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When it comes to pursuing a doctorate degree, happiness is a rare expectation. That’s especially true if you are switching fields and are an international student and immersed in an unfamiliar sociopolitical environment. However, while I’ve been all those things, my personal experience has been quite enjoyable.

Without exaggeration, I wake up every morning with a big smile on my face, wear it all day long and go to sleep with it at night. In my old days as an architect, I didn’t always have the same level of joy even though I had attended the best college in my home country, won prizes and been successful in my job. I never felt fulfilled until I pursued a doctoral program in social sciences.

So if you’re thinking about seeking a Ph.D. or about to enroll in a doctoral program, I encourage you to take the journey. Despite the hard work and challenges, it’s worth it. And as someone is going through the process, I want to offer some advice for having the most positive experience.

Hone your personal story. It’s important to ensure that your intended move makes logical sense and that you can communicate your reasoning to others effectively—starting with the application review committee and later including classmates, instructors and everyone else you interact with—through a strong personal narrative. My story could have been, “I was a loser in architecture, so I decided to take a chance in social sciences.”

But the story I have told instead is “As an architect, I gained knowledge and experience in energy efficiency and sustainability in the built environment. This led me to pursue a master’s degree in urban planning, where I learned more about the sociopolitical aspects of development beyond zoning, housing and land use. After graduation and despite the hiring freeze due to COVID-19, I applied to numerous local government jobs. In the process, I formulated a research question that engaged me so much that I wanted to explore it in a doctoral program in public administration. I applied to study at the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas, with a research agenda focused on the conditions under which local governments can facilitate energy transition and address energy justice issues.”

I can guarantee that investing time in developing a powerful narrative is valuable. A compelling narrative wields a dual impact. First, it exerts a psychological influence on you. Often, when they embark on new life paths, people can have a lingering sense of failure from past experiences. But if you firmly believe in your personal narrative and its inherent rationale, it will give you a sense of self-assurance that paves the way for greater success and contentment. Second, when others also buy into your narrative, it bestows upon you respect and credibility.

Seek to become the person you’ve aspired to be. Before I left for the United States to pursue further graduate study, my cousin said something that stuck with me: “In America, no one knows you, so you have the opportunity to become whomever you’ve always wanted to be.” I didn’t fully grasp the significance of his advice until I enrolled in the doctoral program where I was able to create the world I had always dreamed of. Overcoming my intense shyness was just one example of how I improved my personality. I transformed from a timid boy to a leader and active community member, achieving many accomplishments I had never thought possible.

Find mentors. Building relationships during your Ph.D. program can be a valuable way to cultivate personal and professional growth and fulfillment. Your professors and peers can serve as mentors, potential collaborators or simply supporters and friends. For instance, at times you may feel stressed by the amount of work you need to complete, and receiving wise advice from the right person can help you feel more relaxed.

Your mentors can be faculty members, staff or senior colleagues, and it’s important to note that you may require multiple mentors to cater to your various needs. No one person can know everything and have time for every concern, but a group of mentors with diverse expertise can ensure your well-being and development throughout the program.

Identify the right adviser. Your adviser is the brightest star among your mentors. They can make your journey enjoyable, provide trustworthy advice for dealing with issues and teach you a great deal. To ensure a successful Ph.D. journey, get to know a variety of potential advisers whom you may work with over the long term. Then, once you identify the best adviser, be honest when communicating with them—discuss your challenges and worries with them. From my experience, advisers are usually sympathetic and willing to assist us rather than criticize us for our weaknesses. They understand that we are here to learn and develop and making errors is a natural part of the process. Engaging candidly with your adviser can be invigorating and rewarding.

Be visible. If you are part of a program, it means that a committee of highly experienced individuals has selected you from a pool of applicants because you are qualified. Have faith in your abilities and talents and take pleasure in the recognition and appreciation you receive. Adopt a collegial mind-set, going beyond the role of a student to engage actively as a colleague. Your insights are valued and can influence departmental management matters, program development, research design, faculty hiring processes and more. Attend relevant events, observe how your experienced colleagues work, adopt their best practices and enjoy being a part of the team.

Embark on a journey of discovery about your chosen field. Pursuing a doctorate requires a thorough understanding of the field, including its intellectual history, theories, prominent scholars and common research methods. Various resources can help you get acquainted with the field, such as professional and student organizations, conferences, webinars, journals and even YouTube videos. Experiment with a variety of them. During my 10-hour drive from Illinois to Kansas, for instance, I made the most of my time by listening to a podcast about education in public administration. By the time I arrived in Lawrence, I had gained valuable knowledge about the field, including insight into the perspectives of prominent academics and the focus of public administration programs.

Also explore applied learning opportunities. For example, during my Ph.D. studies, I attended various municipal government meetings to gain a better understanding of how the city operated. Once I felt confident in my knowledge, I applied to join the local sustainability advisory board. Not only did I have valuable insights to offer, but I received hands-on experience in the day-to-day operations of the city government.

Develop research design and methods skills. Ph.D. programs often emphasize the need to acquire skills in research design and research methods. Those skills are highly valued at all levels of academia, and the best place to acquire them is in grad school, where you have access to a wealth of resources, courses and knowledgeable colleagues and faculty members.

Sign up as a research, teaching or graduate assistant focused on administrative tasks. As a Ph.D., I have had the opportunity to work in all three positions, and each has provided valuable learning experiences. I suggest you try several of them, if available, to gain a more comprehensive understanding of your academic career. For example, I recently served as a research assistant and gained invaluable skills in research design and innovative research methods. Additionally, I learned about group dynamics and effective team management. I attended conferences, published papers and did much more. This opportunity has given me the confidence and readiness to pursue the task of developing a dissertation later in the program.

Maintain a clear goal while remaining adaptable. To avoid feeling overwhelmed, identify and focus on your key interests, even if they are somewhat general. When I began the program, I knew I was interested in energy justice and local governments, which enabled me to tailor my course projects to my research interests. As I progressed in my studies, I further identified the specific niche in public administration that I wanted to pursue, as well as gained a better understanding of the key issues and top scholars in the field. The lesson I have learned is to follow your passion while remaining open to necessary adjustments.

Embrace transparency and acknowledge your areas for improvement. It’s important to be at ease and truthful about your imperfections when pursuing a Ph.D. You have a generous amount of time, around four to five years, to learn and hone the necessary skills to obtain your doctorate. Be up front with your adviser, instructors and mentors about any areas where you may be lacking, even those that undergraduate students in the field are familiar with. Seeking guidance and support can alleviate stress and frustration and ultimately lead to a successful graduation.

Turn your office space into a personal sanctuary. Drawing from my experience as an architect, I encourage you to establish a sense of place in your working area. Given the considerable amount of time you will be spending there, you should feel content with your environment. Incorporating basic elements such as essential equipment, a cozy chair, a high-quality screen, a plant and photos of your loved ones can significantly enhance your space and sense of joy.

Demonstrate professionalism. As a Ph.D. student and probably throughout your academic career, your list of tasks will often exceed what you can physically accomplish within the given time. Thus, you must learn how to prioritize, complete what is necessary on deadline and feel a sense of accomplishment, even if many items on your to-do list remain unchecked. In other words, you must learn how to be a professional student. Here are some valuable practices I found useful.

  • Even if you think you can remember all your tasks, it’s best to use programs such as Outlook to schedule them. That will clear up space in your mind and give you assurance that you won’t miss any important deadlines.
  • Given the huge volume of reading you will probably need to do, consider using programs like Zotero or Mendeley to manage your notes and references. They can come in handy for comprehensive exams or when writing dissertations later on.
  • Understand the priorities and expectations of your program and courses. For example, don’t get bogged down in exhaustive readings for a course and miss out on low-stakes assignments that could significantly affect your final grade. To avoid such a situation, carefully review the syllabi and clarify any doubts by asking questions.
  • If you’re having trouble with readings, assignments or other tasks, seek help sooner rather than later. Waiting until it’s too late can make things more difficult.
  • It would be beneficial for both you and the people you live with to establish clear expectations regarding your work schedule. One approach could be to stick to a set time frame, such as 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., which communicates to your family members that you require uninterrupted time during that period and are available to them outside those hours. This plan can also help you efficiently complete your tasks and prevent the workload from becoming a burden that drains your energy, which is a common issue in graduate school.

Find ways to relieve stress and unwind. Completing a Ph.D. takes a significant amount of time. Enjoy this experience as much as possible and ensure that you are respecting yourself. As you continue to develop intellectually, don’t forget to also cultivate other areas of your life. I used to be quite introverted, but I was able to overcome this by taking advantage of the opportunities available to me in academia. I made friends and spent countless weekends socializing with them. I also got involved in the community and even started a new student organization on the campus. Through those experiences, I discovered my inner leader and grew in ways that wouldn’t have been possible if I had only focused on academic pursuits.

I’m now confident that I can make a meaningful contribution to society by combining my knowledge with such other skills. So, as a final recommendation, I encourage you to simply try to enjoy your time as a doctoral student to the fullest.

S. Mohsen Fatemi is a Ph.D. student in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas.

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