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Considering Grad School? Important Things You Should Know Before, During, and After Applying

It’s That Time

 

Being in your senior year is exciting as you near the end, but can also be overwhelming at the same time. You can’t wait to move on and consider the thought of graduate school, but you still have to evaluate all your options before you can proceed. Additionally, you could be a working professional and considering the thought of going back to school to further your career and/or increase your job prospects.

One must keep in mind, however, that applying to a promising graduate school means dealing with a lot of applications (which are only one small part of getting into and preparing for graduate school). A student also has to consider testing, funding, and how to be emotionally prepared (i.e. be aware of what to expect) for the demands of graduate school.

In addition, a student may also have to make tough choices when choosing between two (or more) programs, weighing the pros and cons of each. This article will serve as your guide and will discuss why you should consider graduate school in the first place. Furthermore, if you are leaning towards graduate school, what are the steps that you should take in order to get into a top graduate program? However, it should be pointed out that before you do anything, you must make sure that applying/going to graduate school is even the right decision in the first place.

According to GradSchools.com, Some of the Main Reasons to Go To Graduate School Are:

  1. Necessity: Some professions, such as Anthropologists, Physician Assistants, Epidemiologists, Psychologists and Speech-Language Pathologists, require a graduate degree or higher to even begin working the industry. To see the minimum education required in your field, check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupation Finder.
  2. Stand Out From Your Peers: The “academic inflation” phenomenon has resulted in an excess of college-educated individuals competing for too few jobs. A graduate degree may help you stand out from your peers in this extremely competitive job market and may help you find a position upon graduation.
  3. Ability to Earn a Higher Salary: Just because your chosen industry doesn’t require a graduate degree, doesn’t mean they don’t prefer it. Obtaining a master’s degree may allow you to earn a higher salary than if you just had the minimum education needed to enter the profession.
  4. Ability to Climb the Corporate Ladder:  In many cases, having an advanced degree might allow you to climb the corporate ladder more quickly than those with only a bachelor’s/associates degree. Even if obtaining a graduate degree doesn’t automatically earn you a higher position, it could easily open doors to future promotions and job opportunities.
  5. Service Oriented Programs: Many graduate-level courses are taught as discussion-heavy seminars rather than the lectures you are used to attending as an undergrad. You also have the ability to choose a service-orientated program which requires hands-on experience in the field via an internship or practicum. This can allow you to receive an overall enhanced understanding of the field.
  6. Option of Writing a Thesis or Dissertation: Graduate school is much more than just classes; you are able to complete a variety of projects to improve your knowledge of the industry. Many schools require graduate students to write a thesis or dissertation before graduating. This can allow you to study, in detail, a specific aspect of your chosen industry. If your findings get published, you can receive national or even international recognition for your work.
  7. You may also get the option to conduct research while in graduate school. Many schools provide top-of-the-line equipment for students and faculty to perform research. Publishing your research could once again allow you to obtain national or international recognition. Finally, if sharing your knowledge is important to you, many graduate students are given the opportunity to teach a class. Whether it is through a Graduate Assistant or Teaching Assistant position, or just because a professor recognizes your outstanding knowledge of a subject, you may be given the opportunity to teach a class or even an entire course. Who knows, maybe you’ll find that teaching is your passion!
  8.  You Want To:  While everything listed above are great consequences of attending graduate school, you shouldn’t do it unless you want to. Graduate school is an enormous commitment, and you need to want to put in the time, money and effort it requires.

So, Still Considering Graduate School?

Graduate school can be an extremely rewarding experience, and is a gateway to establishing yourself as a promising candidate for job opportunities-as it may qualify you for higher paying jobs or careers. It also offers the chance to dedicate yourself to research and explore your ability to think critically, and engage with experts in the field of your choice. However, graduate school is not right for everyone.

Graduate school is a huge commitment with high expectations, and it will be an extremely demanding, although possibly very rewarding, experience. If you are passionate about research and writing; if you can see yourself dedicating 2-7 years of your life to a certain field or topic; if you enjoy intellectual challenges and aspire to publish, teach, or research as a career path; then graduate school would be a wonderful opportunity to develop the skills to do what you love.

These skills include but are not limited to the following: critical thinking and analytic skills, research skills (field dependent), writing skills (developed when you publish your work or write your thesis), communication skills developed via peer/professor interactions, teaching and presentation skills, time-management skills, etc.. While graduate school does not guarantee that you will end up with the job of your dreams, it is certainly a stepping stone in an increasingly competitive job market.

If you have decided to go to graduate school, but are not ready to commit to a PhD program due to the amount of years it would take you to complete, applying for a few masters programs might be a good alternative. You can refer to ‘Thinking About Graduate School‘? for a breakdown of what kind of graduate programs are out there. One should also consider whether they are emotionally prepared for the demands of graduate school, as well as whether they can thrive in a highly competitive environment with high expectations on the intellectual merits of the individual student.

Graduate school requires self-direction, ambition, and a clear sense of what you want to study and why. And when it comes to a PhD:

A PhD is not for everyone. It requires a peculiar mix of intelligence, persistence, discipline, creativity, rationalism, stubbornness and sheer nerdiness.

If you can answer the following questions, you are ready to apply to graduate school:

  • Do you have a clear understanding of what kind of research you would like to conduct, and what kind of job you hope to maintain afterward? Having a clear career path in mind should be your first step before considering graduate school. Don’t know? Start doing informational interviews!
  • Do you know who you would like to work with and why (do your research!)?
  • Does the research project look interesting? Follow your passion! Also, do you wish to pursue research interests that are potentially more ‘high impact’?
  • Are you prepared for the rigors of graduate study financially and emotionally?

These questions can also be used to help with writing your Statement of Purpose, one of the most important documents in an application.

10 Things You Should Know When Applying to Graduate School

  1. Find someone who is willing to mentor you through your applications process. This would include proofreading your work and giving advice on programs. It should be a professor who would also consider writing you a letter of recommendation and someone who you have taken classes with. It could also be a supervisor during a summer internship.
  2. Research graduate school programs that may interest you and consider how the programs are ranked. Gather all needed information to see if you are qualified or not, as well as the requirements. And don’t forget to take note of the deadlines. Create a spreadsheet to keep track of the different programs, professor contact information, deadlines, requirements, and      addresses of each university. As much as you can, apply to more than one graduate school program. In this way, the probability of getting into one is higher.
  3. Make sure you have met all the requirements when it comes to the program application. Make sure to fill out the application form completely. Do not leave any blank space. If the information required is not applicable to you, then indicate it in the space provided. And make your application form as readable as possible. Be sure to proofread and be sure to contact the program coordinator to make sure you have met all the requirements.
  4. Ask your professors (who you worked closely with during undergrad) if they would be willing to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf. Ask early in the applications process so they have as much time as needed to prepare the letter. Provide them with the information of where to send the letter. Also send them an essay you wrote for them while in their class that you scored well on and your resume with your email.
  5. Have a good quality and well-written personal statement/admissions essay. Other graduate schools require specific information to be included in the essay, so be sure to cover all the points. An admissions essay is their way of getting to know you personally. Make sure to tailor your essay to each graduate program. What aspects of each program do you see yourself benefiting from and why? How would you make a strong contribution to their program? Refer to specific professors who are working at each university and show the relationship between your research interests and their work.
  6. Contact by phone or email the professors you would like to work with ahead of time. Give them information about your academic background and make sure to have read at least 2 pieces of their work so that you can reference their writing when you make contact. Try to set up opportunities to meet with them in person to discuss your aspirations and goals.
  7. Prepare your resume/CV. Some programs do require you to submit a resume or curriculum vitae. If you already have one, then update it if necessary. Make sure to include references and      any academic awards or scholarships you’ve earned.
  8. Request your official transcripts from your University, as early as possible, before the application deadline.
  9. Gather all the requirements and mail them prior to the deadline. Confirm with the graduate school you are applying to if they have received your application and all necessary information.
  10. Prepare yourself for an interview in case the program you are applying will call for one. You can do this by creating a set of questions and having friends and family with you. Be sure to dress professionally and have answered numerous practice questions so that you will feel confident.

Testing and Funding

  1. The GRE and oftentimes subject area tests are required, so be sure to take plenty of practice exams beforehand. It is worth investing in a practice book that includes a CD because the exam will most likely be administered electronically. Make flashcards for vocabulary to study. Take the GRE at least 6 months before the deadline of your graduate programs to give yourself a maximum time allowance in case you have to re-take it. Make sure to take every exam that is required by your potential programs and look up what scores they expect. Once you are happy with your score, send it to your chosen graduate program and make sure that it has been received.
  2. Explore the  funding options at each school. Without loans, fellowships, or grants, graduate school can be extremely expensive. Make sure the programs you apply to offer funding, scholarships, and/or teaching assistantships, and fill out a FAFSA if you qualify to see if you can receive government funding for your education.

Once You’ve Been Accepted…

  1. If you’re lucky you might have the chance to choose between multiple programs that have accepted you. Pick the program that has the professors whose work most closely aligns with your own research interests. Also consider funding and the ranking of the university. If you still have questions, EMAIL ME DIRECTLY.
  2. Consider what resources and connections the university has for job placement post-PhD/Masters. This could help with finding a job after you complete your program. Where do the alumni end up? You could also do informational interviews with those who have transitioned out of academia and into the workforce. From this, you’ll have a broader understanding of the types of jobs out there vs. figuring it at the last minute just before graduation.
  3. Contact graduate students at the universities and ask for advice on how to best prepare for your program of interest. Ask them what they wish they had known before their first or second year of graduate school. See if they have any regrets about the program they chose (or the research lab they chose) and who they recommend as a thesis advisor (if not their own). Get advice on course selection, professors, and resources for graduate students via email or through online forums.

I hope this article has given you a good overview and structure of what it takes to apply to a graduate school and open the door to a promising job opportunity. After weighing the pros and cons of graduate work, and deciding whether it is worth the investment of your time, energy, money, and labor, you can then determine if it is the right decision. If you do not see graduate school as a means of opening doors in the job market and making you a better prospect, it might not be the right choice.

If you have a clear goal in mind, a good grasp of the expectations and demands of graduate work, and are an organized and careful planner, your applications process should be a success. Do not hesitate to explore every resource available when preparing your application, studying for exams, and deciding between programs. While being a graduate student is a very individualistic, academia is a community and a network worthy of engaging with in order to put forth the best application possible, and to make the biggest intellectual impact as a graduate student.


More Reasons to Consider Graduate School (Image Courtesy of CareerAlley.com):

Short and Sweet: Five Job Hunting Mistakes PhD Graduates Should Avoid

You might argue that if I leave academia to, say, teach high school or become a journalist, I’ve wasted my laboratory training. This argument is ridiculous. Since the Ph.D.’s inception in 18th century Germany, the product of a doctoral education has been a dissertation—a body of research that, in a small way, moves a field forward. There’s nothing wrong with contributing to science and then moving on. The work won’t disappear. Dissertations are published, and doctorates last a lifetime. ~ Why Grad School Is Worth It

Short and Sweet Advice for PhD Grads

Each year sees an incalculable number of PhD graduates leave their studies and head into the job market, only to find out rather painfully that it’s not as straightforward as they expected. More often than not however it’s a simple case of those involved making one or two extremely common mistakes, which once corrected can see many doors swung wide open.

Going further, a lot of PhD’s also need to put the ‘entitlements’ attitude aside because the degree doesn’t guarantee you the job. You may think you are qualified, but in reality you lack real-world experience to crossover. Therefore, becoming fixated on a position (based on how you view yourself, job location, etc.) is irrational because it doesn’t always mean you are qualified. On the bright side, many PhD’s do have a wide-range of transferable skills that can be leveraged. But first, let’s put it in perspective..

Words from Dave Jensen:

When I ask an experienced industry person in marketing, tech transfer, regulatory affairs, or operations management how they made their transition from academia, more than three-quarters will tell me about their stint at the bench. Most industry employees with advanced science degrees spend their first few years in industry doing what they did in academia: cranking out science.

That’s because companies typically hire you to do what you’re doing right now, or something very close. They don’t hire you because you have the words “business development” written into your objective statement. What reason would they have for thinking you’d be good at that? These senior staffers go on to tell me that their grand career plan kicked in later, when they were offered a position in a new area of the company, away from the bench.

If you are looking to make a crossover (to industry for example) you will have to demonstrate marketable skills. This is why I encourage doing internships during your time in graduate school or even during a post-doc. Others may develop a unique skill set on their own outside of their laboratory work and find their niche.

However, today’s hiring manager’s are doing ‘pinpoint’ hiring. What this translates to is an employer’s market, and they know it. For this reason, the need to network and create opportunities is even greater since you may be competing against those who already have the real-world experience PLUS the same education as you.

Since I have already covered in-depth on how to network, add value, and create opportunities outside of academia in previous posts, this post will be highlighting the Top Five Job Hunting Mistakes that you want to avoid.

If you haven’t already, make sure you take a look at this Free E-book (by jobs.ac.uk) which dives into PhD Career Planning. I have also previously mentioned myIDP, which is another great online resource. Either way, you need to be aware of what jobs are out there and come up with a strategic plan before you even think about applying.

So… Do you have your plan or goal in mind? Great. Then keep reading.

With this in mind, here’s a look at five of the biggest and most common mistakes holding PhD graduates back on the job front:

1) Expecting Too Much

First up and unquestionably the most epidemic error of all, gunning for the 100% perfect role first time around is almost guaranteed to result in disappointment. The overwhelming majority of PhD graduates have little to no chance of scoring their “dream job” as what will technically be their first job, but instead must accept that this is something to work towards. And really, there’s plenty of time to climb the ladder so don’t fall into the trap of stunting your progress by being too picky.

Again, a PhD doesn’t entitle you to a job. Therefore, the egos must be put aside in order to fully understand and address the current situation.

2) Narrow Region

Next up, PhD jobs are widespread and are available, but this doesn’t for one second mean there will be any in the village you live in…or even your nearest big city for that matter. If your intent lies in making a name for yourself in a suitably high-profile role, you must be willing to expand your field of focus in terms of distance and region. To only look 50 miles or so from home is to rule out about 95% of the career prospects out there.

Therefore, do NOT limit yourself and your career. Be open to all different kinds of possibilities.  If you are open and accepting to change, you will most likely be 10 steps ahead of the person who is afraid to step out of their comfort zone and expand their horizons (one example of this is someone who does a post-doc in the same lab that they graduated from).

3) Taking Qualifications for Granted

Sure you’re qualified up to the eyeballs, but so are thousands of others just like you. But then again, maybe they’ve also got more experience. Or better references. Don’t ever assume that PhD status instantly guarantees any favor whatsoever with recruiters as if the position demands PhD level qualification, your application won’t stand out as every single applicant will also be a PhD graduate. Words on paper count for very little – be ready to sell yourself and be able to demonstrate how you can add value to a company.

4) Exclusive Web Focus

Always an interesting discovery for PhD graduates – not every job posting is advertised and applied for online. In fact,  many of the world’s biggest organizations and/or companies prefer the idea of taking on people they’re already familiar with (via informational interviews), or have at least met in person (through network contacts). As such, never underestimate the power of networking and getting your face known where it matters most – even if this means doing the decidedly old-fashioned thing of getting off your behind and going out into the big wide world.

5) Careless Mistakes

And finally, something you really have to take on-board when applying for PhD graduate jobs is that at this level, careless mistakes will not be tolerated. You might have been able to get away with sloppy grammar and the odd spelling mistake here and there with your undergraduate CV, but now you’re competing at a whole new level and perfection is only an acceptable standard. The advice therefore is simple; once you think your CV is flawless in its accuracy, check it at least twice more and hand it to no less than two suitably intelligent friends or family members to give it a double-over for you.

If you are applying to more than one job, you should have multiple resumes/CVs tailored to each specific job. Employer’s will notice the effort that you put into your resume/CV, so don’t cut corners. Although cold resume submission only works 4-10% of the time,  you will still need a well-polished resume that is ready to go when giving this to your network (networking accounts for ~90% of employment).

Even if you do decide to do cold-resume submission in combination with networking (in order to find employment), you need to be aware of these common mistakes and avoid them. Once you see things for what they really are, you will start to see your career unfold. A PhD Graduate still has a lower unemployment rate than the general population and this is for a good reason. There are many transferable skills that can be leveraged, and PhD’s add a lot of value to the job market.

If you wish to have your resume/CV corrected or receive feedback, there are great online resources that do this for free. One example is here.

So what are you waiting for? Start networking, get out there and start applying!

About the Author

Lisa Morton worked several Glasgow staff nurse jobs before turning to full-time blogging and sharing her experience.


Further Reading

Are you ready to look for a job? By dougsguides

List of Jobs Available Via PhD Career Guide

Making the Cut

The Big Disconnect

If all else fails:

Welcome To The ‘Academic Fight Club’

Welcome to the ‘Academic Fight Club’. 


Here are the rules:


1st RULE: You do not talk about Academic Fight Club.

2nd RULE: You DO NOT talk about Academic Fight Club.

3rd RULE: If someone goes emotionally limp towards academic bench science and taps out, their existence is over.

4th RULE: There are only two ways to view your future – as a successful academic PI or failure.

5th RULE: There is only one ‘fight’ – the noble pursuit of an academic PI position.

6th RULE: No discussion of ‘alternative’ careers or possibilities.

7th RULE: Pursuit of your academic PI position, by way of postdoctoral appointments, will go on as long as they ‘have’ to.

8th RULE: If you are a young, idealistic scientist in love with research, you HAVE to fight. Publish or perish.


These are the 8 Rules of the ‘Academic Fight Club’.

There is a ‘secret society’ mentality of academia. As I sat in my academic laboratory, I wondered where screenwriters and innovative filmmakers would draw inspiration from with the aim to educate, entertain, and open the eyes of the young generation of blossoming scientists. The more I thought about this, the more I connected my experience, and ultimate awakening, with the 1999 film Fight Club (written by Jim Uhls and directed by David Fincher) based on the 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk.

The flurry of online negativity directed at NIH funding, availability of academic positions, the number of PhDs, alternative science careers becoming mainstream, and the question of versatility and diversity in PhD training is what truly got me thinking about how Hollywood and I would address these issues. As a result of the negativity, many PhDs have become disillusioned with academia, but are these issues the sole cause?

The Story

I believe there is a slow building movement to change this ‘academic fight club’ mentality, but for many, the ripples of impact may not reach in time. Unfortunately, this is an all too familiar reality for many young researchers that have entered the academic machine with an idealistic interpretation of what science is all about. Maybe these thoughts are closer to imagination and unrealistic – that is a valid point. However, prior to joining most clubs, organizations, fraternities or sororities, the rules and expectations are explained in a transparent manner.

Armed with a firm understanding of the rules and expectations, one can then apply deductive reasoning so that all options can be weighted and evaluated. By following this approach, we can be expected to make logical and thoughtful decisions based on our values. The fact is that academia has their own set of rules and values.

Many times, these do not align with what we thought we signed up for because the academic rules and values were not honestly explained or completely understood until multiple windows of opportunity were missed, or worse closed. The smoke and mirrors of academia allow us to wrap ourselves in a cocoon, shut off the world around us, and build a narrow complacency shell to protect us from reality.

 When you have insomnia, you’re never really asleep… and you’re never really awake.

Our story and how we ended up here is always the same. Driven by curiosity and fascinated with science at an early age, we were excited about the possibilities of research and the questions we could answer. More importantly, we were thrilled with the idea of solving tough, real world problems and leaving our mark.

Maybe the vision of watching a loved one pass away from cancer, neurodegeneration, or a heart attack struck a chord and inspired us to dedicate ourselves to the endless pursuit of scientific knowledge and technological advancement. We excelled in our science and math courses and were advised to pursue higher education. Within the walls of our academic institutions, we fell in love with the scientific method. We were captivated by bench research and the work our hands could accomplish once our minds crystallized an idea.

We did not care about income or student loans; in fact, we could get paid to learn and do what we loved. We did not care what ‘industry’ or big pharma corporations wanted – we were doing meaningful and important work.

Surrounded by similar academic minds, we were nude in the Garden of Eden. A new set of goals were created and our scientist alter-egos were born. This was the time when we were ripe for the plucking. This was the ideal time to be tantalized with the coveted fruit, professorship. Placed ever so gently onto our foreheads, the academic carrot dangles in front us at all times, tethered to a 3’ pole just barely out of our reach.

I had it all. I had a stereo that was very decent, a wardrobe that was getting very respectable. I was close to being complete.

We progressed ahead to obtain our PhD (NIH minimum graduate student stipend for the 2012 fiscal year, $22,032), as we were told, and gained a deeper appreciation for our specific area of interest along the way. We carried out challenging experiments, collecting and analyzing data at a steady pace, and published our results for peer review to the scientific community to show that ‘we were part of the group’.

It was at this time, that we started becoming more familiar words and phrases such as impact factor, NRSA, statistical significance, curriculum vitae, n-value, caffeine, pipette-jockey, PubMed, Cell-Science-Nature, science does not happen from 9-5, tenure, jargon terminology, and postdoc. We were less acquainted with the concepts of mentoring, team environment, transferable skills, project management, leadership, networking, resume building, professional development, alternative careers, outreach, net worth, and value.

We were defined by our research without a care in the world.

That condo was my life, okay? I loved every stick of furniture in that place. That was not just a bunch of stuff that got destroyed, it was ME!

For many of us, we chose the noble, academic path and secured a postdoctoral appointment (NIH minimum graduate student stipend for the 2012 fiscal year, $39,264). For those of you not in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, this is the ‘next step’ after you are awarded with the high prize, the PhD.

Think of this, for all intent and purposes, as an apprenticeship or a contract position. One key factor to note here is that many of us did, and some still do, not quite understand how to put into perspective the ‘statistical likelihood’ we would make it to the next step. PhD granting institutions create a bottleneck, because of their incentive to increase revenue, by opening more spots to those seeking a PhD at a rate disproportionate to the number of positions available (or created) for those holding a PhD. This is especially problematic in academia.

The Current 15%ers Club

A study published last year in the journal Science suggests less than 20% of U.S. graduate students in the STEM disciplines will land a tenure-track position within four to six years of completing a PhD. [This number has been reported to be as low as 15% for those in biological sciences.]

Keep in mind about 50,000 PhDs were granted from U.S. institutions alone. At present, there is no incentive to reduce this number. This is where people with less thick skin would start getting depressed and anxious and let the waterworks flow.

But hey, we are going to defy those odds because we still have that glimmer of idealism in our eyes, with fresh new horse blinders attached, and are focused on that carrot. We have the righteous hand of science and years of training on our side.

Even more satisfying, is the fact that our PIs never brought up the possibility that we would not get a position like him or her. The thought never [openly] crossed our minds…did it? Therefore, it must be getting close, right? We just need to finish this next experiment, analyze some more data, send the paper to Cell-Science-Nature, get that NRSA and K99, and click our red slippers together, close our eyes and repeat, “There is no place like home”, and boom – we are assistant professors at My Dream University.

 I am Jack’s raging bile duct.

In this academic scenario, time itself is of no issue (7th Rule). Your well-being, mental state, and sleep cycle are of little concern as you toil away at the bench and feverishly submit publications in your niche area of research under the strict guidance of your advisor. However, this may not matter because your apprenticeship will one day end and you will have what it takes to secure that full-time, well-paying job academic PI position, correct?

 Hey, even the Mona Lisa’s falling apart.

The rules of the ‘Academic Fight Club’ are not necessarily for your benefit

Now may be the time to take the horse blinders off and cut yourself out of the cocoon. Your value is estimated solely on your publications and independent sources of funding. Without these, you have little value on the academic market. The time invested, which at this point may be getting close to 8-10 years, does not directly correlate to your market value.

 On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.

You may begin to realize that the ‘entrepreneurial startup’ you invested in was overvalued with an almost insurmountable risk. You may also start to become more familiar with mentoring, transferrable skills, project management, leadership, networking, resume, professional development, alternative careers, outreach, net worth, and value, not because your PI or department colleagues have brought them up to you, but because your friends with jobs outside of academia constantly ask you about these terms or skills. What happened?

 I am Jack’s broken heart.

Wasn’t this apprenticeship supposed to be a training period for me to increase my market value in the scientific community? Not necessarily. I do not believe a postdoctoral appointment should be viewed as an internship. There is no ‘company’ investing in your training and skills to ensure that you can be competitive in the open job market. During the academic apprenticeship, you are a worker bee serving under a queen bee that serves under the equivalent of Zeus.

This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.


After blissfully floating from our undergraduate, to graduate, to postdoctoral research positions, we wake up and begin to make the transition from idealistic researcher to realistic job seeker. We reflect on our decade of experience and start to examine the job market. We come to grips with the fact that the honeymoon is over and are now faced with the daunting chore of obtaining a faculty position.

We start to accept the fact that we should have done more and are partly to blame for this situation. However, we still believe that our allegiance to the academic enterprise and the obligation of our PI to aid in helping us secure a faculty position will pay off.

 Someone loved it intensely for one day, and then tossed it. Like a Christmas tree. So special. Then, bam, it’s on the side of the road.

Sadly, this is when you begin to understand that the rules are in place to support the academic infrastructure and enterprise. The rules of the Academic Fight Club are not necessarily for your benefit, but to ensure the supply is strong and institutions continue to receive funding, while keeping secret and masquerading the demand.

We now start to wonder more about the 6th rule and question the queen bee and Zeus’ mission and long-term vision. It is now that we begin to understand the importance of peripheral vision and the value of networking. We track the trajectory of our career and start to realize that, just as in Super Mario Brothers, there may have been ‘secret’ and ‘alternative’ portals that we could have pushed the ‘down arrow’ on and been transported to a new world of possibilities outside of academia. This is our revelation.

 And then, something happened. I let go. Lost in oblivion. Dark and silent and complete. I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom.

Does this suggest that the current academic model is broken? Do the statistics indicate it is time for a dramatic change in the way graduate school and postdoctoral appointments are viewed? Should academic advisors stop abiding by the Rules of the Academic Fight Club? Should the measure of a PIs success be their ability to adequately train and produce productive and employable researchers with transferrable skills applicable in multiple settings and not 10 Cell-Science-Nature papers? Yes.

 The liberator who destroyed my property has realigned my perceptions.

Seeing Reality: The System

So, where do we go from here? The next step(s) requires an honest self (past, present, and future) assessment, dedication, and serious motivation. To quote Peggy Olson (Mad Men Season 5), “It’s not a game, it’s my career.” It is now time to take charge and quit depending on others to ‘help’ you. Once you understand the business of academia and see through the rules, it becomes easier to make an educated decision on how to proceed.

You now have the mental and visual acuity of Neo (The Matrix) to see the world around you for what it is. This realization endows you with a new sense of purpose, clarity and career focus. You understand your value and what an investment of your time really means in the grand scheme of things.

You might feel like Neo in the matrix, finally opening your eyes to see how you and others fit into the system.

Maybe you re-dedicate yourself to academia because you are inspired to change the culture and create an open exchange that will benefit future generations of scientists. Maybe you become motivated to set the standard for PI achievement and mentoring. I believe this is a fantastic choice, and fully support this option. The model is broken and needs talented, well-balanced individuals to take a stand and fight for change.

Conversely, maybe you realize that the statistics are not in your favor, not because you were not successful by academic standards, but that you are not willing to keep sacrificing bits of your life for a prize associated with such an uncertain timeline. At this point, you may come to grips with letting go of the idealistic dream of academia and focus your energy to pursue a career path that allows you to utilize a skill you were never able to use at the bench.

Maybe by doing this, you fall madly in love with another way to contribute to the scientific community altogether. This realization can be exhilarating and almost overwhelming. [For those having the revelation right now finish jumping in jubilee and stay with me, we are almost to the honeypot.] However, you may still wonder what do we need to do? In the spirit of ‘makeovers’ (i.e. Ty Pennington; Extreme Home Makeover or Tyra Banks; America’s Next Top Model), I present to you, my rules for the 85%ers Club:

You’re Welcome To Join The New 85%ers Club

Rule #1: Understand the importance of effective communication. There is nothing more important in science than the ability to communicate in a clear, concise manner. This applies to scientific presentations, posters, your ‘elevator pitch’ when networking, putting together your job application or research statement, and developing your narrative when interviewing for jobs. I have been lucky enough to see Tim Miller, from Spoken Science, speak on this topic.

Additionally, sitting in on skill building workshops can also be incredibly helpful. For example, H. Adam Steinberg, of Art for Science, gives a wonderful set of lectures on visualizing your science and how to effectively present to an audience. Finally, a recent event held at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery on the UW-Madison campus titled ‘The Art of Conversation’ was very effective. Practice as much as you can. This will come in handy when you are interacting with your advisor, colleagues, and prospective employers.

Rule #2: Assess your skills and evaluate your career options. This is a big one. I highly recommend spending some quality time with myIDP and a career counselor. For this to really be helpful, you must be honest with yourself. Who knows, you may come to find out that you are interested in joining the 85%ers Club.

If you are interested in careers in the private sector, I encourage you to read ‘Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development by Toby Freedman. If you are interested in learning more about your options in academia, visit the NIH videocast and podcasting site in addition to pursuing virtual career centers such as the one at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Rule #3: Ask for help. You cannot do this alone. You cannot expect your advisor, thesis committee, or program director to read your mind. It may be extremely helpful to look into campus organizations, committees, or small ‘support’ groups that focus on career development. For example, start a graduate student or postdoc organization and work with the campus administrators to put on professional development events or seminars.

This is also a great way to help out with Rule #4. Seek out individuals that inspire you and get in touch with them via LinkedIn or Twitter. Attend campus or community seminars focused on science or professional development and volunteer at outreach events. Seek multiple mentors within and outside of academia. For you postdocs, spend some time at the NPA site.

Rule #4: Step out of your complacency shell and network. This is not something that happens overnight. However, make it a priority to meet 5 new people a week, using LinkedIn, Twitter, your alumni directory, or at conferences and seminars. This is a great way to start building your confidence and career swagger.

For example, Madison has Biotech Happy Hours, Biotech Meetup groups, and breakfasts with leaders in the biomedical community. Collaborating with professors at your institution is also extremely important. Try to conduct informational interviews when possible. Let people know you are genuinely interested in learning more about what they do. Ryan has many great resources on this topic.

Rule #5: Determine what you are really good at. Upon completing Rule #2, you must put into practice the results of your assessment test. Once you are able to determine this, you can really focus on marketing yourself appropriately, branding and developing a niche, and defining who you are as a professional and what you are looking for in a career. Just as in academia, people will come to appreciate your skills, respect the value you add and seek your advice as an expert. This will ultimately boost your net worth.

Rule #6: Seek out niche areas that can benefit from your particular skill set. I am fairly certain a majority of people in the 85%ers Club did not find their dream job advertised online or in a magazine. They created their own position based on a need or gap they saw that only they could bridge. Really understanding Rule #5 will trigger this revelation and you will begin to see the whole chessboard and moves you can make 10 steps ahead of anyone else. Insert yourself in that position and market your expertise.

Rule #7: Do not undervalue your skills or your time. Always align things within the framework of the big picture. In my opinion, this is the most important rule. Never undervalue what your time is worth. A good way to get a proper picture of this is to use a basic calendar. For those of you that really want to keep track and learn some new software at the same time (note: this may be very useful when applying for specific jobs) tinker around with some project management software. Remember that life may not be rosy on the other side, but at least you come out knowing more about yourself and what you want.

Do not become – Jack’s wasted life


About the Author

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, The PostDoc Way

Brian is a passionate researcher, active outreach educator, and entrepreneur with over 10 years of experience in biomedical sciences. He was awarded a Ph.D. in Pharmacology and Toxicology in 2010. Shortly after, he accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Department of Neuroscience.

He is currently a postdoctoral scholar entering his third year. He utilizes a multi-disciplinary approach that combines pharmacological, biochemical, spectroscopic, and electrophysiological techniques to develop novel methods to probe the structural dynamics of ion channels in an effort to better understand their role in electrical communication in excitable cells.

Brian is also a co-founder/chair of Badgerdocs (est. 2011), a postdoctoral association housed within the School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH) on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, co-chair/organizer/web administrator of PALS, a postdoctoral association sponsored by the Department of Biochemistry and Bioforward, co-adviser for the SMPH Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (est. 2012), and member of The Science Alliance, Biophysical Society, and National Postdoc Association. When he is not in the lab he can usually be found volunteering, running, bicycling, performing or listening to music.

Top 5 Thesis Writing Strategies To Keep You Going

Evolution of Your Thesis: The Last Fifteen Minutes

I went to middle school and high school in New York City and one of my favorite places to visit was (and still is) the Museum of Natural History (by the way the movie,  “Night at the Museum” does not do its magnificent exhibits any justice). A very memorable exhibit is the “Evolutionary Clock” which compresses the evolution of the Earth into a 24-hour day.

The evolution of my thesis (and I believe of many other students) followed a similar exponential development with a lighting-speed sprint before the finish line. During the first five and a half years, I completed coursework, learned the basics of my field and figured out 1001 ways to set up my experiment so I would not get reproducible results.  Five months before graduation my methods were finalized, and I had produced publication-quality data three months before the thesis deadline.

My thesis committee then gave me the green-light to graduate, and scheduled my defense less than 3 weeks later.  Twenty days to be exact. Twenty days is less than 1% of a six year doctoral program (about 15 minutes on a 24-hour clock), but I have more vivid memories of those twenty days than the rest of my years in the program put together. I had twenty days to put together a 50 slide presentation and write my thesis.

How did I pull through? Here are the top five strategies that kept me going:

1. Summarize your dissertation in one sentence. This is called the thesis statement. For example, “The purpose of this study was to determine the effect of XYZ mutation on the development of tumors  (result) in order to gain a better understanding of the causes of cancer (purpose)” Write this sentence somewhere where you can see it all day. You will become more focused when you repeat it to yourself several times a day.

2.    Keep writing, even if you are out of ideas. As you write, ideas will come to mind and make it eventually into the computer. If you are really out of ideas, write 3 letter-size pages by hand. I have tried this strategy hundreds of times, and I always have a few ideas by the end of the three pages.

3.    Pesky little thoughts popping into your head? What to make for dinner? Need to call XYZ or check your email? All those can (and must) wait. Keep a little notepad next to you and jot down all your to-do’s until the end of the day. They will not seem so urgent by then.

4.    Write every day, preferably at the same time and place. If you have a few months to write, aim for at least 2 pages a day. If you need extra motivation, ask someone to read your thesis by a certain day. External deadlines can do wonders for your productivity.

5.    Remember that no one wrote a doctoral thesis in one day. Build up your arguments gradually. Begin with your core    statements and add more arguments and references as you write. Each time you proofread, you will probably get more insights to enhance your writing. Complete your abstract at the end.

Finally, visualize yourself defending your thesis every day. What will you tell your audience? What was the purpose of your thesis? How did you contribute to your field of research? What are the 3-5 chapters of your thesis? The more vividly you imagine your defense and your written thesis, the more focused you will become. Soon, you will become unstoppable, writing and proofreading without the need for external motivation.

A final piece of advice: Aim for excellence, not perfection. No matter how many times you read it over, you will make little corrections here and there. The priority is to confirm that your data and references are correct, and your arguments are built up logically. Once your thesis is 98% complete, it is time to let it go. If you want to be extra diligent, give it to a friend (in exchange for reading their thesis), in case they notice any small imperfections.

The Grad Student Way’s “Secret To Thesis Writing”

I am currently writing my thesis and it will be complete by July 1. Basically, I have set a deadline and have weekly goals as I break everything down into small, manageable chunks. I will be posting a future article on how to keep the motivation, manage your time effectively, and stay in the habit of writing. Some of you may not like writing or feel that you’re are good at it. Or as the deadline approaches you get ‘thesis meltdown.’  There are ways to overcome it. Also, there are a lot of distractions and things that can demotivate you, so I will be sharing those with you in the future. This is an excellent list by Dora, but I will be going more in-depth. Keep an eye out and sign-up for our mailing list!


For more ideas, here are a few books and resources:

  1. Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis by Joan Bolker
  2. Writing the Doctoral Dissertation by Gordon Davis
  3. Surviving Your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process by Kjell Erik Rudestam.
  4. http://gradschool.about.com/lr/writing_advice/176668/2: This page has several links to other sites with dissertation writing advice.
  5. smartwaytoyourphd

Author Bio:

 Dora Farkas received her Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering and her Ph.D. in Toxicology from MIT. She is currently a Senior Scientist at AbbVie Bioresearch Center in Worcester, Massachusetts. Dora is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of Grad School Net, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, Q&A columns and blogs on her site, www.gradschoolnet.org

Awesome Grad Student Advice for New and Current PhD Students

Advice From Someone Who Has Learned The Ropes


This guest post contains unique PhD student advice and is tailored to someone who is just starting out graduate school. For example, what are some real life advice and experience that will truly help a 1st or 2nd year (or later) PhD student?

So, here are the categories in a nut-shell: Advisor-related, Age, Studying, Extracurricular Activities, Career, Finances, and Other Advice (Grad School Depression, Wanting to Become A Professor, etc.) Enjoy 🙂

Advisor related:

-If you are lucky enough to get both research interest fit and personality fit perfect, congratulations! But sometimes, personality fit is more important than research interest fit as long as the research isn’t too different. A great advisor is interested in your career development, likes you as a person, advocates for you, and wants to hear your ideas. Even if his or her research is quite different from yours, they may give you the autonomy to work on your own projects and just supervise you. A bad personality fit will drive you nuts, even if you love his or her research. Consider that when evaluating your advisor fit. (This will vary by field: research fit may be less important in the humanities, more important in the natural and physical sciences. Social sciences are somewhere in-between.)

Don’t be afraid to be straight up blunt with your advisor when it comes to asking about your progress. Ask if you are where you should be both academic program wise and getting-a-job-after-this-mess-wise.

Be proactive. Advisors love when you draw up an agenda for your one-on-one meetings, come with talking points and progress to share, have concrete questions to ask, and have overall shown that you have been thoughtful and taken control of your own program. Of course, this won’t immediately come easily to you, but in time you will work up to it. Every semester I type up my semester goals, and at the beginning of the year I type up annual goals. I show them to my advisor and we talk about whether they are too ambitious, or whether I need to revise them, and how I can meet them.

Don’t expect your advisor to actually know what courses you have to take to graduate. They will know about comprehensive exams and the dissertation, but a lot of professors don’t really keep up with the course requirements, especially if their program is in flux. Get you a student handbook, and find out what you need to take. Map it out in a grid, and check off things when you finish them. Show this to your advisor every semester. You may have to explain how such and such class fills a requirement.

-Nobody loves you as much as you, except your mother. Keep this in mind as you take in advice from all sources, including your advisor. Your advisor is there to guide you, but that doesn’t mean you have to do everything he or she says.

Age:

Don’t feel like you have nothing to offer just because you are younger. I was 22 when I started graduate school. You got accepted to the program for a reason, and chances are you are just as equipped as any older students are to successfully complete the program, just in a different way.

-Your older classmates may be just as terrified as you. Talk to them. You have a lot in common. You are, after all, in the same place.

-You will feel like an imposter, like you don’t belong, or like you are constantly behind. Or all three. It’s normal. It will pass. (Well, sort of.) People of all ages go through this.

Studying:

You will have to read more than you ever did before, in less time than you ever have before, and you will be expected to retain more than you ever have before. The way that you studied in undergrad may need some tweaking. Be prepared for this.

-Corollary: you may find that your methods change with age or interests or time. I preferred to study alone in college, but in grad school, I prefer to study in groups. It keeps me on task and the socialization keeps me motivated. You may find that you shift from being a more auditory learner to a visual learner or whatever.

You will feel behind at first. This is normal.

-At some point you will realize that your professors don’t actually expect you to read everything they assign you. This, of course, will vary by program, but there will be at least one class where the reading is actually impossible to do in one week. The point is to read enough that you know the major themes and can talk intelligently about them, and then pick some of the readings to really dig into and think more deeply about.

For most programs, don’t worry so much about grades. If you stay on top of your work and do what you’re supposed to, you will probably get an A. How much grades matter varies from program to program. In some programs, a B is a signal that you are not up to par, and more than a few B’s will warrant a discussion with your advisor or the DGS. My program isn’t like that – A, B, it’s all meaningless. My advisor doesn’t even know what my grades are. But at almost all programs, a C means you need to retake the course, and two Cs means you have to convince the DGS not to kick you out.

Extracurricular activity:

What’s that? No, seriously:

A lot of your time will be unstructured. You will have coursework, but most grad classes meet once a week for two hours and you may have three classes. You may have meetings with your advisor every so often and some seminars or things to catch (like we have grand rounds and colloquia that are required), but a lot of time will be unstructured. However, since you have so much more work than you had in undergrad, you actually will have less free time than you had in undergrad. This may initially cause you great anxiety. It did for me. Some people love unstructured time, though. (I don’t.)

-Because of this, you’ll have to be planful about your non-grad school related stuff.

TAKE TIME OFF. DO IT. It’s important for your mental health. However you do it doesn’t matter. Some people work it like a 9-5 job. Some people take a day off per week (me) and maybe a few hours spread across the week. Some people work half days 7 days a week. However you do it, there needs to be a time when you say “f this, I’m going to the movies.”

-Find your happy place, something that keeps you the you you were when you came in. I love working out. It gives me energy and I feel good. I stay healthy. I also love reading fiction, so sometimes I just curl up with a good book, work be damned. You have to give yourself permission to not think about work, at least for a couple of hours a week. You may also discover new hobbies! (I never worked out before I came to graduate school.)

Your work will creep into all aspects of your life, if you let it. This is why I hate unstructured time. You will feel guilty for not doing something, because in graduate school, there is ALWAYS something you can do. ALWAYS. But since there will always be more work, there’s no harm in putting it aside for tomorrow, as long as you don’t have a deadline.

You may need to reach outside of your cohort for a social life. None of my close friends are in my doctoral cohort. I’ve met master’s students in my program, master’s students in other programs, and I know a few non-graduate students I hang out with, too. Go to graduate student mixers. (If your university doesn’t have any, organize some, if you like planning parties.) Join a student group that doesn’t take up too much time. I had a doctoral acquaintance who kinda laughed at me because I joined some student groups other than the doctoral student one, and I was usually the only doctoral student in those groups, but I met some close friends (and future job contacts) and had a good time.

DO NOT FEEL GUILTY FOR WANTING A LIFE OUTSIDE OF GRADUATE SCHOOL. This is paramount. This is important. You are a well-rounded, complex, multifaceted human being. NEVER feel bad for this. Everybody wants some kind of life outside of work. Yes, you may loooove your field, but that doesn’t mean you want to do it all day long. Some other doctoral students, and perhaps professors, may make you feel bad about this. Don’t let them. Just smile and nod. Then disappear when you naceed to.

Career:

Grad school is job preparation. Remember that from Day One. Always be looking for ways to enhance your skills. Read job ads and find out what’s hot in your field, what’s necessary, what’s in demand. For example, in my field statistics and methods are a hot commodity, and they’re not a passing fad. I happen to really like statistics and methods, so I have pursued that as a concentration of mine.

Don’t be afraid to take on volunteer work and part-time gigs that will give you skills that will be useful both inside academia and out, as long as it’s not against your contract. Your advisor may be against it, but he doesn’t have to know as long as it doesn’t interfere with your work.

-If you want to work outside of academia – if you are even *considering* the possibility – please please definitely do the above. Even if you aren’t considering it, consider the possibility that you won’t get a tenure-track job out the box and that you may need to support yourself doing something else for a while. You will have to prove to employers that you have developed usable, useful skills and this is one of the easiest ways to do it. But don’t overdo it – get the degree done.

For more academic related ones – always look for opportunities to present and publish. Presentations look good on your CV. Publications look better. When you write seminar papers, wonder if you can publish them with some revision. Write your seminar papers on what you maybe think you may want to do your dissertation on. Even if you look at them three years later and think “these suck,” you can at least glean some useful references and pieces from them. Discuss publication with your advisor early and often, and if you have the time and desire, seek out publication options with other professors and researchers. But if you commit to a project, COMMIT. You don’t want to leave a bad impression.

-If you can afford it, occasionally go to conferences even if you aren’t presenting. You can NETWORK, and you can hear some interesting talks, and you may think about new directions for your own research. You can also meet people who may tell you about jobs, money, opportunities, etc.

-Always try to get someone else to pay for conference travel before you come out of pocket. Including your advisor. Do not be shy about asking if he or she can pay. If he can’t, he’ll just say no. Usually the department has a travel fund for students, but often it’s only if you are presenting.

If you are interested in academia, you should get some teaching experience. There are two traditional ways to do this: TAing a course, and teaching as a sole instructor. If you can help it, I wouldn’t recommend doing a sole instructor position until you are finished with coursework. Teaching takes a LOT of time to do right. You should definitely TA at least one course, and probably a few different ones. But don’t overdo it, if you can help it, because again, it takes a LOT of time. More than you expect at the outset. If you are in the humanities, I think sole instructor positions are very important for nabbing jobs so when you are in the exam/ABD phase, you may want to try at least one. If your own university has none, look at adjuncting for nearby colleges, including community colleges.

(I would wager that the majority of natural science/physical science students, and most social science students, have never soley taught a class before they get an assistant professor job. At least, it’s not that common in my field, which straddles the social and natural sciences.)

Always look for money

Money is awesome. If you can find yourself you can do what you want, within reason. Your university will be thrilled, your advisor will be happy, and you can put it on your CV. It’s win-win-win! Don’t put yourself out of the running before anyone else has a chance to. Apply even if you think you won’t get it or the odds are against you (they always are), as long as you are eligible. Apply often. Apply even if it’s only $500. (That’s conference travel!) Money begets money. The more awards you get, the more awards you will get. They will get bigger over time. If you are in the sciences and social sciences, you should get practice writing at least one grant. You don’t have to write the whole thing, but at least get in on the process so that you can see how it’s done. Grant-writing is very valuable both in and outside of graduate school.

Revise your CV every so often. Then look and decide what you want to add to it. Then go get that thing, so you can add it.

The career office at big universities is often not just for undergrads. I was surprised to learn that my career center offers help on CV organization and the academic job search, as well as alternative/non-academic career searches for doctoral students. In fact, there are two people whose sole purpose it is to help PhD students find nonacademic careers, and they both have PhDs. This will vary by university – some universities will have very little for grad students. Find out before you write the office off.

It’s never too early to go to seminars/workshops like “the academic job search inside and out”, “creating the perfect CV,” “getting the job,” etc. NEVER. Often the leader will share tips that are more aimed towards early graduate students, or tidbits that are kind of too late for more advanced students to take care of. This will also help you keep a pulse on what’s hot in your field. It’ll help you know what lines you need to add to your CV. And they’re interesting.

Other:

Decide ahead of time what you are NOT willing to sacrifice on the altar of academia. Then stick to it.
I’m serious. If you decide that you do NOT want to sacrifice your relationship, don’t. If it’s your geographical mobility, don’t. I mean, be realistic, and realize that there will always be trade-offs. But you have to think about what’s important to you for your quality of life, and realize that there is always more to you than graduate school.

If you don’t want to be a professor, do not feel guilty about this. At all. Zero. However, you will have to do things differently than most doctoral students. Your advisor will probably never have worked outside of the academy (although this may vary depending on the field) so he may or may not be able to help you. But you have a special mission to seek out the kinds of experiences that will help you find a non-academic job. Test the waters with your advisor before you tell him this. My advisor was quite amenable to it, but that’s because I told him that my goal was to still do research and policy work in my field just not at a university, AND because it’s quite common in my field for doctoral students to do non-academic work. If you’re in a field where it’s not common (or where your professors refuse to believe it’s common, or it’s not supposed to be common)…well, you may be a little more on your own.

-Every so often, you will need to reflect on the reasons you came to graduate school. Sometimes, just sit and think quietly. Why are you doing this to yourself? Do you love your field? Do you need this degree to do what you want to do? Usually the answer is yes and yes, and usually you’ll keep on trucking. But sometimes when the chips are out you will need to reevaluate why you put yourself through this in the first place.

-To my great dismay, depression is quite common in doctoral students. Graduate work can be isolating and stressful. Luckily your health insurance usually includes counseling sessions. TAKE THEM if you need them. Do not be ashamed. You may be surprised with who else is getting them. (I found out that almost everyone in my cohort, was getting mental health counseling at a certain point.) Exercise can help, as can taking that mental health day once a week and just chilling. Don’t be surprised if you get the blues…

-…but be self-aware and able to recognize when the depression is clouding your ability to function. Doctoral programs have a 50% attrition rate, and this is rarely because that 50% is less intelligent than, less motivated than, less driven than, or less ambitious than the other 50% that stays. Often they realize that they are ridiculously unhappy in the field, or that they don’t need the degree anymore, or that they’d rather focus on other things in life, or their interests have changed. All of this is okay!

-You will, at some point, be like “eff this, I’m leaving.” I think almost every doctoral student has thought about dropping out and just kicking this all to the curb. You need to listen to yourself, and find out whether it is idle thought (nothing to worry about, very normal) or whether you are truly unhappy to the point that you need to leave. Counseling can help you figure this out.

-Don’t be afraid to take a semester or a year off if you need to. That’s what leaves of absence are for.

Lastly, and positively…

…graduate school is great! Seriously, when else will you ever have the time to study what you want for hours on end, talk to just as interested others about it, and live in an intellectual community of scholars and intellectuals? And occasionally wake up at 11 am and go to the bank at 2 pm? Sometimes you will want to pull out all of your hair but most of the time, you will feel fulfilled and wonderfully encouraged and edified. So enjoy this time!

Grad Student Advice Series: 10 Ways To Be A Successful PhD Student

From Start To Finish

Your PhD is going to be the focus of your professional and personal life for at least four years, so it is important that it will be time well spent. Here are some tips and points to consider to make sure you are a successful PhD student from The Graduate Recruitment Bureau.

So how do you get from start to finish and what can help keep you motivated throughout?

1)     Choose The Right University

*Research ahead of time which Universities express/match up with your best research interests and goals. Dig deeper as to what programs are ideal (look at alumni placement ratings-where do they end up? what percentage go in what sectors?), who has available funding, which programs offer stipends (is being a TA a requirement?), if there are training grants you should apply for (i.e. NSF or NIH), and which professors are looking to take students. With the NIH sequester in play, you’d be surprised how competitive things (positions as a result of funding) are becoming.

*Chances are if you email these professors ahead of time, you can meet with them prior to the start of your graduate program and beat out the crowd for limited lab slots available for grad students. The early bird gets the worm, as some graduate students even start working prior to the official start of the semester.

Financial backing is important, as your PhD can’t begin without it, so a major step for being a successful PhD student is to get financial funding, and as much of it as possible. PhDs are not cheap with all the material, equipment and research that is required. So, the more  secure financial aid you apply for, the less you need to worry about (if the financial aid is required and is graduate program dependent).

If funding is of concern, get in contact with any relevant business or organization(s) that might be interested in your research and willing to fund it for you. For example, research charities or councils that have shown a keen interest in your area of study fund doctorates and academic institutions will have lists of the PhDs they offer.

*Many life science programs give you a stipend to support you (and you might have to TA on the side). When that is not enough, check out 7 easy ways to earn an alternative income here: http://thegradstudentway.com/blog/?p=86

2)    Keep The Passion

An undeniable necessity for being a successful PhD student is to have a real passion for your topic. Your PhD will be your life for the next 4 or more years, so you need to be really committed to the subject with no risk of finding it tiresome.

The passion you feel for your subject will be tested throughout the course of your research due to work, time and supervisor pressures, so the bond you share needs to be indestructible. If you aren’t 100% committed to your topic, then you can’t put in the needed effort and passion that are key ingredients for a successful PhD. So, make sure you are really interested in the research you are about to undertake.

3)     Learn

Knowing the experts in your field can only help you and your PhD be a success. Apply to work with a prestigious tutor/mentor, as after all, who better to be your mentor than the leading expert in your field? If you don’t ask you don’t get so don’t be afraid to try.

In addition to having a tutor/mentor who seriously knows their stuff, you need to read, watch and listen to your favorite authors and researchers and then try and make contact with them. More often than not they will be more than happy to spend some time discussing their latest findings and theories with you- they are the Hollywood Royalty of academia so let the know you are their number one fan. You never know, they might have some life changing opportunities for you.

4) Network

Your PhD is going to take up a substantial part of your life, and it is important to realize that a successful PhD student will change their priorities from year to year. In the first year, you need to network and get your name out there and be known. If people don’t know you exist, how will they know about your research and whether it is something really ground-breaking that they should take an active interest in?

After your PhD, you are going to need contacts and opportunities and your research is the key to open all these doors, so take the time in the first year to spread your word and get involved in projects. In the final years, your main priority should be your work, so it is sensible to turn down some event invitations- you should have made a big enough fuss about yourself in the first year to be able to not attend some events and still not be forgotten. Build yourself a solid basis and name early on, and then complete your work knowing that the interest and knowledge about it is still out there.

5) Read

Doing a PhD means making an original contribution to the field; one of great value, interest and benefit. Your research needs to complement existing research and not replicate anything.

Therefore, you need to read as much as possible including every piece of theory and research that has ever been done in your area. Know what has been found, what hasn’t been proved, what’s been suggested, successful and ignored. If you don’t know what is already in existence, then you can’t make an original and reputable contribution to the field. Therefore, it is essential that in order to be a successful PhD student that you start hitting those books.

6)     Communicate

It’s great that you’re doing all this research and discovering all these fascinating trends, but if you cannot communicate your research and progress effectively-then the real potential of your PhD will be lost.

Brush up on your communication skills. Your written communication needs to be impeccable; logically ordered, easy to follow and with a clear message. Obviously, grammatically correct and with no spelling errors too! When presenting your work to audiences at conferences and meetings it needs to be an exciting, engaging delivery.

Additionally, make sure you are presenting your work to the right people. To be a successful PhD student you need to be more than a great researcher; you need to be able to convey your findings and theories to a specialist audience in a way that will create and retain your professional, reputable image. This means no stuttering, no monotonous lengthy speeches and no waffling, unpunctuated sentences.

7)     Work hard

A good work ethic is pivotal to your PhD success. You need to work hard and play hard to stay motivated and sane during your PhD. It is essential that you allow yourself breaks if you feel as though it’s all getting too much and a touch of cabin fever is setting in. An hour’s break or a day off can do your research the world of good. If by lunchtime you are going mad then go for a jog, do some painting, bake a cake- whatever you do to reconnect and re-establish control. On the other hand you can’t take too many breaks, so keep in mind that you still need to stay productive.

Treat your PhD like a job– as it essentially is- which equates to five days a week and having down-time on weekends. Or, if you need to work weekends then make sure you allow yourself some relaxation in the week. The balancing act of work and play is a fine art, but master it and you’ll be a successful PhD student.

8)     Persevere

Perseverance is the key to success with all PhDs, as most research won’t instantly fall nicely into place right from the get-go. You need to stick with it and constantly reassess and modify your method(s) to achieve the best you can and derive promising results.

This means you must be organized as well as tenacious. Keep meticulously detailed notes at every stage of your work so far and have a plan of action so you always know what the next stage is. It doesn’t matter if in reality the next stage doesn’t pan out as planned, but by knowing which direction it is headed will help to channel your energy and research to make the most efficient use of your time.

9)     Stay productive

When inspiration strikes, jump on it. You don’t have to stick to the traditional three part strategy of completing a PhD- reading, doing, writing. Apart from being a long winded and tiresome method, it might not actually be that productive. If it’s necessary to do some research to back up your writing, then it is fine to read some more.

Or, if it makes more sense to carry out the experiment or data collection over a longer period of time, then do it alongside the reading and writing. There is no right way of working, so just do what is best for you. Just make sure you keep things fresh and moving forward to be successful.

10) Publish

Obviously your PhD is going to be published on completion, but write it up and publish it in various places as you go along. At the natural end of each stage do a write up and publish it online, for example, on your own blog or relevant websites.

Get people excited about what you are doing and keep them in the loop with your progress. Write up each chapter in the form of an article and then rewrite them to encompass your whole PhD.

If you want to learn more about the importance of science blogging and gaining online exposure, check out this post by the Next Scientist: http://www.nextscientist.com/writing-science-blog-saved-phd/


Note: * in above article paragraphs indicates comments contributed by The Grad Student Way (United States specific)


About the Author

Written by Anna Pitts, a Marketing Assistant and Online Researcher at the Graduate Recruitment Bureau. Her work involves PR and outreach and writing informative, interesting advice based articles for graduates and students.


Further Reading

Top 10 Most Valuable Lessons and Things I Learned In Grad School

Why Relationships Matter In Grad School: 5 Ways To Maintain

Story Context

First of all, I would like to thank Ryan for the opportunity to contribute to his site. As a former student, I know how important it is for graduate students to have a community for emotional support and to stay on top of valuable resources (as this article will touch on). After I finished my PhD I realized that in order to get my degree I had to overcome many of the same barriers as other graduate students.

Going further, this brought up a key question: Why wasn’t there a book that summarized all the tricks and tips of navigating graduate school? In order to answer this question, I interviewed over 100 students from 30 different disciplines (over the course of two years) to learn what their secrets to success were in graduate school. I covered areas such as financial support, elements of a thesis, time management, communication with your PI and coworkers, writing skills, and career planning.

From this, I published many of their ideas on my newsletters, which are accessible on my website (http://www.phdnet.org/), as well as my book (“The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.: 200 Secrets from 100 Graduates”). I continue to receive questions from students around the world, and I address them through my blogs.

With that said (stemming from graduate student issues), Ryan has recently approached me about a very important topic: How can significant others (or spouses) support each other if one or both of them are graduate students? I can certainly relate, since my fiancé and I were graduate students at the same time, and we got married during my last year in graduate school. (For simplicity, I will use spouse and significant other interchangeably.)

Graduate Students Need Support Since They Are A Vulnerable Population

If your worth as an individual depends on your achievements, then you’re extremely vulnerable in graduate school because you’re bound to not succeed some of the time.  —Myriam Mongrain

The other common personality correlate Mongrain identified for depression was a lack of social support. Graduate students can get so caught up in their work, especially when they’re driven by perfectionist tendencies, that they forget to be social, she says. They stop seeing friends and talking with families. Loneliness and isolation build and contribute to depression. Depressed people aren’t very fun to be around, so the cycle of isolation continues.

How prevalent is depression among graduate students? Much more prevalent than in the general population, says Daniel Eisenberg, an associate professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

In a 2008 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 6.4% of the general population in the United States reported having depressive symptoms within a 12-month span. (The percentage for younger adults is slightly higher.) By contrast, about 15% of the 4553 graduate students who responded to Eisenberg’s 2011 survey reported experiencing depressive symptoms—as defined by the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—in the previous 2 weeks.

Source: http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2012_10_05/caredit.a1200111

Could emotional support offered by a significant other during graduate school help lower depression rates?

The answer is YES.

Your Pillar of Strength: Significant Other Support Other in Graduate School

While the pressures in graduate school can put the best relationships to a test, they also present an opportunity to deepen your support and commitment to each other. Your relationship might be strained financially and emotionally as you pour every ounce of energy into a thesis that will only materialize in a few months or years.

However, it is no secret that one of the most important factors influencing personal happiness is the quality of your long-term relationship. So the question is, how can you and your spouse support each other to give your work the attention it needs? The strategies I share here are from couples I knew personally where one or both of them were graduate students or post-docs. So here they are…

5 Ways To Make It Count:

1) Commit to your relationship

A strong relation can endure financial hardship, long-distance, and any other personal or professional challenges brought on by life. If you want to create a mutually supportive environment in your home, you first need to strengthen your commitment to your spouse. Be proactive and give him/her the kind of support that you desire, by doing as much as you can to make his/her life easier. No matter how busy you are, there is always time to do something nice for your spouse. Your spouse will surely appreciate it, and probably return the favor doubly.

2) Spend quality time together to create a mutually-supportive environment

Knowing how busy graduate students are, I am sure that this suggestion is raising some eyebrows. “How can I spend time with my spouse/significant other every day when the majority of my time is spent working?” you might ask. Remember that you are not in this boat alone. You are part of a team. If you function as part of a team you can come up with better strategies than if you tried to row alone. No time or money for elaborate dates?

A simple 15-20 minutes of connection every day (over tea in the evening, or an ice-cream during the day) will probably strengthen your relationship orders of magnitude more than an expensive get-away once a year. Use your 15-20 minutes together to solve challenges together as a couple, and soon you will come up with more creative answers than if either of you had ruminated alone.

Besides the daily 15-20 minute check-in, students have found that a weekly date can do wonders for re-energizing their minds. Once again, I would like to emphasize that elaborate dates (although fun occasionally) might not be the best investment of your time and money. Simple activities such as watching a movie together every Saturday (perhaps at home if you cannot afford movie tickets or find a babysitter), going on a hike or working out together can do wonders for opening up lines of communication so you can provide each other the support you need.

Keep in mind that the date is about being together. Having the certainty that there is always a person you can count on is the most powerful support one can have, especially during a challenging time such as graduate school.

3) Get creative with your finances

Graduate student relationships are frequently under financial strain, due to low stipends and student debt. Ryan’s excellent book is full of ideas to help you generate additional sources of income.

I would also like to share a story about how one spouse turned her hobby into a small business. My friend Stephanie was a working mom and wife of a postdoctoral associate, and they were just barely scraping by. She was artistic and while her husband traveled, she enjoyed doing crafts with her children.  She especially liked decorating scarves and jewelry boxes. Around Christmas time she showed her crafts to her friends and they were eager to buy them as holiday presents. Soon she was generating income all-year round, and even built a website to sell her art.

For other ideas on managing your money and investing in your future, I recommend the following articles:

http://www.mint.com/blog/planning/graduate-school-expenses-102011/

http://www.mispp.edu/downloads/finaid/money_management.pdf

4) Reach out to a support network.

While your spouse is (hopefully) your best friend, it is not realistic to expect him/her to provide you all the answers and support. If you connect with graduate student organizations in your department or hobby group, you can find out how others have solved problems similar to yours.  Some schools have groups for spouses, which can be especially helpful for internationals, who do not have a permit to work or study in the United States. Besides getting answers to practical issues such as obtaining visas and student discounts, you will probably significantly improve the quality of your life and your relationship by growing your circle of supportive friends.

5) Be proactive about planning your future together

The two-body problem can be one of the most significant factors influencing your job search. Take comfort in knowing that thousands of students have found solutions to this problem without sacrificing their professional aspirations. It does take creativity, determination and commitment, however, because the job market is so competitive. Specific job searching strategies are beyond the scope of this blog, but I can recommend books and articles on this topic. In fact, I have devoted an entire chapter to career planning in my own book (see below for more info), because I believe that it is never too early to begin networking and exploring job opportunities, especially if you and your spouse will be looking for employment simultaneously.


More About the Author

Dora Farkas, Ph.D., completed both her Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering and her Ph.D. in Toxicology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After she earned her Ph.D. she worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics at Tufts University in Boston. As a graduate student, and later as a postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Farkas realized that there was a real need for a guide book to help doctoral students finish their degrees more efficiently. She began her quest for this guidebook by casually conversing with graduate students, and noticed that students in different fields faced similar challenges while completing their dissertations.


Reference Books and Online Articles:

The Academic Job Search Handbook by Julia Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong

Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt: Advice for Humanities PhDs by Kathryn Hume

Best wishes,

Dora Farkas, PhD
Founder PhDNet
Author:“The Smart Way to Your PhD:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates”
dora@phdnet.orghttp://www.phdnet.org/


Further Reading:

  1. Issues with Significant Others During Grad School
  2. Grad Student Advice Series: Lack of Social Life, The Effects, and What To Do About It