Thursday, September 1, 2016

PhD Tips & Tricks pt 1: Starting Out and Planning Your PhD

The first PhD at the Royal School of Library a...
PhD presentation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ramblings of a Struggling Academic:

A PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. And, sometimes, the end goal of having a diploma in your hand and the signifier “Dr.” in front of your name can seem really, really far away. But, as with anything difficult, you need to take it one step at a time. I’ve recently been getting into doing Bullet Journaling, which is its own animal.

But I think it’s ultimately going to be really helpful for research and planning more generally. For current updates on my Bullet Journal, you can follow me on Instagram (@beautyisntperfect). For now, though, I want to talk about some of the first steps you should take as a new graduate student. 

1. Find out the specific requirements for the stages of your program

My program requires 84 credit hours for a PhD, but 30 of those hours are slotted for an MA, so if you come in with an MA already, you have 54 hours of classes you need to take. Then there are certain required courses. You can find out when those are commonly offered (usually some are only offered in the Fall and some are only offered in the Spring. Others might only be offered every other year, depending on the size of your program).

In addition to coursework, we have to pass 2 “portfolio papers” (papers that are of publishable quality, as decided upon by your committee), take a comprehensive exam, and write and defend a prospectus before we can begin dissertating. Whew, that’s a lot of steps!

Also for my program (unlike others), there isn’t a set timeline, just a general guideline. They generally expect you to be done with coursework by year two or three, pass portfolio papers in year three, and pass your comprehensive exam (comps) and defend your prospectus in year four. However, it’s my goal to be ABD (all but dissertation - that means done with coursework, portfolios, comps, and the prospectus) by the end of this year, my third year! 

2. Do some reverse engineering

Figure out when you want to be defending your dissertation. For me, that’s in the Spring of my 5th year. Then, reverse engineer a timeline to help you be done by your desired time. I’m hoping to be only doing revisions on my dissertation in the Fall of my 5th year so I can devote lots of time and energy to applying for jobs (that’s a whole different story, but I know some friends who applied to upwards of 150 jobs).

For me, there are a lot of things I needed to reverse engineer. When do I want to be finished with all of the steps described above? What courses do I want to take and when? While most departments don’t schedule more than one semester ahead of time, you can look at past semesters to see the types of classes offered. And, of course, you’ll need to plan when to take all of your required coursework.

In my first year, I created this spreadsheet to help me in my planning. It’s evolved since then into what I have today. It maps out the different types of coursework (core, electives, etc.) and then I simply color in the squares that correspond with the semester I took/plan to take them.

PhD Timeline Planning

As you can see, I’ve planned everything from when I plan to write my portfolio papers (in the summers… this actually did happen!) to when I plan to study for Comps (at the end of year two … this is happening now!). I also included conferences I’ve attending and conferences I’d like to go to. There are some conferences that happen biannually, such as RSA, a major one in my field. Others are kind of planned around it. All of this with the end goal of writing my dissertation in year four and defending it in year five.

If you’re interested, I’ve made this spreadsheet available on Google Drive. Download it and customize it to your own school/goals/timeline! Even if this spreadsheet doesn’t work out for you, having some kind of timeline that tracks all the moving parts of your PhD is a good idea. 

3. Find mentors early on

Academia runs on a mentorship system. Tenured, Assistant, and Associate professors help new students through writing theses and dissertations, but also with navigating the ins and outs of academia (publishing, applying for jobs, scholarship to read, etc.). The earlier you find a professor to work with, the better. Remember that only tenured faculty can head dissertation committees, but the chair of your committee doesn’t need to be the first mentor you find/look for.

For PhD programs, you often have to have a committee of 3-5 people who work intensively with you on your PhD. But, you don’t have to have all 3-5 people in your first year! Try to take some classes in subjects you are interested in. Try not to choose mentors just because they’re in your subject area. Make sure that their work and feedback style match with yours. This is especially important for the chair of your committee.

Maybe the person most qualified subject-wise has a feedback style that just rubs you the wrong way. It might not matter too much on a seminar paper, but when you’re in the throes of dissertation writing, this could make or break your sanity (really). Maybe that person is better suited to be a committee member, with someone who has a feedback style that suits you better is your chair.

We all need “huggers” on the committee (those are the professors who are very supportive and encouraging, essentially giving you a hug with their feedback!); imposter syndrome is real, ya’ll, and having a committee member who is affirming is really, really helpful. Decide if you want your hugger to be the chair or one of the other members of the committee.

Maybe you need your chair to give you strict deadlines, or maybe you prefer someone with a more hands-off approach to let you do your thing. Either way, it’s advisable to find a chair who works with you in the way you need, or is flexible and willing to give you deadlines and things when you need them.

Don’t forget about student mentors. The student organization in our department organizes a mentor program where experienced students are matched with incoming students. Grad student mentors can help you navigate basically everything I’ve talked about so far. Which brings us to … 


Join student organizations. Attend events on campus like talks, panels, study sessions, socials, and etc. Volunteer to help with conferences, events, and etc. Make scholarly friends. Make friends in your cohort, so that you can commiserate about classes and the first (second, third…) year struggle. Make friends in other cohorts. They have already been where you are and can likely offer advice when you’re feeling stuck or lost. Make friends in other departments. People from other departments are awesome, and they can offer different perspectives, and recommend scholarship to you that you might not have otherwise found.

I can’t stress the importance of socializing enough. Often enough we’re academics because we like to read, think, and be in our own brains. But this can often lead to what my friends and I call a “negative spiral” where one thing goes wrong and then you just can’t stop thinking about all of the things that have gone wrong and will go wrong. It can be rough. Friends who understand are really important (and as much as I love all of my friends, the ones who haven’t been to grad school just don’t understand).

On the other hand, don’t lose touch with friends outside of academia. Sometimes you just need a break from academia, or to talk about something that isn’t related to scholarship or teaching. Friends outside of academia help keep you balanced. 

5. Start building up your CV

When you’re a baby grad student, your CV looks pretty lean. At least, mine did. Keep on the look out for things that you can do that build your CV. This means not only publications and conferences, but volunteering to help with things in the department. Service to the department shows that you’re interested in the general well-being of the department and not just your own trajectory.

Things you might volunteer to do:
  • Write columns for the department newsletter.
  • Be a member of an organizing committee if there are conferences hosted by your department or on your campus. Often you can just commit to doing a single task like reading proposals, volunteering at the registration desk, putting together swag bags, folding programs, etc. There are a ton of things that need doing for conferences!
  • Chair panels at those conferences and offer to chair panels at conferences you attend (especially regional and graduate student conferences).
  • Organize a graduate student conference. My department hosts a graduate student conference every year, so last year I co-chaired the organization of the conference. This is a great line for your CV, and is good practice since many academics participate in organizing conferences in their professional lives.
  • Don’t be afraid to go to graduate student conferences. They often have a high acceptance rate and are good for getting your feet wet if you’ve not been to a conference before. Yes, national conferences are important, but graduate student and regional conferences are great networking opportunities and you might find students with like interests that you can collaborate with in the future!
  • Review travel grant applications for organizations that do funding (we have several student organizations that provide travel funding to grad students).
  • Be a board member for a student organization.
  • Contact the president of your student organizations to see if they need help with anything. They almost always do!
6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

We all know that as graduate students and academics, everyone has a million things to do all the time! But don’t feel like you’re burdening others by asking for help in a time of need. I was very nervous to approach professors because I knew they were very busy, and I felt very insignificant. Many professors who work as mentors are happy to help you. Ask them for an appointment or even to meet you for coffee and chat. Talking with someone who has been through it all can be very helpful!

Not only that, but don’t be afraid to see a therapist. While it’s fine to vent to friends when you’re having a bad day or week, if  you have prolonged bouts of depression or anxiety, you should talk to a professional. Most schools have therapists on campus. While this isn’t a long term situation, it can help if you need to talk to someone Right Now.

They can also refer you to a therapist who will be able to see you long term. If you’re feeling nervous about it, ask someone to walk you to counseling services. I know friends who have been asked to walk someone and others who have asked someone to walk with them counseling services. It’s okay to need help. Feelings of depression and inadequacy are more common than you might think (again, Imposter syndrome is real, and it’s nasty and insidious). It’s okay to talk to someone about it.

I hope these tips have been helpful! If you want to chat, reach me at my ASU e-mail or on Twitter.

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