It is the time of the year when students are thinking about what they are going to do next. Some are in their last term or last year of school and wondering if grad school is for them. It is important to have some plans. Yes, I said plans. Plan A, B, C, and maybe even a plan D. Some students want to get organized several months before they have to apply. The grad school process is a frightening one, as it makes most students do something that they are completely unfamiliar with–promoting themselves.

I find that it does not matter if the student is a strong one or one with lots of potential most still have a hard time putting together their grad school dossier. I know that I did, but I was extremely lucky to have some wonderful mentors, and was involved with a peer mentoring group. This post is going to make some suggestions that assume that you are an undergraduate thinking about applying to grad school in the Fall.

Here, we are in the Spring (almost). The firs thing that I tell my students is that the grad school application process is like having another course. You need to research the schools and programs. You need to research potential mentors and their areas of expertise. You really should not just pick a program and land there without having done some research about the courses and the faculty.

Where do you want to live? Seriously. This was a concern for me. I knew that I did not want to leave the West Coast when I was looking at Political Science programs.

What do you want to study? Which courses did you find most interesting during your undergrad career? Which courses were the most fulfilling? These might not be the courses that you did the best in, but rather that rocked your world.

Where do you picture yourself in 1 year? Three years? Five years? There is not one answer for each of these questions. There should be multiple answers and that is perfectly fine.

What do you have to do to get there? To answer any of the above questions and this question, lean on your friends and your mentors. Now, you might not think that you have any mentors. It is not like you sign an agreement with your mentor and there is an understood relationship. No, I have had students send me cards after they graduated and found out that they referred to me as their mentor. There are different levels of mentoring and for some students being at the front of the classroom is enough. And, for other students there is more engaged relationship between the student and the faculty member. My point is that you probably do have a mentor or two! Seek them out and ask them for advice.

You’ve picked a program. Now, make sure that there is 2-3 faculty to work with there. Now, this might seem ridiculous at a smaller program, so maybe you might need to look for 1-2 people to work with at the program. One of the best ways to find out if you will be successful is to chat with current grad students. Find out what the lay of the land is. Also, find out what most graduates of the program do once they finish their theses. What do most of the grads end up doing? Policy work? Continue on with PhD programs?

Now, when you find out what you think you want to do, you need to get your application in order. Who are you going to get letters of support from for your dossier? Who will review your statement of intent? As they say, get your ducks in a row. Once you get your dossier together, you will need someone to review it all. This is where your friends and your mentors are important.

This is part one of a few posts. Good luck!

Fri Fun Facts: Performance Reviews

Today’s Fri Fun Facts is about my new use of writing Performance Reviews for the Teaching Assistants. After looking through the Canadian Union of Public Employee’s Agreement between my employer and the local group, I decided that it would behoove me to offer the Teaching Assistants a more formal review.  Today’s Fri Fun Facts will speak to how I will do this every term on.

Performance Review

My intention was to provide each Teaching Assistant with an honest, fair assessment of their work this term hoping that they could use the review in their teaching dossiers or as part of their resume paperwork. Writing the reviews took more time than I thought it would, as I really wanted to convey a personal review for each Teaching Assistant. How did I do this?

When I meet with each Teaching Assistant to review their graded work, I would email myself notes about the meeting and these summaries were useful. When students would see me during office hours and offer unsolicited comments about their Teaching Assistant, I would email myself a copy of the comments for my records. These little things were important to providing me a memory of the Teaching Assistant’s performance.

My suggestions:

1. Keep notes or records about the Teaching Assistant’s performance. If there is every tricky situations, these notes are really useful.

2. Check in with the Teaching Assistants to make sure that they are doing well and feel that they are getting enough support from you.

3. Provide them guidelines about your expectations. You might email or verbalize this. I actually provide a dossier: a one to two page expectations letter, sample graded work, exams, grading guidelines for the university, and a copy of the syllabus.

4. Be available. You need to set up times to be available for their questions or be willing to guide and coach the Teaching Assistants as needed. Some will need more of your time and others hit the ground running.

5. With the review, think about the Teaching Assistant’s grading, effort, interaction with the team, students, and comment on this. Note any areas for improvement and be willing to note if you think that you could have supported the Teaching Assistant more.

6. Be honest. The review should be helpful, but it does not need to only be positive. Constructive comments are sometimes needed, but offer them in a helpful manner.

Overall, the Performance Review should be helpful for you, the Teaching Assistant, and any future employer who sees the document. Remember that the arrangement is really an apprenticeship and you need to mentor or coach the graduate student, as this is not “free” grading for you. The cost is really supervising and helping the Teaching Assistant perform the duties. I have to remind myself of this occasionally! How do you evaluate your graduate students?

Job Application Season in Academe

I’ve served on numerous hiring committees over the last 14 years. Many times as the graduate student representative and now a handful of times as a professor myself. I’ve come to the realization that I have had exceptional mentors. People who always offered to assist me with my file, my interview, and the entire job process. I can see that many committees and mentors are failing their students and not offering enough supervision so that their mentees are sending out the strongest files that they could. Perhaps the applicant is not listening to the advice, but I find that harder to believe.

I have reviewed numerous job applications…not only the academic, but also the administrative staff applications and one of the easy things for fixing–read the job application. Many people seem to not read the job application closely and this influences the file. These are the applications that go in the “no” file immediately.

Specific to academic files for tenure-track jobs not reading the job application is a major flaw. But given the academic job climate people are throwing their files into the ring in hope that people will take notice. There are few jobs! So some applicants are applying for them all, but be careful here. You don’t want to misrepresent your work or your research agenda for a job that calls for a comparativist and your heart is really in political theory. Regardless, it’s important to submit the best file ever. If the application calls for a CV–submit one. If the application calls for a research statement and teaching statement-submit them.

Let’s break this down, though. What does a research statement mean? What are you working on and where do you see your research going in the next five to ten years? What is the next project? And, the next one after that. What is the guiding theme with your research projects? Why are you engaged in this research? You want to explain all of this in such a way that it is clear that you know what you’re doing and have thought considerably about where you are in the field. Likewise, this also afford you the opportunity to speak to grants or awards. I imagine that it varies by field, but I do know that listing the amount of the award is instructive.

The teaching statements is probably harder to write, since anyone who has sat on one committee can explain that the teaching statements will not vary too much in content. You enjoy teaching, want the students to feel safe, use innovative techniques or technology in the classroom, you are open to learning, and have good teaching evaluations. OK, I just ran through that rather quickly, but the teaching statements are often quite similar by most. Where they vary–is the strong writing and the people who have spent more time polishing the teaching statement so that it really reflects some depth. If you have only taught once or a few times–be honest about that. There is nothing worse in my opinion than someone who has taught once and attempts to put together this full dossier based on that one time.

You should have trusted people proof-read your cover letter, statements, and run through the interview questions (if they bother to provide them). If the campus does not provide the questions, your mentors or friends will be familiar with some of the standard questions. They vary, but will include: which classes are you willing/able to teach at the undergraduate/graduate level? What class in your area are you looking forward to teach? How do you mentor/supervise students? Where do you see your research going in five years? Are you prepared to do service? (This might not get asked). But, you see where I am going here.

Things to avoid: If the call asks for hard copies, send hard copies. If there is a deadline, meet the deadline. Many departments will place a sticker or handwritten note on late files. Do not send in a folder or binder, as the file might need to be photocopied and this makes it harder for the staff. If you must submit it in a binder, do so with a three-ring binder and not one of those inexpensive clip binders, as they cut off the first 1.5 inches of the left margin and are a pain.

And, this might sound harsh, but the committee or the staff will not take the time to contact people who are not short-listed. So, please do not expect an email or note in the mail. Some calls for applications will field upwards of 300 applications and there is just no time to contact people. Even if the call fields less than 50 applicants, people will not get contacted unless they are invited for an interview. And, if you don’t get invited–it’s not always about you. It could be about the committee or what the department really wants.

This is a quick, run-down if you will of my primer on the job application process. I will blog more about this, as the topic deserves a fulsome discussion. It’s also important that I add that this post in now way reflects my employer. I am pulling together many hiring committee experiences here and not from one campus, but from three.