Congratulations! You’ve been admitted to a Ph.D. program, have visited campus, spoken with your adviser, gotten to know others in your cohort and have accepted an offer. Now what?
Celebrate. Being admitted to a Ph.D. program is no small feat, and you should take the time to appreciate what you have accomplished and to enjoy the possibilities of what is to come. Do not linger too long in the celebratory phase, however, since to be successful, you’ll need to begin to plan your path.
Get to know your funding. Ideally, you should have taken a bit of time before accepting your offer to understand how it was funded. If you didn’t, however, now is the time to do it. You should begin investigating every aspect of how your funding works.
First in the list of things you need to know is how your funding offer is structured. Are you on a fellowship, which enables you to pursue independent research immediately? Or are you supported through your adviser’s grant, which means you’ll need to do work on some projects tied to that grant? Either option is fine, but with each option comes a series of opportunities and limitations.
For example, if you are funded via a fellowship, the expectation is that you will develop and pursue individual research interests with the help of your adviser(s). This is a great opportunity to develop an independent scholarly identity. Note, however, that it also means beginning a lot of work from scratch, which may have implications for how many publications you can work on.
In contrast, if you are grant funded, you will potentially be starting on projects that are already well underway. Take some time before your program to understand the grant that is supporting you. Ask for and read the grant application. That will help contextualize the work that you will be doing.
Equally important is knowing when you will be paid. Will you be paid during summers? If not, what do students typically do to fund their summers? Often finding summer employment means starting to put out feelers during the fall or early spring of your first term. When in doubt, ask the administrator who manages the Ph.D. program. Your adviser may not be as useful here, as faculty members may be unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of how funding is dispersed.
Understand program milestones. Every program is different, but they all have a set of milestones that students need to reach before obtaining a Ph.D. Common milestones include qualifying exams, dissertation proposals and dissertation defenses. Sometimes each of those milestones have multiple parts. You should become aware of each of the milestones and their various parts, as well as the time it typically takes to complete them.
For example, you should know roughly when most students tend to reach each milestone. One of the best ways to learn that is to contact multiple students who are on a similar path as you. Begin with speaking with your adviser’s advisees, and then branch out and speak to other students.
How long do most students take to graduate? Every program has not only all-stars who finish on time and are well positioned but also students who have struggled and are running behind. Try to speak with both of those types of students to understand their individual journeys, as those journeys will inform yours.
Communicate with your adviser. Communicating with your adviser throughout the program is crucial, so it is best to get to know your adviser’s preferred communication style. Some faculty members prefer to meet often and in person, while others are OK with getting together occasionally and handling a lot of business over email.
Relatedly, what are the email norms your adviser subscribes to? Some faculty members are glued to their email and will respond quickly. Does yours expect you to do so, as well? Other faculty may be incredibly slow with email. If your adviser is like that, it is best to know it sooner rather than later. That will help you ensure that you give your adviser enough time to respond to time-sensitive requests, like letters of recommendation.
Generally, your adviser is your first contact for many -- but not all -- questions, so try to contact them throughout the summer before your arrival. Also, consider asking your adviser about which texts and/or publications it might be useful to read before you begin.
Build relationships with other students. Earning a Ph.D. can be an isolating experience, so it’s important to build relationships with your fellow students. Do not, however, focus solely on those who are in your year. Cohorts can jell in ways that shape how students within them interpret different milestones and/or events. To mitigate against having a myopic understanding of the program, it is important to get to know students who are farther along, as well as postdocs and students from other programs.
Having a multitude of relationships will enable you to know about activities and resources in a timely manner and will also help you feel connected to a community. The need for having a community varies from person to person, so it is important to know what it is you need and build that for yourself.
Plan backward. Finally, use the time before you begin your program to backward plan your time there. If your goal is to begin a tenure-track position, then you should understand what it takes to be competitive for such a position.
How many publications do you need? Which journals should you target? Which conferences are particularly important for you from a networking perspective? Once you have that information, you can begin to calculate how much time you’ll need to hit the accomplishments you need to be competitive. Only by knowing how long things take can you begin to form a plan to hit the milestones required to transition from Ph.D. student to tenure-track faculty member.
Doing what I’ve suggested before you start your program will help you focus on the program itself once you begin. While doing all of it may seem onerous, keep in mind that you will have several months to accomplish it, and a lot of it can be done on your laptop while you savor the fact that you’ve now been selected as a Ph.D. student.