You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Woman climbing a ladder up a stack of books above which is a type of dream landscape with stars

Aurore Lefevre/Istock/Getty Images Plus

In the first quarter of my Ph.D., I enrolled in indoor cycling classes at the university gym. One evening, the instructor delivered a motivational phrase that, though meant to encourage us to break out in a sweat, has shaped my Ph.D. journey to this day: “You are here to improve, not to impress.”

In the humanities and social sciences, many people believe that completing a Ph.D. involves spending years conducting research to write a dissertation that “extends the boundary of human knowledge.” But the real story is quite different from that. Although key, fulfilling your research project is the least important aspect of your Ph.D. Most of your energy should be focused on three other areas: improving your skills as a researcher, building a community and engaging in professional hands-on activities.

As a doctoral student, you should take advantage of these years to acquire new skills and develop the abilities you will need as an academic. The majority of European Ph.D. programs do not require students to complete any coursework. Nevertheless, if you are pursuing a Ph.D. in the United States and your program requires you to enroll in classes during the first two years of your studies, make the most of this opportunity. Enroll in as many research methods courses as you can. Enhance your substantive knowledge by taking courses on key topics in your field, and explore courses in other fields as well. In today’s academic environment, interdisciplinarity is a necessity. So, see if, say, a graduate certificate in science, technology and social studies can enrich your original interest in privacy law—as it did in my case.

Additionally, use your time in the Ph.D. to build a community and establish a name for yourself. Look for the community of academics you want to be a part of and see where they are gathering. Scholars’ convenings usually happen around academic conferences, so identify the most important ones in your field and aim to attend them every year. At the beginning, you will probably be there as a spectator, but as time passes, you will want to submit papers and present them there. In that way, senior scholars in your field will start to know about your research, and you will have the privilege to receive feedback from them.

And don’t forget about junior academics and fellow Ph.D. students—those who will be your colleagues in the years to come. Besides attending conferences, a good strategy to meet them is through doctoral summer schools. Those are short—between one and three weeks—intensive programs, designed to train Ph.D. students on a specific research theme (e.g., imaginaries) or a particular methodology (e.g., oral history interviews). During my Ph.D., I had the opportunity to attend three different summer schools, which gave me the possibility to meet people who shared not only my research interests but also my struggles and anxieties about the Ph.D. journey.

Also, be sure to engage in professional hands-on activities. Do not put your professional life on hold for how long it takes you to obtain your doctorate. According to the 2022 Survey of Earned Doctorates, 8.5 years was the median amount of time it took individuals who received their doctorates in the United States to complete their program. Regardless of whether you were an academic before starting your doctorate, behaving like one is a good practice. Aim to use these years to publish pieces of your work as academic articles and to write op-eds that allow you to share your findings with a wider audience.

If you can, apply for summer internships. As human resources experts highlight, internships give you the chance to experiment with the types of jobs that you may be able to hold once you graduate. They can be used to identify the positions and working environments that are most suitable for you. In my case, it was through my involvement in two summer internships at two very different organizations that I was able to reimagine the kind of researcher I would like to become.

Beyond these three care areas, I want to add a bonus one: Simply try to have fun when you can. Take the time to explore the graduate school world, and you may discover some really interesting initiatives and events that combine rigorous research with social interaction. Science magazine, for example, cosponsors a global contest, complete with prize money, which encourages Ph.D. candidates to explain their Ph.D. research through interpretive dance, music and humor.

To be clear, I am not denying the importance of writing a dissertation. In fact, successfully completing a doctoral thesis is the desired outcome of almost every Ph.D. program. But the ability to do this will come along easier once you have invested your energy in the other key areas I mentioned previously. You don’t need to—and should not—spend these precious years concentrating solely on the final output.

It would be helpful if graduate schools and Ph.D. advisers were more explicit about this. Beyond a finished dissertation, the areas that I’ve highlighted are precisely what make doctorates worth pursuing. I once heard that your dissertation will probably be your worst research piece. I am still uncertain about that. I can assure you, however, that a Ph.D. is not just a degree—it is an opportunity for personal and professional development. So, make the most of these years by investing your efforts in exploring, enjoying and perhaps even dancing through the areas that make it both meaningful and worthwhile.

María P. Ángel is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington School of Law and a Public Voices Fellow on Technology in the Public Interest with The OpEd Project in partnership with The MacArthur Foundation. She was recently included by Women in AI Ethics as one of the eight Rising Stars in AI Ethics for 2024.

Next Story

Written By

More from Career Advice