Unsolicited and Unqualified PhD Advice from an Almost-Graduate

So I finished my dissertation a few weeks into the fall semester and all I need to do now is wait for commencement. Which means it’s time to give some unsolicited and unqualified advice about getting through a Phd program! To be clear, my only qualification for giving any advice on completing a doctoral program is that I have completed one. And even that’s technically not true since I don’t graduate and officially become a Doctor for another 2 months. Who knows what might happen between now and then?

But hey, I have a blog. And I like to write. So what else am I gonna do? Apply for jobs?

Anyway, here’s a list of some of the things I think helped me get through my program and some things I think are important to remember. Key words: I and me. From the little I know, programs vary a great deal across disciplines, fields, and universities, so in case you are wondering, my degree is from a Communications department, majoring in Moving Image Studies. Some of these are more practical than others. Maybe something I say here might be of help to someone somewhere.


Always Volunteer to Go First

Seriously. Just do it. Professor needs a volunteer to start off the peer editing? Raise that hand! A seminar requires students to sign up for weekly presentations? Take on the second week of the semester! And the third if 2 are required! No matter how scary it might seem, I’ve always found that it’s best to get things over with as quickly as possible. I’ve had at least one person take this advice and thank me for it. An added bonus to this strategy is that you tend to be done with a lot of the semester’s work early, and are then able to focus more on that final term paper or project. One time, through a combination of intentional and unintentional stuff, I was able to give a class’s 3 required weekly group presentations within the first 4-5 weeks of the semester. It was awesome. I spent the rest of the time listening to presentations and getting an early start on that final paper. Another added bonus: I’m convinced every instructor cuts the person who goes first some slack. It also sometimes feels like the whole “I don’t wanna go first” sentiment is just a hold-over from our more insecure high school and undergrad days. You’re getting a PhD, now! Don’t be shy about it! You can do it!


Be Your Students’ Fiercest Supporter and Protector

If you have the incredible privilege to teach a class during your doctoral work, don’t take your students for granted. It’s so easy to fall prey to the culture of talking down to your students, complaining about them in and out of class, or making their mockery a primary point of your socialization with other grad students. Don’t ever say an unkind word about them. In public or private. Sure, if there’s a classroom issue that needs to be handled, handle it. Seek advice if necessary. There’s no need to broadcast it publicly or turn a molehill into a mountain. There’s a way to do that without sacrificing your students’ respect and dignity. It’s easy to forget, especially after going through the intellectual rigor of a doctoral program, that at one point you didn’t know anything either. Don’t be so incredulous about your students (or anyone else for that matter) not knowing something — whether it’s some personal childhood-favorite pop-culture fact you feel your students should have known or some specific detail about your particular area of research. We’re all on our own journeys of education. Meet your students where they are and guide them a little further along. Education is a lifelong process. How else is anyone supposed to learn anything if not by coming across new and previously-unknown information?


Don’t Define Your Self-Worth By Your Productivity In Grad School

Doctoral work can be an isolating experience, emotionally, intellectually, mentally, spiritually, and in many other ways. But don’t let it define your happiness and sense of self. I once talked to a grad student who mentioned they had a past in retail. The concrete numbers attached to their sales, this graduate student shared, made their personal sense of personal accomplishment and worth very clear. It was something they felt had been lost since starting doctoral work where their work and productivity took on a much more vague form, and it was clearly – and understandably – affecting their mental and emotional state. This is a tough thing to fight back, so I can just share what I think helped me through it. And I think it’s primarily two things: my religion and my family. In conversations and observations, I really think my religion was one thing that set my views and motivations apart from many fellow grad students. I fully credit my upbringing around certain spiritual values in instilling within me a stronger sense of self that has thankfully very rarely been affected by external factors, such as going through the craziness that is getting a PhD. That’s not to say I didn’t have crazy emotional ups and downs. Those seem to be an unfortunate norm to the whole graduate school experience.

So here’s your pep talk: You may not believe it, and a lot of programs might make it easy to forget, but you are amazing. You are more than your coursework, your dissertation, your degree, and your publications. You have a lot to offer the world. If you really get too down in the dumps about your grad school stuff, the best remedy is doing something for someone else. It’s always a nice reset. Plus, it’s just nice. Speaking of which…


Be nice. Genuinely.

I’ve read a number of grad school advice articles that tell you to be nice, but almost always with the main motivation being that you never know who might be on a search committee for a job you apply to some day. That’s always felt way too self-serving and conditional. Just be nice because it’s a good idea to be a decent human being. To everyone. From the janitor(s) on the department floor you’ll be spending hours in, to the librarians you’ll be checking out dozens of books from, to the front desk receptionist who has to deal with hundreds of people and their attitudes on a daily basis, all the way up to your adjunct faculty members, your full professors, department chairs, deans, and whoever. Genuinely care for their well-being. The world doesn’t need another selfish person. Don’t be that guy/gal. Try for unconditional courtesy. Regardless of what/who the other person is or what they may or may not have said to/about you or anyone else at any time. Unintended upside: the sad truth that I’ve realized is that most people are generally so starved for common courtesy these days that even the slightest positive attitude from you will often pay you back exponentially in one way or another


Get to Know the Professors in Your Department Whose Classes You Don’t Take

This one is kind of a self-serving piece of advice about just covering your bases. You never know where your research is going to take you and who you might need on your committee when the time comes. I went through the first 3 years of my program with what I thought was a pretty clear idea of a dissertation project. A failed prospectus defense showed me otherwise, and a new project called for new members for my dissertation committee. I had not taken classes with as many  faculty members as I probably should have, and part of the reason I felt comfortable asking one of my members to join my committee even though I had never taken any of their classes was from the various informal conversations we had at random events. Just get to know people. Virtually through Twitter and/or Facebook and in person at departmental events or conferences.


Be Okay With Not Reading Every Single Page of Every Weekly Reading Assignment

It’s okay. Really. I feel like the first semester of grad school was the hardest because I tried to read every single page of every single reading assignment. But I quickly found that it was not the most productive use of my time, nor was it necessary. Now, I’m not a fan of doing the least amount of work you can do for any given assignment, because on the contrary I truly believe we should strive for excellence in all our endeavors. Having said that, I do believe that a big part of navigating grad school is figuring out just how much you need to do to successfully navigate your doctoral seminars. Part of this will have to do with figuring out your instructors’ expectations, and part of it will depend on developing reading strategies. For example, I’ve found that depending on the book or article, you can often glean all of its most useful information from a close reading of its intro and conclusion, along with more quick skim of its main body. You’ll figure it out.


Don’t Conflate a Person With their Ideas

Academia can be a weird place. Among other things, one of the academic world’s primary forms of currency is one’s ideas. It’s what we’re meant to create, nurture, develop, and protect. In many cases, they become what we are eventually primarily known for. But try not to confuse a person with their ideas. They are two separate things. The culture in academia often makes it hard to distinguish between the two but I think it’s very important to keep them separate. I’ve witnessed more than one occasion where two scholars who identified their scholarly research with what many consider opposing frameworks turn what begins as a fairly civil discussion into an impassioned and way-too-personal and bitter argument. I’ve also seen this continue behind closed doors behind each scholar’s backs. It’s not a pretty sight, and a clear case of equating a person with his/her ideas. It IS possible to disagree with a person’s ideas and still remain completely civil and friendly toward them in the workplace and on a more personal level. A question I’ve asked my 7-year-old is essentially: “How many disagreements do you need to have with a person before it’s ok to be rude or mean to them?” It’s a trick question. The answer, to me, is: being rude to someone is never acceptable. There is always a more loving, positive, and supportive way.


Don’t be Too Attached to Your Own Ideas

This one’s related to the last point. Again, it can sometimes feel like our ideas are all we have in academia. But I think it’s important to not let them define you. Even though that’s part of what makes you marketable, so in that sense you might have very little control over your ideas defining you. But just as I think it’s important to be clear about criticizing an idea’s merits as opposed to the person who came up with it, so too should you not take it personally when your ideas are criticized. Let them grow and develop and evolve with the help of others. You’re going to be getting a lot of feedback at every point of your doctoral work: in-class from instructors and peers, on papers, at conferences, after presentations, at your various oral defenses. Get used to it. Use it. Take every single one of them as genuine potential routes to improvement and refinement, even when they’re offered in a spirit of hostility.

I keep wanting to add more as I go, but I should probably stop here.

One final addendum. I should add that a lot of my personal motivation behind things like being genuinely nice and courteous, avoiding the public complaints about students, and avoiding conflictual arguments, stems from an understanding and belief that negative behaviors and actions do carry very real implications on my own personal and spiritual development. So for me, engaging in backbiting or offending someone are considered pretty heinous acts that not only negatively impact my soul, but also remain devoid of any positive impact on the situation at hand. The same goes for positive acts like courtesy and its ensuing positive effects on my soul and of those around me.

Anyway, that’s it for now.

Good luck with your PhD!

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