Friday, January 25, 2008

You Have Approximately 21 Days, 23 Hours, and 9 Minutes To Submit your ACSP/AESOP Abstract

Where I work we have already had one email go around reminding us that ACSP, and thus the ACSP abstract deadline, is early this year, followed by shouts of consternation. I suspect that there will be at least one more round of email and shouts before we actually get the abstracts in, and in this we are not atypical. So consider this yet another reminder, in case you need it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Proposal’s Literature Review

This post is from Stephanie Ryberg, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania.  Stephanie talks about writing the literature review for her dissertation proposal.  Her perspective is a good one: she is in the midst of things, and is working out how to tackle an important part of her proposal.

The Proposal’s Literature Review

After finally finishing coursework, I sat down about a month ago to begin seriously writing my dissertation proposal. In our program, we have to follow a fairly standard outline in structuring our proposals (review of relevant research, problem statement, objectives, methods, approach, data sources, significance…). I was able to write my research ideas clearly and succinctly. And although I need to revise it and add some depth, my advisor’s comments on the actual proposed research were generally positive.

The “review of relevant research,” though is another story. Writing the first draft of this section presented me with three significant issues. First, I have only about four or five pages to cover all of the necessary information. Second, I am studying a relatively un-researched topic that crosses a number of bodies of scholarly literature. Last, while my dissertation is using contemporary case studies, much of the justification for the project comes from a historical analysis of various approaches to neighborhood revitalization. For the first draft, I presented this history and then reviewed and critiqued contemporary literature—going well beyond my tight length limits. My advisor’s comments were succinct: synthesize all the information—history and existing research, present it as one narrative, and do it in five pages. This is proving easier said than done.

My research is a qualitative project that combines historical analysis and methods with something mimicking a policy analysis of contemporary case studies. The research crosses a few (often disconnected) sub-fields of city planning (historic preservation, community development and organizing, neighborhood revitalization). It inevitably must also address some fairly heated issues such as gentrification. All of this creates a complicated framework, which I am sure cannot be unique to my project, and makes grounding the proposed dissertation in existing research extremely complex.  

Of course I am encountering the usual issues of selecting the most important and relevant research or points of history to include. In addition, we are expected to write and revise our proposals while taking qualifying exams and submitting a journal-worthy paper (part of our program requirements). Finding time to balance all of these high-priority things and dedicate sufficient thought to each seems daunting from the outset and anxiety-inducing throughout.
My goal seems simple: use a historical narrative, combined with some of my own previous research, to show that the phenomenon I am investigating exists and then illustrate through a critical review of literature that the issue is understudied (at best) or ignored. When I try to do this, though, my writing becomes muddled and something resembling panic that I have no idea what I am doing sets in (the latter is definitely not a productive step in breaking my writing block). I have great support for my work and approach (including undertaking qualitative, humanities-based research), but continuously feel that I am taking a shot in the dark with every draft of this portion of the proposal. At the moment, I clearly have no answers to my own dilemma (except a healthy dose of “stepping away from it” procrastination). Perhaps one day—a couple of months from now—after I’ve revised and revised I will be able to look back and offer advice. But maybe not; maybe this is just one of those things we have to go through and the only solution is to just work at until it works. I guess only the coming weeks will tell…

Advice for Would-Be Planning Doctoral Students

This entry was written by Jessica Doyle.  Jessica is a doctoral student in city and regional planning at Georgia Tech.  If I remember correctly her research concerns public transportation investments and local economic development. 

Blog Entry: Advice for Would-Be Planning Doctoral Students

Martin Kreiger recently complained that there are far too many top-10 lists out there, even for potential or actual doctoral students in planning. So I am not going to present you with the Ten Things You Really Ought to Know Before You Start a Planning PhD Program. Besides, one of those ten things ought to be "What is planning, anyway?" which you probably already know. (I got my undergraduate degree in history, worked as a journalist, and entered my doctoral program without having completed, or even started, a master's in planning first. I am weird.)

The first thing you should do, if you are considering applying, or already applying, to PhD programs in planning, is read "Should You Go to Graduate School?" It was written by Tim Burke, who teaches history, not planning, but is nonetheless a wise person to listen to (or a wise person whose blog to read). When he says, "Two years in, and getting out will be like gnawing your own leg off"? Listen to him. One caveat: I think -- for my own sake, I hope -- that unlike a PhD in history, a PhD in city planning (or city and regional planning, or community planning) will qualify you to venture outside the academic world, if you so choose. One of the reasons why I love planning as a discipline is that even very theoretical discussions don't lose sight of the practical: toss around "advocacy planning" and "critical planning theory" all you like, but in the end you're still talking about how to get a roomful of people, some of whom have more power and wealth than others, on a particular zoning code or infrastructure project. But everything else about the totality of a PhD program applies.

If you've gone and read that, and then gone through the PhD Comics archive, and you're still eager to do this doctoral thing, then I would look at your potential schools in terms of a series of matching areas. Here are the matching areas I would consider the most important:
  • The balance of professional training versus academic training. At my program (Georgia Tech), the master's program comes first, the PhD program a distant second. This has definite advantages, in that both the faculty and the majority of the students have to keep at least one eye on the practical, and I will finish with a number of friends working planning jobs. This is not a small thing, if your career plan is to be teaching people who want to work planning jobs. But it can mean that PhD issues get addressed more slowly than issues at the master's level. If this worries you, you may want to focus on schools with a larger PhD-to-master's ratio, with a longer history of churning out PhD graduates who get teaching jobs.
  • Outreach. Some schools will absolutely love you if you want to spend your summers on hands-on projects in low-income areas. Some will not. Some advisors will. Some will not. (Some hiring committees will, and some will not, but by that point your program should be able to help you.) If you're more interested in outreach and service, and consider research as a step along the way rather than an end in itself, then you very much need to find a school that will reward and nurture you for those goals. My guess (since I am particularly slack on the service front) is that professors with a long activism history (Ken Reardon, for example) will be more welcoming of outreach- and service-oriented students than those who have concentrated more on quantitative research problems. But it's going to depend not just on your future advisor but his or her relationship to the rest of the department and the university. Be very upfront, as best you can, about your goals, so that the program can take that into account when deciding whether you're a good fit.
  • International focus. By this I mean two things, which may not be of equal importance to you. One is how well international students are supported in the program. My personal bias is that having people with experiences from other countries is an asset, but not every program's focus will include as much room for international students. The second is how much research from outside the US is incorporated into research and teaching within the program. If you think you might at all go abroad for your dissertation research, start bringing that up now, since different programs (and faculty) will have different levels of experience at helping you get your hands on the money you'll need. You do not to be arguing about your potential funding sources, and why what's going on in Europe or Thailand is relevant anyway, during your dissertation proposal.
  • Political orientation, in terms of the virtues or drawbacks of economic growth, or positions on equity issues versus an emphasis on rational planning. Put it this way: what gets your future advisor, and the faculty as a whole, fuming? Sprawl? Ugly strip malls? The stagnation of inner-city areas? Climate change? Overdependence on cars? Destruction of historic buildings or areas? They may be annoyed by all of the above, but you want smoke out of the nostrils and ears, if possible. Then look for those things that make smoke come out of your nostrils and ears. If you get a match, it will make future research directions, not to mention awkward small talk, much more bearable.
  • General comfort-level issues. To some degree this last is true of any academic department, since you will be spending a great deal of time with these people. However, if you find a good academic match, it might be tempting to put these issues aside. Do not. If you are gay, you ought to be able to mention your partner in casual conversation. If you are a practicing Christian, you ought to be able to mention your church in casual conversation. If you tend to make jokes when you are nervous, as I do, you need at least one person near you who will laugh or say something ridiculous back. The faculty at your program, especially your advisor, are going to have some control over your employability for the rest of your life, assuming you finish. You do not want to find yourself ill at ease for three years or more; it will not help.

    My final piece of advice, if you are choosing between different planning programs, is this: Find out how long it takes people to finish. In March 2005, after I got my acceptance, I had an hour-long chat with a very nice and intelligent guy who worked with my then-future advisor. He said lots of good things about Tech's program. What he did not say, or perhaps what I did not hear, is that it tends to take people a while -- and indeed, almost three years later he has not finished, or even submitted his dissertation proposal. My own tenure is probably not going to do my program's time-to-completion rate any favors. In my case I would have chosen Tech anyway, and I have no regrets, but if you have the luxury of deciding between more than one program, and you do not intend to spend a decade in this process, get as much data as to time-to-completion as you can.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Welcome fellow scholars!

I am starting a blog as a means of sharing information about the work of getting a PhD in urban planning, as well as what students should expect from a career in academia.  Look for entries from a variety of talented students and professors in the coming weeks.
What I have in mind here is a blog with short postings by a wide variety of doctoral students and faculty about things authors have learned, advice they give, or articulate-but-as-yet-unanswered questions they might have about how to do what we do.  This blog is oriented both towards sharing our experience and providing practical information on workaday aspects of our career path.  I hope that this will be a useful and occasionally irreverent source.  One advantage of a blog format is that entries should be short and informal - and hence not too time consuming to write.
If you find this blog useful, I hope you consider posting.  Blog entries could cover topics beginning with advice for students considering applying for a doctoral program, carrying through to challenges in getting tenure.  Entries can be ten to a few hundred words, either credited or anonymous.  Email me if you're interested/willing, and I'll add your email to DSUP's author permissions, allowing you to post as needed.  Or you could simply send me a post and I'll make sure that it gets published.

Jason Brody