Meeting Paul Cobb

What advice do you have for new researchers?

Young researchers that go to research universities fixate on tenure and the checklist they need to complete to earn tenure. The first few years can easily become an identity-shredding experience. The wrong game is: “How can I get ahead?” Also, don’t write a proposal just to get a large grant. Think about your pre-tenure years, instead, as six years to work on something that you actually care about. Ask yourself: What you want to understand? What aspect of your practice do you want to improve? Because, if you care about it, you will work hard because it’s something you want to do. Don’t entirely forget about tenure – but don’t fixate on hitting a number of papers. Write quality papers that result from interest rather than weak papers resulting from “gotta”. As you plan, think about: Why did you come into this program to start with? What do you care about? Be aware of the danger of focusing on yourself in an ego way. Instead of thinking about how you can be a star, do work that you are interested in, task-involved, focused on doing good work. Also, in your first years don’t try to get a large grant but instead start with a small enough project so you can be intimately involved in all aspects of it.

What do you know about writing now that you wished you had known?

I wish I had know to outline, in detail, my ideas and argument. You should do this detailed outlining, pretending you are giving a presentation. You can use PowerPoint, for example, to create the outline. You should share your outline with others – meet with someone and talk with them through the outline. As you talk through the outline, pay attention to the structure of the argument: Does the structure make sense? Struggle with sentences: What is the next step in the outline? How do I say it appropriately? Instead of focusing on the question: What am I going to do next? focus on What do I want to figure out? Why am I doing this? What do I want to get a handle on conceptually? As you think about these questions, write a purpose statement for yourself: By the end of this, this is what I want to learn. This is what I’m doing to support that. This is why what I’m doing will help me reach my goal. 

As a grad student, how do I know when I should publish something?

As you publish papers, you will develop a better sense of when something is ready for publication, but there are no guarantees that you will be accepted. The main thing is, as you develop a reputation, you don’t want to submit a paper that is truly awful and then the editors know who you are and will remember how bad the paper is. But as a graduate student and new researcher, you have no reputation and you have no sense of when a paper is ready. So just try to publish it. If it gets rejected, or if it’s terrible, no one knows you and they won’t remember. Then you can develop your sense of when the paper is “good enough” that it won’t embarrass you, and when it is a “good fit” for the journal.


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