Advice & insights: masterclasses from industry leaders

How to Navigate Your Dissertation: A Conversation With Steve Tippins

Steve Tippins

Steve Tippins

Career Coach for Doctoral Students

Key Takeaways

  • Proactivity in Dissertation: Understand the process early, aim for ‘good enough,’ and seek accountability to overcome common challenges.
  • Sustained Motivation: Keep your end goal in sight and manage distractions to maintain focus and drive.
  • Effective Time Management: Use boundaries and the Pomodoro technique to balance dissertation work with personal life.
  • Choosing the Right Coach: Opt for a coach with broad experience and a deep understanding of the dissertation process for comprehensive support.
  • Strategic Academic Preparation: Publish strategically, understand the job market cycle, and communicate your value clearly in applications.
  • Networking and Skill Translation: Leverage networking for opportunities and articulate doctoral skills for diverse career paths.

Dissertation Completion Strategies

Diving into a doctoral dissertation or making your way into an academic career is no small feat. It’s a journey filled with twists and turns, from figuring out the dissertation maze to landing the right academic position. Steve Tippins, who’s been through it all and helped others do the same, shares his wisdom in our Q&A. He cuts through the complexity with straightforward advice on managing your time, finding the right dissertation coach, and making smart moves in your career. For anyone at the crossroads of their doctoral journey or academic career, Steve’s practical tips are a beacon of clarity.

There are a number of challenges that doctoral students face, I will list some here

  • Lack of Knowledge About the Process: Many schools seem to believe in something like just-in-time information about the process. This may help the institution but it slows down the process for the student. Knowing what is coming and planning for it can speed things up a great deal.
  • The Hunt for Perfection: Too many students wait to submit the perfect document when they don’t know what perfect is. Their committee decides what is “perfect”. Strive for good enough!
  • Accountability: This is a lonely and hard journey and it is easy to stray. Find partners and/or a coach to help you stay on track.

“This is important. Remember why you are doing this. What is your ultimate goal. Read about those before you who are out changing the world. Put good but distracting ideas to the side until you are finished.”

“Boundaries are very important. You need to put aside time for yourself and your family/loved ones. You want to get to the end of your degree process with relationships intact. For writing, the Pomodoro technique can be helpful. And, know all of the steps to the process and the dates that have to be met. Schools seem to be bad at providing this information which can cause students to spend more time in school. I work with all of my clients on this.”

“A dissertation coach can help you plan for the entire dissertation process. They have been there before and can help you work with your committee, prepare for oral defenses, structure your document for approval, support you during low moments, and help you think about life after your doctoral journey.  When looking for a dissertation coach look for someone who has done more than written a dissertation. I think that a dissertation coach should have Chaired at least 10 dissertations (I have Chaired over 100) so that they can see many different paths forward and one who has worked with students from different institutions. Experience is very important. You also want someone who will listen and be on your side.”

Transitioning from Doctoral Studies to Academic Careers

“First, finish your dissertation. It is much harder starting a job when you still have commitments back at your degree granting institution. Second, someone told me not to make friends with anyone for the first year. That is a little dramatic but the intent is to make sure that you understand the politics and if there are people who don’t get along. The faculty votes on you getting tenure so it is best to have everyone like you. Third, don’t take on too many service roles your first year. Learn the lay of the land before you dive deeply into service.”

“First, have publishing in mind at the start of your dissertation. Second, explore the types of publications that will help you reach your goal (if you want to get a job at an R1 school you need to publish at high level journals whereas if you want to be a consultant you need to publish where your clients will see your work).”

“You need to think of your dissertation as an asset. How will that asset work for you. Can you publish in journals from your dissertation? Can you make conference presentations based upon your findings? Can you use your dissertation as part of an ongoing stream of research? On another note, do as much teaching as you can in your doctoral program. Schools like to hire people who have taught before. Be familiar with the book adoption process as well as classroom management software.”

“Your cover letter is very important. This is where you should indicate how you fill a school’s need. Remember, no one advertises unless they have a need. If you let them know early how you can solve their problem your application will get more attention. And, understand the annual cycle of hiring. Be ready to apply in the late Summer/early Fall. If you start thinking about jobs in February for the next Fall you will have missed about 90% of the openings.”

Long-Term Career Planning for Academics

How should academics approach long-term career planning within higher education?

“Withing higher education the traditional faculty path culminates at the rank of Professor. At most institutions the path to professor is paved with publications. Develop a research stream and maintain your productivity to reach this goal. The path may also diverge into administration. As a Department Chair you will still have faculty responsibilities (some teaching and research) after that Assistant Dean, Dean, Provost, etc. become all administrative jobs. The teaching disappears but you have more say in the running of an institution. If you take the administrative path I suggest getting Tenure first so that you have a security blanket if administration does not meet your needs.”

What are the keys to building a successful career in academia beyond the PhD?

“The typical academic job is made up of teaching, research, and service – the levels of each depend upon your university. Keep a pipeline of research coming (schools always like this) and work on being a good teacher. In addition, don’t become close friends with any of the faculty in your department for the first year. Find out if there are any factions and who doesn’t like whom. Remember, they will be voting on you getting tenure in a few years.”

Can you discuss the importance of networking in academia and how to effectively build professional relationships?

“Networking is underused and very important for doctoral students. Making contacts at conferences and through your faculty can help you find possible jobs in the future as well as potential people with whom you can do research in the future. Additionally, you can open yourself up to different ideas and approaches by broadening your network of academic contacts.”

What advice do you have for academics looking to expand their career opportunities, possibly outside of traditional academic roles?

“More and more PhDs/EdDs are exploring opportunities outside of academia. You need to be able to tell future employers/clients why you are a good fit for them and why your advanced degree will benefit them. Let them know that through your doctoral program you enhanced skills such as long term planning, carrying out a long term goal, critical thinking, project management, communication, research skills, etc. Translate your skills for them.”

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