6 Insider Tips for New Ph.D. Students

Insider tips for success in the Ph.D. “business.”

Posted Sep 02, 2015

Irina Stelea/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Irina Stelea/Wikimedia Commons

I grew up in a world of entrepreneurs and lawyers, but somehow I ended up in Ph.D. world. I survived getting one and now supervise graduate students getting them. I watched my wife get one, and got lots of Ph.D. advice from my father in law, a professor whom I called “Dr. Martin” until a week before I married his daughter (it’s a southern thing, what can I say?). And now my daughter is getting one. Somehow, getting a Ph.D. has sort of become the “family business.”

I readily admit my place of business, the academy, is peculiar. And new graduate students usually enter it at a huge information disadvantage because graduate school, and getting a Ph.D. in particular, is like nothing they experienced as an undergraduate. So here’s some insider information that I believe will yield windfall profits to new Ph.D. students (Sorry, I think I just took the business analogy too far).

1. Good relationships with professors are vital. A small group of professors will decide whether you get a Ph.D. or not. Although you will probably take classes from a dozen or so professors, only a handful (probably 3-5) will grade the comprehensive exams you’ll likely take, and a similarly sized group will rule on your dissertation, and many of them may take guidance from one person, your dissertation chair/adviser. Further, they will decide if you get funding and awards as well as guide your research. They will socialize you to the profession, write letters of recommendation for you, and generally mentor you (e.g., is a professor willing to take time from a busy day to discuss your new research idea or to explain a new statistical method?).

Invest in your professors like you want them to invest in you. Talk with them in and outside of class. Visit them in their office and go to department functions and at least briefly speak with them. Show professional interest in them by learning about them and their work (everybody likes to talk about themselves). Find their CV online to see where they got their degrees and where they’ve worked. Search Google Scholar and find out what topic(s) they research. Then at least read the abstracts of their papers so when you talk with them you can demonstrate your interest in them (and selfishly, this helps you identify what expertise they can share with you).

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Related posts:

5 Dirty Little Secrets About Getting a PhD

7 Key Questions to Ask During Your Grad School Interview

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2. Grades are different in graduate school. A's and B's are normal in graduate classes, but a C is like getting an F as an undergraduate. A C is probably a signal a professor thinks you're not cutting the mustard.   

3. Learn to read effectively. You should know after reading an article or book why your professor assigned it. Was it because it was a classic work that all Ph.D.s in your discipline should be familiar with? Did it offer a new theory or otherwise significantly advance theory on the topic? Did it use unusual data or a new methodology? It’s also important to know how it fits with other research on the topic. Does it confirm or contradict previous research? Does it place conditions on the findings of previous research? In other words, what do you know about the topic after reading the article or book that you didn’t know before? And what did scholars who work on that topic learn by reading the article or book?

4. It’s hard to take too many methods classes. Almost all Ph.D.s learn the theories that are important in their discipline. But Ph.D.s who also have quantitative skills have another bag of tricks they can offer as researchers and teachers. Frequently people are asked to be a co-author on a paper or offered a research job because they can do the quantitative analyses or hired as an instructor because they can teach methods classes. 

5. Get your work done. The volume of work is so great that if you get behind you’ll likely get buried. Grind it out and persevere. Don’t be surprised if you work seven days a week. And don’t get distracted by the drama that can swirl around graduate students and departments (e.g., who’s been wronged by a professor or another graduate student). Stay focused.  

Anna Majkowska/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Anna Majkowska/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

5a. …And show it. Actively and substantively contribute to class discussion. One of the first things a professor will volunteer to a colleague about a grad student is whether the student is “quiet” in class or not. Quiet is usually interpreted as unprepared. Shyness is not an excuse. 

6. Fight burnout. The constant ruminating and heavy workload can consume your life and exhaust you over the long term. Find a non-academic activity to give yourself a short (30 to 60 minutes) break every day. Exercise (although I’ve found running is not enough of a distraction), sports, painting…anything to take your focus from your school work. Personally, I do Brazilian jiu-jitsu. There’s nothing like someone trying to choke me unconscious or break my arm to take my mind off my research.   

Welcome to “the business.” 

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In addition to writing the "Caveman Politics" blog for Psychology Today, Gregg is the Executive Director of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University. You can find more information on Gregg at GreggRMurray.com.

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