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We are former graduate students with nonlinear careers that led to our current roles as higher education administrators who advise graduate students. One of us, Joseph, is a humanist by training and builds initiatives for access, diversity and inclusion, and the other of us, Sonali, is a life scientist by training and guides professional development.
In our work, we often discuss what-ifs, primarily, “What if we knew in graduate school what we know now? Would that knowledge alleviate stress, foster well-being and increase agency in our past selves and, by extension, our current doctoral students?”
We also wonder whether our approach to Ph.D. training is narrow and shortsighted. In focusing mainly on research topics, students and their advisers can lose sight of the value of more philosophical concerns. Prioritizing the demands of scholarship also primes graduate students to solely focus on conducting research without reflecting on the bigger picture—without identifying or reframing research questions so as to make meaning out of their efforts. Devoid of a sense of purpose, graduate students may feel powerless and question the validity of their training, especially if it doesn’t align with narrowly defined success outcomes.
In this article, we elaborate on how to clarify the purpose of your Ph.D. and gain agency in graduate school. We will each share some of our own experiences to highlight lessons learned and then provide actionable advice to graduate students.
Socrates stated that an unexamined life was not worth living. As an undergraduate student, I took that to heart, and it motivated me to apply to master’s programs in English with the intention of becoming a teacher, researcher and leader. I received rejections from all but one institution, however, and ultimately decided not to accept my only offer. I didn’t know then that getting rejected during my first graduate application cycle would help me weave together a tapestry of diverse experiences to obtain and sustain my true goal: to live an examined life.
I did realize that I wasn’t motivated by getting into graduate school but rather by my curiosity. The decision to not take the safe choice and to follow a professional path of curiosity has taught me the importance of, first, highlighting my professional experiences in my application materials and, second, clarifying my research motive for myself.
Highlighting my professional experiences. As academics, we can forget how curiosity can be a strategy for intentionally highlighting our professional experiences. My CV tells the story of how I explored my curiosity instead of taking the typical academic path. For instance, I have a master’s in individualized studies. I achieved the rank of a tenured associate professor of English at a community college before I pursued a Ph.D. in English. Before entering the Ph.D. program, I presented at professional conferences and published two articles from my master’s thesis while serving in leadership roles committed to diversity and inclusive excellence. All those experiences laid the foundation for my current role as an associate dean.
Clarifying my research motive. Often, first-generation graduate students in the humanities, like myself, internalize the perceived wedge between our lived experience and the expectations of the academy. Crafting a balance between my lived experience and research has allowed me to be more purposeful as a researcher. The power of critical analysis, questions about the lived experience of Black people in the United States as well as abroad and the potential for human and institutional transformation all drive my research. While research is often taken as an individual pursuit, I am motivated as a humanities researcher to probe the connections between my lived experience and those of my cultural community.
I’ve navigated three career fields: health care, scientific research and higher ed administration. I made a conscious choice to work in health care between my master’s and Ph.D. for several reasons. First, I was hungry for real-world application of my education.
Second, I was unsure whether I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. Two years into my work life, my interest changed. Inspired by curiosity of the process of scientific research with a focus on RNA biology, I embarked on Ph.D. training. In my graduate school application, I envisioned continuing research in biotech or biomedical fields after obtaining my doctorate.
I can’t recall whether—or what—I knew about the tenure-track faculty path when I started, but I was disinterested in it by the middle of my training. With the intent of a career in industry research, I strategically chose to do my postdoc at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City to gain exposure to applied biomedical fields and foster connections with industry professionals. However, a combination of serendipity, role models and lived experiences inspired me to change course again. I now intentionally train the next generation of scientists for success and leadership in diverse post-Ph.D. careers and connect talented scientists to complex real-world problems.
Upon retrospection, I identified a few common threads in my career. I only worked in start-up environments, and I moved fields because my interests evolved due to my lived experiences. Those patterns suggest that I find professional purpose from solving novel, innovative and diverse problems. Over time, I embraced that my changing interests point to my purpose: I am determined to solve problems that resonate with my personal and professional evolution.
The Purposeful Ph.D.
Even though we both have taken roads less traveled in our respective fields, we still use our graduate experiences and Ph.D. training and skills in our roles today as institutional leaders. In fact, as an international scientist, Sonali has to regularly convince the United States Customs and Immigration Services that her Ph.D. training is relevant to her career path in order to maintain visa status. Similarly, as a humanist diversity practitioner, Joseph regularly uses skills like textual and rhetorical analysis and critical thinking to advocate for institutional policies that ensure students’ success.
We both have learned that the purpose of a Ph.D. isn’t merely expertise in a niche field but rather training as a deep and critical thinker and a dynamic problem-solver. Ph.D. training equips us with tools to learn quickly and come up with creative ways to discover, invent or apply expanding knowledge while serving people and unlocking mysteries of the natural world.
Those skills can be used in any field. The real questions for a graduate student then are, what phenomenon or problem do you care about, and what are some creative ways to approach it?
Advice and Recommendations
Graduate students consistently communicate their lack of agency in connecting their purpose to their academic lives. We offer two primary pieces of advice.
Take the path of (re)discovering purpose. The Ph.D. is a long and arduous journey, and everyone questions at some point whether it was a wise choice. We believe you need to embrace a lifelong journey of self-discovery, primarily understanding your purpose and motivations to determine your positionality within your professional environment. The statement of purpose, where you painstakingly outlined your motivations when applying to graduate school, can help you do that. At different points in your Ph.D. training, you should revisit your statement to reflect on your journey and experience since then.
You should also summarize your purpose at different points of your training. In this piece, we’ve reflected on our purpose through retrospection, as it’s easier to spot past patterns. Introspection can be powerful, too, so continue to consider what aspects of your research and other issues excite you. If your research topic doesn’t connect to certain real-world issues that you care deeply about—like the climate crisis or racial injustice—explore other venues, opportunities and networks in the university ecosystem to learn and engage with those issues. In fact, expanding beyond your dissertation research field will make you a well-rounded scholar, as you can bring diverse perspectives to scholarship.
Cultivate a holistic view of graduate education to gain agency. Throughout your Ph.D. training, work to understand your professional environment in order to gain agency and devise strategies for effective structural change. That will enable you to distinguish between what you can change and what’s beyond your individual control. For example, follow this line of inquiry:
- How does your department function? What is the faculty-to-student ratio at your institution? This is important to gauge teaching expectations of graduate students.
- How is research funded in your field?
- What is the financial cost of graduate students and postdocs—stipends, benefits, tuition waivers and so on?
- What is the median time to degree completion in your department? What is the retention rate of students (those who complete the Ph.D. degree)?
- What are the career outcomes of graduates from your departments?
These data are publicly available either on university dashboards or on the NCSES academic institution profile. Such material knowledge will help you visualize the perspectives of your adviser and department and be able to discuss issues of concern most effectively with them.
You can bring change more effectively if you meet people where they are and are aware that systems can often breed unfairness and injustice at all levels. This is by no means excusing bad behavior of individuals but acknowledging shared burdens that require systemic change. Particularly if you feel minoritized and isolated in your department or organization, dynamic exploration beyond your dissertation research or primary job responsibilities can have a positive impact on your well-being and sense of belonging.
In conclusion, we both wish we spent more time unpacking our motivations and understanding systems during Ph.D. training. Consequently, we encourage graduate students to develop self-knowledge and to take a holistic view of professional environments. The combined lifelong habits of (re)discovering purpose and applying systems knowledge will equip you with agency throughout your professional lives. When you understand your and others’ motivations, you can intentionally manage people and your circumstances.