demonstrated outside experience, and having at least one example of non-academic work experience to put in a resume can go a long way toward helping graduate students mentally connect the skills they’ve honed as a graduate students with those that crop up on job postings, and to help overcome the feeling that there’s nothing they’re qualified to do but be a professor. People have started calling experience developed alongside academic work, but not included in academic documents, a “shadow C.V.” In my case, I took a year off between my Master’s and my PhD to work in publishing and continued tutoring and editing throughout my degree. Other people I know have done summer placements, taken part-time jobs, done industry-partnered internships, or created web-based consulting and writing firms that allow them to work on their own time.

6. Learn How to Talk About Your Skills and Research to People Outside of Academia

Academese and English can sometimes seem like two different languages, and this is a major barrier to people with graduate degrees trying to make their qualifications and research make sense in contexts outside of the academy. It’s only natural. Communicating highly specialized research to non-academics isn’t a skill that most academics at any level practice all that much, other than the inevitable attempts to explain your work to your mother, or to someone you meet at a party. This is certainly changing, though. But opportunities to practice do exist, and graduate students should take advantage of them: compete in the Three Minute Thesis; take workshops on clear language writing; practice translating research into non-specialist language. Doing this can seem very non-intuitive for grad students, especially for those who have been academe for a long time, but once they learn how to do it, the relationship between what they do as academics and what shows up in job postings often becomes painfully obvious, as does the potential impact of their work outside the academy. This is, as a side benefit, and increasingly strong focus for many granting agencies, a number of which also now require clear-language or lay research summaries.

7. Think About What You Really Want to Do

Many PhD students are committed to being professors without actually knowing what the life, and the job, of a professor is really like. Our archives here at Hook & Eye can be pretty illuminating. Parts of it match up closely with the starry-eyed dream, but others definitely don’t. Meetings are endless and often frustrating. Grading is a slog. The pressure to publish and get stellar teaching evaluations can be debilitating. Students are disengaged. Service takes up far more time that people realize, and there’s never enough time for research and reflection. Graduate students should be figuring out what it is they really love about academia, and thinking about other jobs that might let them do those things more. The book So What Are You Going to Do with That? includes some fantastic exercises, ones that helped me realize that the things I love to do and am good at doing–coordinating, facilitating other people’s work and success, communications, writing, mentorship–are key components of all sorts of #alt-ac and #post-ac jobs, including my current one.

8. Think About What You Really Don’t Want to Do

As PhDs, we’re indoctrinated to believe that we should be willing to give up everything for a tenure track job. At some point, I shrugged that indoctrination off and made a list of the things that were more important to me than tenure: I didn’t want to move, wait until I was 40 to have kids, spend most of my life grading papers, spend multiple years as a contract professor, or write things that no one would ever read. For me, those were pretty convincing reasons to give up on the idea of becoming a professor, which requires total mobility, limits reproductive choices, requires far more teaching than research for most people, and mostly values journal and book publications that most people won’t read. The most important thing I had to convince myself of–and that we must tell graduate students, over and over–is that choosing where to live, desiring to have a child without worrying about compromising doctoral work or chances at tenure, refusing precarious employment, are totally legitimate life choices that are okay to voice aloud, despite the tendency of academia to suggest that if you aren’t willing to sacrifice your whole life, even your whole identity, to being an academic, you’re a second-class citizen. It broke my heart, in a good way, to have a whole gaggle of female Queen’s students come up to me after my talk and thank me for saying out loud that my desire to have kids before I was 35 was a factor in my decision making. It is for many people, and that’s something that should be discussed openly.

The other important part of this equation is to get graduate students talking to people they know in academia and outside, and find out from them what their jobs are really like. So long as we perpetuate the belief that academia is the only worthy place of employment, and that a professorship is the only truly fulfulling and engaging job, graduate students will ignore a whole host of career possibilities that might be a much better personal and professional fit.

9. Don’t Conflate Who You Are With What You Do

This is an obvious one, and a hard one to avoid–but if graduate students can avoid the trap of believing that they are academics, and that if they don’t get to continue to be academics they’ll be nothing, they’ll save themselves a horrible and painful identity crisis if the time comes that the professoriate becomes an unobtainable dream. A professorship is just a job. It is not a vocation, or an identity, and graduate students are so much more than the single career option the academy tells them is worthy. 

10. Enjoy the Ride

Getting paid to read for comps. Taking classes totally outside of your area because you can. Auditing things purely for interest. Debating theory over far too much wine. Style-stalking your favourite professor. Choosing conferences based purely on location. These are some of the best parts of grad school, and they should be relished, and they often aren’t because PhDs are too busy conferencing and publishing and professionalizing and shadow-CVing and comparing themselves to all of the other PhDs they know. Yes, those things need to get done (minus the last one) but statistically speaking, the chances of getting to stay in academia on a permanent basis are slim. Enjoy the ride while it lasts.

***

So, dear readers, what do you think? What advice would you give to current graduate students facing the reality of a terrible academic job market? What advice do you wish you had gotten during your PhD?