The following is an interview with Steven Cahn, author of the just-published From Student to Scholar: A Candid Guide to Becoming a Professor:
Q: What do you believe is the most important ingredient for success in graduate school?
Steven Cahn: I would choose “resiliency.” Most students who do not complete graduate study leave their departments voluntarily, discouraged by obstacles that seem insurmountable, such as course demands, qualifying examinations, and the dissertation. Those who succeed possess the power to persevere.
Q: What are the keys to success in completing a dissertation?
SC: I would emphasize two. First, you need a manageable topic that can be completed in a reasonable time. Second, you need a dissertation advisor who returns work promptly, offers constructive rather than destructive criticism, and encourages you to finish your work expeditiously.
Q: What is networking? Why is it important? What are the best ways to network in academia?
SC: Networking increases the range of your professional contacts. The more people who know you, the greater the chance your name will be mentioned in connection with a variety of academic opportunities. As in many areas of life, success depends as much on whom you know as on what you know. A common way to network in academia is to attend scholarly conferences related to your field. There you may present a paper or volunteer to serve as a moderator or commentator, thus bringing you to the attention of others in your field.
Q: What are the biggest mistakes candidates make in interviews?
SC: Some become passive, displaying little energy or enthusiasm. Others become aggressive and try to seize control of the situation. Both approaches lead to failure. Just be friendly, and display enthusiasm for whatever the interviewers want to discuss. Your goal is to persuade them that you don’t present any problems and can make a positive contribution to the success of their mission.
Q: Is research or teaching more important to obtaining tenure?
SC: A top-notch researcher who’s barely adequate in the classroom is far more likely to receive tenure than a superb teacher whose scholarly record is thin. The superb instructor is only a local celebrity, legendary perhaps on campus but unknown outside its gates. The celebrated scholar, however, focuses wide attention on the institution, and in the sciences as well as the social sciences attracts outside funding that contributes significantly to the school’s coffers. For that reason, leading researchers have leverage with the administration, while leading teachers do not.