I still remember the capstone moment of my graduate program like it was yesterday (OK, it was only a few months ago…): I finished my dissertation defense and looked across the table to my faculty advisor, who extended his hand and said, “Congratulations, Dr. Trust.” It felt as though the weight of the world dropped off my shoulders.
Before I graduate and move across the country for a new job, I want to impart some of my doctoral wisdom in hopes that it will help you make the most of your graduate school experience.
This is the first of a two-part blog post. In this post, I will focus on the "How to Do it All" part of graduate school, which refers to the process of navigating the ups and downs of graduate school, completing your milestones, and achieving your goals.
For me, figuring out "how to do it all" was an ongoing process of learning. Learning was not something I did in a classroom. My learning experiences took place anytime, anywhere, and with anyone. For me, learning was a process of building relationships, asking questions, soliciting feedback, and reading.
Tip #1: Build Relationships
Learning is an inherently social process – you learn by talking with others, debating and exploring ideas, and sharing your knowledge. Therefore, building relationships with other students, staff, and faculty is an essential part of graduate school.
I recommend attending events (e.g., department and campus socials, workshops, conferences) and getting involved on campus (e.g., join a graduate student organization, become a GSA representative for your department, participate in an intramural or club sport, find an on-campus job). The more events you attend and the more that you get involved on campus, the better chance you have of building relationships with others who can help and support you in graduate school.
Tip #2: Ask Questions
Asking questions is a great way to learn the ins and outs of graduate school. Every time that I met with a student in our department, I would ask him or her for advice (e.g., What are the qualifying exams? How do I put together a reading list? When do I start my independent research project? What classes should I take? Where should I publish?). I also asked students in other departments, faculty, and staff questions about graduate school. These conversations have been invaluable in helping me figure out how to navigate and make the most of graduate school.
Of course, you don’t want to be that person who just walks around asking questions. You need to build relationships with others and be willing to share your knowledge as well (learning is not a one-way flow of information).
Tip #3: Get Feedback
Another essential part of my learning process was soliciting feedback from others. Throughout my dissertation writing process, I shared my results and interpretations with anyone who would listen (co-workers, family, students in various departments, faculty in various departments, conference attendees). The feedback that I received was invaluable and significantly helped improve my dissertation.
I recommend presenting your research whenever you get a chance (e.g., participate in the campus Grad Slam, submit proposals to conferences, share your research in class). Also, ask some friends, family members, or colleagues to be sounding boards for your research and ideas.
Tip #4: Read, Read, Read
The reading that I’m referring to is extracurricular reading. You’ll have plenty of reading in your courses. The trick is to find time to read additional books and articles. I subscribed to the GradPost, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and other university’s graduate student blogs, to learn more about life in graduate school. I read multiple books about dissertation writing and completing a Ph.D. The more I read, the more confident I felt in achieving my graduate school goals.
I also subscribed to various blogs based on my personal interests (e.g., wellness, travel, environment). Reading these blogs allowed me to gain a new perspective on my research.
Ultimately, the process of learning how to do it all is iterative – build relationships, ask questions, solicit feedback, read and gain new perspective, and repeat.
An important takeaway from this post is that it is extremely difficult to get through graduate school on your own. Start building relationships now and proactively take charge of your learning by asking questions, soliciting feedback, and reading.