Advice to Those Starting a Ph.D. Program in the Fall

A post commissioned by one of our kids.

June 14, 2020

One of our kids (Josh -- and the kid is 23) is starting a Ph.D. program in the fall. She asked her dad to write a post offering some advice, and that dad asked his research partner (Eddie) to co-write the piece. So here we are. While most of this advice applies to all graduate degrees, we’re focusing on doctoral degrees for now, and we plan to talk about graduate school in general in an upcoming piece. Please feel invited and encouraged to share your advice as well.

First, this is clearly a very strange time. As of this writing, very few of us have a totally clear understanding of what the fall will bring. For the daughter starting her Ph.D. program (political science), her university has not yet communicated if classes will be residential, online or some combination. How can you get your head around entering a Ph.D. program when you don’t even know where the program will happen?

Our COVID-19-related advice for new students in Ph.D. programs is to not worry about COVID-19. At this point, there is very little that you can do to influence how things will go in the fall. If you are thinking about delaying entrance into your Ph.D. program, don’t. Unless you have something fabulous lined up for the coming year -- a situation that exactly nobody is in at the moment -- then don’t delay. Even if the school that you will be attending is unable to open for residential classes, don’t worry. The first-year of a Ph.D. is almost always about foundational graduate-level coursework. Those courses will adapt just fine to online learning.

Our second piece of advice is to reach out to your school and your faculty. Ask them what their plans are for the fall semester. Ask them what you can do to be prepared for hitting the ground running. Ask them how you can help. We’re all going to need help in the fall, and you will be a big part of the success of the fall.

When you train as a Ph.D. student, you are entering into a long-running conversation with current and past specialists in the field. Before you can meaningfully contribute to the conversation, you need to learn as much as you can about the ideas, debates, controversies, empirical findings and theories in your chosen discipline. The difficulty is that many doctoral students get stuck at the stage of taking in what came before and don’t make the transition to attempting to create new knowledge.

The key to successfully navigating a doctoral program is the ability to make the transition from a consumer to a producer of knowledge. Becoming a Ph.D. student means that you are apprenticing in an academic discipline. There is a language to learn, a set of methods to master and a culture within which to be socialized.

As a Ph.D. student, you are much closer to the professors who are training you than to your role as an undergraduate. Doctoral students are (for the most part) academics in training. How to thrive as an academic in training will, of course, depend on both your strengths and the circumstance of the department in which you are a part of. You might consider thinking about your graduate work as a professional job, one that you need to show up to each day and make a positive contribution.

Pay particular attention to your wellness. Get plenty of sleep and exercise. You will be told that there is no way to read every page that is assigned to you in your classes, and that is absolutely true. Prioritize meeting deadlines and getting your work completed, not completing perfect work. Try to have a balanced life, where you are not working all the time, but that you are doing work every working day. Make time to read fun novels.

Our third piece of advice for new Ph.D. students is about networking. Do it. It matters. What networking means is forming connections with a wide circle of colleagues in your discipline and in adjacent fields. At your institution, get involved in the graduate student organizations and associations on your campus. Beyond your campus, it is important to start going to conferences in your field as soon as you can. Nowadays, those conferences will likely be virtual. In some ways, that makes it easier (and less expensive to attend). Once face-to-face conferences start back up, have a plan to attend. If you can, present posters and papers related to your research. Do whatever you can to meet fellow graduate students and professors from other institutions.

Our fourth piece of advice is to teach when you can. Teaching is what most academics do for a living, but even if you are not going on to be an academic, having teaching experience can be invaluable. Doctoral programs focus almost always on creating new scholars in the discipline, but the actual work of professors is mostly about teaching. There are very few tenure-track jobs at research-intensive colleges and universities. Maybe you will be lucky enough to get one, or maybe you will decide that you’d rather work at a school that puts more emphasis on teaching. Either way, if you stay in academia, your career will largely revolve around teaching.

To help, seek out your campus center for teaching and learning (CTL). They are likely to have programs aimed at graduate students. Participate in every program. Investing time at your campus CTL will be a great way to meet other graduate students from across campus. What you will learn from CTL programs will be invaluable once you start to TA and then teach your own classes. It may be that the culture of your department puts research productivity ahead of teaching expertise. It will be up to you to navigate that culture, by demonstrating your ability to create independent research while also being willing to invest the time to develop your pedagogical skills. This may not be easy. But an academic career is one of the hardest roads that anyone can go down.

Our final piece of advice -- and we know that this is a lot to digest -- is to not lock yourself into thinking that the only job you can get after graduate school is that of a professor. First, depending on the field, you may need to do a postdoc. You might be able to land a tenure-track faculty job, but you don’t need to start out as an assistant professor to be a successful academic. Some of the best jobs in higher education are for nonfaculty educators. At some point in your graduate school career, you should be sure to read Going Alt-Ac: A Guide to Alternative Academic Careers (note: Josh wrote the foreword to this book) and "So What Are You Going to Do with That?": Finding Careers Outside Academia by Eddie’s colleague Maggie Debelius and her co-writer, Susan Basalla. These books will open your eyes about jobs outside faculty roles, both within higher education and outside academia, that will take full advantage of your Ph.D. training and expertise.

What advice would you give to someone starting a doctoral program in the fall?

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