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FAQs From Students

Each year thousands of students ask thousands of professors questions about graduate school. What I’ve found is that most students ask variations on a few different themes. What I’ve done here is to offer my response to the questions I’m most often asked. A former Ph.D. student of mine, Lexy Rodriguez, also offers excellent advice from a student perspective (Surviving the First Year of Graduate School).

Questions and Answers - Students

  1. What’s it like being a Professor?
  2. I Want to Study Food Psychology. Where do I Apply?
  3. What Jobs are there in Food Psychology?
  4. How Do I Get in to a Good School?
  5. What School Should I Go To?
  6. How Do I Pick an Advisor?
  7. What Should I Expect?

Questions and Answers - New Professors

  1. How Should I Balance Research and Teaching?
  2. What Type of Research Should I Focus On?
  3. How Do I Find Time To Write?

Questions and Answers - Students

What’s it like being a Professor?

For the right type or person, it’s the loophole in society. No where else are you well-paid to read only the things you find interesting, to teach people things you think are important, and to research topics which you think can help make people’s lives better. It’s rich and rewarding life and these riches come in different forms than Jaguars and Cartier watches.

The big downside is that your work is frustratingly never done. There are few other professions where you take your work home with you at nighttime, on weekends, and even on trips. (For instance, I typed the first draft of this in Beijing, and revised it five days later at an inn near Walden Pond.)

Sometimes a student sees what a professor does in the classroom and decides he or she wants to be a professor in order to teach. To be at a major university, however, a much larger portion (60%+) of what you do will be research. Before you look in to applying to a graduate program, go to the library and check out a few issues of some of the major journals in that field. Although you might not fully understand the articles, if you still find them interesting, you probably have the curiosity it takes to be really happy as a professor.

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I Want to Study Food Psychology. Where do I Apply?

There aren’t any Departments of Food Psychology. The three most common routes for graduate students interested in this area are 1) Psychology programs (social, cognitive, developmental, or clinical psychology), 2) Health and Human Nutrition programs, and 3) Marketing programs (consumer behavior Ph.D. programs in a business school). Each has advantages and disadvantages. People who are interested in the academic study of psychology of food seem to be pretty rare (there might be only 1 or 2 professors in a department who are interested in it).

All of the programs noted above will take 4-5 years to complete. This is not including a Master’s Degree (which very few Ph.D. programs require anyway). One consideration is how you want to apply your skills. In Psychology, you will be focused on theory building (with food as only a context). In Health and Human Nutrition, you might find yourself more focused on the science of food and nutrition (as it relates to people). In Marketing, you will be focused on developing or testing theories relevant to consumer welfare (or to the interests of business if that is instead your focus). The best way to find a good graduate school is to read journal articles you think are interesting, find out what school the authors are at, and apply there.

What journals should you read? A few might include the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Physiology and Behavior, Appetite, Food Quality and Preference, Journal of Nutritional Education and Behavior, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Journal of Marketing Research. Also, if you see interesting mentions of research in the news media, use an Internet search engine (like www.Google.com) to follow-up and find out who wrote the original article.

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What Jobs are there in Food Psychology?

For Ph.D.’s there are academic jobs. To get a Ph.D. for another purpose other than hard-core research (or teaching) may not be worth the pain and effort.

For Masters students, there are jobs working for companies, for government organizations, for research companies, or in food-related consulting. If your goal were to be a brand manager for a food company, you would be better off getting an MBA and taking electives in social psychology, human nutrition, consumer behavior, and experimental research methods.

The focus of most of this advice is for Ph.D. students.

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How Do I Get in to a Good School?

Good Ph.D. programs are difficult to get in to (and you want to go to the best program you can).

Why are good programs difficult to get in? This is mostly because people don’t do their homework ahead of time. Instead of only competing with other people from your state, you are now competing with really smart, motivated people from around the globe. When I was a professor at the University of Illinois, our consumer behavior program had 70–80 Ph.D. applications for 2 openings each year.

In general, programs look for 5 things when admitting candidates. 1) The quality of your undergraduate institution and your GPA, 2) your GRE or GMAT scores, 3) your references, 4) your research experience, and 5) your personal statement. While having a master’s degree can help, it’s not necessary but having done a good master’s thesis will help your chances considerably. Send a copy with your application.

If you are still in school, I would recommend you:

• Buy 3 practice books for the GRE or GMAT and set aside 5 consecutive Saturdays to take practices tests, grade them, and review them. With the GMAT, for instance, if you don’t get at least 700 out of 800, you hurt your chances of getting in to many top schools. Some schools have “unofficial” cut-offs (such as 680 or 700).

• Try to contact a professor in your undergraduate or Masters program and ask to be heavily involved with a research project or perhaps an independent study in his or her research area. Be persistent. Do an “over-the-top” outstanding job on a research project, even if you are just doing “grunt work.” This will be much more valuable to getting you in to a good program than getting A’s in the class or two you might otherwise take. Be persistent. Once you start, make sure you see the professor every week, even if he or she is difficult to get a hold of. Don’t rely on e-mail; stop by his or her office and stay visible.

• Get references from the most famous and well-known professors you know in the field. For most Ph.D. programs, a letter from a professor whom other committee members know carries more weight and is worth more than 3 letters from U.S. Senators or Fortune 500 CEOs. Letters from unknown professors are very common but even glowing “letters” are difficult to calibrate and can easily (sometimes mistakenly) be dismissed by an admissions committee.

• Before you write your statement of purpose, make sure you read the relevant academic journals in the area, and see the types of areas you are interested in. This also gives you an idea of where you should apply. Ask one of your professors to read your statement before you send it in. Again, ask one of your professors to read your statement before you send it in. Oh, yes, and make sure you ask one of your professors to read your statement BEFORE you send it in.

I would recommend you apply to 12 schools: The 4 best schools, 4 good schools, and 4 safety schools. Schools only admit Ph.D. students once a year, so if you only try for your top school, you’ll not have a change to apply to a back-up school when you’re rejected. Most applications are due January 1st to start the following August (but some are due in December).

While it might look daunting to get in to a Ph.D. program, 90% of the people I have worked with have eventually gotten in to a good program. For a couple, it took two attempts, but they made it.

Although a person might think that getting a master’s degree or getting work experience might improve their chances of admission, the mistake most people make is waiting too long before they apply. If you know you want to be a professor, apply earlier rather than later.

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What School Should I Go To?

Here are four criteria people most often use in picking schools:

1. They go the School that gives them the most money: This is, by far, the dumbest criterion to use. A $3,000-4,000 “stipend bonus” won’t change your comfort level much, and may be “penny wise and pound foolish.”

2. They go to the school with the best academic reputation: Generally a good strategy -- if you graduate. These schools can often have higher than average flunk out rates (I was the only one of five to graduate from my entering Ph.D. class) and it can be hard to find advisors who have the time or interest in you. Also, these schools can sometimes limit you to the type of topics they consider important. The upside is that you will find a decent job if you graduate.

3. They go to the school they’re currently at: If you have great rapport with your professors and are already involved in projects, this can be a reasonable choice. The major advantage or going elsewhere, however, is to get a new perspective (although you’ll kind of have to “start over”).

4. They go to the school that’s in the coolest location: This is another dumb criterion to use (unless there are family constraints). You will be so overwhelmed in a Ph.D. program that it doesn’t matter what location your school is at. You basically won’t have time to take advantage of that location. I’ve know at least a dozen students who chose a school based on its location. Only one of them ever ended up graduating.

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How Do I Pick an Advisor?

The ideal advisor would be world famous, would be “grant-rich,” would always have lots of time to mentor you, would treat you like a beloved family member, and would be able to find you a job at a grant research university.

Unfortunately, such an advisor does not exist.

Professors who are world famous and grant-rich will be too busy to spend much time with you and they may be impatient, short-tempered, and have unrealistically high expectations (my first advisor told me he “did not suffer fools gladly”). On the other hand, professors who have few students and lots of time to mentor you are unlikely to be “grant-rich” (you’ll have to teach and grade papers to pay your way through school) and may carry less weight on the job market. In addition, you are less likely to generate as much of a running start on your publication record while you are in school.

Someone once told me to “pick your best friend as your advisor, your favorite uncle as your 2nd committee member, and your brother as your 3rd one.” The basic notion is that if the person you pick as an advisor is a nice person who will grow to have your best interests at heart, things will probably work out well. That is, you’ll graduate, and the relationship will continue after graduation. For 90% of the Ph.D. students I have known, this would have been the perfect strategy. For the 10% who are Superstars, they might instead be better off choosing the most famous person in the department. I started off with the most famous advisor in my department, but ended up with the one who grew to like me the most. I was lucky I was given a second chance.

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What Should I Expect?

Ph.D. programs are overwhelming. If you liked the leisure pace of your undergraduate or masters program, you’ll be in for an ice-water shock. Ph.D. classes are often confusing, seemingly unrelated to anything you’re interested in, and demoralizing in terms of how clueless they can make you feel. If you are lucky, maybe 3 of the classes you take will be directly relevant to your particular research area.

I would recommend that an immediate priority is to get started on a number of different research projects with multiple professors who you think are interesting. In doing so, you’ll be able to avoid a lot of research mistakes (that you’d otherwise make on your dissertation or as a faculty member). Also, you’ll start to develop a portfolio of research that will help you on the job market 3-4 years away.

One mistake I see a number of my students make is to take classes and wait for a professor to approach them with a research project. It probably won't happen. You have to take the initiative and show that you have either the skills or the energy that can help make their research life more efficient and productive. Persist with this.

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Questions and Answers - New Professors

How Should I Balance Research and Teaching?

This differs across schools. When I was an Assistant Professor up at Dartmouth, a guy in another department asked the Dean what percent of his time should be on research and what on teaching? The Dean said, “70% of your time should be spend on research and the other 70% on teaching.”

You need to really make big (bigger than you think) progress in both areas early in your career. Regardless of your school, you need to do research. It either gets you tenure, it keeps you marketable, or it helps you get relatively higher pay raises (even at “teaching schools”). You also need to get your teaching nailed down quickly. If you invest a lot to begin with, within 3 years, you can have a winning set of course notes that you can then “forget about” except for yearly upgrades.

It is way too easy to over-invest in teaching. This is partly because teaching can provide immediate “warm fuzzies” from students and department chairs. Over-investing, however, probably has minimal returns to a student’s education, and it most definitely has negative returns to your research. Controversial as it may seem, someone once told me “A good professor is a good teacher, but not too good.” Even most award-winning teachers I know, say “Enough’s enough.” Good professors can be good teachers. Great professors are good teachers who do good research.

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What Type of Research Should I Focus On?

It is tempting to want to publish everything out of your dissertation, but time is short, and most of the things an academic publishes will not be highly cited. It is much better to focus one’s research efforts on top tier journals first, and use second-tiers (but only those indexed on the Social Science Citation Index) as the back-up.

In talking with academics who have been out for 10 years or so (tenured at good research schools), they might have 50 articles and they might have ten really top-tier articles, but many typically only have 4 or 5 they are really, really, really proud of. The goal should be to focus on ideas that have this potential.

Working with senior colleagues (who have a good record and a high need for closure) can be helpful. This works best if you look for a point of mutual interest in the general area they are working in. It also works best if you don’t have redundant talents, if you can instead bring something new to the party, and if you’re willing to do 80% of the work.

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How Do I Find Time To Write?

A notable academic told me that everything he has ever done that made a difference in his career were things he did while other people were asleep -- either before they woke-up or after they went to bed. Many academics make their most of their progress between the hours of 6AM and 11AM, or after 8PM. Afternoons are not that productive because of teaching, data collection, students, committee meetings, correspondence, and review writing.

Some people want to wait until they have a “big chunk of time” to do their writing. This is a bad habit. Most productive people I know write at least 2 hours a day - six days a week. The time of the day they do it may differ, but that time is pretty much sacred.