Congratulations! You’ve earned a spot in a PhD program and are about to start on a new chapter in your professional life. I remember this time being exciting and confusing, particularly because I was coming from five years away from academia. In the early years, I stumbled around, finding my way.
Below are five advice nuggets for PhD students. Each one has tips from my own experience and crowd sourced from Twitter. We have the answers now, of course, because we’re on the other side of our dissertations. It’s easy to sit and dispatch advice. It’s a perk you’ll have one day too.
Treat your PhD as your full time job.
Forget the notion that you’re a student that can pull all nighters and sleep in late. You’ll have classes to attend – or to teach! – and, frankly, you’ll eventually want the structure of a 9 to 5. No one will structure your time for you, or hold your hand to make sure you finish everything on time, or submit the proper forms. That’s up to you and time management is essential for your own sanity and productivity.
This means also taking breaks, and scheduling those breaks. Take evenings off. Take the weekend off. Have hobbies, cultivate social networks outside academia. Learn how to take weekends off so that you feel refreshed. You wouldn’t spend all day everyday in the office, so do the same for your PhD.
Treating your PhD as a job also helps separate “you” and “your PhD.” The process will involve criticism and critique, about your work. There can be a tendency to extend this to be about you, as a person, or, worse, as an imposter. Leave the work at the office. You are not your PhD. It’s your job.
Your job is more than the dissertation.
Use course papers for a reason (for those in North America). Papers could become publications or review literature or methods useful for your prospectus / research plan. I wrote many course papers and did nothing with any of them. A lot of good ideas and effort that were fun at the time, are ultimately not helpful in my career.
Publish. If you want to be an academic, then you’ll have to publish. When I started, I was told one publication was enough. That’s just not the case.
Write daily. Write anything – papers, blogs, notes, whatever – just write. Even a few hundred words a day will help make you a stronger writer. It’s a skill essential for your job. You must invest in it.
Develop professional relationships, starting with your supervisor and peers. Establish a working rapport with your supervisor early. Understand your supervisor’s role in your work. They are there to help with your research, comment on drafts, and, overall, facilitate your efforts to learn to be a researcher. Being “cool” isn’t good enough for a supervisor. I was very lucky that my supervisor is enormously generous and committed to his students. But there are still limits to what a supervisor will and should do.
Develop a peer network of like-minded PhDs and academics, at your university or elsewhere. Get to know people in your programme a couple years more advanced than you are. When you want (or need!) teaching or research gigs for interest or money, and when you need a job, these networks may help.
Don’t be “that” person.
You’re smart. We get it. Everyone is there because they’re smart. You’re about to become a specialist in a niche area, that speaks to a broader niche area occupied by a relatively small number of people. You’re about to work among a group of colleagues for several years. In other words, if you’re a jerk, people will know. Act respectfully, listen, learn, and don’t be a show off. Behave professionally. Extend courtesy. A Phd is an individual sport, everyone has their own process, goals, and challenges. Run your own race.
When avoiding arrogance, don’t slip into silence either. Ask questions. Speak your opinion. People should know who you are, what you work on, and what you stand for. Female PhDs, first generation grad students and others can find this balance difficult. I’ve been told that I was too quiet in some courses. In others, I worried I dominated conversation and self-censored (do men worry this?). I underestimated what I knew. Be confident. That’s the sweet spot between arrogant and unassuming.
Know why you’re doing a PhD.
I won’t belabour the state of the academic job market, words such as horrifying, terrifying, and ever-tightening are common. So, it’s rough out there. Be prepared to move for a couple years as a postdoc, or adjunct before anything lands. If you’re lucky. If academia isn’t your goal, then know the options. Ask questions.
Plan throughout the PhD to achieve the goal that you set for after the PhD. Talk through this strategy with your supervisor and other mentors and colleagues and update it regularly. If you want to teach at a teaching-intensive school or college, invest in those skills. If you want to try to research-intensive academic route, then plan to start publishing and honing your research skills. Again, this is a job and you’re learning on it.
I confess: I had a poor answer to this when I started. I was looking for a new challenge, missed teaching and research, and wasn’t sure what other professional opportunities were available to me. It took time to find my answer. Look for your own.
Doing a PhD because you received funding is not an answer. Money can’t buy happiness, and certainly won’t purchase the motivation and determination necessary for a PhD. Do not do an unfunded PhD, for many reasons.
Ask yourself “How well do I receive criticism?” and “How self-motivated am I?” Smarts is not enough for a PhD. You’ve probably been a high achiever and received praise throughout your academic career. That is likely, mostly, at an end. Journal reviewers, your professors and committee, and peers will critique your work. Getting hurt and angry will not help you or your career. Time to grow a thick skin.
This is your mind on grad school: exhausted, confused, depressed and/or anxious and/or guilt-ridden. You may experience failure for the first time in your PhD years. This is why a support network of people inside your programme and outside is crucial.
Check in with yourself regularly. Your needs will change through the years. Life will happen (pregnancies, deaths, marriages). Know what resources are available to you, from on campus counselling to online resources. Think ahead what you would do if you found yourself experiencing anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems. Have a plan in advance, so when you’re not thinking at your best and feeling at your worst, you “just” have to implement it (that of course is a huge step, but it’s smaller than first researching options, deciding what to do, then doing it).
There is lots of advice out there. The academic community can be harsh, but there are generous people out there wanting to help. Find mentors. Use online resources such as Raul Pacheco-Vega’s resource page or the Thesis Whisperer. Best of luck on your new adventure.