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Open Thread: From Coursework to Candidacy

How does life change after the move from "Ph.D. student" to "Ph.D. candidate"?

September 28, 2014

Emily VanBuren is a PhD student in History at Northwestern University. You can find her on Twitter at @emilydvb or at her blog, dighistorienne.

It’s a new year, and I find myself preparing for a couple of academic milestones. I’m revising my dissertation prospectus. I’m about to sit my final qualifying exam. I’m writing research grant proposals. And, fingers crossed, I’m about to switch the bottom line in my email signature from “PhD Student” to “PhD Candidate.” It’s probably a minor change in the grand scheme of things, but after two years of coursework and several months of exam reading, it feels anything but small.

But as I sit here, staring down the last stack of books on my comps list with one eye, a Scrivener interface where I’m stitching together a grant proposal with the other, I realize that I don’t have any sense of how (if at all) I should expect my daily life to change after achieving candidacy. So I pestered several friends and colleagues with this question. While everyone shared different experiences and opinions (for example, some preferred the structure of coursework while others reveled in the open schedule of candidacy), there were a few pieces of wisdom that resurfaced across the board:

1. You will trade one type of writing stress for another. Instead of fretting about research papers or literature reviews for seminars, you will now tackle the art of writing grant applications. This may be an entirely different form of writing than you are used to, and can prove a taxing process. [Helpful GradHacker posts: The Joys of Grant Writing, Get Funded, The Unspoken Benefits of Grant Writing, Final Thoughts on Getting That Grant]

2. Making time to actually write can be difficult. This might seem counterintuitive, given the newfound flexibility of your schedule. But some people shared that once you reach candidacy, there are a million other tasks (teaching, securing research funding, corresponding with archives, preparing materials for the job market) that can prevent you from actually writing your dissertation. Some people push past this by developing rituals, such as writing for two hours first thing in the morning when they wake up. Others participate in online writing challenges via Twitter, or use tools like 750words. [Helpful GradHacker posts: The Daily Dozens, Write, Damnit, Words to Dissertate By, Scheduling Summer Writing]

3. Sometimes all that solitude is a challenge. While coursework provides a built-in sense of community and face-to-face interaction with other humans, working on the dissertation often entails spending a lot of time alone and mulling over one narrow idea. This can lead to feelings of isolation and boredom. Many people I talked with emphasized the need to build relationships with other graduate students going through the same process, to stave off the feeling of being disconnected from other people. [Helpful GradHacker posts: DIY Writing Groups, The Dissertation from Afar, Google+ Hangouts]

4. Having a “flexible” schedule can be overwhelming. Many of my friends said that they had to learn an entirely different form of time management after conquering qualifying exams, especially regarding writing tasks. Some shared that they struggled with knowing when to draw the line for any given task and determine how much time was “enough” spent on it for one day. [Helpful GradHacker posts: Tackling Productivity Challenges, 7 Productivity Apps for the New Year, Taking It One Step at a Time, Monotasking]

5. Your 5-year-plan might go out the window. Some reported that they entered graduate school (and candidacy) with every intention of completing the PhD within five years. But at some point after becoming ABD—finding that their research data didn’t deliver what they’d hoped for, getting stuck making an argument in a pesky chapter, feeling underprepared for the daunting job market, and so on—they decided to tack on additional time to their degree plan. Many felt relieved by this decision, but others experienced significant frustration. [Helpful GradHacker posts: Accepting Setbacks, When All Else Fails, Traumatic Stress in Grad School, When Life Derails Your Plans]

6. You might need to be more proactive in soliciting feedback. Before candidacy, we receive feedback on a regular basis: course assignments come back to us with comments from the instructor, we receive grades or year-end reviews, and we usually work intensively with one or more mentors to craft the dissertation proposal. Some of the people I talked to advised me to work out a predetermined system for checking in with my dissertation committee—both to ensure that I’m meeting expectations and to force myself to remain productive. [Helpful GradHacker posts: Managing Your Advisor, Advisor/Advisee Relationships, When Committee Members Disagree, Hacking Your Committee Meeting]

So I’m curious here, GradHackers. Did you find that your life changed significantly after achieving ABD status? If so, how? What advice do you have for readers about to approach this transition?

[Image by Flickr user Knile and used under Creative Commons licensing.]


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