Being a Good Discussant

The Hidden Curriculum is now well-rested, and ready to resume our normal activities. With ASA almost upon us, we thought it would be good to return with a conference-related post about how to be a good discussant. 

riegle-crumb_cAuthor: Catherine Riegle-Crumb, University of Texas

Q: I was just asked to be a discussant on a paper. What is the best/correct format? How does one critique a senior scholar (as an advanced graduate student)?

Being asked to be a discussant is flattering, and sure, it can be a little intimidating if your status is junior to the presenters on the panel. But the folks organizing the session were surely aware of that and picked you for a reason. Critiquing a senior scholar’s work is really no different than critiquing the work of a peer at a parallel career stage—basically, you want to be collegial and respectful in your delivery, and most importantly, have something constructive and relevant to contribute to the discussion.  That is, after all, your role as a discussant! Below are a few quick suggestions:

#1: Read all the papers in your session –carefully—and not the night before. This is more than a lot of more senior folks who serve as discussants actually do- so, you are already off to a great start!

#2: Your comments should be focused on helping the authors see what they might be missing, not in playing a game of academic “gotcha”. Perhaps the authors are telling a story that is broad in scope but could be more informative by going into more depth (e.g. talking about broad racial/ethnic trends in educational trajectories but not considering how this could vary by gender). Or, their argument could be strengthened by pulling on a body of literature that they have not yet considered. Or, they are making substantive or empirical assumptions that are not (currently at least) adequately supported or explained. In other words, don’t get hung up on details (did they make sure to try at least 3 different ways of imputing missing data?). Reserve your comments to issues that are related to the paper’s overall effectiveness. You can always communicate the “small stuff” to authors after the session is over, either in person, or in an email.

#3: Don’t spend too much time talking about how all of the papers “fit together” or how they are all related to each other. If you find some interesting parallels or contrasts among specific papers, you should of course mention those points in your comments. However, don’t go overboard and spend ten minutes talking about “where the subfield is headed.” Your main priority is to give constructive feedback to the authors – and also make sure that there is time left for questions from the audience!

#4: Remember: being a discussant is really not about you—i.e. don’t spend your time talking about your own research. This happens sometimes with more senior discussants who seem to forget that they are not in fact there to present their own work. Only mention your own research if it is HIGHLY relevant—and then do so VERY briefly.

#5: Finally, try to relax. Sure, there may be a few senior scholars who have forgotten that graduate students can give excellent comments. (You are, after all, being trained to read critically.).  But don’t worry about offending them. The reality is that they will likely be ignoring you anyway. JK! But seriously, most scholars do appreciate a careful reading and a constructive discussion of their work. If you do that, all of the presenters will surely be grateful for your efforts.

More Rapid Fire Q&A

cropped-hidden-curriculum-sm.pngQ: I’m starting a tenure track position at an R1 university in the fall. I’ve been interested in doing this bootcamp [name of organization withheld] for new faculty. Is a program like this is a good investment of time/money for new faculty? I have $10,000 in start-up funds. Should I use some of my start-up money on a program like this? Should I ask my Dean for additional funding to do this? I am a woman of color and I don’t want to start off seeming like I need extra coaching (but I feel like I do!).

First, congratulations on the new position! Best wishes as you move ahead into the next stage of your career.

Regarding your question, the HC does not want to endorse or promote any specific organization. So – we will provide a bit of general advice. Being successful as a professor at an R1 institution requires that you set long-term goals in terms of productivity. However, you must also have a viable short-term strategy for achieving those long-term objectives. “Bootcamps” and “writers’ groups/workshop” can be helpful because they provide a structure that compels you to meet short-term goals that will help you achieve your long-term objectives. They also provide both the accountability and support that comes with group membership.

If you think that membership in such a group would be helpful to you, by all means, go for it! Try it for a year, and if you don’t think it is useful, you can simply opt out. If you can demonstrate (after a few years) that membership in this organization has made you a more productive scholar, then you should ask your Dean to invest in your continued success by providing some additional resources for membership in future years. This approach should allay your concerns about seeming like you need “extra coaching” from day one. Alternatively, you could your ask your Dean to invest in an institutional membership so that other scholars at your institution can enjoy access to the same resources that have helped you be productive!

Q: I’m a grad student in sociology, particularly in economic sociology. I know that publications are valued . . . but how much does it matter? If I have a job market paper (or another paper) that the evaluating department thinks is a great paper, definitely publishable, is it same as having a published paper?  . . . . [A]re all papers, whether published or not, purely judged based on their merit?

It is true that research departments rely heavily upon publications as a screen in hiring. Publications help reduce uncertainty in hiring because past success is typically the best predictor of future success. Some job applicants submit great not-yet-published papers that are overlooked by hiring committees, which may seem unfair. However, it is important to recognize that publication decisions are largely driven by the judgments of reviewers who are specialists within subfields. If you publish an economic sociology paper in AJS, a department can reasonably infer that experts in economic sociology found your paper to be rigorous and important. Those of us who are not economic sociologists (i.e., the majority of faculty on most hiring committees) have a much more difficult time judging the quality of your unpublished work, and that’s why publications are such a useful signal in hiring.


In education research, the “hidden curriculum” refers to the implicit lessons about social life that children learn in school. While the “manifest curriculum” focuses on tangible skills and specific academic content (e.g., the 3R’s), the “hidden curriculum” teaches students about society’s norm, roles, and expectations. Bowles and Gintis famously argued that the hidden curriculum of schools corresponds to the capitalist order: children who are destined for work as white collar professionals learn different lessons about social roles and expectations than children who enter the working class.

We chose “The Hidden Curriculum” as the name for our blog because we believe that many of the most important lessons about having a successful academic career are never formally taught in graduate school. Indeed, we think the “hidden curriculum” of academic life is much more opaque than K-12 schooling because there is so much that is invisible to newcomers and outside of their direct experience. Advising and mentoring is incredibly important in socializing and “professionalizing” young scholars, but it is wildly uneven both between and within departments. Our goal is to level the playing field, and ensure that aspiring graduate students and junior faculty who read our blog have equal access to and knowledge of the “unwritten rules” required to be successful. Sadly, some people will fail in this business, but no one should fail because they didn’t master the hidden curriculum.

Finding the Right Mentor – and Getting the Most from Working with Him/Her

ImageQ: What advice would you give to graduate students about identifying mentors and making the most of those experiences?

I am fortunate to have a terrific colleague who studies mentoring issues in graduate education, Jessica Collett. I asked Jessica to address a follow-up question in her post. – BC

Since you have been doing work on gender differences in mentoring received by women and men, do you think there is anything graduate students themselves can do to help bridge those gaps, or is that on the faculty?

Author: Jessica Collett, University of Notre Dame

Before I begin, I want to clarify that I see a difference between advisors and mentors. When I use this distinction, I imagine an advisor as someone who advises or directs. They work in the same area you do and help you identify interesting questions and relevant literatures and expose you to networks and norms in your specific area. A mentor, on the other hand, is a coach or a guide. They don’t need to work in the same area as you. They provide socialization, professionalization, and support through grad school and hopefully into your career. Many of us had advisor-mentors (people who served both roles in our development as scholars), but I try to remind students that these people do not have to be one in the same.

The first rule for identifying either a mentor or advisor is find someone who you respect. They should be someone who you think does good work, treats people well, and who you trust with your ideas. This respect and basic level of trust serve as the foundation for an honest relationship, a foundation that you can build on as time goes on and relates to the second rule: find someone who you can communicate with. Although this is ideally the case for either an advisor or a mentor, it is important that there is at least someone who you can be open with. Communication is at the heart of a successful mentoring or advising relationship. Many of the graduate students in my research who had decided not to pursue research-intensive, tenure-track positions had not yet shared their actual career goals with any faculty members. As a result, most of these students were woefully under-prepared for the positions that they did want. If no one knew that they wanted to focus on teaching, it was much less likely they would get teaching-assistantships or their own classes. Others struggled with communicating areas where they felt weak (e.g., grant-writing, statistics). This lack of open communication both stemmed from and contributed to concerns about inauthenticity and impostorism and negatively affected many students’ graduate careers.

Many of the students who I spoke with chose mentors based on superficial attributes, particularly gender and family status. Some did this because they were looking for people “like them.” They assumed that women would be better advisors for women, that people with kids would be better mentors for people with children, and so forth. Others did this drawing on particular stereotypes, assuming that women would be more supportive and nurturing, men would push them harder, older people would be better connected, young people hungrier to publish. Either way, the results seldom were as students hoped. Mentoring is an incredibly personal thing and personalities are much more important than characteristics in determining how well a faculty member and student will be able to work together. The first step is figuring out your own personality and what you want from the relationship. There is even a checklist in this guide to help you do that (and a companion guide you can share with faculty).  Having an open and honest relationship, with good communication and shared expectations, will enhance the mentoring you get. It is bringing all the qualities of interaction that those informal encounters bring to your own mentoring relationship, regardless of whether it occurs in an office or a soccer field.

My last piece of advice about student-faculty relationships is to be the student a faculty member wants to work with. This is not a buyer’s market, where you just select who you would most like to work with and you’re done. This is a dance and you need a partner. You want to have your pick of the faculty. Even before you set out to find an advisor or mentor, work hard in classes, be a good departmental citizen, take initiative as a graduate assistant, and so forth. It will make all of the above much easier. Good luck!

Writing Good Reviews

Q: “How do I write a good review for a journal? I don’t want to use the reviews I have received as an author because many are completely unstructured. ”Portrait: John Robert 'Rob' Warren

Author: Rob Warren, University of Minnesota

Current Editor of Sociology of Education


Everybody hates bad article reviews.  Editors, authors, even the other reviewers.  In this post I describe what I think makes a good article review, and I offer a few practical pointers for beginners.

Remember the manifest purpose.  There are lots of good reasons to agree to review an article—to find out about state of the art research; to contribute to the collective good;  to help shape the area, etc.—but don’t lose sight of the fact that what you are mainly doing is making a recommendation to the Editor.  Your review is, first and foremost, a letter to the Editor in which you make a recommendation about what decision your think she or he should make.

Whatever else you put in your review, be sure that you are very clear in justifying your recommendation.  And, make sure that the specific recommendation you make to the Editor (i.e., accept, reject, invite a revision and re-submission) matches the tone and content of the review.  Imagine a movie review that gives a new film 2 out of 5 stars—but does not explain what’s wrong with the film.  Or, imagine a movie review that gives a new film 5 out of 5 stars but then goes on to trash the plot, the script, the acting, and the special effects.  Neither movie review would be very helpful.  The Editor has to make a decision based on your recommendation.  Telling the Editor to “accept” the paper and then writing two pages about flaws in the research design puts the Editor in a tough spot.  So does recommending that the Editor “reject” the paper when your review contains little by way of critique.

Remember the “Golden Rule.” The manifest purpose of an article review is to provide a recommendation to the Editor about what to decide about a manuscript.  But we all know that the peer review process can be a major avenue for improving our research.  Reviewers have read things we haven’t read, they have theoretical perspectives that may be useful to us, they know about data or measures we don’t already know about, they are familiar with new methods we haven’t heard of, and they may interpret our results in surprising and constructive new ways.   As an article reviewer, you can make a huge difference in helping someone to improve their research—and thus the state of knowledge in the field.

As an author, you want reviewers to provide lots of thoughtful, constructive feedback based on a close and engaged reading of your manuscript.  Don’t be a free rider!  Be the reviewer you wish would read your next submission.  Take the time to be helpful.  Mention the new book or article that the author might not know about (and provide the citation).  Carefully explain why the author’s methodology is in need of improvement.  Engage in the theoretical discussion.  Challenge the author to think things through more carefully.  Etc.  Show the author the respect you would like to receive.

Timeliness is better than godliness.  A Pulitzer Prize-worthy review is useless if you send it in weeks (or months) after the journal’s deadline.  When you are invited to review an article, the invitation will usually say specifically how quickly the Editor hopes to receive your evaluation.  If you know you cannot stick to that time frame, then decline the invitation to review—and provide several possible alternate reviewers.  If you agree to review the manuscript, do it by the deadline.  Again, be the reviewer you wish would read your next manuscript.  Return reviews as quickly as you wish everyone else would.

Structure your review strategically.  A long, meandering, unstructured review is not very helpful.  Be clear, concise, and to the point.  Emphasize points by putting them first.  Here is how I wish every review were structured:

  1. Start by summarize the author’s research question, theoretical perspective, data, research design, and major findings.  Do it in just a few sentences, and don’t make any evaluative statements.  This tells the author you read the paper and understood what they were trying to say. (Length: 1 short paragraph)
  2. Provide an overview of your evaluation of the manuscript.  Many Editors will say not to include your specific recommendation, but others disagree.  Say, overall, what you think of the research and the manuscript.  (Length: 1 very short paragraph)
  3. Say what you like about the manuscript.  This is helpful to the Editor, but it also cushions the blow for the author since everything after this section will be more negative.  (Length: 1 short paragraph)
  4. Describe a few major weakness or limitations—and in declining order of importance.  If there is fatal flaw, lead with that.  Don’t list problems in the order they occurred to you.  List them in the order of how serious they are. (Length: Depends.  Maybe a page?)
  5. Describe a few less serious problems or issues.  These are things that are not “make or break” issues, but that you’d like to mention by way of being helpful and constructive.  (Length: Depends.  Maybe a long paragraph?)

If you add it all up, that comes to about two pages.  However, the Editor and author will know after less than a page whether (a) you read/understood the article; (b) what you basically think of it; and (c) what you see as its major strengths and weaknesses.

Don’t pretend to be expert on everything.  If you know a lot about the substantive area or empirical topic, but nothing about the methodology, that’s OK.  Likewise, if you know a lot about the methodology but nothing about the theoretical framework or empirical subject, that’s OK.  Comment on those areas about which you are expert.  Trust that the Editor will enlist other reviewers to comment on other aspects of the manuscript.

It’s not about you.   Evaluate the paper in front of you, not the one you wish was in front of you—or the one you would like to write.

Don’t overdo it.  Unless there is some exceptional circumstance, I do not think people should spend more than about 4 hours on an article review.  I recommend taking two hours to read the manuscript and take notes, and then another two hours to formulate and draft the review.  Or less. If you let it take longer, you will resent it—and thus be more likely to decline to review the next manuscript sent to you.  On average, you should expect to review three times as many manuscripts as you submit.  Make sure you review manuscripts well, but in a sustainable way.

They have people for that.  You do not need to comment on grammar, spelling, or smaller matters of style (unless the manuscript is so badly written that you feel compelled to make it a core issue).  Even in this low budget era, journals usually have copy editors.   You also do not need to tell authors how to format their references, tables, or figures.  Most journals contract with someone to do those things.  Spend your precious time and energy on the central task at hand: Making a recommendation to the Editor and providing constructive feedback that will help the author improve their research.