Solving Graduate School by Backward Induction

There are a lot of good tips about how to be a graduate student, how to succeed, get the job you want, etc. For example, Fabio Rojas has an award-winning, feature-film length series Grad School Rulz, which are a fantastic reference. There are also some excellent books on the subject – I like Getting What You Came For for the pragmatic take, and Disciplined Minds for a more critical take. I was thinking about grad school strategy today after a talk with my grad director about my long-term funding situation (the magic 8-ball suggests a promising future, thankfully). And I realized that what I was trying to do was solve graduate school by a process of backward induction. Let me explain.

Start with the C.V. of someone who just got the job you want or one just like it. Preferably there are a small collection of these, to get some variation. Examine these C.V.s and find the trends – what kind of programs did they go to, do they have famous advisors, how many and what size grants did they get, how much did they publish and where, are they working on a big book, what awards did they get, etc. Next, figure out which of these accomplishments make sense for you to aim for. In other words, what is your ideal C.V. on graduation?

Next, work backwards. For example, in Soc, one good journal publication seems to be the minimum barrier of entry to R-1-type jobs. 2+ is highly preferred, especially if you are an article-style person rather than a book-style person. To get a publication accepted in the year you go on the market, you need to have a reasonably polished paper two years before that (to be able to submit and revise it a couple times). To get a polished paper, you have to have an idea and data and etc. So, if you want to graduate in 2014 and get a great job, you need a great paper out in 2013, which means a great paper idea and a lot of work done by 2011. And so on – mutatis mutandis. Some things are hard to control – the right post-doc may or may not appear, the data you work on may not yield the results you expected, the U.S. economy may crumble the year you want to graduate massively raising the barrier to getting a job, etc. But at least this process gives you a framework to shoot for. Just doing that initial search – finding the CVs you want to emulate – can be a real eye-opener, especially if most of the information you’ve relied on up ’til then came from faculty who are not in touch with the harsh realities of the current job market.

After you work backwards from your ideal C.V. to what you need to do in the preceding years to get all that done, you’ll have a sense of how long you’ll need to be a graduate student. Then you can think about funding – how are you going to pay for all that time? If you need 4 more years to get enough publications to get the job you want, you better have 4 years worth of funding. A lot of our funding comes from teaching positions, but at least at Michigan, teaching is becoming a less reliable source of income – as schools slash budgets, funding past the promises in offer-letters (and the offer letters themselves) rate to get stingier all over. So the next part becomes mapping out where you can get funding to pay for all those years you need to write the paper to get the C.V. to get the job. And apparently you should also make sure you can get tenure at that job (assuming you want a tenure-track faculty job), but that part’s a bit beyond me right now.

Anyway, I hope this is all good advice. I’ll let you know in a few years!



  1. Dan — This is very good advice, indeed. It is startling how long it can take to get something out the door. Although I have not successfully landed the tenure track job (here’s knocking on some wood), I would add two things to what you note here.

    First, I think that it is important to not become too narrowly focused in grad school. You need that paper, and so it is definitely a great idea to plan for it, but you should also be open to starting new things and meeting new people. Those experiences and networks will help you by making you unique and giving you a wider group of people for advice and support as you progress to the next stage of your career.

    Second, it’s also important to be constantly thinking about the interesting questions that you develop in the process of writing your good paper and dissertation. I have gotten the advice from lots of people that you don’t want to seem like you have nothing left after you finish your dissertation and they want to see what the next project is going to look like. I kept a small notebook on me as I was writing my dissertation (and still do now, although the ideas are flowing at a slower rate) to jot all of them down and keep them in one place.

    It definitely seems like you are well on your way.

  2. All this CV talk annoys me. It’s like the career advisor telling you all the tips to make a promising resume. I guess I’different then most of y’all. I’ve been planning to get a PhD in the social sciences since my high school years, but never wanted to be a professor. I wanted to learn at the highest level in order to understand the world better and contribute my understanding for the greater good. I started off admiring Enlightenment figures like Descartes, Voltaire, and Mill; I wanted to be like them. And though it’s a whole different world now, the professorial role still can’t satisfy my desires. I realize that other people are different than me and that’s fine, but it seems to me that you should just study what you want rather than follow the path of someone else who got the position you supposedly want. I mean, why are you doing grad school to begin with? And are the various professorial posts really all the different? You teach, write articles, write books, and attend conferences. Firefighters put out fires, operate the Jaws of Life, and get cats down from trees. What’s the worst that can happen if you just study what you want? I just don’t get what the problem is.

    • Elizabeth

       /  August 3, 2010

      You’re awfully defensive for someone who supposedly knows what he wants.

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