XiaoYun Li/digitalvision vectors/gettty images
It’s orientation season for graduate students, which is a good time to assess how you’re thinking about graduate education—whether you’re just about to start a program or you’re about to earn your degree. The beginning of a new academic year is also a fitting moment for those of us who work alongside graduate students to reassess our own practices and habits of mind and how we make use of our time.
Graduate education primarily happens within departments, and this means that graduate students spend a large portion of their time in the orbit of their department’s microenvironment, imbibing its culture. That has attendant benefits but also comes with some downsides. For starters, if the preponderance of your experience is within the bounds of a single department, you’ll miss out on the exceptional value afforded by the vast social and intellectual capital of the broader university.
We encourage graduate students to intentionally connect with the university ecosystem outside their disciplinary domains. Doing so is an important step toward holistic development. That’s because university campuses provide rare access to people from different parts of the world who are motivated by a shared purpose: the pursuit and creation of knowledge, creativity and critical thinking.
Since doctoral programs can inadvertently create disciplinary silos, we encourage you to intentionally get out of your departments and meet students, postdocs, faculty, staff and alumni from other parts of the university. In this article, we outline the benefits of connecting with the university ecosystem and how to form such connections and describe the ways you can plan and record your development.
The Benefits of Connecting
There are many reasons you should connect with the broader university ecosystem, including the following.
- Interdisciplinary ideas. Exposure to diverse ideas can broaden the scope of your scientific research and scholarly inquiry. Creative thinking and bold ideas often emanate from interdisciplinary conversations. Itai Yanai and Martin Lercher call distinct modes of scientific thinking “day science” and “night science.” Day science is the executive mode of doing science—in other words, structured hypothesis-driven science. In contrast, night science is driven by behind-the-scenes, open exploration that benefits from having conversations with people outside your field. They encourage embracing open-minded exploration and improvisation (the “yes and” of improvisational theater) for ideation.
- Connecting with purpose. Among the most influential choices you’ll make is choosing an adviser and a research project. Having a wide-angle lens is key. If you rely on departmental input, you might get advice that is overly reliant on recent trends in the particular subfields of the people who are well represented in your department. You might hear something like, “X is really hot right now: if you want a tenure-track job, that’s the way to go.” Make sure to acquire advice that pans out from the department to encompass a broad view of the domains in which your research project fits.
- Diverse perspectives. Access to diverse perspectives can expand your outlook. Although multidisciplinary ideation may feel daunting during graduate training, you will gain an important understanding of the gaps and disparities in your research design and its impacts by including perspectives from other disciplines. Your expanded outlook will create long-term benefits, as most grand challenges in society—whether climate change, global health or democracy—require multidisciplinary (and multicultural) viewpoints and collaboration.
Talking to peers outside your department can also provide perspectives on individual and collective experiences. Graduate school can be psychologically exhausting, leading to impostor feelings and burnout. Hearing from peers who may be outside your discipline but who have shared experiences can be grounding. Campuswide peer communities can foster a sense of belonging, inclusion and well-being as well as provide opportunities to advocate for improvements.
- Versatile communication. Talking about your research to academics outside your fields will improve your communication skills. You will also appreciate how the same terms can have different meanings and associations in different disciplines. For example, biologists and social scientists use and understand the term “model” differently. You should cultivate the habit of summarizing your research to peers outside your field and observe their comprehension to gauge blind spots and forge strategies for explaining jargon.
Campus communities are global and multicultural, and that may prompt you to gain cultural competence in communication. You can learn to be mindful of references that center your own experiences. Colloquialisms and popular culture references need to be inclusive: you’ll learn this quickly when your favorite analogies aren’t comprehensible to your colleagues.
How to Connect for Professional Development
Use the vast ecosystem of expertise on your campus to acquire the knowledge, connections, skills and experiences you’ll need to be successful in graduate training and in a wide range of professional futures. But don’t think you need to acquire all the skills and knowledge on your own. Instead, build areas of expertise when needed and, in other cases, curate partnerships with other people who have the expertise and skills that, when combined with yours, will yield greater results that either of you could create on our own.
Universitywide professional development programs and networking events are tailor-made to connect you with campus community members with diverse backgrounds and knowledge. You can also meet scholars with a shared interest in broad areas at interdisciplinary research institutes on the campus—including those focused on specific areas, such as climate, sustainability or democracy, as well as entrepreneurship and innovation hubs.
You might also consider auditing a course to gain understanding of concepts outside your field in disciplines such as public policy, statistics, business or philosophy. (You’d be surprised how interested many professors would be to have a Ph.D. from a different discipline in their course.) Also use the vast resources afforded by university libraries, which provide sustained access to knowledge through journal publications, books, news articles and—most important—the knowledge and networks librarians themselves have.
Finally, you can engage in a range of experiential learning opportunities across the university in a number of areas, such as academic administration, instructional design, research development, advancement, communications and technology transfer. Such internal opportunities are accessible to all students, including international ones.
Planning and Recording Your Ecosystem of Support and Development
These are lofty goals, and we’d encourage you to consider carefully what a sustainable approach would look like for you. Obtaining a Ph.D. is not a sprint but a marathon. So spend some time thinking how to break large goals into smaller, more measurable pieces that fit the shape of your life.
For example, if your goal is to engage with graduate alumni while in graduate school, you might articulate this goal as “meet with two graduate alums a month for 20- to 30-minute conversations.” Then work to achieve it by scheduling those conversations one month in advance, and always have two to four upcoming meetings on your calendar.
Don’t just aim to take advantage of the plethora of resources available to you during graduate school. Schedule time for doing so and keep that time inviolate. In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard notes that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.”
Like everyone else, but perhaps a bit more so, Ph.D.s are headed toward a nebulous future. And as a Ph.D. in this changing moment for graduate education, you’ll likely take a more circuitous path than those who have preceded you. But we’d suggest that you do head toward an amorphous future in a systematic fashion.
What does that look like in practice? For graduate students, it means keeping tabs on what you actually do while in graduate school, for starters. And that doesn’t just mean updating your CV. A CV can be a document that vanishes one’s labor in a Ph.D. program. For example, if we (the authors of this piece) were on the same committee, and one of us did nothing while the other did all the heavy lifting, both of us would have the same line on our CVs.
That’s in part why documentation is so important: keep a record of what you do in a way that compiles numbers, documents, outcomes and so on. We’d suggest a “résumé fodder” folder on your computer’s desktop and in your email inbox so you can easily stockpile information needed for future résumés and cover letters.
Compiling this record of what you’ve actually done also gives you the materials you can use to help you identify what you value, to see what energizes or drains you, and to note consistent trends over time.
For graduate advisers, we’d suggest a similar approach. Do you have a list of 10 best campus resources you want all your advisees to know about? Don’t rely on your memory to guide you—make sure each advisee receives the advice you want them to receive. Consider: What is the best way to make sure everyone has equitable access to campus resources and to the networks you have and know about beyond your campus? Don’t assume your graduate students know a resource is for them. Once you know of something, be sure to share it—and in an organized and methodical (and equitable) fashion.
A Ph.D. experience can include much more than disciplinary training and expertise. And, ultimately, the rich campus ecosystem can provide you with the tools and agency to shape that experience.