Tag Archives: Ph.D.

Intellect and Discipline: The Keys to a Successful Academic Career

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

I have a good friend who is the most brilliant individual I know.  He has a mind that most of us would kill for — at least most academics would.  He is well-read, possessing a deep, almost stunning, knowledge of diverse subjects.  He thinks in innovative and refreshing ways.  He also has the “proper” educational background to succeed as a professor.  In fact, given what is often valued in society, he could go just about anywhere with his three Ivy League degrees.  What is the problem you might ask?  He lacks discipline!  He is fascinated by everything, yet easily bored.

I typically feel confident in my intellect.  However, I did have a professor in graduate school once tell me, “Marybeth, you may not be the smartest person, but you work harder than anyone I know.”  Of course, he was probably right no matter how much the comment stung.  He had a point now that I think about it.  One can be wonderfully, almost beautifully intelligent, but it doesn’t amount to much unless you are disciplined. 

Often students and faculty members will ask me — “How on earth can you be so productive?”  The secret is discipline.  As an academic, you must find time to write and I have learned over the course of my career that you need to compartmentalize your days.  There is always something to do — ideas to explore — and your work will spill over into every aspect of your life if you let it. 

Work expands (read that in a book once and firmly believe it).  So, what do I do?  I write every day but Saturday.  During the week, I usually begin at 9 a.m. and write (and do research) until roughly 2 p.m.  I schedule all meetings and teaching after 2 p.m. unless absolutely necessary. On Sundays, I write in the evenings after my daughter goes to sleep.  I’m not saying everyone needs to do this — but you need a routine, you need discipline.

Why this writing schedule and why this discipline?  As I explained to another  good friend the other day, most academics have a mission that they work toward fulfilling — they live life for a bigger reason than themselves.  I am one of these folks.  I don’t live merely for material possessions, but instead I thrive on the exploration of ideas and the solving of problems.  I consider research a mystery and writing the pathway to solving a mystery.  I am not a dreamer but a doer!  Without this kind of passion and discipline, intellect will get you and more importantly, society nowhere. 

I tell my doctoral students, as well as those masters and undergraduate students interested in a faculty career, that crafting a workable routine that is rooted in discipline will help them succeed.  Having a sense of discipline also means knowing when to say “no” — this is especially important for women and people of color who tend to be asked more than others to do service-related work in the academy.  Having discipline also means learning how much time to spend on teaching and advising.  These areas are probably my favorite part of my job, but I realized long ago that being productive in terms of publications gives you a stronger voice in the academy — a voice that leads to more freedom in the classroom and a greater ability to take care of and advocate for your students.

Lastly, discipline means knowing what you are good at and focusing on that area.  Too often academics try to be good at everything — becoming a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’.  We forget that as professors we have a lifetime ahead of us to explore new ideas.  Focusing on a few ideas at a time — becoming an expert in one or two areas — works to our advantage.  Plus, no one likes a “know it all”!

So back to my friend mentioned at the beginning of this post.  I am working diligently to help him increase his level of discipline.  I’m modeling good behavior.  Hoping that the issue is nurture not nature at play because “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.”

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions  (SUNY Press, 2008).

It’s Ph.D. Application Time: Here are a Few Tips

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

It’s that time of the academic year — the time when students begin to ask for advice, and more importantly, letters of recommendations to pursue their Ph.D. research.  As I care greatly about the future of the professoriate (and I think being a professor is the last great job — one gets paid to think!), I am willing to talk with anyone interested in pursuing a Ph.D. and I typically offer the same advice year after year.  In the spirit of the season, I thought I would provide that advice here on my Diverse Issues in Higher Education Blog.

First, the best approach is to do well academically at both the undergraduate and graduate level.  Take learning seriously and capitalize on each and every opportunity you have in college.  If you didn’t do as well as you would have liked to, it’s important to communicate the reasons to the graduate admissions committee.

Second, write the best, most focused, personal statement that you can.  Make sure to have a specific purpose to the statement, with clearly outlined goals and interests.  The admissions committee needs to know why you want to pursue a Ph.D. and why in the specific academic area of your choice.  Moreover, they need to understand why you are interested in pursuing the degree at their particular institution.  In the statement, you need to make connections to the research interests of those on the faculty.  However, your connections should be genuine — don’t name drop or exaggerate your interest in faculty.  Link your work with one or two individuals and write a meaningful paragraph about the connections between your interests and the faculty members’ work.  Don’t use cliches and quotes that have been used for decades — be as original in your thinking and approach as you can. 

Third, acquire three very strong letters of support from faculty members.  Make sure that these individuals know you and that you did well in their classes.  When asking someone to write a letter of recommendation for you, say “Are you willing to write a strong letter of recommendation for me?”  Graduate admissions committees are looking for evidence in the letters that you will be successful in the research and writing process and that you have strong critical thinking and analytical skills. 

Fourth, if at all possible, arrange to visit the institution and program to which you are applying.  Meet with students and faculty, attend a class or several, and get a good feel for the institutional culture.  Ask yourself, “Do students appear happy and busy?”  “Do students have dedicated workspaces at which to pursue their research and perform the work related to their research assistantship?”  “Are faculty visible and available?”  “Are faculty and students collaborating on research projects?”  Although you will be able to make a better assessment of a Ph.D. program by visiting, the faculty members will also get a better sense of you — and you are more likely to rise to the top of the application pile if you made a positive impression during your visit (of course, a negative impression could have the opposite effect!).

Fifth, if you are a student of color or someone interested in studying issues related to race, class, gender, or sexuality, make sure that there are faculty members who have your best interest in mind and who can relate to and inform your perspective.  Read faculty members’ research, notice which organizations they participate in and on which committees they serve, and if syllabi are available, see if your perspective is represented in course readings and assignments.

Lastly, do not apply to one one program.  I see students make this mistake year after year.  Identify the strong programs that appeal to your interests and apply to all of them, making sure to tailor your personal statement to each program’s focus.  Ph.D. programs are intensely competitive, especially those that offer full funding for multiple years — keep your options open.

Good luck!


An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions  (SUNY Press, 2008).

Advising Students to the Ph.D.: Are We Equitable in Our Support?

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman


A recent report published in Diverse: Issues In Higher Education states that Ph.D. completion varies by gender and race.  Specifically, the 10-year completion rate for Whites was 55 percent, for Hispanics it was 51 percent, for Asian Americans it was 50 percent and for African Americans the rate was only 47 percent.  Of course there are many factors that play a part in the lower completion rates for racial and ethnic minorities compared to their White counterparts.  However, I’d like to focus on one of these factors:  attention and support of one’s faculty advisor.


As a faculty member, every so often, I write down the name of all my doctoral advisees, noting the collaborations that I have with them or the introductions to opportunities that I have made for them.  I do this to see if I am being equitable in my support of students.  Sometimes as faculty, we tend to send all of the opportunities for scholarship, teaching, and professional service to one or two students.  These students often “think like us” and are eager to do whatever we ask.  But what about our other advisees?  I think that as faculty we need to ask ourselves periodically if we are making connections with and for all of our students. 


Are we passing on opportunities to teach and write to students of color?  Are we collaborating on research projects with students of color?  The doctoral process, and especially the dissertation process (the point at which those who drop out, drop out) is a lonely experience.  It is the first time in a student’s life that he or she is asked to “go it alone.”  Having the opportunity to work closely with a faculty member on an article or assist with a class can provide a doctoral student with a comforting venue for motivational interaction and self-reflection.  Watching another person navigate the writing process can be empowering, especially if that other person (the faculty advisor) is upfront about the ups and downs of the writing and research process.  Sharing our lack of invincibility with our students helps them to see that finishing the Ph.D. is possible.


In closing, I urge all faculty members to take a periodic look at the work they do with their students, asking whether or not they are equitable in their treatment of students, especially students of color.  It is absolutely crucial that we increase the success of doctoral students of color as this is the only way to change the racial and ethnic make-up of the professoriate.  And, in my opinion, this type of change is a moral imperative.


An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions  (SUNY Press, 2008).