Stop Acting Like a Grad Student, Redux: “After My Defense, I Will…”

I am always telling clients to stop “sounding like a grad student.”  But the trouble is, clients don’t understand all the ways that they do this.

Some are obvious.  “While a grad student in the English Ph.D. program, I…..”  is a sure giveaway.  Delete any language that depicts you AS a student–either grad student, or, god forbid, undergraduate (see this column I wrote for Vitae for more on that particular misstep).

However, most cases are more subtle.  Today, I highlight one common one:  the constant reference to grad school process/status.

Language like the following:

  • After my defense I will develop a book proposal…
  • I have am writing an article based on chapter two of my dissertation…
  • I am giving two conference papers derived from this dissertation research…
  • After receiving feedback from my dissertation committee, I will incorporate revisions into the book manuscript…
  • As a graduate student teaching assistant, I taught a course on….
  • I have six terms of experience as a TA in the xxx course, and in that course I focus on
  • I not only autonomously taught these three courses, but I was also responsible for creating the syllabi and lesson content

The second example – “I am writing an article based on chapter xx of my dissertation”  — is the most common case.  Check your letter and research statement now for this modifying clause, and remove it.

All of the final three examples are rampant in teaching paragraphs.  The final example is a case of over-explaining information in a way that inadvertantly makes you look less experienced, rather than more.  If you simply explain how you taught the class, you look like a faculty member.  If you laboriously articulate that you were “responsible for creating the syllabi…” etc., you look like a grad student.

In a similar vein, nobody but you actually cares what chapter your article derives from.  They care that you WROTE an article, and that that article is published, in a high ranking journal. Period.  To anxiously look backward to the chapter it once was is to rehearse your grad student anxieties in public.

Because you have already devoted one or two complete paragraphs to describing the dissertation, its topic, methods, theories, conclusions, and contribution in the cover letter and research statement, there is no reason to keep referring back to it as the context for other professional accomplishments.

Your book proposal, articles, conference papers, and book manuscript are stand-alone achievements that signify your status as a professional in the field. They do not, in any way, shape, or form, need to be tethered to an old and outdated graduate school identity, or graduate school requirements.  To continually do so is to reveal yourself to be over-invested in that past graduate student identity, and unclear on the nature of an autonomous, fully independent, scholarly identity.

It’s subtle, but it’s telling.

Explain your dissertation, yes.  And then move on.



Stop Acting Like a Grad Student, Redux: “After My Defense, I Will…” — 13 Comments

  1. Thanks for this advice. But I’m a little confused, because your earlier post on cover letters states: “From this discussion [of the diss], move quickly to the conference papers and publications that came out of it, and the current and future publication plans that are forthcoming from it.”

    So is it okay to mention the publications that you are developing/have developed from the dissertation in this context, if done in a crisp, straightforward way immediately after the diss paragraph? Something like: “I submitted an article based on chapter 3 to TOP JOURNAL. I will submit a book proposal to TOP PRESS in XXXX.”

  2. very useful, thanks. How about some advice on how our activism affects our prospects? Should we scrub our social media accounts if we haven’t said the most positive things about academia and the future of higher ed or have gotten involved in hot button issues like unionization while grad students? How much of my personal imagine is being taken into account or researched?

  3. Thanks for this advice. I have something akin to the example you gave above: “As a graduate student teaching assistant, I taught a course on x” For graduate students who have not been the lead instructor for any course, how would you recommend we talk about our teaching? It seems disingenuous to say “I taught courses on x & y” if I was only a teaching assistant in each case.

    • Oh, if all you’ve ever been is a TA, then of course you must accurately reflect that! My complaint is with those who actually taught their own class, but still link the accomplishment to a grad student context or identity. And even as a TA, there are ways to harp on the TA status, and ways to gently minimize it. You want to do the latter, focusing on the classroom methods you’ve utilized and their value, rather than the TA context/status itself.

  4. I am in my first post-defense job, a one-year VAP. I still have on my c.v. a very brief account of my T.A. experience (simply a list of courses by institution). At what point do those things drop off entirely? Am I acting like a grad student, as though I need that TA experience on the c.v. to make it look longer? (for what it’s worth: I now have five courses under my belt as prof of record, as well as several individual lectures, so the “Teaching Experience” portion of the c.v. won’t be completely blank if I delete TA work.)

    • When in your shoes I put TAing in a category called Additional Professional Experience. So it’s there but deemphasized. I’m now thinking to put my adjunct experiences there too.

  5. Thanks a lot for your advise, I have couple of questions regarding cover letter.

    Couple of years back, I published a paper in a well-reputed journal, now part of the work is archived in Wiki, can I mention it in the cover letter?

    Do I mention how many times this article has been cited, or mention how many times all my work been cited?

    Thanks a lot, hope to hear back from you,


  6. So, when talking about teaching experience. How do we phrase our time as a teaching assistant without giving away that it was as a PhD student?

    • First off, they KNOW it was as a phd student, so you’re not trying to HIDE it. You’re just trying to emphasize what counts, from it. And that is the substance of the teaching, not the status under which you did the teaching.

  7. I must confess to not entirely heeding this advice in a recent cover letter. I had to disclose that I was ABD, and to mention a prestigious teaching award that had “Graduate” in its title. But I made sure that the rest of the letter was faculty grade. I didn’t specifically mention that I was a TA when I did my teaching; just that I had five years of university level instruction. The “teaching centric letter” post was a HUGE help, so thanks, Dr. Karen! –I literally spent weeks making it as faculty-grade as possible, showing-not-telling my teaching methods, identifying myself with “skills at X and Y, two areas of critical focus at [university]”, and proposing work with professors Suzie Queue, Bob Doe, and John Smith to strengthen the program in these areas… etc. That letter went in today and I have high hopes for it– which I would NOT have, without all the advice. We’ll see how it goes from here.

    • I’m glad! Remember, nobody needs to HIDE their status. The goal here is rather to emphasize the content relevant to the job, which is the skills and accomplishments, NOT the status you had while gaining them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *