d i g i t a l   a d v i s o r . . .

Personal Development: Creating a New Identity

Becoming a scholar means becoming a person who is continually learning. You should start now to form the habit of regularly reading research journals. In addition, while you are here, you should be learning how to conduct research and how to evaluate research.  You are entering the knowledge business, and the production and evaluation of knowledge are essential to your success.

Here are some things you should do as you go through this program:

Year One

1. Decide how you want to define yourself when you leave

When you finish your program at MSU and begin looking for work, you will notice that employers rarely ask for someone with a general doctoral education. They want someone who is specifically an English educator or a math educator, or they want someone who is a policy analyst or a test developer. You need to think NOW about which of these labels you want to use to define yourself. Start by looking at want ads such as these:

  • The back pages of the Educational Researcher, which you will receive if you become a member of the AERA, or American Educational Research Association. Ads are placed there by a variety of university and private research organizations.
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education classified ads, which cover nearly all university positions but often don't include positions in other sectors.
  • The Education Week classified ads, which are more likely to offer positions in state governments and school districts.
  • The Sunday New York Times Op-Ed section, which includes a scattering of classified ads in the field of education that represent a wide range of sectors such as private schools, universities, and private organizations.

From this perusal, settle on one or two labels that you think are closest to your interests, and that you would like to be able to apply to yourself. With these labels in mind, you can begin planning your program.

2. Join one or two professional associations and subscribe to their journals

One of the associations you should join is the American Educational Research Association. This is the main professional organization for education professorate. However, there are also numerous other associations that represent the interests of specific subgroups of education professors such as philosophy, mathematics, English and so forth. Most associations also publish journals and newsletters, so membership in them helps you begin your habit of regularly reading these things.

3. Make a list of things you can do to become the person you want to be

Among other things, your list should include courses you will want to take. However, your list should include a lot more than just courses. For instance, by the time you graduate, you may want to make sure you have done things like:

  • Taught one or more courses in your area of interest;
  • Joined one or more associations that represent your area of interest;
  • Held a research assistantship in your area of interest;
  • Presented a paper at a meeting of the professional association you feel most affiliated with;
  • Taken courses in your area, including some outside of the College of Education;
  • Conducted research, preferably in BOTH your 995 research practicum and in your dissertation, that is relevant to the area you are using to define yourself.
  • Interacted with faculty in this area enough that you will feel comfortable asking them to write letters of recommendation for you when you are ready to leave. (This familiarity can come from being a student of theirs, a teaching assistant of theirs, a research assistant of theirs or an advisee of theirs.)

4. Find out as much as you can from other students about faculty and courses available to you

During your first year, you will meet other students in your cohort who will be taking other courses. Use your new acquaintances as much as you can. Ask other students about the faculty they have met, either in courses in in their assistantships, and ask them about the courses they have taken. Don't settle for general comments such as, "This course is really good," or "This professor is a little disorganized." Ask for details. Ask for examples. And ask more than one person. Keep notes on all of these details because you want to make sure that the courses you take, and the faculty you seek to acquaint yourself with, are the ones that will most benefit you as you define yourself.

At the same time, make sure you learn about courses OUTSIDE the College of Education. For instance, if you are interested in issues of diversity, consider taking a course in the sociology department. If you are interested in English, take courses from the English department. If you want to learn more about research methods, look into courses offered in other departments. And remember that MSU and U of M have an exchange agreement, so you can also take courses down there.

5. Learn the software that will help you become a a scholar

There are many programs now that are especially helpful for students and faculty members. Some are expensive, but many are not. I, your digital advisor, have developed a handout laying out some of the programs that are most useful for academic work.

Years Two-Four

1. Take Courses

Make sure you have developed a list of courses that helps you attain the label you want to attach to yourself. Don't be afraid to take courses outside the College of Education if these will help with that process, and don't overlook the possibility of taking a course at the U of M, through our exchange agreement. Also don't be timid about taking LOTS of courses. The number we require is a minimum, and mastery of a field often requires much more than that.

2. Try to do as many things on your list as possible


3. Find faculty who can help you achieve your goals

You may need to have as many as three different advisors for specific parts of your work here. First, you will want an advisor to help you develop your program plan and identify courses that will help you achieve your goals.

Second, you will want a research mentor to help you with your research practicum study. This person will be the teacher of record when you enroll in TE 995, the research practicum course. This person need not be the same as your program advisor. The best option for you would be someone who has actually done research in the area you will be studying, or who is supervising other doctoral students who are doing research in this same area, so that they know something about the special problems associated with evidence related to this topic.

Third, you will want a dissertation director. Again, this person need not be the same as either of the other two, but should be someone who knows the area you will be investigating and who has the time to help you do a good job studying it.

Don't be shy about interrogating faculty. They will be working for you, and you want to make sure they can really help you. Ask them to share articles they have published recently, so that you can see what kind of work they have been doing. Ask them what courses they have been teaching, to see if the content they are thinking about is relevant to you.

Also don't be shy about changing the advisor you were originally assigned. The advisor you begin with is called a temporary advisor because the Department expects you to change advisors once you meet everyone and get more certain about where you want to go. You will not be hurting your temporary advisor's feelings if you change to someone else. Similarly, the person who serves you best as a program advisor may not be the person who will serve you best when you begin doing your research. Again, don't be shy about selecting the person who will work best for each of the tasks you need to do.

On the other side, try not to change advisors too often. You want continuity in your advisors so that the advice you receive makes sense, so that you can establish productive relations with them, and so that they will be able to write knowledgeable and positive letters of recommendation for you when you begin your job search. Rapid-fire changes can discourage faculty from investing time in you. So think about the three main places where you will need an advisor--your program, your research practicum, and your dissertation, and try to find the best person for each of these tasks, but try to make the best decision about each one once, so that you don't have to make changes later on.

4. Join Informal Study Groups

There are a number of informal study groups in the College that might be worthwhile for you to join. These come and go, so you need to keep your eyes and ears open to learn about them. Here are some examples:

International Teachers Study Group (ask Jack Schwille)

Mathematics Study Group (ask Jack Smith)

Science lunches (My understanding is that the science faculty and grads don't have a formal study group, but that they often convene at lunch time and eat together in the science bay)

5. Attend seminars

You will regularly see announcements for seminars during your stay at the college. Some of these will be offered by our own faculty, and some by visiting scholars. Many of them will be people who are candidates for positions on our faculty. Attend as many of these as you can. You will learn much more than the specific content that is talked about. You will also learn a lot about how to give such talks. Pay attention to organization, technique, and interest level. Keep notes on talks that you found especially intriguing and think about why they were successful. Ditto talks that were not interesting at all.

By the time you are ready to leave your MSU nest and go on your own job interviews, make sure you have attended at least six of these, so that you have a good sense of the norms for these events.

Post-Comprehensive Exam Years

The most difficult part of your post-exam years is anticipating your timeline. Conducting a dissertation research project can take less than a year but can also take much more than that. You will need to figure out a date when you will likely graduate so that you can begin searching for work prior to that time. For example, if you hope to complete your dissertation in Spring or Summer, and hope to obtain an academic post that begins the following Fall semester, you will need to be visiting campuses during the preceding Winter, well before you are finished with your dissertation, and you will be needing to send out application letters well before that. That means you will need to have some sort of "job talk," or presentation of your work. If the dissertation is not finished, you will need to develop a talk about something else, or about a portion of your study. It also means that the time you use to prepare this talk, and the time you use to visit other colleges and universities, will be time NOT spent working on the dissertation itself, thus slowing you down.

For academic jobs, the search schedule and dissertation schedule compete with one another. Generally the sequence runs like this:

Fall Semester of one year:

  • Colleges and Universities advertise the positions they expect to have available the following year.
  • Applications from you, with letters of recommendation and samples of your writing, are usually due by December or January
  • Meantime you are trying to work on your dissertation and these letters are a distraction from that.

Winter Semester:

  • Faculties review applications and select 2-5 people to visit.
  • If you are selected, you will travel to the campus, meet with a number of different people, and present a seminar on your interests and your work to date.
  • Meantime you are working on your dissertation and these visits are a distraction

Spring Semester:

  • Job offers are made. If you receive one, congratulations. If you receive more than one, you will need to make a choice, often within a week or two, because the college you reject will want to make an offer to someone else rather quickly.
  • Now that this process is over, you are in a very tight bind because most places expect you to be finished with your dissertation before you arrive at their doorstep.

Summer Semester

  • Finish your dissertation. Try to have your defense well before the end of the summer because the odds are very high that you will need to do more work on it after the defense.
  • On the other hand, don't schedule a defense if your advisor does not believe you are ready to defend your work.
  • If you are in deep trouble and very behind, consider asking your new employer if you can postpone the position for one semester. It will be MUCH EASIER for you to concentrate on your dissertation if you are here than it will be if you leave and try to learn a new institutional culture, new set of courses to teach, new colleagues and new responsibilities.
  • If postponing the new job seems risky, plan now to return to MSU the following summer to work on the dissertation. It is imperative that you find ways to give yourself time to focus exclusively on this until it is finished.

Fall Semester again

  • The best of all worlds occurs when you have completed all of your program requirements at MSU before you begin your new job. You will find that learning the ropes at this new institution will be just as daunting as learning the ropes when you first arrived at MSU, but you won't have your digital advisor to help you adapt there.
  • At the same time, you don't want to take any shortcuts on your study. It is your first contribution to the knowledge base, your introduction of yourself to your community, and you want to get off to a good solid start. Don't compromise the integrity of your scholarship just to get a quick job. In the long run you will suffer from this decision.


  Sample Application Letter


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