Friday, July 25, 2008

Too Much TV

We cancelled cable so my husband wouldn't watch so much TV, and now I am the one having the problem! Who knew that when you combine TiVo and Netflix, you end up watching TV for hours??? I think I am motivated in some way to get the biggest bang for my buck from Netflix (even though they slow down your service if you are too quick with the returning).

My sister did assure me that it's normal to binge on DVDs when you first get Netflix, but then you taper off to a normal level. I hope so.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Why I Hate Talking Shop with Non-Academics

Actually, I hate talking shop period. I think this is another sign that academia is not for me- I find talking about it so boring. However boring it is talking about it with other academics, it is so much worse talking about it with non-academics who really don't understand the weirdness of academia or Ph.D. programs. Let me count the reasons why.

  1. They just don't understand. Anything. They ask you innocuous questions that raise your blood pressure like "When are you going to be finished?" and "Are you finally graduating this year?"
  2. They offer the DUMBEST ideas for your dissertation. Here is a tip for all of you who have never gotten to the point where you had to write a dissertation- if you came with an idea from reading The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, watching the local news, or corporate training, it has almost CERTAINLY been done before.
  3. The question "So do you know what you're going to do when you're finished?
  4. You have to try to explain your complicated, esoteric research idea to people who, even if they're smart, don't know the context. I'm not talking about general ideas, like "My dissertation is on 18th century American literature" or "paternalism in the Japan in the 1950s", but very specific details, because they are sure that they can understand the exact details and relationships of the variables.
  5. Worst of all, I don't like talking about academia with non-academics because I find that I get annoyed and snappish. I'm a bad conversation partner on this topic.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Ugliest. Nursery. Ever.

My sister just found out she is pregnant, so I sent her the link to Apartment Therapy's nursery/baby/parent site, ohdeedoh. Apartment Therapy's aesthetic is mostly too modern for my taste (I hate that "grandma's estate sale" look that is passing for the trendy "mid-century modern" these days), and ohdeedoh leans that way too, but there are a lot of cute ideas for people who don't want that ugly pale yellow/green ducks theme or overly cutesy nursery themes from Babies 'R' Us. But this nursery goes too far.

You know what, people? "Eastern Bloc" is a horrible nursery theme. And no, that is not a black and white picture.

The whole post has other rooms that use grey that aren't so bad, but grey is probably my second least-favorite color for a nursery, followed only by black.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Sexism in Academia

Did you guys read this article in the NYT about applying Title IX to academics? Hoo boy.

I have to say, the tone of the article made a lot more sense when I found out that John Tierney used to be the conservative columnist for the NYT's op-ed page.

More later.

Back to the Dark Ages (of TV)

We took the plunge. We cancelled cable. We didn't just switch from digital cable to regular, or from regular to the local-channel-reception-only package. We went cold turkey. The Comcast tech came today to take away our box. I made sure he took the remote too, since I bet they would charge us for it.

The seed for this drastic step was planted by the digital reception converter boxes that we got. Our TVs are old with cathode ray technology. No shiny new flat screen HDTVs for us, at least, not until the price for them plummets. While we had digital cable in our living room, the small TV/VCR (double whammy of obsolete technology) just had an antenna. I had been seeing the ads warning us that we will lose reception in February 2009 if we didn't get one of these boxes, so I signed up for the government-issued $40 coupon. I signed up for two of them, in fact, since we have two televisions. We have lived without cable in the past, it wasn't inconceivable that we would live without it in the future. I wanted the option, anyway.

Turns out that the reception is fabulous and crystal clear. Apparently with digital, you either get it clear and perfect, or you don't get it at all. When we saw how good the reception was, we thought, "Hmmm.... we could cancel cable and save a little money...."

A few weeks later, we had a very real discussion about the fact that my husband comes home from work and gets sucked into every episode of Law & Order and crappy movie that TNT/TBS/FX can put on. It doesn't matter how bad, if they blow crap up, he's there. This seems weird to me, because while I watch a lot of TV, I can't watch just anything, I have to watch things that I really enjoy, a category that does not include Lethal Weapon 3 or SVU. He felt that he should be doing work in the evenings instead, but just couldn't resist the siren call of Sam Waterston and former Senator Fred Thompson. As a good wife, I made the offer that we could get rid of cable, if he really thought this would help him do work at night. Plus, it would save us about $70 a month once our Triple Play deal expired.

We decided to do it. To make up for it, we signed up for Netflix, a decision I am not sure is terrific, given how long it is taking them to ship our initial movies out, plus we are getting TiVo, which was part of the deal I made with myself for passing my oral exams. I am not really sure how great TiVo is going to be with broadcast, but at least now I should be able to watch every single episode of Globe Trekker.

Our TiVo is supposed to arrive today. By UPS. This means that I will need to sign for it. However, since we don't have cable anymore, and our Netflix movies aren't supposed to get here until tomorrow (and I'm not even sure that I'm getting one that I want- I know that discs 1 and 2 of Season 2 of The Wire, another show that I hate but my husband loves, are supposed to arrive, but no word on my copy of The Holiday), I wanted to run to the library to get some DVDs to tide me over.

My local public library is a lot like TJ Maxx in a bad neighborhood. You walk in and it's dirty and unorganized with sketchy people in there (seriously- my library has homeless people looking at bikini pictures on the internet), and at on any one given visit, you can't find anything you want. However, when you start stopping in all the time, you find treasures. Masterpiece Theatre DVDs! That new non-fiction book you've been wanting to read! An audiobook of Terry Pratchett's YA novel The Wee Free Men!

Unfortunately, Friday is usually not the best day to find treasures, as everything tends to be picked over. However, I was desperate. I have one episode of the first season of Big Love left (and my liking for this show has gone downhill over the 11 episodes that I've seen so far), and beyond that, nada. And I was worried I would miss the delivery of our TiVo. I tried to make my library trip as brief as possible, and ended up with Masterpiece Theatre's Adam Bede (someone at the library must have ordered the George Eliot boxed DVD set because they have all these DVDs), the sequel to Before Sunrise called Before Sunset, and Supersize Me. Not my top selections, but they will do.

Meanwhile, at the library, I am shaking with fear that the TiVo is going to arrive while I am gone, and then we're not going to get it until Monday, because UPS doesn't deliver on Saturday. I quickly do my cursory browse of the new non-fiction, cookbooks, and craft books, pay my fine (because I always have fines on my account), and hightail it out of there in the hopes of catching Big Brown, should he happen to come by.

There's no yellow/brown post-it on the door of our apartment building. Phew! It ended up being anticlimactic, though, because the UPS guy didn't even need buzzing in. He just left the package, which was half my size, downstairs by the mailboxes.

So for this weekend, it's George Eliot, PBS, fast food, and me.

Monday, July 14, 2008

How to Pick a Ph.D. Program

I have a number of friends who have come to me for advice on applying for a Ph.D. program. I have collected my "best of" advice from my emails, and I thought I would share it with my readers (all 4 of them). If any of you have advice you'd like to add, feel free.

So You're Thinking of Getting a Ph.D.

1. Don't. I can't say this strongly enough, and yet, I have never been able to convince anyone not to do it. The only reason you should be getting a Ph.D. is if you absolutely need one to pursue your chosen career. This means you want to be either an academic, or you want to work in a science lab. Bad reasons to get a Ph.D. include:
  • "I'm sick of my job. I'd like to take a break." Believe me, a Ph.D. is not a break.
  • "A Ph.D. is sooooooo much more impressive than a masters." This may be true, but even put together with the previous reason, it's not worth it.
  • "The economy is in the crapper." Don't worry, it will turn around well before you get out in 5-8 years.
  • "I'm great at classes." Ph.D. programs are not really about classes.

Basically, don't go unless you are 100% sure you want to do it, have really done your homework, and know that having those 3 letters after your name is essential to doing what you want to do and there is no way you can do it otherwise. So I haven't convinced you? All right, fine. Read on for advice on how to pick a program.

2. Talk to current students or recent Ph.Ds to find out who has the best programs in your desired area. You should find these people through your personal networks, not randomly email ones you found listed on the school website. My colleagues and I get emails all the time from people (usually from outside the U.S.) wanting information on how to get a Ph.D. in the U.S. We generally ignore these emails. It is nothing personal, but we just don't have time to email random people we don't know. Use your LinkedIn contacts, ask your friends and family, ask your undergrad advisor, etc. Academia is a pretty small world, and you might be surprised whom your friends know.

If you want to do academia, you will be better off going to the very best program that you can get into. You will have more options this way. Students are great for finding out this because really, they don't have anything invested in you coming to their school. Ask them "what are the best programs in this area?" It will be helpful if you have a narrower idea of what area within the field interests you. So if you want to get an English Ph.D., it will help you pick a program if you have a general idea of whether you are interested in Shakespeare or 20th century African-American literature. If you're interested in the latter, it's not smart to go to a program, no matter how great the overall reputation, if they don't have any scholars there currently doing anything with 20th century African-American literature. This won't be a problem with bigger programs, who tend have enough people to cover most areas, but even so, some programs are stronger in particular areas than others.

3. Realize that it is going to take you MINIMUM five years to finish. Some programs (like mine) like to sell their programs as four-year programs. The only people I have heard of who finished in four years came in on DAY ONE with their dissertation idea and dataset. If this isn't you, you're going to take five years. If you're lucky. Ask how long it has taken the most recent graduates to finish. If you can get the median time to graduation, this is helpful too. Ask about the requirements. I picked a program with an abnormally high number of requirements, and this means that students in my program take a long time to graduate.

4. Once you get in, do your homework to pick the right program. You will get the most honest information from current students (with the caveat coming later in the post), but be sure to talk to faculty as well. Best case scenario is that your school will fly you out so you can see the campus and talk to students and professors. I am assuming that if you got this far, you want to be a professor. If you don't, see #1. Seriously.

Here's the big caveat about talking to current students. They will be too scared to say anything bad about their program or the professors (especially the professors). Here's why. They don't know you. We don't know if we tell you "Oh, Professor X is horrible" or "in our program, the professors use the grad students as slave labor." that you're not going to go to the next school on your list and say "Yeah, I heard from students at PreviousUniversity that the professors there are a nightmare." And then it gets back to the faculty at our school! So we're not going to say a word that is directly negative about our program. Now, if I am talking to a close friend, I might be more candid (although, truthfully, most of the negatives in my program are administrative, and I feel fine about being candid about these) If you are clueless about how this works, you can miss some important information or be blindsided by some pretty nasty stuff when you arrive. So if you hear them avoid answering a question, or give neutral or noncommittal answers, feel free to interpret that as a negative. They will be positive about things that are positive.

5. With this in mind, here are some things you should ask about.
  • Ask where graduates from the last several years (I would say the last five years) have gotten jobs. Some departments have this information on their websites, but others will say that they've placed graduates at "a variety of universities including Flagship State University, University of SmallState, and FancyPants University." When the placement info is given so generally, it's a pretty safe assumption that the person who got a job at FancyPants University is probably the one superstar from 10 years ago, and this is not at all representative of where the average graduate from this program gets placed. All else being equal, you want to go to the school that has the best placement record. The caveat is that I think it is better to go to a school with a slightly worse placement records if the faculty is more supportive and helpful and nice.
  • Does this school function on a "star" system? I know of some programs where if you're a star student, you get a lot of attention, but if you're a middle-of-the-road student, you will have a hard time getting resources and attention.
  • Try to suss out the nature of the relationships between the faculty and students. If possible, you want to go a place where the faculty members treat the students with respect, support them in their learning, give them opportunities for coauthorships, and aren't abusive.
  • What is the funding like? Do you get grants or do you have to TA for most of your money? TAing is not as bad as you hear sometimes; it depends on the professor, but the less TAing, the better. How many years do you get guaranteed funding? Is it a problem to get funding after you're not guaranteed? For instance, in my program, you're only guaranteed funding for 4 years, but really, there are so many TA positions that it is easy to get funding as long as you need it (if you are in town and able to TA).
  • Do they kick people out a lot? This is a very important question to ask. Some programs that I know of get rid of 50% of their students within the first two years. This is crazy to me. You really don't want to go somewhere that kicks out a lot of their students. This is often a sign of department dysfunction. Sometimes kicking people out is a necessary evil- people don't progress, can't cut the work, etc., but this should be somewhat of a minimum.

6. This brings me to a very important point: Do NOT go anywhere that does not give you a masters if you either leave or get kicked out after a certain point (usually after the qualifying exams) If you fail your exams or if you pass them but decide to leave because academia isn't for you and you've realized that you've made a colossal mistake, you want to get something for your trouble without having to sit through 5-8 years of misery. Sometimes programs will say that this is so they don't reward people for dropping out or getting kicked out, but this is BS.

7. And finally, do not go to a program because there is one professor there for whom you would like to work. This is basically putting all your eggs in one basket. People go on sabbatical, they move to other universities, or worst of all, they could be abusive and horrible. There should be at least a few professors there who appeal to you.

Edited to add: One more thing-- ask current grad students at one university about other universities. Because while we won't talk smack about our own, we have no scruples about giving you the scoop on other places, if we know anything.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Recommendation for all the struggling academics

Getting to ABD was a long time coming for two reasons. First, the way my program is structured means that I had a lot more hoops to jump through than any other program that I know. Second, I spent about a year making not much progress.

At one point, my advisor had the "Come to Jesus" talk with me that went something like "I'm concerned that you're not making progress; maybe you should talk to someone." I had been exploring the idea of a dissertation coach, but hadn't made that last step. I know from experience with therapists that it can be tough finding the right one, plus, it means that I would actually have to start doing, you know, work. At this point, a not-small part of me kind of hoped I would get kicked out of the program. But a Come to Jesus talk? Time to get real.

I contacted one prominent dissertation coach, and she didn't have room in her schedule for new clients. She referred me to Gina Hiatt, a colleague of hers who did have time to take on new clients. I had one session with Gina, who told me that she was about to start up a new pilot program for-- get this-- online coaching (which has now morphed into Academic Writing Club. It was going to be much, much cheaper than one-on-one sessions, so it sounded like a reasonable strategy to try.

This is, in all seriousness, the smartest thing that I have done since the colossal mistake of starting the damn Ph.D. program in the first place. I cannot emphasize enough how helpful this was in building writing discipline from the ground up AND, even more importantly, getting emotional and practical support from other academics in a way that is lacking in many programs. I think I have a pretty good program overall, but I still don't have this kind of support from my advisor or peers.

It's $50 a month (if you sign up before the deadline), and it is well worth the money. It's a very affordable way to get dissertation coaching to get you going. If you are struggling with your program, seriously, give this a try.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Certain Girls

I just read Jennifer Weiner's sequel to her first book Good in Bed. This one is called Certain Girls. I didn't enjoy it as much as Good in Bed, but it was okay. I had to giggle to see the crazy sorority dealings at DePauw University in Indiana referenced in the book. Cannie (main character) is reading the news on line and mentions reading this story. They deserve all the shaming they can get.

Thursday, July 03, 2008


By the way, I finally took my oral exam (and passed), so now I am ABD! Thank you, Jesus! Incidentally, this was my reaction when they told me that I passed. It got a laugh. I was not being as ironic as they thought, though, considering I called my mom sobbing the hour before (I was really nervous) and had her pray with me. Good times.

Kate Shindle's Blog

So my favorite Miss America, Kate Shindle, has a blog called Shindle's List. Reading it reminded me why she's my favorite, and also, why seeing her win made me think "Hey, I can do this too!" I found it by googling her after seeing her on a recent episode of Legally Blonde: The Search for Elle Woods on MTV.

Another pageant-related blog (the blog itself isn't about pageants, but it's written by a friend of mine that I know from pageants) is my friend Kim Jobe's new blog called The New Impatience of Jobe. Kim used to be a regular columnist and reporter for her local paper in Corinth, MS. She is now pursuing a different career path, but started a blog so she could keep writing her column. Kim is a genuinely good, warm-hearted person, and a great fan and supporter of all her friends.