Most educational endeavors from K-12 to community college, undergraduate programs, professional MAs, and training certifications are highly-structured learning environments. None of these programs prepare students for the learner-driven, non-deadline based environment of a Ph.D. program. In all of the former, there are deadlines, assigned readings provided by an instructor, instructions about how to approach your assignments, and feedback on what you’ve produced. This is arguably an oversimplification of the American educational system, but success in the main model of education before the Ph.D. is in doing what your instructor asks of you. Ph.D. programs however are designed to teach students how to think, analyze, and evaluate through a series of requirements that are not always well-defined or clearly articulated. Working before pursuing a Ph.D. provides an opportunity to learn about how you operate best in situations that are not purely deadline oriented or clearly defined.
I say this so definitively because I started my Ph.D. program in Sociology 10 years after I finished my undergraduate degree. This is a longer break than most people take, but my experiences helped me in my Ph.D. journey in two ways. First, I was clear on what I wanted to do with my career after finishing my Ph.D. For me, the Ph.D. was a way to move into a second career. I had worked in evaluation research for 8 years at 2 different organizations prior to graduate school, and completed a MPA program part-time (while working full-time). I knew I loved research, but also knew from my work experience that I wanted more control over and flexibility in my research agenda than I could get by returning to the non-academic research world. Initially, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to teach, but I taught a summer course as an adjunct before graduate school and loved it. Going into my Ph.D. program, I knew I would enjoy the main aspects of an academic job.
Second, I learned a lot about myself on the job that helped me navigate graduate school. Let me give you a few specific examples to illustrate this.
- I learned pretty quickly that I am extremely detail oriented to the point that I can miss the big picture. So when I was learning to write research proposals and journal articles, I knew the hardest part would be getting out of the weeds to see the trees in terms of contributions and implications of the research project.
- I worked with some amazing people in those 8 years and learned a lot about who I worked best with: supervisors who were direct and to the point, while being kind and supportive. This gave me a model of supervision, feedback, and mentoring to look for in faculty. During my first 2 years, I went to a lot of faculty’s office hours and narrowed down to a group of faculty that seemed like a good fit with my work style. This included identifying faculty who I knew wouldn’t be a good fit for me because they provided vague feedback that didn’t give me a clear set of next steps.
- Because I worked long enough to be promoted and gain new responsibilities, I worked on written reports and memos that went through a rigorous review and feedback process. From those experiences, I knew that I’m open to verbal feedback, but getting red marked up pages or pages swimming in the red of track changes can feel really harsh, particularly from someone I haven’t gotten verbal feedback from before. (It’s easy to make up a mocking or snide voice in your head when you don’t have an idea of how your reviewer sounds.) This informed how I pursued feedback (e.g., asking for meetings to discuss so I could hear how a faculty member delivered their comments, and sharing papers with workshops where I would get feedback in person), but also influenced how I give feedback to colleagues and students (e.g., asking for a meeting for the first time I’m providing feedback so they can see and hear my enthusiasm for their work before they receive more critical feedback, and writing 1-2 page cover letters that lead with what I’m excited about in their manuscript).
- Finally, I learned how to balance tasks with deadlines and those that I was told to do when I “had the time.” In graduate school, the former are the equivalent of your course assignments, your teaching responsibilities, and fellowship applications, while the latter are things like finishing up and submitting your MA paper, submitting memos for your quals, and transitioning out of data collection mode completely to focus on getting words on the page for your dissertation. You’ve got to be meeting your deadlines while pushing forward the work that “has no end” to move forward.
Gaining these work experiences were essential for my trajectory through graduate school because they gave me a clear career goal and gave me a better sense of myself as a worker. I worked in research oriented jobs, which also gave me research skills to apply in my Ph.D. program, but you will learn a lot about yourself, what you’re interested in, and how you work best no matter what kind of job you take. The key is to take the time to reflect and do a little auto-interviewing about your work experiences. Ask yourself: Who do you like working with at your job? What about their leadership style “works” for you? What kinds of tasks do you have at work? Which tasks do you excel at and which do you struggle with? How do you organize your work to make sure it all gets done well and on time?
As you might have figured out by now, I don’t believe in a one size fits all advice, but prefer a “choose your own adventure” approach based on your specific circumstances. So while this post is making a case for why working before grad school is a good idea, it might not be the best fit for your particular circumstances. If you’re going straight through, you can use the same set of questions above to reflect on any internships and jobs you’ve held. You can also get work experience while you’re a graduate student to inform both your goals and process. Either way, make your work work for you!