practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

Graduate school is full of hidden curriculum. From how to get an office to where to find sample comp exams to why to use independent study credits, there are a lot of things you won’t know about when you start and some things you won’t know to ask about. There are books you can read to get some insight on the hidden curriculum, but I want to share something I found helpful in grad school, asking questions.

I spent a lot of the first year of my PhD asking questions. In proseminar, in office hours, in staff’s offices, and with advanced grad students. (Ask my cohort mates…I got a reputation for this.) I asked questions to understand the program requirements, funding opportunities, and to feel out who I wanted to work with.

You could call what I did a form of informational interviewing. Normally informational interviews are used to gain insight into a career path. In some ways, my questions were just that: asking about how to successfully complete a PhD. But my questions were also a way to learn about the culture in the department, which faculty communicated in ways that worked for me (and which didn’t), and to get a better sense of the challenges that students often faced in the program and department that I might also face.

While I think asking questions is particularly important in the beginning of your time in grad school to make sure you understand what you’re signed up for, informational interviewing can be also be helpful to get broader information along the way. So for instance, faculty feedback on draft proposals and articles is often in response to what you have written. But behind that specific feedback is an opinion about how a proposal or article should be written. (Trust me, we all have opinions about these things!) Most faculty don’t phrase feedback like “A literature review should…” Instead they say, “Make a clearer argument in your literature review,” responding to the words you have on the page.  

You can make conversations about your specific work broader by asking questions: What does a strong literature review do in your opinion? How do you prefer to organize your data and methods section? What are the common mistakes you see in the articles you peer review? While faculty may be inclined to give specific feedback in response to your draft, you can push the conversation with these sorts of questions to figure out their broader view of what makes for a good journal article. You can apply the same technique to book writing and grant applications as you advance in your career.

Now obviously asking questions only works if you know to ask so keep an ear out for things that don’t make sense to you to follow up on.  It is more than okay to ask for clarification and more information.  Actually, it is sometimes helpful for folks to realize they’re not talking about something that is widely known.  That could be dropping an acronym, a name of a program or an office on campus, or even referencing something you haven’t read.  Having these kinds of interactions can actually inform future interactions with other students in my experience.  

One thing I found helpful in illuminating some of the things I didn’t know to ask about was talking to advanced grad students and asking faculty very open questions.  With advanced grad students, I asked what they wish they had known.  With faculty, I asked what do I need to know about the next step in this process (e.g., qualifying exams).  These kind of questions always brought up really helpful insight I wouldn’t have known to ask about directly.  

Lastly, let me end by reassuring you that part of the faculty job in programs with grad students is to advise and mentor them.  Answering questions is part of the job.  Asking questions is not being disrespectful of someone’s time in any way.  

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