Sunday, January 31, 2016

Ten Suggestions to Help You Choose Your Perfect Dissertation Topic

This is a guest post by Noelle Sterne. Dissertation coach, editor, scholarly and mainstream writing consultant, author, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues. Her recently published handbook addresses graduate students’ largely overlooked but equally important nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).

If you’re beginning or in the throes of your dissertation, you may know from other long-suffering students that the work engenders a love-hate relationship, with all the exasperations, frustrations, teeth-clenching, and eye-rolling, and occasional affection, elation, and fulfillment (eventually) of a primary human relationship. Therefore, your topic, like your partner, should be one that initially excites you and sustains you throughout the inevitable rages and reconciliations, desires to divorce yourself from it or run back to its scholarly arms, and finally settle into a consistent satisfying relationship.

As a longtime coach of doctoral candidates, I’ve seen many students in their first passion commit to a topic that would take 50 scholars, even with laptops, group writing bootcamps, and resuscitating Netflix subscriptions, 75 years to complete. Other candidates take on topics because their professors suggest them and the students believe the professors will help get articles published. Or students think the topic is “hot” and they’ll have an even better chance of publishing. None of these reasons will support your passion for your topic.

It’s almost axiomatic that many people choose concentrations and careers because of early personal experiences. A woman becomes an oncologist because she couldn’t save her mother from Stage 4 cancer. A man raised in poverty becomes a financial counselor to help businesspeople succeed in neighborhoods like his own.

Such motivations also generally guarantee sustained interest in a dissertation topic. Here I offer you ten suggestions, with questions and examples, to help you narrow down the perfect topic you’ll be living with for a long time.

1. Revisit your childhood dreams. How did you see yourself? What “professions” were your play favorites? Many kids like to play “doctor” (not that kind), and Mary, one of my clients, loved to play “nurse.” She showed me photographs of herself at age five with an impressive collection of play bandages, ointments, even casts, and a doll house she’d made into a “clinic.” Today, with her doctorate, she’s director of a regional hospital.

2. Review your favorite undergraduate and graduate course papers. Which did you really like doing? Which did you get As in? What about your master’s thesis? Would you feel excited expanding it? Lynn was an elementary school reading teacher who really cared about those stuttering, struggling readers. When she leafed through her course papers and reviewed her master’s thesis, she saw that the comparisons of different reading programs were her best work. Her dissertation topic? A comprehensive comparison of two elementary school reading programs for their relative effectiveness. Now a Ph.D., Lynn is a professor who teaches aspiring elementary reading and literacy teachers to help even more struggling readers.

3. Think about troubling experiences you’ve had, as in the examples above. Would you like to help remedy their causes? Negatives can be powerful motivators toward positive actions and activities. And think of all the people you’ll help. Before Philippe immigrated to the United States, he had been a secretary to a government cabinet member in his native Caribbean country. He daily witnessed the poverty, illiteracy, lack of jobs, and suffering of so many of the people. His dissertation topic explored literacy programs that could be implemented throughout the country to help raise the educational standards. With his degree, Phillipe was appointed to a government position in education to institute large-scale national literacy and job training programs.

4. What topic has fascinated you for a long time? What do you want to jump into and explore? Jill, a registered nurse in her 40s at a regional hospital, observed how older nurses were discriminated against. She longed to explore the assumptions and possible myths that administrators held in hiring, making assignments, and firing these nurses. Jill’s dissertation and the article she developed from it became valuable additions to the literature—and helped change hospital policies.

5. What especially meaningful experiences have you had that you want to know more about and know will make a difference? During surgery, Derrick had what he swore was a near-death experience. He delved into the research, interviewed many people who had had similar experiences, and even scored an interview with a major author on the subject. Derrick’s dissertation dealt with near-death experience theories and testimonies. He is now revising his work into a book and has a publisher interested.

6. What would you like to be known for? The answer to this question is likely inherent in your choice. In the examples above, the students’ passion for their choices drove their ambitions. Don’t be modest. Think about what you really know you can contribute—like Lynn and Phillipe.

7. Don’t be deterred or discouraged if the topic has been “done.” Even if you discover that many scholarly articles have been published on your topic, your slant will be different. You can use those articles to show how your study is better, different, and worth not only the doctorate but publication.

8. Dream: Imagine how the topic can be used in your dream job and how you look forward to devoting your professional life to your interest. Sandra was a geriatric care counselor advising adults on the placement of their elderly parents in appropriate care facilities. She felt needed and fulfilled, knowing she was helping both generations toward the best choices. Imagining her dissertation topic, Sandra saw how she could identify and discuss the many elements involved in placement. Exploration of this topic would help her professionally to broaden her knowledge, enhance her abilities, and open her mind to new counseling techniques. After obtaining her degree, Sandra gave several presentations, published her findings in an elder care journal, and established a private consulting practice.

9. If you’re not in your dream job or career, paint mental pictures of the one you are aiming for. Observe and talk to others in this or a related career. What topic did they write on? How did it help their careers? What pointers can they give you about topic choice? Have they successfully transitioned from the dissertation results to real-world application? Do they seem happy and enthusiastic? You’ll learn a lot about the “right” and “less-than-wonderful” choices others made, what they learned, and how you can use their experiences to help make your own best topic decisions.

10. Finally, listen inside for the topic that’s right for you. If you meditate, in your sessions silently ask the question about topics. You may be “led” to certain people, scholarly literature, movies, or magazines that clarify or confirm your choices. If you don’t meditate, keep asking yourself the topic question and stay aware and open. Several possible topics may occur to you. Test them against the suggestions here and keep listening to your intuition.

Choose one or two of these recommendations to explore each day. Don’t push or strain but relax. Let your unconscious lead you. Remember how important the choice is and how it will influence and direct your career and life. You deserve the perfect dissertation topic, and you will reach your answer.

© 2016 Noelle Sterne
Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

10 Vital Financial Tips for New Faculty

This is a guest post by Inga Chira. Dr. Chira joined the faculty at California State University, Northridge in 2015 as an Assistant Professor of Finance and Financial Planning. She has a Ph.D. in Finance from Florida Atlantic University and is a Certified Financial Planner (CFP®). Inga's research is mostly concentrated around two fields: corporate finance and financial planning. Her current projects explore the use and perceptions individuals have about the financial planning profession and the drivers that motivate people to save.

As an assistant professor who likes to talk about financial happiness and as a financial planner who has a practice focused on academics, I am often surprised by how little effort goes into planning our financial lives. We are all smart people, we know a lot about everything from 18th-century opera to asset pricing, and somehow, we don’t prioritize the conscious financial aspect of our lives. So here is some money-related advice for the recent-ish graduates who have left their impoverished Ph.D. lives and moved on to the relatively free-flowing cash world of the professorship.


1.Think about what is important to you before money starts pouring in. The transition from Ph.D. student to assistant professor/instructor comes with a nice monetary benefit. What I have observed so far in many academics is that lifestyle, needs, and desires will adjust really fast to the new paychecks. While before we were making ends meet on the $18k stipend, now $75k does not seem enough. My advice is: take a deep breath, write down your life goals, figure out how much money you really need to be happy, and decide what you would like to spend your money on. The more intentional you are about your paycheck allocation, the less stressed you will be in the future. Repeat this exercise when you get promoted to associate and full professor. It’s actually something we should be doing before any increase in pay.

2. Take that 403(b), 457, or 401(k) seriously. This is an amazing benefit and many colleges are very generous when it comes to funding your retirement. Forget about the pension for a moment and focus on this portion of your retirement because this is the portion you can actually control. Even if you have a pension and your college does not match any 403(b) contributions, take some time and look into it. In an ideal world, every professor I know would max it out. I understand, however, that finding $18k in your budget is not the easiest thing, so just do your best. Put as much as you can aside into a non-pension retirement account. [Note: If you are not sold on why you should be putting this money away, please go to my website and sign up for the 5 emails that deal with the 403(b) allocation. It is such a big decision, it deserves your time].

3. Ask questions about your pension. In case your college still has a traditional pension plan (and many colleges do), put some effort into understanding it. Many of us take the pension either as a great benefit or something that is no longer going to be there when we retire (just like social security). The reality is somewhere in the between but unless you know the details of your pension, how it is calculated, and how well it is funded, it is really hard to understand what it means to you (and if you are in IL you probably already realized that it means a lot). There are so many resources out there; a little bit of time may mean the difference between deciding whether you will to stay at your current job or look for a new one. I just worked with someone who decided to quit her tenure track job and take an instructor position in a different state because of the much better pension.

4. Get to know the difference between the defined benefit type pension and the defined contribution type retirement. As far as academic benefits go- this is a really big one. Some schools do not give you a choice. For example, in the Cal State system, CALPERS is the only option available. However, many states and schools make you responsible for that choice and it is a one shot deal. If you feel like you can’t make this choice because you don’t know enough, get some help. This decision might potentially mean more to you than your actual salary. You do not want to leave this choice in the hands of the retirement gods.

5. Assess whether your current job is really the best for your living standard. This is a tough one. We are conditioned to fight for tenure and keep it once we get it. Leaving a job to move to a lower cost area is pretty radical. But money-wise, it can be such a big difference where you earn your paycheck. I live in Los Angeles; I just moved here because sometimes you need to follow your husband rather than your own financial advice and this one hurts me a lot. For every dollar I used to make in Florida, I need to make $1.9 in LA. That is $2 to $1, people. My salary certainly did not double when I moved to California. If you have a choice or if you got to a point in life where you can afford to be picky, thinking about how far your money goes in different states and cities is important. Here is a good comparison tool to play with:

6. Get a grasp on your student loans. A comparison analysis of your student loan options may save you money, lots of money. You do not have to pay what “the man” told you to pay. Very few Ph.D.s I know finished school without student loans (if you are one of those, good for you!) but for the rest of us, it may be time to start paying those student loans back. What you pay, in what order you pay it, and whether you pay it at all makes a difference. For example, I recently refinanced my federal student loans from 6.55% to a private lender at 1.95%. This was the best for me. I also just told my sister who is entering repayment that she needs to stretch her loans for the extended period because this makes more sense for her. We are both going to end up saving thousands of dollars but the way each of us got there, is very different. You need to figure out what is best for you and your student loans.

7. Think hard about buying a house when you move to a new job. I know we all want tips of how to get rich fast but after 3 houses in 3 states for 3 different academic positions, I am pretty sure buying a house is not it. Your expectation of how long you will stay in this job is very important, but so are many other factors. If you found a deal that is a cash maker (for example, a house where your mortgage is $1,600 and the rent income is $2,450), buy it even if you are not convinced you will stay in this job for longer than a year. However, if you are moving to San Francisco, are not sure about your tenure, and do not have a husband who owns Google, it may not be so wise to buy that $800k condo. This is another one of those decisions that may be worth thousands of dollars in either direction.

8. Negotiate your package. This is obviously applicable to someone who has just secured an offer. Once you are in your 3rd year, not much negotiation is possible. Remember that everything is negotiable, not just the salary. Deans are nice people (in most cases); they want to get the best person for the job. They usually do not hoard money for themselves but there is only that much room they have when it comes to salaries. [Note: Still- even if you get $2k more per year, over 30 years at the reasonable investment rate, you are looking at an extra $200k. It’s worth to ask.] However, you can also negotiate moving expenses, summer support (my favorite because there is more flexibility there), any special responsibilities (will you be the director of something and as such, can you get some more money?). When all else fails money-wise, you can also negotiate loads, preps, schedules, and even your parking spot (seriously, I know someone who did that although I wouldn’t recommend it; the dean had to give his spot up and will never forget that). One of the biggest shocks I experienced when moving from industry to academia is how little professors negotiate. This is your life, your salary, and you will be working very hard for it. There is no shame in asking for more.

9. Take advantage of your benefits. The package of academic benefits is usually pretty awesome. Unlike many other professions where you really can’t only rely on the employer benefits for everything, here you could be just fine doing nothing else but maximizing those benefits. But you do need to spend the time on them. I spent about 50-70 hours working on my benefits and making sure there is nothing else I can extract from my current job. I don’t advocate you do nothing else for a week, but try spend some time on this task. 30 minutes allocated towards your 403(b) is really sad, especially when you may be leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table. Just take the time and try to figure it out.

10. Finally, please call a financial planner and get some basics covered. I am currently working on a paper looking at the 403(b) accounts of professors at a large US school. What I see makes me depressed. Please don’t be the person who chose the JP Morgan large cap fund for 1.11% when the Vanguard fund that does the same is right next to it and costs 0.05%. You should obviously call me for all your help but in case that’s not your cup of tea, make sure whoever you call is a fee-only (or at least fee-based) advisor. Do not get a commission person; that person gets paid for what she sells you and not the advice she provides. If you are interested in finding a good person, let me know and I will provide you some places to start with. These days, so many people offer a good financial analysis for really cheap (you can get a basic review for about $500), that it is a sin not to do it.

If you have any financial questions, please contact me. You can find all my information here:

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Do This One Thing When You are Experiencing Writer’s Block

Guest post by L. Ayu Saraswati, an award-winning author, award-winning teacher, engaging speaker, innovative consultant, and an associate professor and graduate director of women’s studies at the University of Hawai`i. Moreover, she will co-facilitate the Creative Connections retreat with me in Hawai`i this May!

If there is one thing you could do to get rid of writer’s block forever, would you do it?

Okay. Perhaps “forever” is pushing it. But when Writer’s Block comes to pay you a visit, this is what you can do to un-invite it: spend at least thirty solid minutes in nature.


Well, there are at least three reasons why spending time in nature every day helps with our writing:

1. It is effective to replenish our depleted attention resources.
2. It increases our ability to creatively solve problems
3. It helps with our overall health (you can’t really write when you’re sick, can you?).

Can nature really affect our productivity? Research seems to suggest so. Psychologists found that spending time in nature improves creative reasoning and higher-order cognitive functioning. A researcher at the University of Rochester argued that when we need to energize ourselves, “connecting with nature” is better than drinking a cup of coffee. A 2005 study by the American Institutes for Research demonstrated that students in outdoor science programs improved their science testing scores by 27 percent. Similarly, in a different study, “participants who took the test after four days in the wilderness performed 50 percent better than those who took the test before departure, suggesting that their time in the wilderness gave them an advantage.” And here is one more example: Attention Restoration Theory (ART) suggests that “nature has specific restorative effects on the prefrontal cortex-mediated executive attentional system, which can become depleted with overuse.”

So. Is spending time in nature the absolute cure for your writer’s block? I suppose you won’t know until you try it, right? Before checking it out myself, I had actually heard about it plenty of times but somehow never really got around to doing it. (And I live in Hawai`i! How hard could it be to spend time in nature?) But when I spent seven days at the “Creative Connections: Writing and Meditation” retreat where we spent time in gorgeous and inspiring nature every single day, I can totally felt the difference. So now when Writer’s Block rings my doorbell, I know it's time to grab my snorkel and play with some fish, or when I’m lucky, a cute little turtle.

I am lucky enough to live in Hawai`i, where the ocean beckons all year. You can join us at the next retreat in May as there are still a couple of spots left. (Registration information is here.)  For now, however, I hope you find a way to spend time in nature wherever you are.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Get Yourself a NO committee

Guest post by Vilna Bashi Treitler, Professor and Chair of the Department of Black and Latino Studies at Baruch College, and Professor in the Sociology Program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York

I have for several years now made a resolution not to work so hard in the coming year. I mostly fail to keep this resolution.

I have overworked for several years now. I worked so much and so hard that when I had a sabbatical, I overworked then too – and I didn’t realize it until my husband asked “What are you doing???” when I would be in my bright but bleak foreign-city office weekends and evenings. Writing, while enormously difficult, was NOT my problem. It was saying no.

I had said “yes” to too many things for too long. Sure, all these opportunities sounded great when I was asked to do them, and the deadlines were so far into the future. After a while, deadlines jam up upon one another in ways that couldn’t be anticipated at the time “yes” is being said. I wanted to build a successful career, but I only slowly realized that instead I was probably building the shortcut to a cardiac unit. I had to figure out a new approach to choosing among the opportunities that trickled my way as I went from graduate student to assistant-, associate-, and then full-professor. I realized that I just could not be trusted to figure out what I should or should not be doing because everything looked like a good opportunity for networking or getting a line on the CV. Lines on the CV are what we all want and need, right?

We also need some limits.

Forming a “No Committee” helped me get perspective on my limits. Let me tell you about my No Committee. On it, I have two friends who are both professors and the third person is my life partner. Their qualifications: they care about me, they know the academy well enough to know what challenges are there for me, and they keep up with me so that they know how much is too much for me to handle.

How do I use them? When an opportunity comes to me, I send them an email with the subject line “Here’s one for the No Committee” and ask them for their advice. In the email I describe the opportunity, what information I have about what it entails (and whether I can trust the information I have), and further, I normally list all my reasons for saying yes to this thing plus whatever doubts I might have, and I hit “send.” Then I wait. I think the subject line tells them enough that they each tend to answer rather quickly. It probably also helps that I always listen  to their advice. I have not yet ignored the No Committee’s vote. That is, if they say no to me, I say no to the opportunity. Seriously. As I said, these are people who care deeply about me, and care less about my ambition or my insecurities which drive me to say yes more than I should. The one time in 2015 when I didn’t ask their advice, I said yes to something I regret saying yes to! And once, I sent them information about an opportunity that I didn’t want to take, and they outvoted me and each told me that I had to do it – and can you believe they were right??? Doing that thing has paid off in ways I surely couldn’t anticipate at the time.

So, form a No Committee for the New Year, and see where it gets you. How?

  • First, your committee must have an odd number of people. I find three to be perfect. While a five-person committee would probably work, I imagine you’d have to wait longer to get five answers to your questions. In any event, you need always to have a clear answer, and even numbers leave you at risk for tied votes. A clear majority vote is probably more helpful.
  • Second, choose committee members who have three qualities. First, they must care deeply about your well-being, and make that paramount. Second, they must understand the quirks of the academy. By this I mean that have to get why you have to do extra work for which you are not directly paid, like service obligations, taking on mentoring or advising roles, or teaching a new prep that might lead you down some new professional roads. They might also get why you’d do the academic equivalent of herding squirrels, like organizing conferences, or contributing to or putting together an edited volume. (For the love of marshmallows, think twice before you do these last two things!) And they have to understand the personalities of the decision-makers and gatekeepers around you so that they get why moves in certain directions might be good/bad for you. And third, they have to be able to keep confidences.
  • Third, choose people who answer their email.
  • Finally, when you contact your people, be totally honest about why you want to or don’t want to do something. They can only help you if you give them full information.

Make your first new year’s resolution be “I will form and use my No Committee!” and see where it gets you. Happy new year!