The Second-Year Paper Experience – with a bit of advice… (written by Heather Marsh)

Sitting down to think about what advice I have for those currently writing their second-year papers is difficult.  The first thing that comes to mind is: write!  Just sit down to write something and hopefully, that something will become your second-year paper.  But wait, what is more important than writing is planning: the planning process will push you along when you sit down to write; that is the difference between having words on a page and having the words on a page become a string of ideas and a well-crafted argument.

For those second-years who are writing, come up with a schedule and set your own deadlines; enroll your advisor into your timetable and have him/her keep you on task.  This is when good communication between you and your advisor is necessary; if you are having trouble making progress, then you need to talk to your advisor to figure out a plan that enables you to finish.  In addition, keep in touch with the reader; make sure the reader knows where you are and when you think you’ll be sending along a draft for review.

If possible, try to have a topic in mind before the end of your first-year so you can have time during the summer to collect data.  I had a topic in mind before the end of my first-year, giving me the summer to collect data (which for me, meant going to Greensburg, Kansas, and conducting participant observation and interviews).  While every topic differs, those considering a qualitative project should try to use the summer for data collection.

For first-years who are wondering about their topics, it is okay to take a while to figure it out.  But just having an idea is not enough.  You need to figure out exactly how you are going to approach it.  This is when you need to start thinking methodologically; the idea needs to be something that you can turn into an actionable plan.  Most students seem to know whether they’ll do a quantitative or a qualitative project (or even mixed-methods), but what else?  Have you looked into content and discourse analysis?  Grounded theory?

You may not have the methods training needed to carry out your ideas.  This is one of the biggest problems encountered by members of my cohort (the first cohort to do the second-year paper).  In some cases, you may have to teach yourself these methods and if so, then that needs to be factored into your timeline.  Explore your options: maybe it makes sense to do an Independent Study with your advisor or take a class outside the Sociology Department to expand your methodological skills base.

Once you have an idea, start with an actionable plan and come up with a timeline (which includes considering any additional methodological training).  The next step is to meet with your advisor and reader and talk to them about their expectations (and your own) for this paper.  While the requirement is to have a “publishable paper,” make sure you understand what this means from your advisor’s (and reader’s) point of view.  This seems to vary considerably among department faculty.

A problem that students have run into is ambiguous standards about what “publishable paper” means.  While some advisors expected students to have a working paper that has the potential to be published, some advisors expected a paper that was ready to be “published.”  Do not let conflicting expectations put you at odds with your advisor at the last minute.  Part of this process is communicating with your advisor and working out the terms of the project.  Remember that the second-year paper process is a new one for your advisor too.

Remember that this is your project; while some students do not find the process valuable or worthwhile, others embark on a project that will inform the work he/she does for the dissertation.  In my case, the second-year paper project is the foundation for my dissertation.  Regardless of your opinion on this “hurdle,” take ownership of the project, have open (and frequent) communication with your advisor, and assess your methodological training early (to figure out what you need to move your project along).

In addition to talking to your advisor, talk to others who have already been through the process.  This becomes invaluable not only as you think about and through your second-year paper, but also when it comes to comps and your dissertation.  One of things I’ve found is that students who are further along in the program are great resources that can help make milestones, such as the second-year paper, more manageable and lastly, more doable.

Heather Marsh is a third year PhD student.

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