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Four years ago, I sat alongside dozens of first-year Ph.D. students in an introductory class in graduate school. The professor encouraged us to read widely in our field and to become versed in journals within our areas of interest, and he expected us to stay abreast of current higher education news and trends though Inside Higher Ed.
I heeded his recommendations. Along the way, I also learned some lessons on my own about how to succeed as a Ph.D. student. The following tips represent the blueprint I wish I’d had prior to the start of my doctoral adventure.
No. 1. Find your tribe. Doctoral research can be an isolating endeavor. Finding professors as passionate as you are about your research interests can seem almost impossible. But finding professors who support your research interests is not. Although I was blessed with an excellent adviser, many of my colleagues felt obliged to constrain their research to themes congruent with their major professor’s research agenda.
Avoid frustration (and eventual burnout) and find your support system. Read professors’ CVs, particularly the often overlooked service component, to gauge their priorities and passions. Search thesis and dissertation repositories for studies that align with your interests and note the committee members and major professor listed.
No. 2. Service will serve you well. The peer-review process is fundamental to the production of scholarly work. Contact the editors of journals in your field and express interest in reviewing for them. The benefits are plentiful. Each review becomes a line added to the service section of your CV. This process also allows you to see what is being submitted to journals and what these journals eventually publish. Should you eventually submit your own manuscript to the journal, you have knowledge of both the appropriate writing style and characteristics of accepted work.
No. 3. Get credit! Many doctoral students will acquire teaching assistant responsibilities. That may be part of your graduate assistantship duties, but it doesn’t hurt to ask the professor of record to add your name to the syllabus. It will give you teaching experience as well as provide future hiring committees with evidence of that experience.
No. 4. Libraries are not just for books. Campus libraries offer a multitude of research and writing-based workshops, free of charge. I have personally attended workshops on APA-level headings, citation management software and thesis/dissertation formatting. Work smarter, not harder, by learning to cite sources and format correctly early on in your doctoral career. It will cause fewer headaches down the road.
No. 5. Fellowships are out there. For those who maintain a high GPA, campus honor society membership affords more than cords and stoles at graduation. Most societies offer scholarships and/or fellowships for doctoral study. For example, Kappa Omicron Nu, Phi Kappa Phi and Phi Beta Kappa award fellowships to doctoral students engaged in dissertation writing that range in value from $2,000 to $20,000.
No. 6. You’re not the keynote speaker. Conference presentations serve as an opportunity for graduate students to meet leaders in their fields. Professors encourage doctoral student presentations as a means of developing facilitation and speaking skills. Yet presentations are usually unpaid, and in addition to paying for their own travel and accommodations, most selected presenters pay a registration fee, albeit an often discounted one.
That said, numerous conventions and conferences extend opportunities to review proposals and/or volunteer on site in exchange for a waived registration fee for the service. Rather than shelling out on your own, you should explore such options.
No. 7. You’re not the only priority. Your major professor has an abundance of obligations including teaching, writing, research, crafting grant proposals and academic service. This person also usually works with many graduate students. Particularly at the outset of doctoral study, do not expect an immediate reply to emails or voice mail. Be respectful of your professor’s time and obligations when dealing with deadlines or time-sensitive issues.
No. 8. What’s in a name? Know the academic lingo. When a student begins their foray into doctoral study, they are simply considered a doctoral student. When all course work is completed and comprehensive/qualifying exams are passed, this student becomes a doctoral candidate. The label “All but Dissertation,” or ABD, is often not considered an actual title -- rather a state or condition of having finished course work but having yet to defend the dissertation. Use the term “ABD” with caution.
No. 9. Broaden your writing horizons. The process of doctoral study prepares scholars to become experts within their niche of study. Yet that does not mean a doctoral student or candidate must only submit to top-tier journals. Consider the substantial readership and impact your work might have in an alternative publication, such as a practitioner journal, scholarly magazine or newspaper, for example. Indeed, this Inside Higher Ed publication will reach more readers than all of my prior publications combined.
No. 10. They often don’t hire their own. From the outset, ponder where you eventually see yourself after graduation. If you are hopeful for future tenure-track higher education employment, consider the geography of doctoral programs carefully. Most colleges and universities tend to seek candidates from other institutions and rarely hire Ph.D.s they produced for tenure-track positions. Adjuncts and professors of professional practice are the exceptions. A multiyear doctoral study commute might be worth it to eventually secure tenure-track employment in the city you call home.