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I suck at doing research. How to get better?


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I recently graduated from an undergrad university where there wasn't a strong focus on research. Currently, I'm out of school and working on a writing sample to apply to graduate level.

I'm fairly well read in my interests, but my problem is that I'm terrible at formulating completely original thoughts about texts, and then writing a 20+ page essay, all the while interacting with other scholars/commentators and interlacing their commentary with my own. Many times I believe I have uncovered a promising research topic to explore, only to give up because I start doubting myself. 

I had some fairly talented professors at my school (who isn't that has a Ph.D?), and they gave me some advice - all of which I listen to and remember to this day - but it still feels like I'm missing something.

As well, I've been told I'm a good writer by professors, unprompted, who have graded my papers. However, I don't really feel that way, nor like I'm in as much control as I want when I write. I get the basic idea behind research and have read many academic papers, but right now I guess I just suck at actually writing it all out myself. My biggest problem is probably with structure. I want to get better. Any advice?

Edited by Doll Tearsheet
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The harsh reality is that I think a lot of us thought we were great writers in Undergrad and were told as much by our professors/instructors, but now realize that we are way out of our depth with the world of research/academic publishing. I also went to an Undergraduate program that wasn't all that focused on preparing academics (which I do not fault them for) and am in a similar situation. Honestly, the biggest thing that is improving my writing is the combination of reading up on theory, attempting publication on pieces I've presented, and asking for unrelenting criticism on my Masters coursework. That last part might be most important. Working on an MA before going for the PhD has allowed me to get more one-on-one time with professors, while said professors no longer see me as just some undergrad that will probably go teach high school. I would suggest applying to a few Masters programs in addition to whatever PhD programs you might be interested in.

 

BTW, each institution seems to have its own definition of professors. Though most do seem to distinguish between "Lecturers" and "Professors" as a way of rank/pay, these labels generally aren't so easily binaried with the distinction between does/doesn't have a PhD. An alarmingly high group of Lecturers have PhDs (I hope you aren't doing this out of interest in stability and pay, because there is little to be had for future PhDs). The distinction between these two groups is often not communicated to students. As I mentioned earlier, I'm working on my Masters. I did an assistant-ship track, which means last year I worked with Soph Lit survey lecturers/profs, while this year I am a teacher-of-record for fresh comp courses. Despite obviously not having a PhD, many of my colleagues in this program will respond to "professor." Likewise, both of the lecturers (neither had PhDs) that I worked with while assisting Soph Lit courses would likewise answer to the "professor" label. I even pointed this out to one of them, and she said it's a mess of semantics that she doesn't want to explain to students (so long as they don't start calling her Dr. S, she could care less). My point is that Professor does not necessarily equal PhD. In researching for graduate programs, you really need to look at faculty bios and see if they have similar interests (esp. if applying for PhD programs). You might do the same for the professors you took to see if their interests make them ideal reviewers of your work and if they have a PhD (BTW, I don't think having a PhD is a req. to providing excellent feedback to publishable work). Once you have that, reach out to as many of them as you think fit that bill and ask them if they'll look over both your writing sample AND statement of purpose (this shouldn't be terribly hard, since you should have a line of contact established with them for letters of recommendation).

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4 hours ago, CulturalCriminal said:

BTW, each institution seems to have its own definition of professors. Though most do seem to distinguish between "Lecturers" and "Professors" as a way of rank/pay, these labels generally aren't so easily binaried with the distinction between does/doesn't have a PhD. An alarmingly high group of Lecturers have PhDs (I hope you aren't doing this out of interest in stability and pay, because there is little to be had for future PhDs). The distinction between these two groups is often not communicated to students. As I mentioned earlier, I'm working on my Masters. I did an assistant-ship track, which means last year I worked with Soph Lit survey lecturers/profs, while this year I am a teacher-of-record for fresh comp courses. Despite obviously not having a PhD, many of my colleagues in this program will respond to "professor." Likewise, both of the lecturers (neither had PhDs) that I worked with while assisting Soph Lit courses would likewise answer to the "professor" label. I even pointed this out to one of them, and she said it's a mess of semantics that she doesn't want to explain to students (so long as they don't start calling her Dr. S, she could care less). My point is that Professor does not necessarily equal PhD. In researching for graduate programs, you really need to look at faculty bios and see if they have similar interests (esp. if applying for PhD programs). You might do the same for the professors you took to see if their interests make them ideal reviewers of your work and if they have a PhD (BTW, I don't think having a PhD is a req. to providing excellent feedback to publishable work). Once you have that, reach out to as many of them as you think fit that bill and ask them if they'll look over both your writing sample AND statement of purpose (this shouldn't be terribly hard, since you should have a line of contact established with them for letters of recommendation).

Cultural is correct. I am a first year PhD student in English (American lit) and I have a masters in English. While some (most??) universities allow grad students with 18 hours of graduate English courses to teach, I have found we are pretty much limited to freshman/sophomore English classes, although I have heard that some universities allow PhD students to teach at least one upper level literature course prior to graduating.

While I believe that I have received a decent education, there are places where I have found deficiencies. For instance, although I have learned to do an annotated bib, I had never heard the term lit review until my master's thesis defense and one of my committee asked why I didn't do one. What else is there to say in such a case, other than what is a lit review? I was embarrassed that I didn't know what it was and chagrined, at the same time, that during all of the drafts, no one had mentioned it to me. Why hadn't I ever been taught what it was and how to do one? The answer is that more than likely, I slipped through the cracks.  I remedied that lack yesterday, when after reading posts on here about lit reviews, I spent a couple of hours researching how to do one. There are a couple of excellent YouTube videos (BTW) and I watched them all. I believe that I could create a lit review now. What I'm trying to say, through this little exercise, is that we come through undergrad and perhaps even our masters and miss some things. That is a fact. As an undergrad, I made sure that all of my English classes were taught by PhDs. Once you are in grad school (Masters or PhD) the requirement is for PhDs to teach those classes. At my MA university only TT track PhDs can teach grad students. Allow that to be absorbed and think about the fact that I still did not learn what a lit review was. 

Doll there are professors who can help you strengthen your WS. Why don't you take an undergrad paper in the area you want to be  and rework it? That will give you a basis from which to go without having to come up with all new ideas. Send emails to some of those professors who liked your undergrad work asking if they will look over your writing sample and make comments. You are going to need academic references and this is a good way to gain them. If they have had a hand in your WS, they will be likely be interested in providing a reference. 

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Forget "completely original thoughts."  If your research concept doesn't overlap to some degree or another with other scholars in your area, you're either thinking too narrowly, or you're not in the area you think you are.

I've been writing the first chapter of my dissertation the last few months, and one of the most important things I've had to learn is that an intellectual discipline is a conversation.  You are entering into it to contribute, not to eviscerate your competition.

Read widely in your area, follow back footnotes, don't get defensive when you come across something that either seems to "steal" your idea, or contradict it.  Instead think about your place in the conversation.  Do not feel the need to recapitulate the secondary literature of your area in your writing sample - in fact, avoid this, using only what you need.  If you were already completely versed in your area, you wouldn't need to get a PhD.

My partner has recently been reading the book They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing and says it's been very helpful in this regard.  I plan to take a look when she's done.

Looking back, my writing sample wasn't even remotely original, but it showed that I had potential.  If you were capable of busting the lid off of your discipline already - again - you wouldn't need to get a PhD.  I recently got some advice about dissertation writing, "Do not think of it as the last great thing you will write, think of it as the first good thing you will write."  If that applies to dissertations, then put the writing sample in perspective.  Your originality is far less important than your potential.

Edited by jrockford27
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3 hours ago, jrockford27 said:

Forget "completely original thoughts."  If your research concept doesn't overlap to some degree or another with other scholars in your area, you're either thinking too narrowly, or you're not in the area you think you are.

I've been writing the first chapter of my dissertation the last few months, and one of the most important things I've had to learn is that an intellectual discipline is a conversation.  You are entering into it to contribute, not to eviscerate your competition.

Read widely in your area, follow back footnotes, don't get defensive when you come across something that either seems to "steal" your idea, or contradict it.  Instead think about your place in the conversation.  Do not feel the need to recapitulate the secondary literature of your area in your writing sample - in fact, avoid this, using only what you need.  If you were already completely versed in your area, you wouldn't need to get a PhD.

My partner has recently been reading the book They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing and says it's been very helpful in this regard.  I plan to take a look when she's done.

Looking back, my writing sample wasn't even remotely original, but it showed that I had potential.  If you were capable of busting the lid off of your discipline already - again - you wouldn't need to get a PhD.  I recently got some advice about dissertation writing, "Do not think of it as the last great thing you will write, think of it as the first good thing you will write."  If that applies to dissertations, then put the writing sample in perspective.  Your originality is far less important than your potential.

 

Seconding every word of this. I also want to add to OP, you really shouldn't feel bad about not being good at research. Quality research takes practice! I'm finishing my first dissertation chapter, and have had the luck of being in a collaborative department and seeing many dissertators before me. It's very easy to compare yourself to the books and articles you've read, and despair. But I've learned over the last few years that you don't already have to be researching and writing at that level to do a PhD. I'd argue that you don't even have to be writing at a monograph level to complete a PhD. Graduate school is entirely about the process of becoming better at these things, and you don't have to show up killing the game.

There is not a single graduating senior English major in this country who is prepared to make an original contribution  to the field, and I will put money on that. You can be writing the best papers your professor has ever seen, but you just won't have the breadth of knowledge and understanding of the conversation that you need until you get to your comprehensive exams. Take a deep breath, you'll be okay! 

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One of my favorite professors, my adviser, would always tell me that if I wanted to do research (like for a writing sample) and write about a literary author as the primary focus of my essay, I should read all the important critical literature of that author as well as full-length books. Basically his expectation seemed like I should be very well-versed in the secondary literature, and also be very aware of how I'm contributing/interacting with it. Are his expectations unrealistic or...? I find myself getting stuck in a vicious circle: I can't write until I know enough secondary literature and how my argument contributes to it, but then once I read enough, I become too paralyzed to write and have trouble presenting all those complex ideas.

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11 minutes ago, Doll Tearsheet said:

One of my favorite professors, my adviser, would always tell me that if I wanted to do research (like for a writing sample) and write about a literary author as the primary focus of my essay, I should read all the important critical literature of that author as well as full-length books. Basically his expectation seemed like I should be very well-versed in the secondary literature, and also be very aware of how I'm contributing/interacting with it. Are his expectations unrealistic or...? I find myself getting stuck in a vicious circle: I can't write until I know enough secondary literature and how my argument contributes to it, but then once I read enough, I become too paralyzed to write and have trouble presenting all those complex ideas.

@Doll Tearsheet I would think that there's some miscommunication here. One doesn't need to read all to be very well versed in and engaged with the secondary literature. You can contribute to the scholarly discussion by splitting a hair.

Group of scholars A says Author X is this. Group of scholars B says she's that. Group of scholars C say she's something else. Based upon your reading of her work, informed by your research, you've concluded that she's more this under some circumstances but the rest of the time she's that, and then some. Your findings could be in line with a subset of Group A, or an emerging Group D.

Down the line, you'll be expected to create new knowledge. Right now, I recommend that you get comfortable doing some research, developing questions based upon your findings, doing a little more research, and then writing what you think.

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22 minutes ago, Sigaba said:

@Doll Tearsheet I would think that there's some miscommunication here. One doesn't need to read all to be very well versed in and engaged with the secondary literature. You can contribute to the scholarly discussion by splitting a hair.

Group of scholars A says Author X is this. Group of scholars B says she's that. Group of scholars C say she's something else. Based upon your reading of her work, informed by your research, you've concluded that she's more this under some circumstances but the rest of the time she's that, and then some. Your findings could be in line with a subset of Group A, or an emerging Group D.

Down the line, you'll be expected to create new knowledge. Right now, I recommend that you get comfortable doing some research, developing questions based upon your findings, doing a little more research, and then writing what you think.

Thank you.

I do agree that there is a possibility of miscommunication with that professor, as he may be a particularly bad communicator, socially speaking. However I do believe he has high expectations for students, including me, so he may have actually been serious now that I think about it. (He once recommended to me to read twenty full-length books associated with a narrow field and advised me that would lead, potentially, to a publishable paper).

I will take your advice. So far, I've been free-reading a bunch of topics that pique my interest and writing down my ideas. Hoping a topic will catch fire with me, and then I'll investigate it further, then hopefully write about it (in the order you recommended).

Edited by Doll Tearsheet
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17 hours ago, CulturalCriminal said:

BTW, each institution seems to have its own definition of professors. Though most do seem to distinguish between "Lecturers" and "Professors" as a way of rank/pay, these labels generally aren't so easily binaried with the distinction between does/doesn't have a PhD. An alarmingly high group of Lecturers have PhDs (I hope you aren't doing this out of interest in stability and pay, because there is little to be had for future PhDs). The distinction between these two groups is often not communicated to students. As I mentioned earlier, I'm working on my Masters. I did an assistant-ship track, which means last year I worked with Soph Lit survey lecturers/profs, while this year I am a teacher-of-record for fresh comp courses. Despite obviously not having a PhD, many of my colleagues in this program will respond to "professor." Likewise, both of the lecturers (neither had PhDs) that I worked with while assisting Soph Lit courses would likewise answer to the "professor" label. I even pointed this out to one of them, and she said it's a mess of semantics that she doesn't want to explain to students (so long as they don't start calling her Dr. S, she could care less). My point is that Professor does not necessarily equal PhD. In researching for graduate programs, you really need to look at faculty bios and see if they have similar interests (esp. if applying for PhD programs). 

I think I see what @CulturalCriminal is getting at, here, with this precautionary note: don't mistake the teaching faculty at large for "professor," and for a variety of good reasons. That said, I have also encountered the odd lecturer who will "respond to" "professor," and I have to say, that's total bullshit, "a mess of semantics" notwithstanding. Just as someone wouldn't pose as "Dr." without having completed the doctorate, posing as "professor" without a departmental appointment of professorship is equally as fraudulent, intentionally misleading, and abusive of authority as anything. There is no question as to what a professor actually is (it's a departmental title), and while it's true, as @CulturalCriminal says, that students may not have a good handle on the distinction, this is less a case of what is "communicated" to them and more a case of undergraduates simply not knowing how things work and the instructors in question not bothering to clarify (for dubious reasons). Any faculty page online will/should make clear the title of a given instructor: Emeritus, Professor, Associate Professor, Assistant Professor, Visiting Professor, Adjunct, Lecturer, Instructor, TA, RA, Doctoral student, Masters student, etc. Now...it is also true that even where this is made institutionally clear online, undergrads still won't know what is going on and will address a doctoral student in the capacity of TA or instructor of record or whatever as "professor." Here's the moment where that instructor says, "hey, I appreciate the level of respect that you're showing by assuming such a lofty title, but I'm not a professor. You can address me as [fill in with accurate and desired moniker]." And since these threads abound with accounts of how much easier it is to become Dr. than Professor (that is, to graduate with a PhD than to land tenure track), this "semantic-mess" person in @CulturalCriminal's post is actually dealing in a logic that should probably cut the other way: call me whatever you want, just don't call me Professor, for heaven's sake, the hardest thing to actually achieve. In short, we shouldn't think of "Dr." as technical and "professor" as semantic; we should heed - as @CulturalCriminal says - the fact "that Professor does not necessarily equal PhD," but we should also and equally heed that PhD (or whatever other qualification) does not necessarily equal Professor. To let this slide would be completely dishonest and shameful. "Would be," I say, as if it's all hypothetical. Unfortunately, I see it along with @CulturalCriminal as something that actually happens, and sorry, but I've kinda had enough of it and felt like I should say something.

 

Much more simply put: don't lie, cheat, steal, be an imposter, misprepresent, claim to be what you're not. It's not a good look. 

 

As to research! All good stuff, here. @Doll Tearsheet, it sounds as if the advice that you received from a favorite professor has you feeling a little overwhelmed:

1 hour ago, Doll Tearsheet said:

One of my favorite professors, my adviser, would always tell me that if I wanted to do research (like for a writing sample) and write about a literary author as the primary focus of my essay, I should read all the important critical literature of that author as well as full-length books. Basically his expectation seemed like I should be very well-versed in the secondary literature, and also be very aware of how I'm contributing/interacting with it. Are his expectations unrealistic or...? I find myself getting stuck in a vicious circle: I can't write until I know enough secondary literature and how my argument contributes to it, but then once I read enough, I become too paralyzed to write and have trouble presenting all those complex ideas.

Sigaba reassures: 
"One doesn't need to read all to be very well versed in and engaged with the secondary literature. You can contribute to the scholarly discussion by splitting a hair."

 

I'd say it's probably somewhere in between. What your professor is doing (as I see it) is giving you a course of action that is tough but probably worthwhile, although you can probably get to the level of "well-versed" without reading quite as much as is being suggested. I see this advice often, though, and it works to create some great habits: Get into the library, pull X amount of secondary sources, and dig in. After a day or two of crazy reading and note-taking, you could be 20 sources deep and ready to rock. Or (since every project is different), you may discover you need another day or two of the same. Or more. Or less. But the general idea is usually achieved when a professor tells a student to read everything there is and then the student rolls up the sleeves and hits it like a maniac. Which becomes really fun! Hard, but fun. You get to learn a bunch of stuff really quickly.

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@EmmaJava - Wow. I didn't know the Professor/Dr. distinction was that contentious. I called everyone at my college either Dr. or Professor (usually professor when I had a strange subconscious vibe that they preferred "professor"). Now that I think about it, I referred to all the adjuncts as Professor too (other students along with me). In fact, I distinctly remember one guy getting a little uncomfortable about me calling him "Dr" when he didn't end up finishing with his PhD (boy that was a slightly awkward conversation), but he seemed to accept all the students calling him "professor" even though he was an adjunct without a PhD.

As to the part of your post about research...that's interesting. I will try that sometime, just going hog-wild in the library. The professor that recommended that advice to me, it seems like his idea of a fun evening is reading journal articles on JSTOR. In his own research, that seems to have been his strategy. He once also told me that he strongly recommended at least 20 hours of time a week to be devoted to research to produce something quality, for probably a few months (based on his experience). Looking back on it, he was pretty hardcore and intellectual, but his advice is probably correct.

 

Edited by Doll Tearsheet
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@EmmaJava, there have been lengthy discussions about this in the Chronicle fora and elsewhere. But, to be clear, the origin of "professor" is that of "one who professes" aka, one who teaches. A graduate student teaching a class is operating in that role. So is a lecturer teaching with their MA. So are those with terminal degrees in art, music, etc. (you know, those with a MFA who teach and are tenure-track or tenured faculty). There's certainly a political/labor argument to be made (see here, for example) for not calling adjuncts or graduate students "professor" but that really isn't the point you're making. So, my question to you is what title of respect could or should one ask undergraduates to use for a TA who may only be a year or two older than them (which is also a situation most traditional undergraduates have never experienced until college)? You probably also want to keep in mind the gender dynamics often at play, which lead to female instructors being called "Mrs" while more honorific titles are used for male instructors (see here).

P.S. It's also worth noting that what I've said above and what you wrote are US-specific. In the UK and Australia, one's first tenure-track job with a terminal degree is as Lecturer.

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6 hours ago, rising_star said:

@EmmaJava, there have been lengthy discussions about this in the Chronicle fora and elsewhere. But, to be clear, the origin of "professor" is that of "one who professes" aka, one who teaches. A graduate student teaching a class is operating in that role. So is a lecturer teaching with their MA. So are those with terminal degrees in art, music, etc. (you know, those with a MFA who teach and are tenure-track or tenured faculty). There's certainly a political/labor argument to be made (see here, for example) for not calling adjuncts or graduate students "professor" but that really isn't the point you're making. So, my question to you is what title of respect could or should one ask undergraduates to use for a TA who may only be a year or two older than them (which is also a situation most traditional undergraduates have never experienced until college)? You probably also want to keep in mind the gender dynamics often at play, which lead to female instructors being called "Mrs" while more honorific titles are used for male instructors (see here).

P.S. It's also worth noting that what I've said above and what you wrote are US-specific. In the UK and Australia, one's first tenure-track job with a terminal degree is as Lecturer.

Oh sure. No doubt. Good work consolidating all that here. I'm aware of the contexts, but not too sure how helpful they are. After all, we're all "readers," as well, but certainly I wouldn't think to call myself a Reader if I were in the UK. I mean, it's not as if we just tend to colloquially profess as a mundane matter of course. What I'm saying is that the level of slippage inhering in these terms is something that we're all in great position to apprehend even as students may not be, which is another way of saying that the responsibilities regarding these terms lie with us, not with them. I also think you've done a pretty good job at parsing the issues that I am/am not speaking to, although I would probably align myself a little more closely to the adjuncts not wanting to be called Professor that you cite in your first hyperlink than you suggest (hence my line above re: professor being harder to actually achieve than PhD). As to your question, I only have tough love: call yourself whatever you want so long as it's not out-of-line with what has/has not been conferred in your name. I say that fully aware of the age/gender issues, too. They are good points and I am sensitive to them, but not so sensitive as to think that misusing the terms just a little as a sort of cushion is really an acceptable practice. 

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A professor (actually a "Professor") at LSE once explained the British system by way of furniture.  When you arrive on the faculty, they give you nothing, so you have to stand up and lecture.  As time goes on, you might get a desk, so you can become a reader.  It is only after some decades that you'll get a chair so that you can sit down and call yourself a professor.

Complicating this, I see that Oxford is now assigning roles like "assistant professor" to some of their junior faculty, even while addressing them as "Dr" and giving them more conventional titles on the directory.  Presumably this is so that conversations with American colleagues can become less complicated.

Oxbridge does have some other strange quirks.  Even if you have a PhD from elsewhere, they'll give you an MA by incorporation so that you can be deemed worthy of teaching their students.

Another tale from a teacher who'd been at Oxford as a junior-year student: he was told to look at 20 books before the next tutorial and develop an essay on them.  He crawled in after a week admitting defeat, saying that he'd been able to read only through part of the second on the list.   The Don looked down at him and said "I didn't tell you to read them-- I told you to look at them."  I'm guessing that some variant of this confusion will work its way into some of the above discussions from time to time.

 

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3 hours ago, EmmaJava said:

 (hence my line above re: professor being harder to actually achieve than PhD)

Except this isn't the case in all fields. There are plenty of fields where the number of people seeking to teach is lower than the number of people available to teach (engineering and business are the first two fields that come to mind). And, like I said, your insistence on the PhD seems to lessen the terminal master's degrees in fields like the fine arts.

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16 hours ago, Doll Tearsheet said:

However I do believe he has high expectations for students, including me, so he may have actually been serious now that I think about it. (He once recommended to me to read twenty full-length books associated with a narrow field and advised me that would lead, potentially, to a publishable paper).

Few burdens are heavier than the expectations of professors.

I recommend that you start finding ways to manage your expectations--you're putting a lot of pressure on yourself. What you're doing should be challenging, and it should also be fun. At least some of the time.

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4 hours ago, rising_star said:

Except this isn't the case in all fields. There are plenty of fields where the number of people seeking to teach is lower than the number of people available to teach (engineering and business are the first two fields that come to mind). And, like I said, your insistence on the PhD seems to lessen the terminal master's degrees in fields like the fine arts.

No no no. What?

What I'm specifically trying to say is that teaching simply does not adequate to being a professor. It just simply doesn't. At all. Not even a little bit. So yes, teachers outnumber PhD's. But teachers also outnumber professors...because they're not the same thing. A professor is a teacher but a teacher is not a professor unless that teacher is (wait for it)...A PROFESSOR. And I have no idea what my insistence on the PhD is. What insistence? Since I'm not insisting on anything other than not calling a teacher at a university a professor unless of course that person is in fact a professor, then I don't know what this means. Where's our disconnect here?

If you think that someone is a professor by dint of them professing at the literal level, then I don't know what to tell you. I suppose you can believe it and abide by it, but, uh...alright. Keep going with that then.

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@EmmaJava, I don't know if it's deliberate or not but you've definitely misinterpreted what I said. My point was that there are people who are professors and have terminal degrees that are not the PhD. You said above (more than once) that only those with a PhD are truly professors. Which means that basically no one in the fine arts or business areas meets your definition of a professor. What do you consider to be the hallmark of a professor? Because I think the definition in your head doesn't match the reality of contemporary academia. 

Sorry for derailing this thread, OP! (This is what happens when you realize that someone is saying things that are incorrect on the internet...)

@Doll Tearsheet, your research skills and writing are like other skills in life: they improve the more you use them. To become a more confident and solid researcher and writer, read other well-written work. One strategy I used for a while was to read one journal article or book chapter related to my interests every single morning before even leaving the house. It helped me not only become more knowledgeable about my field but also let me see a variety of writing styles and get a sense of how I wanted to structure some of my own arguments and work. Have you thought about doing something like that?

Another suggestion is to simultaneously read up on the research process so you become more confident with your research skills and gain new ones. Booth's The Craft of Research is a classic. There are probably others that are field-specific that you may want to consult but I'm not as familiar with those anymore. 

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40 minutes ago, rising_star said:

You said above (more than once) that only those with a PhD are truly professors. Which means that basically no one in the fine arts or business areas meets your definition of a professor. What do you consider to be the hallmark of a professor? Because I think the definition in your head doesn't match the reality of contemporary academia. 

This is ludicrous. Point to where I said this - I guarantee you that I did not, and that I am not implying anything of the sort. I am actually quite aware of your point that non-PhD's can become and often do become professors. Yes, this happens when departments make appointments in the way of professorships. My point is actually shaping up to be more in agreement with you than I think you realize, which is that when and where this happens, it is really freaking cool and deserving of the accolade and title and acknowledgement of a professorship. In fact - and this is probably where we miss each other the most - I am rather sensitive to the fact that this happens so frequently in other fields besides mine as to make me, yes, a little bit jealous (I take this to happen more in vocational fields). In my field, as I stated quite clearly, becoming appointed as a professor, by title (and not simply by dint of holding some teaching post, whether as a graduate student or on a tenuous contract), is a very very huge accomplishment, much bigger than earning a doctoral degree. Fact, yo. Right here in the field-appropriate forum, no less.

If you'll read what I actually wrote, I consistently point to the example of a graduate student - say, a doctoral student - who happens to teach, and that happening to teach is simply not the professorial appointment that can and does and should happen and be celebrated. And I'm extending this to all campus teachers who fall into this camp, whether adjuncts or lecturers or instructors or whomsoever. There is no hate against these fine teaching folks (I am one of them). But I don't call myself a professor for the simple fact that I'm not one, even though I teach on a college campus.

The hallmark of a professor has been very consistent from the get-go: it is one who has been officially appointed to Professor by their department or institution. This would mean that the department itself and not just unknowing students are willing to call the person a professor in an official capacity - again, as a title. We've all been dancing around the typographical offset between a professor and a Professor, and I have let it slide because the sloppiness is, frankly, telling. My criteria? Professor, capital P. Appointment. Secure contract. Tenure? Maybe yes maybe no, depending on the title and contract (like, a Visiting Professor wouldn't have tenure, no, but would be a Professor, yes).

You know, @rising_star, I have no doubt that in a literal interpretation of the word, you're probably quite distinguished in your way. I say that partly flippantly, sure, but also with enough sincerity to respect a fellow academic: you're distinguished, and apparently, you profess. Why not just go ahead and call yourself a Distinguished Professor? Do you meet your own criteria for such a title? Do you get the office, teaching load, etc., that goes with being a distinguished professor? Yet with your logic, why the hell not?

I am not saying incorrect things on the internet, and you're being rude. Probably defensive, too, if what is going on is what I think is going on. I think we are writing past each other, yes, and I'll take some responsibility in that, but it's going to need to work both ways. You, I take it, are calling yourself a professor? Because you profess, but not because you've been appointed by your department as...ahem...you know...that thing? As I said before, you just go right on ahead with that.

The thread isn't derailed when the relevant post to the OP was largely to do with precisely this issue.

Shape up, mod. You should know better.

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44 minutes ago, rising_star said:

 

@Doll Tearsheet, your research skills and writing are like other skills in life: they improve the more you use them. To become a more confident and solid researcher and writer, read other well-written work. One strategy I used for a while was to read one journal article or book chapter related to my interests every single morning before even leaving the house. It helped me not only become more knowledgeable about my field but also let me see a variety of writing styles and get a sense of how I wanted to structure some of my own arguments and work. Have you thought about doing something like that?

Another suggestion is to simultaneously read up on the research process so you become more confident with your research skills and gain new ones. Booth's The Craft of Research is a classic. There are probably others that are field-specific that you may want to consult but I'm not as familiar with those anymore. 

 

Yes, I have read many articles throughout the years both out of curiosity and in courses, though I don't do it daily. I found them helpful at the level of teaching me what language to use and some potential key "moves" to make. They're useful but every thesis is distinct and has its own concerns and needs for decisions about structure and language, so they're a bit limited in how much they can help.

As for your suggestion The Craft of Research, I will definitely check that out. I've also been recommended the research book They Say/I Say but I find it a bit general for my needs. Your book suggestion seems to have the added benefit of being written by a well respected scholar in literary studies.

 

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@EmmaJava "The thread isn't derailed when the relevant post to the OP was largely to do with precisely this issue."

This doesn't have anything to do with my topic. To be honest If you are a true "fellow academic" of his, then you would care more about discussing research strategies and research philosophy than sounding off on unrelated tangents...but anyway, here's hoping we can move past that unnecessary discussion.

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25 minutes ago, Doll Tearsheet said:

@EmmaJava "The thread isn't derailed when the relevant post to the OP was largely to do with precisely this issue."

This doesn't have anything to do with my topic. To be honest If you are a true "fellow academic" of his, then you would care more about discussing research strategies and research philosophy than sounding off on unrelated tangents...but anyway, here's hoping we can move past that unnecessary discussion.

That's cool. Fair enough. I thought it mattered originally that who you might go to for guidance would matter, but it's certainly true that regardless of the relevance I blew this one out of proportion, yes indeed. I don't think anyone likes being misrepresented, and I'm a human in that camp. Sorry for the distraction, I'll only come back here with research advice if I come up with anything good. 

I'm never disingenuous with "fellow academic" - wasn't before, wasn't now - and will wish you luck. Sorry again for the disruption. 

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@Doll Tearsheet, I have to say I feel your pain. Throughout undergrad I did well in my English major but did not study with the intention of going for my PhD. In fact, I had very different goals throughout my four years in college, so I didn't seek out the classes or professors that would have pushed me to write more theoretically-inclined and research-heavy papers. When I went to apply for graduate school some years later, I realized that I had few papers that would really fit the bill of a good writing sample. I ended up revising part of my undergrad thesis, but I still didn't know how to turn this into a compelling writing sample (and I was rejected from most programs, both high ranked and more modest). Throughout the entire admissions cycle, I felt totally at sea and woefully underprepared to apply. I was also hanging out in an online community where people were much better prepared than I was and able to deploy the lingo. I was like, "I want to study the poetry of the Irish literary renaissance," and they were like, "I'm interested in how critical race theory intersects with biopower and is simultaneously transformed and displaced by eighteenth-century theories of communal midwifery." And I was like

tenor.gif

  

Unfortunately, we all come to this process with varying levels of preparation, and this process very much favors those who were focused enough in undergrad to seek out that preparation, and those who went to schools where that preparation was abundantly available. Part of me really resents the fact that programs expect a very high degree of professionalization from students who have never even set foot in a graduate seminar. But that's the way it is, and things keep getting all the more competitive.  

Gripes aside, there are a few things you can do, and I'm going to give you the advice I wish I had received. 

  • Pick a paper that you've already written--something self-contained. In other words, don't just excerpt your thesis (as I did) unless it's a selection of your thesis that can stand on its own. I would advise that you pick a paper you really enjoyed writing and that felt particularly inspired to you (I know you say you don't have original ideas, but you probably do). Focus on turning this paper into a research paper, not writing a research paper from scratch.
  • Keep in mind that you're actually not supposed to incorporate THAT much outside research. In fact, it's much wiser to keep the focus on your own ideas. Out of a 20-page paper, really only 3 pages should be a lit review (a section that is focused explicitly on laying out past research) and the rest should be your own close reading and ideas with the occasional mention of outside critics or footnotes to tell us how your ideas are different.
  • Having said that, I'm a little surprised at the advice your adviser is giving you, that you should "read all the important critical literature and also be very aware of how [you're] contributing/interacting with it." I disagree with this statement. I don't think you should focus on reading ALL the things. Doing so will distract you from your own thesis, and you'll then be tempted to integrate everything or abandon your original idea. You'll lose your own voice. Instead:
    • Pick two or three articles/book chapters that are relevant to your specific ideas and then use THEIR bibliographies to find the most useful specific historical/critical/theoretical sources. And if a particular work or critic keeps coming up over and over again, it's safe to say that they're probably someone you should cite in your paper.
    • Figure out your critical lens, and focus on a few of the most prominent scholars of that lens. Integrate them into your paper, but do so sparingly.
  • You also say that you're struggling with how to structure this paper. Gregory Semeza's Graduate Study for the 21st Century actually has a chapter devoted to how to structure a seminar paper. It's here.
On 8/31/2017 at 8:20 PM, Doll Tearsheet said:

One of my favorite professors, my adviser, would always tell me that if I wanted to do research (like for a writing sample) and write about a literary author as the primary focus of my essay, I should read all the important critical literature of that author as well as full-length books. Basically his expectation seemed like I should be very well-versed in the secondary literature, and also be very aware of how I'm contributing/interacting with it. Are his expectations unrealistic or...? I find myself getting stuck in a vicious circle: I can't write until I know enough secondary literature and how my argument contributes to it, but then once I read enough, I become too paralyzed to write and have trouble presenting all those complex ideas.

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For some reason, the end of my post keeps getting cut off, and it won't let me edit it. So this is the last piece of my advice:

 

Good luck and keep us posted.

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