Things to Do and Think about Before Starting a PhD Program

The prospect of starting a new PhD program can be daunting. The major life changes PhD students experience as they begin a doctoral program only become more daunting when a student does not think through potential challenges ahead of time. There are small steps students can take before starting a doctoral program to ease the transition process. This post describes some of these steps, as well as effective tools students can use to maintain motivation. Although it may not be discussed as much as other methods for self-care, planning ahead is one of the best things you can do for yourself before starting a PhD program. Here are some things Dave suggests you do before starting a PhD program.

This post was written by Isabel Inoa, BA (freelance writer) and Stephanie Bosco-Ruggiero, PhD on behalf of Dr. Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and researchers by providing an authentic look into PhD and academic life and how to be a successful researcher. For over four years the project has been offering advice, community, and encouragement to students and researchers around the world.

Prepare your mindset

Getting into a PhD program is an incredible achievement, but it can also lead to feelings of impostor syndrome. People who pursue a PhD may be regarded as incredibly competent and capable students by others for most or all their lives. However, when beginning to pursue a doctoral degree, it can be uncomfortable and jarring not knowing certain things or being surrounded by peers who seem to know more than you.

You might want to check out this video on how to prepare for a PhD:

Not only that, when trying to obtain a doctoral degree students may have to get used to the greater independence they have as a doctoral student. Instead of being told what to research and how to go about researching a particular topic, students must come up with their own inquiries and original research. A feeling of impostor syndrome can creep in if students experience frequent rejection when submitting research proposals, or manuscripts to academic journals (Check out this blog post on dealing with impostor syndrome in academia). Thus, it is so important to prepare to ask questions and admit when you don’t understand something to prevent future confusion or feelings of being “stuck.” It is equally important to deconstruct the shame or guilt you may feel about uncertainty or a lack of knowledge in a certain subject; this can help you be a better PhD student.

PhD programs are very time-consuming, but not only because of the intensity of the research you are expected to engage in. It is normal to attend conferences as well as many meetings and other events while in a PhD program, so staying organized when you have a very busy schedule is key to being a successful PhD student. Keeping important dates and meetings on your Google calendar or in a planner is important to staying on track.

You may also find it useful to keep several notebooks to record important information from research articles you read and to record small details about your research process. This will make the steps to writing a dissertation much easier because getting a PhD is a multiyear process. It can be easy to lose track of specifics concerning your methods, limitations, etc.

Check out this helpful blog post on gifts you might want to get as a PhD.

Prepare academically

Consider reviewing articles from peer reviewed journals in the field you will be studying to prepare your mind for the upcoming work. You may also review and read some of the existing literature in your area of interest to get a more in-depth understanding of what you will be studying. Some questions you may be asking yourself by this time might be answered by consulting these academic resources.

Reading existing literature and research in your field may also cultivate even more passion and love for the subject. Because it is so easy to burnout while pursuing a doctoral degree, it is vital to hold a considerable amount of excitement about research topic. The last thing you want to do is to spend so much time dedicating your life to research for which you feel no passion at all. Making sure you are ready to have most of your life revolve around a particular field and/or topic for several years is very valuable.

It is also advisable to speak with graduate students, professors, and/or supervisors who have gone through or are currently going through the process of obtaining a PhD. Not only will they provide you with honest and useful advice, you will also get a glimpse into how to prioritize when pursuing a PhD For example, they may give you useful study tips, advice for finding work once you complete a doctoral program, or tips on budgeting your time and money while in the program.

You may also email the professors you will be working with at your institution to get information on assignments or work you can prepare for before the semester begins in the fall, as well as ways you may be able to help them prepare for the semester. If you are going to be a research or teaching assistant, definitely reach out to the professor you will be working with and introduce yourself.

You might like this video on PhD student budgets.

Focus on relationships

Before you go on vacation, you need to have honest discussions with your loved ones about what the PhD process will look like and how it will affect the amount of time you will be able to spend together. This could mean talking with a spouse or significant other, a friend, a child, etc., and reassuring them that even though doing a PhD program is incredibly time-consuming, it doesn’t mean you care about them any less. It will help to develop a system or schedule where you set aside a specific day and/or time to spend with your loved one(s).

As most PhD programs last anywhere from four to six years, you may need to have many more conversations like this throughout the process. It won’t be easy but continuing to work hard on your interpersonal relationships during this stressful time period will help you complete your program, and you will feel more committed to those relationships when you are done. While completing a PhD program, if you create an open, honest space for your loved ones to voice their concerns, it will be less stressful for them to endure changes in your schedule and workload.

Some people entering doctoral programs may even want to think about whether it’s best to start a family before or during the program. If you are attending school full-time or part-time, and do not have to work, it may actually be the best time to have a baby. Much of your doctoral work can be completed at home, at a computer, allowing you the flexibility to care for a young child. In the below vlog, Dave offers advice on building a family while earning a PhD.  

When preparing to enter a PhD program, and while you’re in the program, you will want to surround yourself with positive relationships as well. You will not have time for negativity or naysayers as a doctoral student, including people who constantly question your decision to pursue a PhD. You will find yourself cutting some people out of your life; during your doctoral studies because you will realize who you really want to spend your limited free time with during these hectic years. Check out this blog post about how encouragement in academia matters. This includes surrounding yourself with colleagues who bring out the best in you, as well.

Plan your finances

PhD programs are expensive. Therefore, it is critical to foster good spending and saving habits for oneself when pursuing a doctoral degree. You may start by saving money and planning a simple budget with your new wages. It is also advisable to read a good personal finance book before you begin. It is vital to save money, because when you complete your PhD program, you may find it difficult to secure a job and steady income afterward. Thus, you can be proactive in planning your finances and assessing your financial resources, so that it doesn’t become a major source of stress down the road. Here Dave talks about the hopes you may have for a better financial future after completing a PhD program.

Click here to learn more about life after a PhD

To make your degree more affordable, you can apply to scholarships, grants, and/or fellowships in your fields. By applying to scholarships, students can open opportunities for themselves to receive funding for various things like tuition, supplies, and other fees. With grants, students can apply to seek out academic-based funds for their specific research. Lastly, fellowships are short-term funding opportunities that provide students with tuition credits, and/or stipends. They are quite competitive and are either university-based, or are funded externally, by government organizations, foundations, etc. Click here to read more about financial aid opportunities for PhD students.

Tips to prevent burnout

Because PhD programs are so time-consuming, and at times physically and emotionally taxing, it is important to take some time off before you begin. A vacation does not have to be far away from home or super expensive; the important thing is to immerse yourself in a new, relaxing environment before the intense workload begins.

Here are some things you can do to prevent burnout once the program begins.

As a PhD student you are expected to produce a lot of work and research with efficiency and accuracy. Because the nature of these programs is so challenging, it is easy to get overwhelmed quickly and burn out. To effectively cope with this stress, students should find an enjoyable outlet tailored to their needs and interests. Some resources one may seek out are getting involved in a local religious organization or exercise group. If you prefer to calm your stress alone, mindfulness activities such as yoga or meditation can also serve as effective strategies for preventing burnout.

In this video Dave talks about how to cope with anxiety and stress during your PhD program.  

Another method to prevent burnout while pursuing a doctoral degree is to find other people who are going through the same process and to form a connection based on accountability. This can look like many things, among which is checking in with one another virtually or spending time together in-person to have accountability work sessions for a few hours per week. Students should look into and find a particular study technique, such as the Pomodoro method, to effectively focus on given tasks. (Read this post on boredom during your PhD. It can also be useful to break up a very large goal, like writing a dissertation for example, into smaller tasks to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

It is also incredibly important to practice self-care and to prioritize one’s mental health while preparing to enter a program and as a student. Keeping a journal can be a useful tool for expressing your feelings and decompressing. In general, it is also useful to organize a daily routine to follow to ensure you have sufficient sleep and enough time to care for your emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing. You may also consider starting or continuing therapy sessions to cope with the immense stress of pursuing a doctoral degree and life in general.

Besides establishing effective ways to practice self-care, it is crucial to recognize when you should increase or decrease the amount of work you’re doing depending on your needs. Overworking yourself to the point of burnout will most likely affect the quality of your work and may cause greater inefficiency in the future. If experiencing a global pandemic taught people one thing, it was that time is precious, and a healthy mental state is critical to doing enjoyable and fulfilling work.

Potential job opportunities

Although it is essential to stay focused on the work at hand while pursuing a PhD, it is also exciting to build prospects that may yield positive outcomes. It is advisable to maintain a relationship with your current employer to see if there are opportunities for collaboration during your PhD. You might be able to consult with them or gather data from their organization or in collaboration with them that pertains to the research you’re doing in your program. You may even be able to go back to them in a higher position when you’re done!

In an expanding job market, it could be useful to learn another language to expand your job prospects after graduating from the program. Not only will this augment the amount of networking you’re able to do, but it will also broaden the locations where you can work upon completing your PhD program. Learning a second language can be accomplished more easily if you spend a semester or summer studying and traveling abroad. You might even consider relocating overseas, temporarily, to complete a doctoral degree. Check out this blog on Countries Around the World Where Higher Education is Free .

The bottom line

Consider how life will change when you begin a PhD program. You might have to learn to balance work, studying, and or family in a better or different way. You will also probably have less spending money for vacations and other luxuries. Don’t be in denial about these things. Think about them and plan carefully, and you will do yourself and your loved ones a big favor!

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