practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

Going into a PhD program is a bit like having a baby: Everyone has advice to give and an opinion about what you should do and how you should do it.  Like with being a parent, you have to figure out what works best for you and your circumstances. For the most part, folks are well intentioned in the advice they offer, often suggesting what worked for them.  But this PhD life isn’t one size fits all, so while you should listen and take note, be sure to reflect on whether the advice given will work for you. Below are some examples of advice I’ve gotten that hasn’t worked for me.  

Do/Don’t Study “Hot Topics”

Some faculty view studying “hot topics” as similar to ambulance chasing.  The reference to “hot topics” usually refers to issues covered by the news and frequently in social conversations.  My own work on gentrification was sometimes viewed as this type of research because of how frequently the news covered the topic in cities like New York City and San Francisco.  Thus, some folks saw my research focus as “trendy.” But other faculty saw the topic of gentrification as timely for the same reasons. These faculty members viewed the study of “hot topics” as a way to be at the forefront of the literature and some even push students towards these topics.  Either way, the problem with these two directions of advice is that it can discourage Ph.D. students from pursuing their topics of interest either by telling them their hot topic dissertation is not worth pursuing or that their non-hot topic dissertation is not worth pursuing.  

If you get this kind of advice as a graduate student, decide what topic you are most interested in and pursue it.  It is your research and your reputation in the long run.  You get to make a decision about what that reputation is going to look like.  Furthermore, and even more important, you’re the one who has to execute the research.  If you hate your topic (or are only marginally interested in it), will you be happy working on it for the 5-10 years of graduate school plus the 5-10 years post graduate school when you’re still publishing on the same project?  Being intellectually satisfied and engaged will help you through the rough patches of graduate school so pick a topic that will keep you motivated.  

Don’t Get Involved in Service

Graduate students have basically zero decision making power in most programs, but they do have critical mass to influence change.  That means there are often opportunities to get involved in organizing and departmental politics whether formally through student organizations or informally through ad hoc campaigns.  But some faculty advise students to stay away from departmental organizing or engaging in the debates and conversations and to instead focus on their work.  

The problem with this advice is that often organizing is happening around issues central to graduate students satisfaction and reduced stress.  If the issue affects you directly, you may have even more of a reason to get involved. Furthermore, organizing your fellow graduate students is a form of social engagement, giving you access to a broader community particularly if you are part of an underrepresented group.  For those students who are a small minority in their cohort or in the graduate program in general, this can mean the difference between having a space to build together or not having any contact with your peers. You’re going to be attached to your department for 5-10 years so decide whether the work of organizing is a worthwhile investment of your time and energy depends both on the topic and the community building potential.  

I also think that this kind of service can help prepare graduate students for the politics they will encounter as faculty and working in non-academic research.  I was heavily involved in the Sociologists of Color and Allies (SoCA), a student group that advocates for racial diversity by providing safe spaces (both social and academic) for graduate students of color, bringing diversity issues to the department on behalf of students, engaging white students in conversations about allyship, and bringing race related content to departmental talks.  The work I did for SoCA took at most 2 hours a week when it was busy and an hour a month when it wasn’t. That time was an investment to make the department better for every grad student of color, an issue of the utmost importance to me as a woman of color. Being a part of SoCA also gave me access to other students of color who I would have never met since they were further along in the program and not around as much.  It gave me a sense of belonging in the department even though I was the only black person in my cohort (or the cohort before or after mine). It also gave me space to learn about the issue of racial diversity in the specific context of higher education and led to other service opportunities such as serving as the graduate student representative on the faculty search committee, which has given me some insight into the politics of diversity and inclusion.  

Don’t Work on Someone Else’s Research

This advice arguably varies depending on department and discipline.  Psychologists often work in collaborative environments like labs and some Sociology departments subscribe to an apprentice model where graduate student work closely with faculty on that faculty’s research agenda.  However, if you are not in a discipline or program like this, you might hear advice to focus on your own research and not work on someone else’s project. Now the reason behind this advice is two-fold. First, it is beneficial to have a sole authored publication to get a tenure-track job (which is the career goal most faculty are thinking of first because of their own career path).  Second, these faculty worry that the student will get less credit for publications (if any) because of the stature and reputation of the PI.  

Now both of these concerns are valid and important to consider when taking on such a project.  However, they overlook a number of potential benefits. First, you get to see a research project designed and implemented by an expert.  Depending on when you join the project and how long you’re involved, this might include learning about grant writing, reviewing the literature, data collection, data cleaning, data analysis, and writing.  Given that the faculty member is also working with others, you might also learn more about running collaborative research including what gets delegated versus what the PI does themselves, how co-authorship is decided, and what kind of supervision and training is required when working with non-PhD collaborators.  Second, it can be a chance for mentorship around a research task including receiving guidance and feedback on your work. Finally, these types of work arrangements can and often do lead to co-authored publications, which again can be a good learning exercise, but is also a CV builder. Yes, there will be times when you have enough on your plate that you need to say no to opportunities to work on someone else’s research project.  But early in your graduate school career, these opportunities can be great for apprenticeship, mentorship, and CV building.  

Don’t Teach

Many programs require teaching as a part of funding packages.  But when students are in a program that doesn’t require teaching or have won fellowships that reduce their teaching loads, some faculty discourage them from teaching, instead suggesting that they have plenty of time to teach later in their careers and should focus on research.  Essentially the advice is to not teach unless you have to.  

It is true that teaching reduces the amount of time that you have to focus on your research.  In fact, I would always advise a student who has been teaching a lot to take advantage of a semester or year without teaching responsibilities.  However, graduate students who have not had the opportunity to teach might want to, particularly students who want to pursue a tenure-track position, for three reasons.  First, you don’t know what you like or hate to do until you do it. If you haven’t taught, particularly prepared and taught your own curriculum, how will you know that you want a job that includes teaching responsibilities?  Second, teaching in graduate school provides an opportunity to learn how to balance teaching responsibilities and research before it counts. From my observations, junior faculty who had little to no teaching responsibilities as graduate students are learning the balance and realistic expectations while they are on the tenure clock.  Finally, teaching as a graduate student is a great opportunity to develop a syllabus if you plan to pursue a tenure-track job. Entering with a syllabus to teach means fewer new course preps in your first year.  

As a graduate student, I sought out summer classes to gain this experience and develop my own syllabus.  While summer term is much more intensive than the regular semester, it was a good opportunity to make some money for the summer and expand my teaching experiences beyond being a teaching assistant for someone else’s course.  But working as a teaching assistant during the semester gave me experience with balancing teaching and research.  

Other Advice 

In addition to these pieces of advice that have implications for your trajectory in graduate school, you might also hear advice about how to study, research, and write.  When you hear something in this genre of advice that doesn’t work for you, remember that (a) the person giving the advice is well intentioned and (b) is probably giving advice based on their own experience.  You can sometimes translate it to something that works for you. For example, if writing every day doesn’t work for you (as it doesn’t for me), but someone tells you to write every day, translate that to advice to make sure you are not neglecting your writing.  Alternatively, you can chalk it up to personal preference and keep doing what works for you. For instance, if someone tells you that you should read hard copies of articles, but you’re much more comfortable reading and taking notes on your laptop, that sounds like a personal preference to me.  

So What Advice Should You Take?

In most cases, you should do what works best for you because this is your journey.  That might mean breaking up with the professor who sees your dissertation topic as “trendy” or is discouraging of your service work.  But for smaller things, that might mean listening politely and then continuing to do what works for you. People are most often well meaning in giving advice, so there’s no need to argue about it.  

That said, there is some advice that you must listen to.  The first type is a programmatic requirement.  If a decision means losing funding or not finishing a programmatic requirement you’ve worked hard to achieve, it’s probably best to follow the advice that will keep you in good standing.  The second type of required advice comes from the gatekeepers in your program, namely your advisor and committee members. If you are dead set on working with a professor who requires a certain approach to the PhD process, then you have to play by their rules.  The alternative is to leave them to work with someone who is more flexible.  

Finally, you might not know what works best for you yet.  In that case, ask more people and get more advice so you have some different approaches to try in figuring out what works best for you.  Regardless of what you decide in the end, choose for your best you!  

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