How do you succeed in a Ph.D. program?

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(article contributed by Jason Porter)

Contents

Introduction

Success in a Ph.D. program can be broken down into many things, most of which you already know from your work on your undergraduate and masters degrees. The most important element is work, and lots of it. Add to that dedication and perseverance and I think you’ve got the three most important elements for success, especially when you think of success as simply graduating. Other elements might include thinking outside of the box, listening to your instructors, doing your homework and all of the other study skills that you have learned so well by this time in your academic careers.

But success in a Ph.D. program isn’t really measured in terms of simply getting your degree. And, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t really measured in terms of publications or working papers either. True success in a Ph.D. program comes from developing your skills as a researcher and as a teacher. This means both developing the skills to succeed in those areas and developing yourself as an individual, because you can’t succeed in academia without the ability to come up with new ideas and relate to people.

Unfortunately, there is no magic pill you can take that will turn you into a good researcher or a good teacher. It requires lots of work, lots of practice, and lots of mistakes. Even though we don’t like to fail, we learn from our mistakes in ways that no other form of education can teach us. Perhaps that’s why we are born in the first place: to make mistakes in a relatively secure environment so that we can learn and develop. But whether that’s the purpose of life or not, that’s exactly the purpose of a Ph.D. program. You are going to learn a bunch of material and techniques through classes and seminars, and you will have opportunities to practice what you have learned. You’ll make mistakes, lots of them, but that’s okay. Everyone expects Ph.D. students to make mistakes as they slowly learn to do research and to teach. As long as you learn from those mistakes, preferably after only one or two instances, you’re going to eventually succeed, both in the Ph.D. program and in your life as an academic.

With that said, I can’t provide you with a list of all the mistakes you could make and how to avoid them. In all honesty, I wouldn’t provide it even if I could. You wouldn’t get as much from it as actually experiencing it for yourself. What I do want to do, however, if provide you with some ideas for making your life in the Ph.D program easier, to reduce the chances that you will make mistakes that will jeopardize your goal of walking across that stage and being hooded by your advisor.

Ideas for Making your Ph.D. Program Easier

1. Choose the program that is right for you. The first step is choosing which program you should to attend. The articles on selecting the right program and Am I ready for a PhD Program? And, which program is right for me? provide a number of important ideas to consider when you begin deciding which Ph.D. programs to apply for. I will add, however, one important factor that I think is missing: Make your decision a matter of prayer. Your choice will have important ramifications for you and your family, so you should get a confirmation that your logical choice is what the Lord wants for you. You will have far fewer problems if you start out in a place the Lord has prepared for you, than if you start somewhere else.

2. Study, study, study. Many of us finish up the BYU Ph.D. prep track feeling pretty good about what we have learned. Because of that extra training, it is easy to go into your first set of classes thinking that you already know the material and can coast a little bit as you get started. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The classes at BYU are undergraduate or master’s level classes; they aren’t at the same level as what you are about to go through. That’s not to imply that they aren’t useful or that they won’t provide you with a good foundation for what you are about to learn, but they are not substitutes for the classes you are about to take. Your program is going to be challenging and rigorous, and you need to hit the ground running. Make it a habit to study right from the very beginning, and you’ll be much better off as you go through that first semester, and certainly as you move on from there.

3. Pass your comprehensive exams on the first round. Many Ph.D. students, including me, have the horrible experience of learning that they have failed all or part of their comprehensive exams. Believe me, horrible doesn’t even begin to describe that initial feeling or the work that came with trying to prepare for a second round of tests. It was humiliating and exhausting, to say the least. So, take the time to study carefully and prepare fully. The article How do I prepare for comprehensive exams? has excellent advice for helping you get through this important test your first time.

That said, if you do mess up, take a deep breath. You can get through it, just like the rest of us did. In retrospect, it was a good experience for me. I think it made me a much more empathetic teacher (since it was my first true academic failure), and it taught me a lot about prayer, inspiration, and humility. I certainly wouldn’t go back and go through it again, but it didn’t end my career either. So, here are some ideas for what to do if you do fail. First, take a few minutes to talk to each of the professors that graded your answers. All of them will give you good advice if you are willing to humble yourself and ask for it. Don’t be confrontational, but be direct and ask good follow-up questions. Second, ask at least one of the senior professors, preferably your chosen advisor or the head of the Ph.D. program, whether the committee was trying to send you a signal about your academic future. Hopefully they will assure that they think you can do it and that you should try again. If not, then it is time to move on. Finally, study like mad! Use the advice the faculty gave you and improve your study techniques and your critical thinking. Try some practice exams, rewrite the questions you failed, read even more extensively than they asked you to read, and create a comprehensive framework that you can jot down when you first walk into that make-up exam. Then you’ll have all the citations you need all ready to go. Make passing the test your top priority, and you’ll be okay.

4. Choose a good advisor. Our first, natural reaction is to choose the faculty member whose research interests most closely match what the type of research we want to do. That’s a good strategy, but don’t rely just on that one factor. Believe it or not, but you will spend the next couple of years completely at the mercy of your advisor. You are going to want someone who’s research interests are similar to yours, but you will also want someone with a personality you can work with. You might want to consider talking to someone he or she is currently working with or has worked with in the past. Get a feel for how they treat their students, if they change their mind every time they talk about something, and if they’ll fight for their students’ rights if necessary. Those are important factors to consider. Similarly, does the faculty member provide his or her students with a topic, or let the students come up with their own topics? Both methods have their pros and cons, which you will want to consider before making your choice.

You might also want to consider your prospective advisor’s research agenda and how many students he or she is currently working with. If your advisor is relatively free, he or she will be able to work with you much more closely, and will provide you with feedback more quickly. Several of my friends ended up spending more time at school than I did because their advisor was simply too busy to provide them with immediate feedback. In contrast, at one point, my advisor and I were turning over dissertation chapters multiple times each day right before graduation because she was willing to give me that much time and attention. Because of her help, I was able to finish up in four years, even with some major setbacks after the first year of working on my dissertation.

5. Get involved in the Church. When my wife and I moved away from BYU, we were a little nervous about getting into a new ward. However, I think my Church service was the best part of my time in the Ph.D. program. We were living away from the center of the Church, and there were lots of opportunities to serve. No matter how bad my week at school was (and I had some REALLY bad days), I was able to recharge as I made time to serve the Lord. Somehow, the Lord made up for the time I was away from home and school, so I was still able to get done everything I needed and to learn and grow in the gospel. Make sure that it’s an important part of your life so that you will get those important blessings.

6. Take time for your family. It is easy to get caught up in the day to day grind of going to school, reading papers, writing down ideas, slogging through data, etc. Add to that a calling, and you have some serious time commitments away from home. But your family life can be your most important anchor as you try to get through school. It can also be a time of enormous growth for you and your eternal companion. The time you spend in your Ph.D. program will be even more successful if you use it to improve your family traditions and relationships. Although you will often feel that you are terribly busy, it is going to get much worse as an assistant professor. Make sure to take the time, while still a student, to devote to your family and to establish traditions that will ensure you still take time once you leave your program and get onto a tenure clock.

7. Let yourself go (a little) crazy. While you are working on your course work in the Ph.D. program, you will feel much like you do now. Classes will come and go, you will work hard, and you will feel like things are progressing along nicely. Then you will pass your comprehensive exams and begin to work on your dissertation. That’s when that wonderful feeling of progress will grind to a crushing halt. That’s not meant to discourage you. However, everyone I’ve ever spoken with had stretches during their dissertation work when they felt that nothing was happening. So be prepared for those feelings.

No matter how much you prepare, however, as the first year rolls by and you realize that you have spent a whole year on something that doesn’t seem to be coming together, you will start to feel just a little frustrated. That’s when it is time to do something a little crazy with your time for a while, if only to recharge your circuits. Let me give you some examples. I had one friend who served as a faculty advisor for his old fraternity. It got him out of the business building and let him counsel and work with younger students. He had great stories about the stupid things they were doing, and that kept him on a more even keel while he worked. Another Ph.D. student I knew got so sick of her dissertation that one night she came up with a plan to make her husband a professional golfer. She lined up sponsors, got a corporate credit card, and got him going. I’m not sure how successful he has been, but it served the purpose of giving her something to do that got her away from her dissertation. As for me, well, I wrote a novel. I started it early in the program as a gift for my wife. Money was tight at Christmas, and my wife is an avid reader. So, I started writing her a story, adding a little more to it each Christmas season. Towards the end of my first year working on my dissertation, however, I sort of snapped. So, I got out the book, and I finished it. I spent more time on it than I should have, but it got me away from my dissertation into something I could control, and that was just what I needed.

The bottom line is that you will find a need, somewhere in the middle of writing and researching your dissertation, to do something else. Let yourself branch out a little bit and do something a little nuts. After a while, you will have recharged your batteries and go back to work. You’ll probably find that you actually work harder and smarter after taking a bit of a break than if you just keep pushing. You’ll also find that you have learned some skills and developed some talents that will help you later on in your career and your life.

8. Learn to teach. Most of the emphasis in your Ph.D. program will be on researching, but that’s not all there is to being an academic. Many students and new faculty think that the tenure decision is made exclusively, or almost exclusively, on publications, but that is not always the case. At many schools, especially those not in the top tier, your abilities in the classroom will also factor heavily into your promotion and tenure decision. This is especially true with the AACSB’s recent focus on teaching quality, assessment, and ‘closing the loop.’ Colleges and departments going up for ‘maintenance of accreditation’ spend a great deal of time worrying about teaching quality, which makes it all the more important for new, untenured faculty to be at least competent in the classroom. On top of the accreditation emphasis, teaching can be very rewarding for new faculty members. Notes from students, good teaching evaluations, or visits from prior students can provide you with the positive feedback you need to deal with the often negative feedback from research (rejections, tough reviewer comments, attacks during presentations, etc.). Positive feedback from teaching provides a fortification against those negative vibes and reinforces our original desire to get into academia in the first place.

Hopefully your chosen Ph.D. program will give you the opportunity to teach several classes while you work on your degree. While this teaching will take away time that you would like to spend on your own studies and work, don’t just write it off as wasted time. Instead, take the time to try out new ideas and skills in the classroom. Since most faculty, and even students, at Ph.D. granting institutions expect Ph.D. students to be mediocre teachers at best, they will be more forgiving of your mistakes than will your department chair and students once you become a professor. Most schools have one or two ‘master teachers,’ teachers that are everyone’s favorite despite the workload in their classes. Once you have identified these powerful teachers (who may or may not be tenure track faculty), try to find a way to learn from them. You can try sitting in on their classes or chatting with them about the problems you are having in your teaching. Most good teachers are happy to help you improve your teaching, especially when they notice that you are implementing the hints they have passed on. That’s the real secret: try what they tell you, go back and tell them how it went, and they will open up even more. It can be a very rewarding relationship that will make a world of difference as you work to become a college instructor yourself.

Be careful not to go too far in your teaching practice, however. Trying a few new things and watching your favorite teachers is a good thing. Spending too much time on teaching can slow you down in the process of completing your degree. You don’t want to do that. Take some time to work on your teaching, but make sure that most of your time and effort continues to go into your studies or your research. Learning to teach as a Ph.D. student is rewarding, but teaching for a real salary (after you have finished your degree) is even more rewarding!

9. Get to know the faculty and other Ph.D students in and outside your program. There are many benefits to getting to know a lot of people. First, you will have a bigger chance to get on a project in progress if you know the people who are already working on it. Second, when it comes to presenting your papers, people you have developed a relationship with will be more willing to give you constructive feedback. Third, people who know you will be more willing to spread good words about you when you hit the job market. Don't be afraid to reach out. The academic community is very small and reputations can spread quickly.

10. Speak up in workshops. Always carrying a good attitude and showing a desire to learn really will get you further than you think. Some international students tend to be more shy and be more quiet during workshop seminars or conferences ( I am no exception), and this is something that they need to work on. A well-rounded Ph.D student is not only hard-working and well-read, but also able to communicate well with others individually and publicly. Trying to be more out-going and participative in workshops or conferences will give people a good impression about you.

11. Beware of plagiarism. Nothing ruins your career faster than cheating or plagiarism. There is only black and white in the world of cheating (you either cheat or didn't), but there tends to be some gray area in plagiarism. Be careful when you are working on a paper or a project for a class. You need to give full credit and cite correctly when ideas are taken from a paper or when they are very similar to the ideas of another paper. This is extremely important and should not be taken lightly. You might also get comments and advice from workshop participants who are helpful in making your second or third draft better. In this case, you must acknowledge their help by noting their names in the paper. You might think the person wouldn’t mind if you omitted their name--think again!

Conclusion

Life as a Ph.D. student is difficult; it is challenging; it is frustrating. But don’t allow that to keep you from trying or from bringing you down once you have begun. The rewards for completing your program are manifold. Not only will you get to teach and do research (both of which you will hopefully learn to enjoy), but you will also have a comfortable lifestyle, a good salary, and a very flexible schedule. In addition, there is nothing that can compare with that wonderful feeling of standing in front of a full auditorium and listening to your name being read while your advisor ‘hoods you’ and welcomes you into the select group of people who have completed their Ph.D.

The ideas and comments in this article are meant to provide you with some ideas to help you get through your program successfully. They aren’t meant to be a comprehensive list; not by a long shot. Anyone who has completed a Ph.D. has a list of those ideas and methods that worked for him or her, and all of those ideas and thoughts are just as valid as the ideas presented here. Everyone takes a slightly different path to successfully complete their Ph.D. program.

And that brings me to my very last bit of advice. You are beginning your Ph.D. program, make it whatever you want it to be. Learn to teach or focus solely on research; learn to do all sorts of research or just focus on the research that most interests you; start a million papers or just do your dissertation. It is your education, so focus on those things you want to get out of it. And then, as you finish up, find a few new Ph.D. students. Take them out to lunch and give them the ideas and the thoughts that worked for you, tell them how much you have learned and tell them not to get discouraged, build them up with all those things you have learned through your blood, sweat, and tears.

Then, enjoy a few minutes to yourself. Put on those fancy robes that you have now earned the right to wear and parade around in front of the mirror, or spend some time looking at that fancy frame with your degree in it. Better yet, introduce yourself to someone as “Dr. _________.” Other than the voices of your spouse and children, the first time you hear someone call you that will probably be the sweetest thing you have ever heard! And when all is said and done, that is success in a Ph.D. program.

Other Useful Tips

This is a question that is asked by every prospective Ph.D. student and there are many sources of advice. The best available advice on the internet is from fields other than accounting, but most of it applies to accounting. A list of helpful links and citations follow:

  • Orgtheory.net has 21 blog posts describing "grad school rulz"
  • Ngan Dinh, of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program Vietnam Program of the Harvard School of Government, compiled advice from top economists for young economists
  • Getting the Most from Your Doctoral Program: Advice for the Ph.D. Student in Finance, by Frank Alpert and Thomas H. Eyssell, Journal of Financial Education, Fall 1995
  • How do I prepare for comprehensive exams?



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