Pursuing a PhD is such a long and arduous process, therefore you will want to get the most out of your time in a doctoral program. There are many things you should or could do while in a doctoral program, but some of these things are not often discussed. You spend a lot of time preparing your CV, getting your courses ready, going on job interviews, going to conferences, writing, and doing presentations that some of the simpler things you could be doing as well don’t come into focus or fall off the radar.
This post is meant for those who are thinking about or in the process of getting their PhD. The ideas listed here are intended to help undergrad and graduate students decide if getting a PhD is something that is right for them and will enjoy. For those currently in a doctoral program, some of these recommendations will help you be mindful of making good choices while in your program to ensure long-term employability and happiness. Some of these ideas are Dave’s and some are my own. (If you are interested in how to get a PhD, you should read this excellent blog post).
This post was written by Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD candidate in Social Work at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service) on behalf of Dave Maslach. This is part of the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world. For more on this topic and to see what Dave has to say about some things you can do to make the most of your time in a PhD program see:
The first set of recommendations will prepare you for a possible career outside of academia. Doctoral students should seriously consider pursuing skills and expertise that are applicable in multiple sectors including the nonprofit, government, academic, and freelancing sectors.
Gain skills that will make you stand out in the marketplace.
You should think about how to make your education both practical and theoretical. For example, as you are preparing to learn specific research skills think about how you can use these skills both in the industry / field and academia. It is critical to learn as many research applications as possible while you are doing your doctoral studies. This knowledge will make you more marketable and enable you to do an array of interesting research. Gaining technical media sills and/or computer applications can also help you get hired outside of academia. Take advantage of coursework, seminars, and training that will help you build your specialized research and technical skills. After you get your PhD you may not have as much time to learn new a lot of new skills in these areas.
Build knowledge and expertise through your coursework and dissertation that will have multiple applications.
Similar to gaining skills that are broadly applicable, think about pursuing expertise in an area that will have multiple applications. For example, my main research topic while in my doctoral program was child welfare and child maltreatment. This is an area important to number of fields of academic study (public administration, sociology, social work, etc.) but the expertise I am building can also be used outside academia (child welfare agencies, advocacy organizations, etc.).
The second set of recommendations have to do with choosing research priorities that will enhance your employability and help build a fulfilling career.
Choose a topic for your doctoral research that you are passionate about.
Focus on a research plan that will be fulfilling in the long run. As Dave says, “what is on your bucket list as far as research, learning, and contributing to your field?” There are so many topics you could focus on while pursuing your PhD and afterwards, so why not focus on what you’re most interested in right now? Pick a research topic you’re passionate about AND will fill knowledge gaps in your field or industry (hear Dave talk about, A Simple Trick To Find Your Research Gap or Niche in Writing Papers). Research this topic for course assignments then integrate your learning into your dissertation proposal.
Think about present, and begin to plan future, research priorities.
You may have been led toward a certain topic for your dissertation because you worked with a particular professor or funding was available, but as you wrap up the dissertation phase start to think about future research priorities. What areas of research have you been thinking about for a while? What projects have you been putting off? Begin to explore funding opportunities, planning research proposals, and reviewing the literature. (You need to read this post on how to write a research paper – it’s helpful!)
Work for a research institute.
Nothing prepared me more for doing well in my social work doctoral program as working on two federally funded grant projects. Technical skills and knowledge are best honed through practice. Work for a professor who is a principle investigator for a large grant funded project. Become their research assistant or a staff member on the project. This type of opportunity will help you network and realize whether this type of work is what you would like to focus on after graduation.
The next set of suggestions will help you build diverse skills that will be valuable in academia and the other professional settings:
While you are in your doctoral program make sure you crank out a few publishable manuscripts. The number and quality of these manuscripts will vary between academic fields. As a student you will have professors who are willing to review a manuscript, coauthor a paper with you, and basically teach you the ins and outs of getting published. Academic jobs are more competitive than ever before, so candidates with more than a few published papers will be at the top of the list. You may also want to think about becoming a peer reviewer for a journal or two in your field. You won’t be paid for this work, but it will look good on your CV and be a good networking experience.
Attend seminars and lectures.
Universities offer all kinds of seminars that can help you build your career. They may focus on learning new research skills or building your research portfolio, writing your dissertation, or going on job interviews. Also attend seminars or lectures delivered by professors and other leaders in your field. You will learn a lot by attending these events including how to present. Sometimes it is difficult to make time to attend talks and seminars but budget a bit of extra time for them. It will be worth your while in the long run.
You will learn just as much about your discipline or industry, and about research, from conferences as you do in the classroom. Conferences provide valuable presentation opportunities, enable you to network with colleagues, and help you learn the trends, norms, and culture of your discipline or industry.
It is a good idea to build your teaching skills while earning your doctorate (But, not too much – you should focus more on your research). You will earn some extra needed cash as well. You may want to begin as a teaching assistant then work your way up to teaching a few classes on your own each semester. Adjunct teaching is not for everyone in the long run, but quite a few PhDs do combine adjunct teaching with freelancing or consulting to make a living. If you do teach during your doctoral studies however, prioritize research over teaching. I’ve had colleagues who taught seven classes per semester! It’s good money, but really, what else do you then have time to do?! Watch this video by Dave on graduate school teaching and teaching your first course:
Learn everything you can about teaching.
Get to know other instructors who are teaching in the same program. Take a class on teaching if available. Take the time to learn from a teaching mentor and work on developing a new course syllabus. Teach at a few other institutions besides your own to get a feel for different academic cultures. Also, if you have the opportunity, try teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses. You may find that you prefer one over the other. Another opportunity that can be valuable is being a course leader who supervises other instructors delivering a particular course.
Tutor, freelance, consult.
There is no better way to stay sharp with your skills and knowledge than to tutor graduate level or junior doctoral students. You can also make some extra cash. Apply to work at the writing or tutoring center on campus or setup your own business through an online tutoring platform. Do some freelance writing and consulting as well. However, be careful that this does not take away from your research! Research will land you the long-term job. This will help you apply your learning in the field and improve your own writing and research skills.
The following suggestions will help you enjoy your time in your doctoral program:
Have a fun, even joyful experience.
Think about how you can incorporate fun experiences into your time as a doctoral student and perhaps as a research assistant (or another academically related position). Smile when you go to work (says Dave!) and get to know your colleagues. Remind yourself frequently of the effort it took to get to where you are now and think about current and expected rewards. Go on dates if you’re single. Don’t make the excuse that you’re too busy. You will meet people who have similar interests and values as you in the doctoral program — maybe one of them will be the one!
Enjoy your campus.
University campuses are wonderful places to work, and there are many things to see and do. You should spend time enjoying your surroundings and taking in the fun. Go for walks or grab coffee with colleagues or professors on campus. If you are on an urban campus, venture into the city and explore the different academic buildings sprawled across city blocks. If you are pursuing your doctoral studies online, take breaks to enjoy your pets, bring your laptop outside, go out to lunch with friends and colleagues, and make sure you interact with people face to face at least once every day. Watch this video by Dave on how to deal with loneliness as a PhD:
Get to know the city or town you are living in.
Some people relocate for doctoral studies. If so, of course get to know your community. Get involved in local politics, nonprofits, or leisure activities. Get out in nature or take that train downtown to explore the city. If you are feeling unsure about your new home connect with a walking or running group, do tourist activities, or connect with local colleagues who can show you around. You may never have another chance to enjoy this community if you leave after graduation, so enjoy it while you can; or like many, you will fall in love with your new home and stay.
Try to travel a bit.
Traveling is expensive and may be difficult if you have family responsibilities but try to travel for research opportunities and/or conferences and meetings. If you have always wanted to visit Austin, TX, when a conference is being held there, go! Doctoral programs may have some travel stipends for PhD students who need to attend meetings or conferences.
Attend graduation or other ceremonies on campus.
You may be energized by attending ceremonies on campus —everyone is nice and happy (so says Dave!). Volunteer to be a participant in a ceremony and get dressed up. You might attend special events hosted by your department. These types of events will help you be mindful of the moment you’re in, help you unwind, and give you some time to socialize.
Stay connected with your friends and family.
A doctoral program is of course very demanding on one’s time. Some people pursue their doctoral degree on a part-time basis while others pursue a PhD on a full-time basis. If you are a parent, you will probably want to attend classes part-time (if this is an option in your program) to leave enough time for family life. If you don’t have a balanced life, especially while earning a doctoral degree, you could burnout. You may miss valuable time with young children or your spouse. The excitement of a PhD program may lead you to neglect old friends as well. Keep them in your life because you will want friends around you who have nothing to do with your field or the doctoral program; time with precious friends could actually keep you sane.
Take your time.
Getting a doctoral degree on a full-time basis may be too overwhelming for parents of young children. If your spouse is the primary earner while you pursue your degree, take advantage of the fact that you don’t have to work full-time and can have some flexibility in your life. If you do work full-time, adding a doctoral program to the mix can be overwhelming. There is no race to get your PhD. In fact, slowing it down can give you valuable time to do some of the things on this list. You don’t want to be doctoral student for a decade, but going part-time instead of full-time will only add a year or two to your coursework time and you may be able to soak up more learning in the class-room if you are not overburdened by coursework. Once your coursework is done you will essentially be on your way; you will be doing the research work you always wanted to do (hopefully) and getting those letters may even seem like a formality when the day comes!
The next few suggestions will help you give back.
Become a mentor or mentee.
Mentor a junior PhD student or a graduate level student. Mentoring will be an important part of your job as a professor and mentoring is very fun, so why not start early? You will get to know colleagues who need an informal mentor just by talking to them. Your program may even have a more formalized mentoring program. Take advantage of these programs as a mentor or a mentee. Academia has a very specific culture, field by field, and you will benefit greatly from guidance about how to navigate the field, where the opportunities are, the dos and don’ts, and how to become a prime candidate for an academic position (if academia’s your thing).
Get involved in public service projects.
Public service is not just for high school or undergraduate students, or for those in the social sciences. Take advantage of opportunities to give back to the community through services. Giving back may involve designing a participatory evaluation project in the community or being a research assistant on a project that makes a difference in the community. Encourage colleagues and your department to reach into the community with their knowledge. Participate in something as simple as raising money for a cause, donating your time or services to helping vulnerable members of the local community, or organizing public lectures.
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