Advice for Planning PhD Students: The Secret to Writing A Lot

Trying to write that first sentence…

Trying to write that first sentence…

Academic productivity is mostly measured by our writing, whether peer-reviewed publications, the pursuit of external grants, or any of the other dozens of writing-intensive tasks we are expected to do on a near-daily basis. Much of the anxiety among early career researchers is also writing-based, or the fear of not writing. Over the years I’ve read endless columns, guides, and books on how to be a more productive writer. I have attended workshops, seminars, and writing groups. I have purchased fancy apps and programs. I bought the perfect notebook and a nice pen and noise-canceling headphones, the ultimate combination that would surly lead to more articles per year under-review. I experimented with just the right numbers of beers or cocktails to summon the muses. I have a nicely arranged desk and writing space, and have staked out my favorite coffeeshops. I have tried every ritual or piece of sage advice on writing from experienced and productive writers: I’ve written only in the morning, and only in the evening. I’ve written everyday of the week and only once per week on a designated writing day. I’ve written in short bursts with timed breaks, and I’ve done marathon sessions with no breaks. I’ve stayed at home and I’ve traveled to writing retreats. I’ve written messy first drafts with no editing allowed, and written perfect first drafts with no messiness allowed. I’ve avoided outlines. I’ve outlined.

After all these years of reading and hearing advice, I have come to know one truth - the secret to writing a lot is to write a lot. Or, as Mary Heaton Vorse advised Sinclair Lewis a century ago, “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

That is it. That is the bottom-line of every bit of advice on writing you will ever find. Make the time to write, and then do it. Easier said than done, but there is great wisdom on the topic. Put your writing time on your calendar and treat it like any other obligation. Free yourself of distractions. Make goals. When you hit a rut, mix things up.

At the end of the day, no one else’s advice means anything, because your writing habits are different. Just make sure you are writing on a consistent basis.

Advice For Planning PhD Students: Writing Your CV

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The curriculum vitae, or CV, is one of the most important components of your academic job application. It is the document that most search committee members will read first, before they (hopefully) dive into your cover letter, research/teaching/diversity statements, and writing sample. It is an outline of your record, a shorthand of your accomplishments. Your CV will evolve with you throughout your academic career. It is a highly individual document that you also share with the world.

Every academic planner has a CV, and thus every academic planner has an opinion on how a CV should be written. There are no hard-and-fast rules. And yet, the CV is a place where norms and standards are performed for search committees. A CV that doesn’t conform to certain unwritten expectations may signal to committee members that this candidate is not ready. The goal of this blog post is to describe the contents of an effective CV, and some of the norms and standards that you are expected to follow. Hopefully this advice will allow your CV do the work you want it to do; i.e. provide a succinct account of your accomplishments in a format that is legible across our discipline and the academy. Please note, this advice is specific to the United States academic job market. The norms and standards of CVs will likely vary in other places.

What goes in a CV?
In this section I describe the components of a CV in (roughly) the order they should appear. For reference, here are my CVs from my first time on the job market, second time on the job market, and in my current position. I don’t hold these up as models. In fact, I see a lot of mistakes on my job market CVs that I wish I could go back and correct. Alas.

Personal information: Your name, institutional mailing address, email address, phone number and website address (if applicable) should appear at the top of your CV. Do not include a photograph or any additional personal information like gender, birthdate, hobbies or marital status.

Education: You should then describe your educational background, starting with your PhD and through your undergraduate degree. If you are a current PhD candidate, you might indicate the date when you expect to receive your degree. Some candidates include the names of their dissertation committee members. I don’t personally do this, but think it is fine to do. Don’t include information like your GPA or membership in honor societies.

Academic positions: Next, list any academic positions you have held here. Make sure to be specific. So, for example, in my second job market CV I described my appointment as a visiting lecturer at Cornell as well as my Assistant Professor position at the University of Hawaii. Be sure to include dates and the department(s) or unit(s) within which you worked.

Professional experience: Most academic CVs will not feature professional experience. Urban and regional planning is a professional field, however, so it may be beneficial to list your relevant work experience outside of academia. You will need to use your best judgement on whether to list your professional experience, and be sure to only include substantial work that is directly relevant to your research, teaching, and/or service. If you have 10 years of experience working in a professional planning setting, for example, that is certainly worth including and will likely be viewed as an asset by many search committees. If you have a year of experience or a summer internship, however, I would not include them.

Research: The next section of your CV should describe your research accomplishments, most importantly your a) publications b) grants and c) presentations.

Publications: You should write this section according to the hierarchy of publications, starting with the most universally recognized and important (in a job-market sense) publications and ending with manuscripts that are still under review or in-progress. As you can see on my CV, I list my peer-reviewed journal articles followed by peer-reviewed book chapters, reports and other non-peer reviewed publications, and journal articles under review. If you have a book published or under contract, you would likely put it at the top of this section. A few general do’s and don’ts with regards to publications:

  • Do include a full citation for each publication.

  • Don’t mix publications together. Peer-reviewed journal articles should be separately listed from book chapters, which should be separately listed from book reviews, encyclopedia entries, opinion pieces, etc. Don’t force the search committee to parse your publications! There is a clear hierarchy with regards to the categories of publications in planning and academia generally, and this section of your CV should reflect that.

  • Do list your manuscripts under review. For your job market CV (i.e. the one you send to search committees), list the journal where a paper is under review regardless of its status (submitted, under review, revise and resubmit, or accepted pending minor revisions). For your public-facing CV, don’t list the journal unless you have already received a revise and resubmit decision.

  • Do/Don’t include a ‘manuscripts in preparation’ section. After all these years, I still don’t know what to think about this common CV entry. On the one hand, describing your future papers can signal to a search committee that you have a well-thought out publication plan. On the other, anyone can describe all the great things they intend to do in the future without including any actual information about the present. My advice: be sparing. If you decide to include papers in preparation, limit the number and don’t describe the journals where you intend to submit them. Do try and associate them with an accomplishment (i.e. presented at the 2019 ACSP conference, manuscript currently being revised for submission). Don’t be the person who has 12 manuscripts under preparation but none actually published - this sends the wrong signals.

Grants: The next part of the research portion of your CV should describe your competitive grants. This means grant funding you have received separate from your standard university stipend/package. I separate internal/external grants, but as a PhD candidate you can probably combine them. What grants should you include? Those where you are the principal investigator (PI), co-principal investigator (co-PI), or investigator i.e. grants you had a part in receiving and administering. If you were hired onto a grant project as a PhD student, you probably shouldn’t include the grant on your CV. Do include the competitive academic fellowships you have received.

Presentations and workshops: Next, describe your research presentations and/or workshops. As a PhD student these will mostly be conference presentations. Include the paper or talk title, date, and conference/workshop/proceeding. You might also include a section on invited talks. There are too many individual circumstances to discuss here, but if someone sought you out to present your research based on your record or reputation, it is generally considered invited. If you sought out an opportunity to present your research (e.g. submitted a conference abstract) then it is not considered invited. Be cautious about what you include in this section, generally - there is a line between “accomplishment” and “padding” that you don’t want to cross. You prepared a 45-minute research presentation for an on-campus lecture series? Absolutely include it on your CV. Delivered an informal presentation about your research to friends over beers? Don’t.

Teaching: The next section of your CV should describe your teaching experience. There are different ways to organize this, but in-general you want to make sure the search committee can clearly understand the courses, seminars or workshops you have taught and distinguish between different levels of responsibility. It is probably a good idea to include a few sentences for each course. For example:

  • Urban Sustainability is a graduate-level course on the fundamentals of environmental planning and sustainable development. I was the instructor of record from 2013-2019, during which time I delivered 12 sections of Urban Sustainability.

  • Global Cities is an undergraduate course that introduces students to the histories and theories of urbanization outside of the United States. I was a graduate teaching assistant for Global Cities in 2009 and 2010. During that time I led my own discussion section, graded student papers, delivered a once-per-semester guest lecture, and assisted the instructor of record with other teaching-related tasks.

Notice that I clearly describe and differentiate my teaching responsibilities in these short descriptions rather than simply listing the course titles and years.

Jim Soto, a professor of philosophy at St. Clair County Community College, offered some helpful advice for those of you who might be applying to a community college or teaching intensive position:

“Switch the order of publications with teaching. Or as I like to say, ‘lead with teaching.’ Also, go ahead and elaborate on the courses taught, don't just list them. In particular, if you've taught/developed a course, or emphasized special content in an existing course, or teach it in an interesting way, give a sentence or two describing it.”

If you have any specialized training on pedagogy, you should also include it in the teaching section.

Service: In this section you should describe your service activities, whether to your university (committees, student leadership), the profession (e.g. academic peer reviewer, regional/national leadership), or the community.

Awards and honors: Finally, you should list any awards or honors you have received. The lines get a little blurry here…for example, a Fulbright-Hays fellowship is both a grant and an award. You will need to use your best judgement, but if you have received an award or honor for your research, teaching or service, you should make sure it has a home in your CV.

How should I design my CV?
After content, you should also think about form. What font should you use? What size? How large should the margins be? These are all important questions, but not ones you should obsess over. If your CV includes the information described above and generally follows the conventions of the field, the form will matter less than the substance. Try and follow the basic rules of design. Pick a font and font size that is clear and professional (Arial = yes, Papyrus = no). Choose margins that are not too small and not too big. Space your sections a bit, but don’t include excessive white space. And so on. When in doubt, pick a few CVs that look great to you and mimic their design, or find the standard CV template for your university and use that. If you are hopelessly lost, ask one of your design-oriented friends to take a look. If they don’t recoil in horror, you are probably ok.

The evolution of CVs and finding role models
As you can see, my CV has evolved significantly since I was a first-time job market candidate. It still provides a summary of my work and accomplishments, but serves a slightly different purpose today than it did then. Most importantly, I have begun to curate the contents for the sake of brevity. I am not “on the market” these days and don’t need to paint a complete picture of my work. If I were on the market, I would provide more detail in the teaching, peer-reviewed conferences and invited talks sections.

This is all a way of saying that you shouldn’t necessarily mimic the CVs of professors in your department, particularly ones who have been around for years or decades. You will probably be better served by asking to see the CVs of the recently appointed faculty, or those who have recently been successful on the job market. If you are a faculty member reading this blog and have a good CV you are willing to share, please send me a message and I will post it.

Last point - and I can’t stress this enough - get together with your peers and critique each others CVs. Your personal tastes and preferences will vary, but you should seek out feedback in a low stakes and supportive environment. Print some paper copies, get some red pens, and order a pizza. Invite some junior faculty. It will pay off handsomely.

Final thoughts
The CV is a deceptive document. It is simple in its form, yet does a lot of spoken and unspoken work. When in doubt, remember to make your CV is organized and only includes the essentials. It is ok if your CV is short! In fact, the search committee probably expects it. Much better to communicate a brief record of solid accomplishment than to muddy the waters with padding and fluff.


Further Reading
I wrote this blog post for PhD students in Urban and Regional Planning, but the advice is probably transferable to most social science disciplines. Similarly, many advice articles on academic CVs from social scientists are relevant to planning PhD students. A couple of recent ones that I enjoyed are: