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How A Rock Band Helped Save My PhD


When I look back on graduate school the one thing that I am forever grateful for is the fact I played in a rock band. It was a way to escape all the frustration. When an experiment failed or when I felt like a failure in lab, I was up on stage having fun. And even though it was a lot of work and dedication, it helped save my PhD.

Graduate school (for me) pretty much consisted not only of long days but also late nights and weekends running western blots and sitting/standing in the cold room for hours washing and sonicating my ChIP samples with my iPod cranked. Crazy how at least a week’s worth of work can translate to simply getting a band on a gel.  And repeating it over and over to get it right. And in the end, a band on a gel can play a large role in deciding how soon and when I graduate (in addition to thesis committee politics).

When a PhD student graduates depends not only on how hard they work, but also on the luck of their experiments (and the nature of their overall project). I know some graduate students that would work 12+ hour days (even on weekends) just to try and get some quality data. I also know those that worked only 8 hours on average, got more quality data, and ended up graduating sooner. Many even end up quitting the PhD altogether after many years of hard work and frustration. So, what are the key factors here?  Is it simply “work smarter not harder”? Or does the harder someone works equal more usable data?

Some may say hard work (and perseverance), good experimental design (i.e. asking and pursuing the right scientific questions), productivity mixed in with a little bit of luck and keeping the ‘balance’ all play a role. There are certainly other combinatorial factors here, but keeping a balance for me played a very crucial role, and it may for you as well.

Sometimes I just needed to wind down instead of thinking about the scientific problem that haunted me and what remained. I’m sure you already know that once you answer one scientific question it raises yet another question to be answered. The process of research can be never-ending. That is why towards the end of your PhD, it can be hard to know when you are actually “done.” And your PI can keep you longer, by simply adding one more ‘final experiment’. How good is good enough? And when is it good enough? That’s where you come in and how well you fight for your graduation (you certainly have to convince your thesis committee that you have done a satisfactory level of work).

Let’s keep going here: Nothing is a better feeling than getting that crucial piece of data you worked so hard for after some huge dry spell where you get nothing for weeks. After all, you are diving into the unknown. What does this data even mean? How do you interpret it? What path do you go down next? Many great ideas can come at a time when you least expect it, and are doing something you ‘really shouldn’t be doing’ or at least your Professor may not approve of.

band3Now I’m not saying that I got some epiphany when I was on stage playing a show, but I will say that the band helped me hit the reset button. I could go back into lab the next day with a fresh mind. Without this reset button, I never would have made it through. The daily grind of grad school can weigh you down more than you think.

This article’s main focus is to shed some light on a story of how to keep the balance by doing things outside of lab to keep your sanity. When you don’t have luck on your side and you’re banging your head against the wall, you need some sort of outlet. You can imagine what may end up happening when you do this for years on end during a PhD program.

If you have not read my previous article on how to keep up a good social life (and why this is important), check it out here.

As most of you in graduate school know, social life can be hard to keep up with. It is especially crucial to maintain during your middle-late years to keep your sanity.

You can ask anyone who completed their PhD and they will identify one factor that made it hard. Loneliness, lack of money, burn out at the bench, health issues, fear of the unknown, demotivation, mistreatment by their professor, lack of career direction, interest in other fields… The list goes on and on.  The fact that a PhD is hard (and whatever that reason is) also implies there has to be something that someone did in order to get through it. What did the successful PhD graduate do to keep stress levels low, prevent burnout, and overcome the feeling of failure? The answer is staring right at you.

If you want to say a PhD program was easy and you didn’t need any sort of social outlet outside of graduate school in order to get through- you are a very rare breed. It ignores the realities that a PhD program is not easy and it takes a mixture of perseverance, tenacity, and cogency. The 4th thing is BALANCE.

To summarize-I knew something was missing. I knew I needed a change. I knew graduate school was a long process. I knew I was in it for the long haul. I also knew that if I did things outside of graduate school that this would be frowned upon. But I didn’t care. I figured a PhD program lasts 5 or more years. Why not enjoy it along the way? I thought to myself is this even possible? Shouldn’t I be in lab 24/7 cranking out experiments and data to graduate in the fastest possible time? Won’t anything I do outside of lab simply be a distraction?

The choice is up to you. But I can tell you had I done nothing but straight lab work I would have dropped out with a Master’s. I would have burned out.

There are so many articles out there that tell you to network outside of lab (and GradStudentWay has written about it too). OK we get it. There are also hundreds of articles and ongoing discussions that shove the awareness of the post-doc plight down everyone’s throats. We know the job market is bad for academia, and we know all the statistics. Each study I see reports the percentages are decreasing and the problem is becoming worse-most likely to just get more attention-but we know it is nothing new. You have a 15% chance of becoming a professor within 5 years. I have seen some say it is 8% and now even 1%. Let’s just say it’s low and leave it at that.

But what I am telling you is to take your mind off all of this for once and put it elsewhere. It is important to have goal with an actionable plan and follow through, but at the same time it is important to enjoy your life along the way before, during and after graduate school.


These articles tend to tirelessly repeat like there is some new found holy grail of graduate school. How to write your thesis in 3 months or less. How to network and get a job in industry. How to write faster, better, and publish. How to effective manage your time and experiments. Where is the fun in all of this?

Graduate school may not be viewed as fun to a lot of people, but it doesn’t have to be so cut and dry. Yes, graduate school is tough and articles that provide advice are important. But you don’t have to worry about your future 24/7 and you certainly shouldn’t focus on any negatives of your situation. You have to make the best of your PhD program. Your career depends on it. You’ve invested time (and money) into this so you want to make sure you get out alive.

When my graduate student friends all passed their preliminary exam around the same time that I did, it seems that social life started on a rapid decline. Something was missing. The only thing that consumed us was lab and the fear that we will never graduate. Late night experiments at 10 PM on a Friday were not uncommon. We still tried to plan things and do social events every now and then, but we all just got busy. This was just the reality of the situation (no sympathy needed).

There came a moment in time where I had to make a decision. Aside from all the networking outside of academia, running a blog on the side, and worrying about my future I needed a different social outlet.


Many graduate students suffer in silence. They tough it out. The mindset is that if you complain you are viewed as nothing but a whiner and someone who is weak (and you need to change your attitude). But what this does is ignore the importance of having a work/life balance. Proper diet and exercise and having hobbies outside of grad school (sports, clubs, etc.) are going to help you dramatically during your time in graduate school.

It may sound cliché, but those that choose to focus on work/life balance are going to have a much more enjoyable PhD experience and will increase your chances of successfully graduating. Those that chose to drop out of a PhD program have many different reasons (many can be complex), but many can be tied to the lack of work/life balance and the toll it takes on your physical and mental health. Graduate school will involve sleep deprivation and late nights. It may even involve excessive amounts of caffeine : )

If you haven’t already, check out the article How To Effectively Deal With PhD Stress and How To Graduate Faster. These articles will give you some additional advice to how you can combat the difficulties of a PhD and keep things under control when the pressure is on.

The purpose of this blog post is not to promote myself but to open your eyes to possibilities that lie outside of lab. And to not be afraid to pursue them. If you don’t, you may have regrets later on. Or your graduate school experience may not be very enjoyable. The sad reality is that the better part of your 20’s is spent in graduate school. And essentially, your life is put on hold. It is no surprise that many may choose to delay marriage (or buy a house) until after they graduate, especially when they are not yet financially secure or working in a stable career.

I can tell you that if you focus on nothing but lab and graduating as soon as possible you will be on the path to burn out. Even if maintaining the work/life balance were to add 6 months to your graduation time but ensure your graduation (and cut down on the hardships and give you some breathing room), would you view it as being worthwhile? Keeping your physical/mental health is not only important for the short run, but the long run as well. The PhD is NOT the end game. It is the start of your career. So if your goal is to graduate in the shortest amount of time, you are in for a surprise for what awaits you.

I will just say that I was often criticized for doing things outside of lab (and not wanting to pursue academic research). I started my blog and wrote a book during my 4th year of graduate school. One of my thesis committee members caught wind of it and viewed me as someone who isn’t dedicating enough time to lab (therefore I am less deserving of a PhD). That couldn’t be further from the truth.

The fact that I did things and got into the habit of doing things outside of lab (in addition to being in a band) helped me stand out from the crowd. Now the band is not something I would put on my resume, but it did mix things up and throw in some variety. The point here is that had I focused on nothing but graduating (which I call ‘grad student tunnel vision’) I have no doubt I would be quite unhappy and currently doing a post-doc. The misconception is that this is the default career choice after graduate school, when in disguise it is nothing but an extension of graduate school. For those that wish to pursue a post-doc and know this is the right path for you, I applaud you. But for many, they simply need to be made aware of other options available to them and take action.


I had no idea that being in a band would connect me with so many people and created a whole new social outlet for me. When a Friday night rolled around and all my graduate student friends were busy, I could call up the guys from my band to jam (and even people I met after shows). And I just didn’t have that type of connection with my science friends. Both groups were fun (don’t get me wrong), but having that ‘extra’ group filled in the gaps when my science friends simply didn’t have the time to go out for a beer and when I really needed a break from lab.

Everything has to be taken in small steps to essentially become a reality, but you need a starting point. In retrospect (once you have actually seen what comes of your efforts), it is so much easier not being cynical or skeptical of all the different possibilities-especially the ones where you doubted yourself but still pushed through to see where it would take you. What I mean by this-is that when most think “rock band” they may view it as too much work, too distracting from graduate school, or something that will just be some bad sounding garage band that won’t lead to anything. All of these were not the case in my experience.

I had no idea that a simple craiglist ad with a demo of me playing on stage at my uncle’s wedding would connect me with a great group of musicians. I had prior music experience (I have been playing guitar since I was 13), so I used this to my advantage. Music has always been a very big part of my life (and helped me write my entire thesis ;).  You can use any of your talents/skills to your advantage too. Turns out that within only about a month we were able to piece together a full rock band with a bassist, a drummer, a rhythm guitarist, a lead guitarist (me), and a singer.

We played covers (Metallica, Shinedown, Godsmack, Pearl Jam) and even wrote some originals. We practiced 2x a week in the evenings and played a handful of shows. The plan was not to make a profession out of this (or even make money off it), but to simply just have fun. That was it. Some of our gigs were paid, but to me it didn’t matter. It was enough to buy a few drinks and have fun after a show and that was all I cared about. In the end, the band helped me accomplish my goals of getting through the hardships of graduate school, and I was out in 5 years with a job waiting for me in industry.

Being up on stage is one of the greatest feelings. It is a rush. It is just like giving a public talk, you are nervous at first. The more and more you do it, the easier it becomes. If any of you play an instrument, I highly recommend taking it to some level. Whether it means teaching piano or guitar lessons, you got nothing to lose.

Towards the end of my PhD, when I had to write my thesis in about 3 month’s time, I did have to withdraw from the band. But to this day, the band experience has positively affected my life in so many ways. And now I’m back playing in a different band while maintaining a full-time job. And graduate school made it all possible-the time when you would least expect it. I am forever grateful for the experience I started when I was just 25 years old and will carry with me my whole life. I have also made many lifelong friends.

And the best part was when all my grad student friends showed up to my shows 🙂


I’ll just end by saying don’t be afraid to pursue what you are passionate about. Do whatever it takes to get through grad school. And don’t always give in to the criticisms by your professors. You certainly don’t have to tell your thesis committee everything you do outside of lab. And most of all-don’t be afraid to approach your thesis advisor about your career or pursuing something outside of academia. It’s your life and your career (and your happiness-not theirs) and you have control over where you go next. So do whatever it takes to protect this at all costs and you will be successful.

Further Reading

10 Ways To Stay Happy and Productive In Graduate School

10 Most Memorable Things I Learned While in Grad School

5 Things To Do Outside of Grad School

Dealing With PhD Stress The Right Way: Advice From 3 PhD Graduates

When I think back to the PhD, I think about the physical and emotional stress that I had to go through, especially the final months leading up to the defense. PhD stress is not something that should be ignored.

Do you know who gets the PhD? The person who perseveres. And dealing with the stress is one key factor that you must overcome in order to successfully graduate. You may experience one (or a combination) of the following during your PhD and at different stages of your graduate career (and are signs to look for and not ignore):

  • Constantly feeling you can’t work hard enough
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the workload
  • Feeling like you are not working to your true ability
  • Inability to focus
  • Feeling like nothing you do has any impact, and that you have no control
  • Feeling that even easy things have become difficult
  • Constant fear of failure
  • Feeling like you don’t belong in a PhD program, and that you will be “found out”
  • Physical or mental exhaustion

Whatever you have experienced up until this point whether you are in your first, second, third, fourth of fifth years and beyond-You know what’s crazy? In many ways, these feelings are “normal.” If they weren’t, it wouldn’t be much of a PhD. Or at least you’re not taking it “serious” enough (at least from what I was told and programmed to believe as a graduate student).

The point is that many PhDs may experience similar pain points and stress, but many will handle it in different ways-as the reason to start, endure, and finish a PhD is entirely individualistic. But this certainly does not mean you should ignore the warning signs if the stress becomes overwhelming, as graduate school depression and anxiety is very serious. You’re not alone, so don’t be afraid to seek help from a counselor, family, or friends.

What you have to keep in mind is that once you defend, these feelings that you are experiencing now will fade into the background. They become a thing of the past. Yes, it is hard to get through but remember it is only temporary.

If you do an informational interview with a PhD 10 or 20 years out, they will carry nostalgic memories and certain stories with them like how they used to be in lab till 2 in the morning. But the fact of the matter is, they have moved on (they have a job, a family, and aren’t eating out of a soup can everyday). They don’t want to remember the feelings of doubt, stress, and pressure (although when you spend 5+ years of your life in grad school there are just some things you will never forget). But, that’s why when you tell them the stress you are going through in your PhD program, you will still get a reaction out of them because you are taking them back to their old grad school days and they have shared those same struggles/feelings at one point in time.

So, in order to capture these “feelings” in their right moment, I asked two of my UW-Madison friends who just recently received their PhDs to write some tips on how they kept their stress levels low and successfully defended their PhD.

If you haven’t already, check out my previous article on 10 Ways to Successfully Defend Your PhD. Due to overwhelming requests and emails asking for my defense video and for additional tips on how to keep stress levels low, I decided to write an additional article focusing just on the stress issue. And I have posted the link to my defense video below.

Some emails I have gotten recently are (they will remain anonymous):

I am approaching the end of my PhD cycle and becoming increasingly nervous and anxious about the public discussion of my thesis! It has been a very lonely and long walk! Would it be possible to watch the video of your PhD defense?

Just read your “10 Ways To Successfully Defend Your PhD,” which I found both enjoyable and stimulating. You mention a video of your own defense. I’d love to see it, if you’re still happy to share it. If you’ve seen other good defenses on youtube or elsewhere and have any additional links, those too would be much appreciated.

I read your blog in the title of “10 Ways to successfully defend your PhD”. I think it is very useful for me; however, I want to request an example video of a defense talk that you suggest in your blog. I have a plan to defend my thesis on next Thursday. I feel very nervous, and I think my presentation is too long (80 slides). Do you agree with me ?

**My PhD defense video can be viewed here:

For a quick recap, the top 10 highlights were as follows:

  1. Do not underestimate how long it takes to prepare your slides/talk and make sure you give multiple practice talks (and in terms of how many slides or how long your talk should be-you should have this figured out by giving your practice talks and getting feedback from others)
  2. Listen to other thesis defense talks
  3. Have your friends, labmates, and others drill you with questions
  4. Re-read over your entire thesis and write out your own list of questions
  5. Don’t let distractions get to you
  6. Get plenty of sleep, keep your diet in check, and take care of yourself
  7. Keep your cool and relax**
  8. Don’t focus on the after-party until you have actually reached the after-party
  9. Have a good structure
  10. Visualize yourself giving your defense each day and think about how good it will feel when it’s over

What I want to focus and expand on here in this article is #7: Keep your cool and relax. Your nerves are going to be running high and it may be hard to sleep at night. But the goal of this article is to help put your mind at ease. There may be some overlap here (with #1-10 above), but since PhD “stress” is deeply-rooted-it is important to look at the overall big picture and have multiple solutions/approaches.

Advice From PhD Graduate #1

Dr. Jamie Hadac had these words to say before we cut to the chase:

First, let me start off by saying congratulations! You have made it this far, now it’s time for the final push. Hopefully your thesis is in good working order and now you just need to prepare for the big day. I recently defended and I have some tips. In general, do whatever it takes to keep your confidence high and your stress low. I have divided these tips into two sections (8 Tips total), Professional and Personal.


  1. Practice, practice, practice! Your talk will probably be a big source of stress. Try and practice in any way you can. I gave two talks to public audiences, (set up by a partnership through my university), two job talks, posters, and practice talks to lab mates. Of course you won’t always be giving the same talk as your defense talk, but you can gain a lot of insight for your Big Presentation. Things like timing, clarity, and other people’s critiques can be carried over from other talks. It will be a major confidence booster. The last thing you want to do at your defense is read word for word off your slides.
  2. Communicate with your thesis committee. Your defense should not be the first time you’ve talked to them since your last committee meeting. If you have committee members in close proximity, take some time to chat about your progress. They can provide a different perspective that you might not receive from your PI alone. Also, you can address their questions or concerns in a much more low-key environment. Be sure to ask how they want your thesis delivered: some prefer paper, others electronic.
  3. Think ‘Big Picture’. You now have to take your research in one little area and weave it into a greater body of knowledge. You will also be transitioning in to a new career or position. If anyone asks “so what?” you should have a solid and accessible answer. Your committee will see that you have thought about future directions for the lab, for your career, and for society. Show off the independence, perspective, and creativity you have cultivated.
  4. Be organized with dates and times. Chances are your graduate school has specific timelines for things like paperwork. Make sure you have done everything that needs to get done and clue your PI into these deadlines. Plug them into your phone if necessary. You don’t want to be messed up by an administrative technicality or forgetting to get a form.


  1. Make your healthcare a priority. I have some medical conditions that were exacerbated by stress. You are making major life changes, and it’s totally normal that they affect you on a physical level! I met with my primary care physician and we developed a strategy to make sure my health did not fall to the wayside during this time. Even if your health is fine, your insurance may cover things like massages or dental cleanings that will boost your confidence and reduce your stress.
  2. Clear your mind by moving your body. Your brain is probably doing a million things at once. Try and find an activity that lets you focus on one thing, like running, paddleboarding, or yoga. You may say you don’t have the time, but make the time. It will have profound affects on you physically and mentally.
  3. Banish negativity. You spend so much time thinking critically about experiments, data, and other people’s papers. Don’t let that carry over into being critical about yourself! Now is not the time to doubt or beat yourself up. Any time you have critical, confidence-ruining thoughts about yourself, write it down. Then write next to it why you are wrong or exaggerating. Then, if necessary, create solutions. If your mind says, “I’m terrible at public speaking, I can’t do it” remember you have spoken in public before, you aren’t terrible, and you have improved greatly in the last few years. Then, make some steps to get in some practice.
  4. You’ve done a lot of work, keep your energy high and stress low by getting a good night of sleep. Perhaps try going to bed 10 minutes earlier every night. By the end of the week you can get an extra hour in. Your brain needs it!

Advice From PhD Graduate #2

Dr. Nate Wlodarchak had these tips to share, focusing more on the earlier/during thesis writing stages:

The last two months before the defense were a challenge but they went fairly smooth despite many small road bumps. First, a little background: my PI is a new PI, so not very experienced in the process of matriculating students. That being the case, I didn’t have my PI to rely on to know what to do so I had to figure a lot of things out for myself. Having to talk to a lot of different people to figure this out was crucial, and communication was absolutely vital.

Sitting down to write the first time was a really daunting task. I looked at other people’s theses and thought how am I ever going to get to 200 pages? I started by looking at my outline (from the 6 month meeting) and went from there. First, I had to find a place to write. Every time I went into lab I was asked so many questions and everyone needed so much help, I couldn’t get any work done. I also had to make a lot of figures, and making them on a laptop was just annoying, so the library wasn’t the best option for me either. I ended up doing most of my writing at home. It wasn’t as ideal but it worked pretty well.

The biggest problem was getting stressed whenever I wasn’t productive. I had to let that go and realize that some days are going to be more productive than others. I had mornings where I did a little bit, then goofed off all afternoon, but then was super-productive in the evening…even missing dinner. Forcing myself to stick to some arbitrary 9-5 schedule was stressful because if I wasn’t productive, my “relax time” wasn’t really relaxing. I had to sort of let the writing dictate the schedule. Obviously there were deadlines to meet, so sometimes I couldn’t afford that luxury, but when possible, it was a great stress reducer.

Of course during two months of writing, life happens too. I had weddings and family functions to attend as well as some other extracurricular activities. I found that these things reduced the stress level quite a bit, but needed to be planned for well so I didn’t have the writing monster always looming behind me. I also kept the important “life things” scheduled but made sure not to accept any extra responsibilities that would just add stress. Most importantly, if I didn’t keep some time for friends and socializing, I wouldn’t have been able to keep the stress down.

Sometimes stress is just out of your control though. Like when your PI gets you all of your corrections back three days after it was due to the committee and they blame you for it (despite the aforementioned PI having ample time to work on it). I was lucky enough to have a good support structure for those times, and don’t know what I would have done without them.

When all else failed, I took lots of walks, lots of bike rides, and sometimes just sat on the porch with a beer and watched the world pass by, remembering that in the big scheme of things life is just too short to waste time worrying.

Advice From PhD Graduate #3

Now I am going to add to the advice listed above. Based on the emails/requests that I have received on how to deal with the stress during a PhD (especially during those final weeks), my short answer (as cliche as it sounds) is that you must take each day at a time, but by all means- DO WHATEVER WORKS FOR YOU. That is why you have 3 different people who have successfully defended their PhDs (included myself) providing you with advice and what worked for them. From this, I hope you can find your ‘personalized solution’. Find out what that is and stick to it. I hope the advice so far has been useful. I will just add 3 additional tips:

1) Keep the caffeine intake low. You remember all that coffee and red bull you’ve been pounding to get those chapters of your thesis hammered out late at night? Yea that. Once you have turned in your thesis to your committee and it comes down to those final weeks, if you are still taking in large amounts of caffeine- your nerves are still going to be running high. Don’t create an unnecessary and undue anxiety/stress because of bad habits. I was guilty of this.

2) If you are just a stressed out person by nature no matter what you do, and you are doing a combo of many of the things listed above (i.e. practicing your talk, getting sleep, getting exercise, eating right, keeping caffeine low, taking breaks, etc.), try a combo of magnesium and valerian root to calm your mood and help with night anxiety/insomnia.

3) Boost your confidence! You’ve heard this before: Doing practice talks and getting feedback is the easiest way to feel like you are in control. The people who are the most nervous/anxious may also be the ones who haven’t spent enough time practicing/preparing.

Trust me, I know the feeling… But let me give you a track and field analogy. Let’s say the state track meet is a month away and you will be running the 400 meter dash. Each day that goes by only heightens the anxiety because you know it is a day closer. Are you going to just sit around and ‘wait’ for that day to come? Or are you going to run that same race over and over to make sure when that day comes you are going to get the best possible time (to the best of your ability)?  The more and more you run that same race, it doesn’t seem as bad. Then that day finally comes. Your heart is racing and nerves are high. But guess what? It won’t matter because you know that once you cross that finish line, you’ll have finished strong and you did everything that you could to get the time (and hopefully award) that you worked so hard for and deserve. A PhD is the same way, except you are sprinting that last 400 meter dash of the 26 mile marathon.

I thought I would also add to this ‘theme’ of stress since there seems to be a link between stress and demotivation (becoming paralyzed, overwhelmed, fearful, feel like you’re going to have a nervous breakdown, too much to handle, etc.). Not only does stress weigh you down, but it can affect how you perform those final weeks leading up to your defense-the weeks that really count. Just to put it in perspective, here are the top 10 things that may be causing your demotivation:

  1. You’re demotivated by fear*
  2. You’re demotivated by setting the wrong goals
  3. You’re demotivated by lack of clarity about what you want
  4. You’re demotivated by a values-conflict
  5. You’re demotivated by lack of autonomy
  6. You’re demotivated by lack of a challenge  (or being “over-challenged”)
  7. You’re demotivated by grief
  8. You’re demotivated by loneliness*
  9. You’re demotivated by burn-out*
  10. You’re demotivated by what to do next (or you are distracted.. planning the PhD ‘after party’.. daydreaming)

The full context of these ’10 demotivators’ and how to keep the motivation is outside the scope of this article. But you can read some tips for how to get motivated again here. Additionally, some previous articles, such as 10 Ways to Be A Successful PhD Student and How To Win/Graduate Faster touch on motivation and how to graduate in a timely manner.

What I want to hit on is #1, #8, and #9, since they are the most relevant to PhD students. That isn’t to say that the other 7 points aren’t relevant or have some affect on you, but for the purposes of this article I have picked the tops ones.

Now you may be someone who is very motivated, but is just really stressed out. Or you may be someone who is lacking motivation and is stressed out. Or you may be someone who is highly motivated and has low stress (best-case scenario):

A) If you are very motivated and really stressed out, then you need to find ways to deal with your stress until you defend (see above).

B) If you are someone who is lacking motivation and is stressed out, you will benefit from the additional #1, #8, #9 tips.

C) If you are someone who is highly motivated and has low stress all the way up until your defense, then you’re lucky.

#1) If you are demotivated by fear find out what it is that is haunting you. Write it down. Go through each fear individually. Ask yourself where this thought or fear comes from. Fear can slow you down. It can make you feel lethargic.

If the fear you have is something like “I’m going give a poor thesis defense talk” why are you thinking this? Overcoming a certain fear isn’t exactly easy if it is something that has stuck with you for a long time. Do you know what my fear was? That I wouldn’t be able to answer the questions the audience or my thesis committee members were going to ask me. My fear was that I would embarrass myself and I would bomb a question.

Here is the bottom line: You know more about your project than anyone. This is 5-7 years of your life so you are the expert. If you have a fear then come up with a plan, break it into chunks, and come up with ways to boost your confidence.

Since I was fearful of tough curveball questions that I would be asked, I read many papers and asked myself example ‘oddball’ questions. Then I had my friends/labmates do the same thing. Since you cannot possibly prepare for all the endless questions that you can be asked, you can really only prepare yourself for ‘handling’ questions maybe you ‘sort of know’ but don’t really know. And that is the beauty of the PhD defense- your committee will push you to say, “I don’t know” because in reality you have learned to recognize the barrier of science- as you cannot possibly know everything. And you will hit that ceiling.  But at least with your years of training you will have learned to recognize this and admit what you don’t know-and maybe even make an educated guess/suggest an approach for how you might address the question in the future (if you were faced with it).

When it comes to #8/#9 and dealing with PhD loneliness and burn-out..

If you are lonely/struggling with lack of social life, please read this article about Dealing with the Lack of Social Life in Graduate School, or Maintaining Relationships During Graduate School. Don’t be afraid to take breaks and get out there and be social to keep your sanity! As Dr. Wlodarchak stated, during those two months of writing, life happens too. And you should let it happen. You will feel like someone locked you in a cave and you haven’t seen daylight for weeks. Once your thesis is handed in, that is a huge milestone but remember-it’s not over. But do whatever it takes to unwind, and keep the stress low-even if that means you go out for a night with your friends. Don’t feel guilty for doing this. Many PhD students shut out their social life/friends during those final weeks and months.

Remember at the beginning of this article I said, “What you have to keep in mind is that once you defend, these feelings that you are experiencing now will fade into the background. They become a thing of the past. Yes, it is hard to get through but remember it is only temporary?Therefore feeling burned out or lonely is also temporary. At least once you graduate, you’ll have more free time (hopefully) to make changes in your life and recoop certain ‘losses’ or put your time towards things you always wish you had (but couldn’t).. I can tell you for those who skip the post-doc and go directly into industry working a fulfilling job, this is the case (this will be a future post on the Post-PhD Life).

I myself experienced signs of burnout. But you have to learn to recognize it and fight it. And I pushed through. In fact, I was working a 20+ hour a week internship in industry while writing a thesis, doing paper revisions and experiments, and maintaining tissue culture. And that was for 7 months with 80+ hour weeks.  To this day, these are still the Top 10 Things that got me through and what helped me keep my motivation.

Overall- if you follow some of these tips to keep motivation levels high and your stress levels low, you will increase your chances of successfully defending your PhD and moving on to the next chapter of your life. And yes, the grass is greener on the other side. You will just have to find your own personalized solution to get you there.

 Further Reading:

An Anxious Mind

Tell the Negative Committee to Shut Up

Write Your PhD Thesis In One Month Or Less

Thesis/dissertation writing need not be a multi-month ordeal that makes you pull your hair out and roll up into a fetal position. The trick is to get a head start, set goals and deadlines, and work steadily—not feverishly—toward that ultimate satisfaction of handing your magnum opus to the graduate school. The first three sections of this article are devoted to ways that you can get way ahead of the curve from the very beginning of your graduate program—BEFORE push comes to shove.


NEWS FLASH: you can start working on your thesis or dissertation almost from the moment you decide on a lab/advisor.

In the beginning, there were papers

The starting point for any newbie graduate student is to read boatloads of relevant papers so that you can learn your advisor’s repertoire of experimental techniques or areas of interest, what has been done so far in the field, what questions remain to be answered, and where your research will contribute.

Keep in mind that these seminal papers will be heavily integrated into your thesis or dissertation:

a) The introduction, in which you give all the pertinent background to set the stage for your research and make everyone on your committee (and beyond!) understand why it’s important

b) Data chapters, where previously published data lend validity to your findings, or are at least taken into consideration as you interpret your data

c) Your conclusion, where you demonstrate how your entire story fits in with and adds to the framework of what has been done in the field so far…Or (yikes!), explain how your revolutionary, paradigm-shifting work has turned the field on its ear, opened up new avenues, and blah-blah…you get it.

Starting the literature search…

Let’s back up. How do you find these papers? Hopefully, your advisor will provide you with a few of the original papers that got the ball rolling. Find out what papers cite them. You can perform Boolean searches in Pubmed and Google Scholar (great tips explaining how to do this can be found at Boolean.pdf).

Note that in Pubmed, you will need to go to “Advanced Search,” where the builder constructs the Boolean search for you (Figure 1). Pubmed offers another great strategy: you can set up citation alerts that notify you via e-mail every time one of these pivotal articles is cited. Pubmed has a tutorial on how to do this here: myncbi.html. You can control how often you receive these alerts, or adjust later based on how inundated your inbox becomes.



FIGURE 1. PubMed’s Boolean Search builder.

Google scholar offers a similar citation alert service. Go to Google Scholar,, and click on “Alerts” (see Figure 2). From the next screen, click “Create Alert” (Figure 3). You can set up alerts based on Boolean searches (Figure 4), or by author . Also, since many principal authors have varied interests, you can customize by using a combination Boolean/search-by-author approach (Figure 5). Enter your e-mail address, and you’re good to go.


FIGURE 2. Setting up alerts in Google Scholar. First, click “Alerts.”


FIGURE 3. Setting up alerts in Google Scholar, part 2. Next, click “Create Alert.”


FIGURE 4. Setting up alerts in Google Scholar, part 3. Setting up your search criteria using Boolean operators.


FIGURE 5. Setting up alerts in Google Scholar, part 4. The combined Author/Boolean operator search in Google Scholar.

ORGANIZING your boatloads of papers…

Let’s back up again. Realize that unless you are a genius, you will probably have to revisit these nuggets of wisdom several times during your graduate career, particularly when you have a better grasp on the research. Also, unless you are a genius, you will find yourself wondering, “What was that paper that explained________?” This is where being organized will save you TONS of time.

I am a big fan of saving paper and not printing out reams of articles to be read and then stuffed into filing cabinets. I highly recommend a citation management program, such as Endnote. Find out which program your advisor uses (see if he or she will let you install the program on your computer). Some departments even offer this software free of charge. Not only are all of the citations in your library searchable, but you can also file them into folders based on the subject matter (Figure 6).


FIGURE 6. Filing papers in EndNote–beats a filing cabinet!

As you do your literature search, you download the citations into your citation manager. Most e-journals have a “download to citation manager” link. Google Scholar also recently added a very nice “Cite” function that lets you import citations directly into your citation manager (Figure 7).



FIGURE 7. Google Scholar’s Cite function.

You can also search PubMed from within Endnote, which saves you several steps (Figure 8). In addition, the program has a lovely feature called Cite-While-You-Write that links with Microsoft Word. No more the parenthetical “need citation!” statements in your text. With the CWYW feature, you can pull up all of the papers in your Endnote library that pertain to your text, and with the click of one button in Word—voilà! Citations inserted (Figure 9)! You can format the bibliography later, when your behemoth is completely written—yet another convenient, automatic feature.


FIGURE 8. Searching for papers from within EndNote.


FIGURE 8. EndNote’s Cite While You Write function.

2) Intermediate documents: the thesis/dissertation proposal and grant applications

Think of your thesis or dissertation proposal and any grant applications as being a big first step toward the first chapter of your final document: the introduction. Preparation of these documents entails a thorough review of pertinent literature to set the stage and explain the rationale for the research you are proposing. So by this logic, you should have taken a very large bite out of the first chapter of your thesis or dissertation by the time you take your preliminary exams.

3) Methods: you do them every day, why not take the time to write them up?

In the STEM fields, theses and dissertations require a chapter devoted to methods. You have your own set of experimental and/or statistical techniques that you presumably learn from your advisor, then troubleshoot and tweak based on your specific needs. You know how you write detailed notes on the conditions of each experiment every time you do them in your lab notebook? (RIGHT?!) This is all information that you can take even an hour per week to write up in your thesis document. Check out the previous papers from your advisor to get ideas on wording, and then re-work it so it’s your own (citing relevant papers, of course). By the time you actually for-real start writing your thesis or dissertation, your methods chapter can be practically done already!

4) After the greenlight…careful planning and sticking to a schedule!

You’ve received the greenlight to “start” writing your thesis or dissertation from your committee. Now what? Well, you have a good chunk of the intro done already, right? Your chapter 2 is practically done as well! Be sure to check out the deadlines not only for getting your document to your committee, but also for depositing it with the graduate school. Wouldn’t it stink to defend your thesis in April, but not graduate until December because you missed the deadline?

Now, I will tell you a huge time-saving tip. Before you start (well, continue) writing, find a colleague who has recently turned in their thesis or dissertation and still has their final word document kicking around. Ask your colleague for permission to use their document in the following way: you are not going to copy anything in that document…EXCEPT THE FORMATTING.

You know the part where the clerk at the grad school pulls out the ruler and measures your margins, page number position and other random stuff while you hold your breath? All of that will already be in your colleague’s word document. Why re-invent the wheel? Just use the document as a template—delete ALL of the text and leave the margins and other formatting alone. (Of course, check over everything carefully before you deposit your document!) Anything you’ve written up to this point can easily be pasted into the template.

Also, before you get down to the serious writing, sit down with your advisor and come up with a plan of action. I like using a story board approach to planning papers: a few lines about what will be covered in each chapter, then rudimentary sketches of the figures that will be included and how they will be designed. This gives you and your advisor a visual aid so that you both know you’re on the same page—this will spare you much pain later.

Next, agree upon deadlines: “I’ll have chapter 1 to you by________.” If you have been working ahead on your document and your reference library as described above, it should take you about a week to finish up chapter 1 (your introduction) and chapter 2 (methods). Can you do a chapter per week for each of the remaining chapters? Put the deadline in your calendar, and stick to it. Then, based on how much time you are still expected to spend in the lab, decide a set number of hours per day that you will spend on nothing but writing.

I would suggest asking your advisor for blocks of time to hole up at the library, or wherever it is that you do your best work. Then do it. You will be working weekends, no doubt, but try to work steadily and avoid all-nighters. Adjust as necessary—you may need to have an additional meeting with your advisor to request more time away from lab.

Do have a colleague read your document installments before you give them to your advisor. Run spell check and do all the basics before you offer up your baby to the red pen of death. If you really struggle with writing, or if you are not a native English speaker, there are services out there that will clean up your document on a by-the-hour basis. Spare your advisor the frustration of correcting simple errors.

Now, a caveat.

Just because you have a deadline that you are sticking to like an embedded tick does not mean that your advisor will adhere to similar deadlines in getting you edits and feedback. Many advisors, bless their hearts, are procrastinators (erm…busy with grant deadlines, writing their own papers, editing, and other important stuff that advisors do). Don’t sweat it…the ball is now in your advisor’s court, and you will now move steadily on to the next installment.

Which is due by __________in your calendar.


And this time I do mean “backup”—as in your document. There is NO excuse for losing your thesis or dissertation. You should have MULTIPLE copies saved: on your computer, in Dropbox, on an external hard drive, etc. These copies should be clearly marked with dates in case you have to revert back to a prior version. They should also be marked after being edited by your advisor or others.

4) The final weeks

This will be a stressful time unless you are extremely lucky. It usually goes something like this: “Move this section to page 89.” Then two days later: “Put it back where it was.” Your advisor is stressed too—so try to take everything in stride.

If at all possible, try to get your thesis printed off for your committee a day or two in advance. This allows a cushion for the inevitable printer meltdown or copier jam. In my case, I got my final edits at 11 pm the night before my dissertation was due. Luckily, there weren’t a lot of changes to make, and there were no printer fiascos. I finished the edits by midnight and had the whole thing printed off by about 2 in the morning. Although I won’t say that I wasn’t completely stressed out and about to melt down myself…

You want your dissertation to look nice for your committee and to be easy for them to handle and write in. I’m a fan of bindings—I used three ring binders with pockets so that I could also include a CD with a copy of the document. But that’s not for everybody. Spiral bindings are just as good, but again, require planning because you’ll have to take your stack of documents somewhere like FedEx Kinkos. Even though it can be like herding cats to track down all the members of your committee, try to personally deliver your documents to them—not only for security’s sake, but to remind them of who you are.

I kid. Sort of.

5) After the defense

You may have loads of changes to make to your thesis or dissertation based on your committee members’ comments. You feel elated and relieved to have your defense over with. After the effects of the all-night post-defense bender have worn off, try to work diligently on the edits so that you don’t run up against the grad school’s deposit deadline. Make an appointment for a pre-check of your document to catch any formatting errors well in advance of the deadline.

Once you have deposited your thesis or dissertation with the graduate school (congratulations!), investigate how many bound copies you need. Most departments require a bound copy, as will your advisor. Then you need one, of course, and then there’s your parents…

University towns usually have at least one book bindery in addition to services on campus. There are online services as well—but be careful to check their ratings. You generally have to figure up the number of color-copy and high-resolution pages you have versus regular black and white. You send this estimate along with a digital copy of your dissertation and your selections for binding color, lettering, etc. There is something deeply satisfying about finally holding that beautifully bound book—that YOU wrote—in your hands at last.

In summary, it is possible to write your thesis or dissertation in under a month with good preparation, organization, and planning. The end result makes it all worthwhile. Keep in mind that if you move on to a postdoc or any other position that requires writing papers and grants, these same strategies apply.

Further Reading


About the Author:

Michelle Capes earned her Ph.D. in Physiology in 2010 and was an AHA-funded postdoctoral fellow until 2013, when she transitioned into a private sector role as a scientific recruiter. As such, she has a unique perspective on the challenges facing academicians looking to transition into industry–both from the side of the job hunter, and as a recruiter trying to match candidates’ skill sets with available industry positions. Michelle has now ventured out on her own to found Adeptify, the brain-child of her dual passions for career advice and freelance writing

5 Ways to Gain Valuable Skills Outside of Your Academic Training

The PhD Industry Career Gap

I eventually realized that, like many Ph.D.’s in many other fields, I had fallen into the Ph.D.-industry gap—i.e., the gap between highly specialized Ph.D. training and corporate-world expectations of hiring candidates who are industry friendly. Even in “lucrative” fields like computer science, job postings that say things like “Ph.D. or dropped out of Ph.D. a plus” show just how wide that gap really is. ~The PhD Industry Gap

We already know that the PhD Market is saturated, and articles that “promote awareness” or point out the PhD-Industry Gap are a dime a dozen. What’s missing from the equation are the solutions.  The reality is that the first job that you obtain directly out of graduate school is the most crucial. It is also the most difficult. Therefore you need to be aware of all of your possible options.

The odds are against you. You look like a science person. You want to go into industry but they look at you as an academic with only one marketable skill: bench science.

The doom and gloom articles aren’t going to help you get anywhere. And frankly, I think we are all just tired of reading them.  Many experienced working professionals are aware of what the market looks like, but as long as they are employed, who wants to think about what they could have faced?

The newly minted PhD is experiencing the hardships right now and searching for answers. The reality is that many just don’t know how to provide real practical solutions and the attitude is that “hard work” will get you to where you need to be. And it’s “good luck” to you because you are entirely on your own.

If you could rewind and go back a few years maybe you wish you knew all this sooner rather than later. Maybe you finally decided to join the 85% club and face reality (only 15% will land a tenure-track position within 5 years). But you need to put the past behind you and move on.

The bottom line is that if you have the right personality, drive, leadership, and strong interpersonal skills and the ability to work well in a team environment, then breaking into a field of your choice is very feasible. You just need the know-how. This ‘right personality’ will be valuable as you work in a team and develop your needed skill set(s) that will carry with you into your future career. Although there is a glut of capable job seekers, do not let this discourage you.

Before we dive deeper, you need to understand that there is no set career path, and everyone’s career path is UNIQUE. Many working professionals stumble into their current career path by accident, chance, change of interests/goals, life situation, or series of occurrences. But hopefully with the advice given, you will find your calling.

If you ask, let’s say an experienced manager in industry, how they got to where they are today-many will tell you that they did not plan on jumping into their field directly from their PhD. That’s because the majority of PhDs don’t really do any career planning. You’ll jump into the postdoc only to leave after you spent X amount of years figuring out what you truly want to do. During graduate school, the focus is on getting the PhD and the attitude is that things will just unfold and work themselves out. This can continue throughout the postdoc position(s).

There is a sense of entitlement among PhD’s. Their ego takes ahold of them. “I worked this hard, therefore I deserve this position or X amount of salary.”  Guess what? You have to pay your dues just like everyone else.  The PhD doesn’t guarantee you the job, and although you may have published a Nature paper, it doesn’t add any value to a company or client (and when you hand your business card to a customer, they see your name, company, your position title, letters next to your name, and nothing else). The real question is can you work well in a team? Can you communicate effectively without putting yourself above others? Once you realize there is a bigger picture than just YOU and how you are just a piece of the puzzle, than you will finally start to see the benefits.  Be someone who under-promises and over-delivers.

There is also a backwards strategy that many PhDs take on during their career search. They focus on the position and match that up to the company. The problem with this is that it takes the focus off how you can add value to a company. It becomes more about you. The point is that if the position that you obtain within the company will add the most value based on your strengths and contributions, then it is the best fit. Therefore, when doing your job search focus on the company first, how you can add value, then backtrack to find the correct position. This means you should have multiple roles in mind that play on your strengths and not just one. If you haven’t figured this out yet, here is what you missed earlier.

When it comes to a resume or cover letter, there is too much emphasis placed on these two items. They are simply a tool to get you an interview and nothing else. Once you reach that interview stage, you need to get over what is written on your resume and focus on the value that you can add to a company. Not brag about what you did with your thesis work. No one really cares to hear about your thesis anymore.  A PhD is a training program to help you develop as a scientist and launch your career.

If you are banging your head against the wall that’s probably because you aren’t doing it right. Or you just lack the marketable skills to crossover (which is discussed later in this article). Or it could be a combination of both.

To quote Donald Asher who is author of Cracking the Hidden Job Market, “You get a job by talking to people: You don’t get a job by having a great resume, a good interview look, a firm handshake, or a solid education. You get a job because you get in front of somebody and they decide to add you to the payroll. Most job seekers look for jobs by talking to computer software. It’s faster to talk to people. People are more likely to pass you along than computers are. Computers are picky. People are helpful.”

You can beat the odds. Frankly, you have to beat the odds.

“The United States quit creating jobs more than a decade ago. Then the Great Recession hit, which I date from September 14, 2008, when Lehman Brothers failed. This smacked down workers even more. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1999 and 2009 the U.S. economy created only 121,000 new jobs, a growth rate of .01 percent/year. A decade to create 121,000 net new jobs! It takes 125,000 new jobs per month  to keep up with the population growth alone. It will take considerable time to create enough jobs to absorb the 30 million people who are unemployed, underemployed, or discouraged and off the market.”

The economy is exacerbating anxieties. A survey done in 2012 in Nature shows the concerns of many scientists around the world as the global recession squeezes research budgets. The shortfall in grant funding is nothing new, but many will soon realize that industry offers many attractive ‘alternative’ career options.  On the bright side, the unemployment rate for PhD’s is below 4%. But getting a PhD doesn’t mean that you are immune to economic hardships or the struggles of finding a job.

Half of PhD candidates in the life science and engineering field still require seven years or more to complete their degree. If you have invested all this time and have decided to finish, don’t you want to see a return on your investment without ‘giving up’ even more years of your life? In other words, if you don’t plan on staying in academia, why are you spending 5+ years as a postdoc?

So the question becomes, how can you beat the odds? What can you do NOW as a PhD student or postdoc that will give you the marketable skills to crossover? And when you gain these marketable skills, how can you couple this with NETWORKING so that you are tapping into the “hidden job market”?

Solutions to Beat The Odds

Now that you are aware of the problems and what you will be faced with or are going through, there needs to be solutions that give you an edge.

If you haven’t already, make sure you read the article: “The missing piece to changing the university culture.” The biggest challenge that we are faced with today as PhD students is a culture change:

70% of life science PhDs pursue a postdoc after graduation (based on 2010 data) which means that PhDs are unsure of their careers and/or unequipped for a nonacademic career. 40% of graduate students are indifferent or unsatisfied with their graduate school experience. Current PhD programs will continue to train primarily for an academic career. But this is a ‘false hope,’ and you may be in your mid-30’s until you’ve come to realize this and decided to make a change. It is time that Universities, faculty, and professors stop looking the other way when it comes to fixing the problem.

The Biotechnology and Life Science Advising (BALSA) group was founded in 2010 by a group of dissatisfied postdocs and graduate students. The result is that through their collaborative efforts, they have developed a model where post-docs and graduate students work with startups in the form of 6 to 8 week consulting projects. The result? BALSA has worked with 37 companies and 53 projects. Graduate students and postdocs are coming out with real world business experience.

Even researchers with NO prior business knowledge are making valuable contributions to both early and late stage companies. As a PhD student or postdoc, you are trained to analyze and think critically. The best part is that BALSA’s partnership with Washington University in Saint Louis and the Office of Technology Management has provided Universities and Principal Investigators as a means to commercialize their work.

Although BALSA’s efforts look promising, we are still left with the question as to whether these efforts can be expanded on a national level. Also, are they sustainable? Will Universities and Professors push more for the adoption of these efforts? Only time will tell.

The bottom line is that you aren’t going to sit around and wait for BALSA to come along to your University. So in the meantime, you have to go create these opportunities on your own. BALSA may give you hands-on experience (via projects) with industry challenges, business concepts, competitive intelligence and market analysis, technology due diligence, regulatory affairs, project management, and licensing/business plan development. Does this sound like a checklist of wishful thinking? Well, there is nothing stopping you from gaining some or a combination of these skills and experience during your time as a graduate student/postdoc.

So here are the top 5 solutions to gain valuable skills outside of your academic training and beat the odds once you get your PhD:

1)      Consider Consulting

There are many consulting opportunities available for scientists. These many options span freelance work, working for a consulting firm or even starting your own consulting company. Whichever that may be, I would highly recommend doing freelance consulting work during your PhD. This could shuttle you into a management consulting position upon graduation.

Find a unique skill set that you are good at and offer your services to a company. If you need an example, check out how a graphic illustrator/scientific visual communicator went freelance during and out of graduate school.

Another example is self-taught SEO or social media marketing consulting. Many companies (including start-ups) are blogging and doing digital marketing, and learning the ropes of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. If you are already running a professional blog (all PhD students should!), you have already learned how to effectively run social media and marketing campaigns, and chances are you could do part-time work offering your services. You are also developing your technical writing skills in addition to sharing scientific ideas and making worldwide network contacts.

**Management consulting can be an excellent way to put your analytical and scientific training to use while you develop your business expertise. If you have the passion to innovate, drive change, and help companies be more successful, it might be the career choice for you. You will learn how to lead teams, manage people, and take on challenging and interesting problems. The connections that you make with top business professionals will also open doors to future career opportunities. And, your hard work and efforts could also have a huge impact on the future direction of the company.

Further Reading:

2)      Consider doing a summer internship during your PhD studies or during your postdoc

As mentioned in a previous article, the most practical solution for many is to obtain a paid internship (ideally) during your time in graduate school. Internships are CRUCIAL and I cannot stress enough that graduate students and post-docs should take a summer off (or balance the internship 50% and graduate school 50%) and obtain industry experience. That way you will come out with real-world industry experience and some marketable skills. You need to negotiate and leverage this in any way that you can.

A lot of companies are willing to try you out for a short 3 months. That initial spark will come from their interest in you via informational interviews (see below). Chances are if they like you at the end of the internship, you might also have an offer waiting for you upon graduation at that same company.

The first step to land an internship position is to do informational interviews and start networking. You can read more about informational interviews here. Read: How To Network and Add Value to Yourself and Others to get a good starting point. Just because internship positions aren’t posted doesn’t mean they can’t be created or they don’t exist. Ask around and you’ll be surprised what you will find.

Internships also boost Postdocs’ skills and really add to their marketability. The challenge as any might imagine, is getting your PI to agree.

3)      Consider auditing or taking business classes, participating in workshops, or leading/organizing business events on campus.

If you are a science person, then take a business class and start networking with business professors and MBA students. If not business, find a secondary interest and step out of your comfort zone. Get involved in patent law, tech transfer, computer programming, or entrepreneurial classes. This will come down solely to you and your interests. Many business professors will allow you to sit in their class even if you aren’t taking the class for credit. Entrepreneurial management classes for example, will expose you to writing business plans and doing SWOT analysis, and growing local starts-ups via group projects.

4)      Start a side business, professional blog, develop a product, or find like-minded individuals preferably with an entrepreneurial mindset or business drive.

5)      Network every week. Then network some more.

Step 1: Network to obtain an internship and gain the marketable skills that you need

Step 2: Network to obtain a job post-PhD

Did you catch that? You need to network to create opportunities. Then you network to create more opportunities beyond that. During or after PhD, it doesn’t matter. If you lack marketable skills, you’ll need to network to obtain them or find out what those specific skills are. Even with internship experience under you belt, you will need to network beyond the PhD to land an industry position. Obviously, it is MUCH easier to use the power of networking when you already have the marketable skills to find an industry job versus networking from scratch (i.e. skipping Step 1 and jumping right into Step 2). But whatever stage you are in, it is never too late to start. There is no stopping when it comes to networking and the truth is that it is a lifelong process and requires continual effort.

PhD graduate students and postdocs simply don’t network enough. How can you understand the needs of a company if you don’t speak to people? How can you know the industry, the market, and the customer? Chances are a startup company in your area has a need. What value can you add to fulfill that need?  This ties into #2 above.

There are many more examples. The reality is that it is not impossible to create opportunities, take on an internship, do consulting, and/or run a professional blog during your PhD and come out with a huge leg up upon graduation. Those that do #1-#5 or a combination thereof will stand out from the crowd and will most likely beat out other PhD students who focused on nothing else but getting their degree. Chances are you will land a job in industry and work in a fulfilling career. Gaining the marketable skills to crossover is no easy task, but with hard work, patience, and the right connections anything is possible.

Keep pushing and you will see good things come your way.

Email me with any questions. Future article will be on how to transition into Product Management, Marketing, or Sales.

Further Reading:


Internships Boost Postdocs’ Skills, Worldliness, and Marketability

The PhD Industry Gap

Life after the PhD: Re-Train Your Brain

3 Things PhDs Leaving Academia Should Know About Business

Taking Charge of Your Career

So.. Where will a biology PhD take you? A faculty job is now the “alternative” PhD career as less than 8% will become tenure-track faculty.

A PhD Student’s Race Against Time – How To Win/Graduate Faster

Time As The Enemy for Ph.D. Students

Most Ph.D. students worry at some point about how long it’s going to take to finish their research, write a dissertation, and defend it successfully so they can finally move on. The majority will manage to get it all done within a reasonable amount of time (albeit usually longer than they were expecting at the outset), but many others will struggle for several months, or even years, only to finally finish after much, much too long. Many others will quit in frustration along the way.

The aim of this article is to help graduate students avoid some common pitfalls associated with long Ph.D. completion times, particularly those related to research. The most common hindrances to good progress through a Ph.D. program can be anticipated and avoided, and if not avoided, there are ways to diminish their impact once they are recognized. I will suggest some steps for maintaining good progress, and for those who may have already fallen off the rails, I’ll offer suggestions for getting back on track toward timely program completion. The advice applies most directly to doctoral programs in the various fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (referred to as STEM fields, in the U.S.), but much of it applies also to doctoral programs in the humanities and fine arts.

Doctoral students and their supervisors share the responsibility of ensuring completion within a reasonable time frame, so it’s essential that they work well together. Not surprisingly, conflicts sometimes arise, which can put at odds the interests of student and supervisor. Whether justified or not, some doctoral students actually see their supervisors as significant obstacles to timely completion!

When Dr. Ryan Raver invited my comments on this topic, he set the stage with the following questions:

Some grad students voice concern of being taken advantage of by their professors to squeeze that last bit of data out in attempt to get in a better journal. But what if those experiments don’t work and are the only thing standing between you (the grad student) and graduation? And what if you do all that extra work, submit the paper to a peer-reviewed journal and the reviewers ask for something completely different (maybe in retrospect it was all in vain)?…  To put it in perspective, how does it take someone 4.5 years vs. 6.5 years to graduate (if say you kept the workload constant and both were to hypothetically have similar research projects)? Since it is a symbiotic relationship between the student and the professor, how can both benefit without the balance tipping all to one direction? 

There are at least two separate issues behind Dr. Raver’s questions. One issue concerns the timely completion of a doctoral program, while the other has more to do with navigating around an obstructive supervisor. Problems with the first issue can sometimes arise as a consequence of the second, of course. I will suggest a few things about coping with a difficult supervisor after first discussing the more general issue of finishing the Ph.D. in a timely manner.


The 3 Stages of a Ph.D.

To get an idea of how long a Ph.D. should take and how things should progress along the way, let’s divide a typical Ph.D. student’s program into three stages: early stage (roughly the first 12-18 months, or so), middle stage (the second, third, and in some cases, part of the fourth years), and final stage (fourth or fifth year). Note that these time frames may vary across disciplines, and across individuals, depending on the nature of their research. The important distinction for now is between the early, middle, and final stages.

Research-related activities during the early stage may consist of reviewing the literature, discussing important research questions, and coming up with a proposal for the Ph.D. research. In many cases, a student will start collecting data during the early stage, at least from pilot experiments, some type of preliminary analysis, or feasibility assessment. If a doctoral student is given a research project that is part of an established and ongoing line of research, it is usually possible to begin collecting key data for the dissertation during the early stage.

Communication between supervisor and student must operate effectively from the outset.  Students need to feel they are receiving proper direction from the supervisor, and that expectations are clear and consistent. It’s also important that students know throughout the early stage of their program how things are going. Normally, the supervisor establishes effective means for all this to happen, and the student gets off to a good start.

But some new doctoral students discover after a few months that their supervisors have been neglecting them, either because they are too busy, distracted, or just plain neglectful. Students in this situation must not wait too long before taking control of things themselves.

It is important to have a regular meeting time during which the student and supervisor discuss problems. By “regular” I mean something like every Wednesday at 2 pm. Having a fixed time makes it less likely that a busy professor will neglect meeting with grad students. An hour, once a week or every two weeks, is usually enough. The supervisor should normally be the one to request the regular meeting time, but a student should not wait for that to happen.

Don’t worry if these meetings are often cancelled because there is little or nothing to update since the last meeting. The important thing is to have the provision to meet at a fixed day and time, if needed. This way, the student is assured to have the supervisor’s attention when the need to discuss something arises. (It goes the other way, too — meeting regularly eases the professor’s task of monitoring the student’s progress).

The middle stage of the Ph.D. program is when the bulk of the data are collected. It tends to be a very busy period, lasting from several months up to a few years for most successful Ph.D. students. Many people fail to maintain healthy eating and sleeping habits during this busy period. This can become a significant problem for some, and it certainly has an adverse effect on the performance and general wellness of many. It’s not worth it, and increases the risk of burnout.

Regular meetings between student and supervisor should continue during the middle stage. To the extent that it is possible, specific milestones should be established to indicate the approximate dates by which various points in the overall project should be reached. These milestones set out a critical path for the student’s research. But since we are talking about original research, which by definition does not always go as expected, the critical path should be frequently revisited.

The time it takes to write a dissertation is usually much longer than anticipated, and the importance of getting an early start on a first draft cannot be overemphasized. As soon as possible during the middle stage, a draft of the introductory chapter should be written, even if it has some gaps, and a rough draft of each chapter should be written as each corresponding part of the overall project is completed.

In an ideal situation, a student enters the final stage of the Ph.D. having completed the actual research, or at least nearly so. The final stage is mostly about tying-off loose ends in terms of data production, and of course the major task of putting together a final version of the dissertation. If drafts of the introductory chapter and the other major chapters have already been written, this stage should last only a few months.

A common mistake is to wait until all the data are in and the results are clear before starting to write in a concerted way. Most of the writing can actually be done before the all the data have arrived, and understanding this is key to getting an early start on those initial drafts of the dissertation during the middle stage of the program. For example, one does not need to know the results of an experiment before writing most of the report, either for a manuscript to be published or for a chapter of the dissertation. After all, the rationale for having done the experiment doesn’t change with the results, so the introduction can be written without knowing the results. The methodology does not depend on the results, nor does the nature of the analyses that will be preformed on the data; so a framework for the results section can be written before the data are in. Much of the discussion can even be framed before knowing the final results.

Now, some experienced researchers might argue that the results must be known before one can put the proper spin on the introduction. That might be necessary (sadly) in order to get a paper published in a top journal, but spin is not needed for the dissertation — and it’s not how objective scientists and researchers are supposed to behave, anyway.

What are the reasons for your delays

There are no doubt a wide variety of reasons why people fail to complete a Ph.D. in a reasonable amount of time. Here, we will only consider reasons related to the research and production of the dissertation. ‘Real-life’ reasons such as health problems, substance abuse, having children, or finding employment, should receive a dedicated and thorough discussion at another time and place.

One of the most common reasons for a long completion time is a slow start to the research. If a student does not become engaged early on with the intellectual issues, such as formulation of research ideas and experiments, many of the remaining activities are likely to be a mix of compromises and inefficiencies. The message here is simple: If you are in the beginning stages of your Ph.D. program, do not procrastinate about getting started with your research. And this doesn’t just mean reading the literature. You should be doing that already, anyway. You need to start collecting data, as soon as possible.

A second common reason for a long completion-time is a student or supervisor who is never satisfied, who can always think of a way to improve results, and who therefore has difficulty bringing projects to a conclusion. Perfectionism can be an asset for scientists and researchers, but not when it hampers progress. In most instances, if a student would just write up whatever he or she has already achieved, and discuss it with the supervisor, this would clarify whether any changes or refinements are necessary, what additional data may be needed, or whether it makes sense to attempt additional work in light of the time it would require.

Another major reason for delay is distraction from the primary line of investigation. Some students can’t resist the temptation to explore all the interesting byways or potential side-projects that come up during the course of any major research project. Curiosity and a willingness to work long hours are important attributes for any new scientist or engineer, but they need to be harnessed and channeled toward completion of the Ph.D., not just toward support of the supervisors’ research program.

Delays can also occur when students spend too much time on tasks that keep them in their comfort zone; for example, working in the lab, collecting data, or reading the literature — instead of writing. Don’t fool yourself into believing that if you’re always amassing more and more data, then you’re being productive and making good progress. You are only being productive and making progress if you are turning those data into peer-reviewed papers and chapters for your dissertation.

The same goes for reading. You need to be on top of the literature, both current and historical — but don’t read too much! You don’t need to read it all, and anyway, it’s counterproductive to try to make everything fit together. The literature in every field is full of discrepant findings and competing ideas. These are natural products of research, and it’s a mistake to expect that reading just a few more papers will bring greater clarity. Just get writing. The writing process will help your ideas become clearer and better organized.

Is your supervisor holding you back?

All professors are aware that doctoral students need to complete the program and move on. On the other hand, some will argue that anyone hoping for a career as an independent researcher should worry more about prudently disseminating the results of their Ph.D. research in good-quality journals, and less about the precise number of months it takes to write and defend the dissertation. I would generally agree with this sentiment, but only for students who are planning to find a postdoctoral research position and eventually apply for an academic job. To be competitive in the postdoc and academic job markets, and to get the most leverage possible from your doctoral training, it is better to finish strong than to finish fast. (If you’d like to read about an example of why this is so, check out The Sham Ph.D., a short article I posted on my blog a while back).

The foregoing arguments apply to only to a minority of doctoral students, however. Most will not end up with an academic position. It’s not because they aren’t qualified or capable — it’s because there simply aren’t enough academic jobs around for more than a small fraction of the students currently pursuing a PhD in a science or technology field. Besides, not everyone is interested in an academic research career following the Ph.D. (for a reality-check on the academic job market, check out this article from The Economist).

Although some professors might not care whether their grad students develop successful careers of their own, most professors do care a great deal. Problems can arise, however, because the needs of the doctoral student are not in complete concordance with those of the professor, and it is easy for a well-meaning professor to lose sight of the differences.

Students should not to assume too much about their supervisor’s motives. It is unlikely that the professor is intrinsically evil or sadistic, or has a pathologic desire to control and oppress graduate students. It’s more likely the professor has simply been overlooking the student’s need to complete the program and move on to the next stage of his or her career.

Students should generally give their supervisor the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps your professor is not as indifferent to your interests as you think, and they simply haven’t been informed of your long-term career plans. Unless informed otherwise, some professors assume that every doctoral student they supervise wants to pursue a research career, and probably in an academic setting. Maybe they aren’t aware of your concerns about the Ph.D. taking more than a reasonable amount of time. Maybe they are actually ready to help you try to complete by a particular target date.

You just might need to shake your supervisor a bit to momentarily get his or her attention away from your newest data, or the revisions to the manuscript you’ve been working on, or their need for a progress report on your next study, or the undergraduate projects you’ve been supervising…  These issues are of shared interest to the graduate student and professor, and if the professor is allowed to take control of every serious discussion about the student’s progress, such things will naturally be the focus of nearly every conversation.

A frank discussion is needed to make the supervisor aware of the student’s concerns about timing the end of the Ph.D. research and the defense of the dissertation. One way to make sure the professor gets the message is for the student to request a special meeting for the express purpose of discussing the dissertation. This meeting should be in addition to the regular student-supervisor meetings, and if possible, it should take place in a different setting. Such measures might make it less likely the conversation will end up drifting to the same topics as usual.

No other issues should be mentioned when asking for this meeting — only the dissertation. If the meeting does eventually occur, make sure it begins with your issues, before it slides toward a discussion of those shared interests. You need to really control the direction of this discussion, because your supervisor may conflate your issues pertaining to completion of the Ph.D. with the interests you both share pertaining to the research.

Professor: “Sure, Mike. I agree…, we should talk about your timeline for finishing the Ph.D. and finally getting out of here. Okay, so I guess we should start by talking about those latest data and what we need to do next.”

Mike: (sigh)…

Disconnect your writing projects

Sometimes a professor who feels pressure to publish some data will project that pressure onto the students involved in the work. The student and professor share interests in seeing the work through, but if doing so means the student’s dissertation will be on the backburner for a while, this will be a significant concern only for the student. Not a big deal for the professor.

Doctoral students on the academic career path should try to disconnect development of their research credentials from the compilation of their dissertation.

Here’s what I mean by that: Every Ph.D. student understands that a successful research project should culminate in at least two major writing tasks. One task is to write the manuscript for publication in a research journal or some other appropriate outlet. The other task is to write the relevant portion of the dissertation. Some of what is written will be used for both purposes, but that is beside the point.

It’s essential to think of these two objectives, the publications and the dissertation, as two distinct writing projects. What makes them distinct is not the comprehensiveness of the story or the format in which it is written — the important distinction is that one of these projects is of vital importance to the student only. The professor wants the publications as much as the student does, but only the student’s career is dependent on the production and defense of the dissertation.

An important truth for all Ph.D. students to remember is that those significant results your supervisor is waiting for may indeed be necessary for publication, but that does not mean they are necessary for the dissertation. Consider a situation in which the results of a key experiment point toward a particular conclusion, but the data overall do not make as convincing a case as would be needed in order to get published in a top journal. The corresponding chapter of the dissertation should be written up, regardless; if the reviewers of a journal manuscript has pointed to certain limitations in the data, those should become part of the discussion at appropriate points in the dissertation.

For the purposes of the dissertation, it is important that the student acknowledges limitations in the data and has ideas about how they could be improved by future work. As long as the student’s work was done properly and the data were analyzed thoroughly, there is no reason why additional work necessary for publication in a good journal cannot be completed after the dissertation has been defended.

If you are a doctoral student on the academic career path, you must understand that your career has already started. How far you go toward ultimately fulfilling your career goals will depend on how you come across as a researcher and scientist. No one will look to your dissertation for insight — they will look at your publications, they will want to know what ideas you have for future research, and what grants you will apply for.

This might not sit well with someone who is currently working on their Ph.D., but the truth is, no one will care about your dissertation once you have defended it. As Dr. Karen Kelsky, an academic career counselor, explains in an article for Chronicles of Higher Education, the more you discuss your dissertation, the less likely you are to land an academic job (at least in a STEM field, whereas this may be less so in the humanities or social sciences). And no one in a position to hire you for a postdoc, or as an assistant professor, will ever ask or even care how long it took you to finish your Ph.D.

Your ultimate goal should be publication of your findings in a good journal. Even if you’ve decided you won’t pursue an academic research career after your Ph.D., you owe it to yourself and to the other people you have worked with and who have supported you in some way (including your supervisor), and you owe it to the taxpayers who paid for it all.

But, publication of one’s findings is not a criterion for completing a Ph.D. program. If you feel under pressure to publish at least some of your data before finishing and defending your dissertation, you need to pause and figure out exactly why you feel that pressure. Is your supervisor really the direct source, or does it come from within?

Strategies for avoiding delays

Many problems related to student-supervisor conflicts and long completion times can be avoided with the following strategies:

1. Use your Ph.D. committee, not just your supervisor

Students often fail to make efficient use of their Ph.D. committee, choosing instead to deal with only with their supervisors when planning research and monitoring its progress. This has become the normal way of doing things in many doctoral programs today. Most professors are content to work closely with their own Ph.D. students, so they make little or no effort to draw their faculty colleagues into the process.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. And it shouldn’t be, because a student’s supervisor isn’t the only professor around who can be gleaned for knowledge, advice, and feedback.

Resourceful grad students create their Ph.D. dissertation committees as early as possible, usually after first establishing with the supervisor some general aims or scope for what will comprise the doctoral research. It is wise to get everyone involved at this point by putting together a written or oral proposal that is evaluated by at least one or two members of the committee, other than the supervisor.

Students need to keep on top of this process, and not expect someone else to take it over. It is a good idea to have a progress-report meeting with the Ph.D. committee, at least those members internal to the student’s program (i.e., from the same department) every 12 months, or so — with the option to have additional meetings if major problems arise with the work that’s agreed on, and if there are reasons to change the direction of the research. When many people are involved it is less likely the student will fall behind without anyone noticing.

2. Write every day — even if you don’t feel like it

This is probably the most important advice for nearly any graduate student. It really can’t be emphasized enough. It takes a lot of practice to get good at writing. And every grad student knows there is always something in need of being written up. Students who are having difficulty with the writing process often procrastinate on major projects, such as a manuscript or dissertation, resulting in feelings of guilt and anxiety, in addition to the delays.

Dr. Inger Mewburn manages The Thesis Whisperer, one of the most helpful websites I know for scientists and researchers who need advice on the writing process. Graduate students should check out the archives and the many helpful resources available. The blogs provide fresh insights into various facets of the early to mid-stages in an academic research career.

Getting into good writing habits will smooth much of the way through a doctoral program. Writing frequently will reveal gaps in one’s knowledge or understanding. Vague and disorganized writing often reflects vague and disorganized thinking. Writing about complex arguments or concepts helps most people understand them more deeply.

3. Don’t operate in passive mode

A salient difference between undergraduate and grad school is the degree of self-reliance required. New grad students need to realize that it will be largely up to them to teach and train themselves. The graduate supervisor’s primary role is to keep students on track and facilitate their self-education. The professor should also be a resource of knowledge and advice, but it’s up to the student to seek it.

Some students waste a lot of time in the early months of grad school, as they wait around for their supervisor to tell them what needs to be done. Most eventually figure out they need to take the initiative to make certain things happen. Meanwhile, time is lost due to the slow start.

Take the initiative for arranging the necessary meetings with your supervisor and other members of your Ph.D. committee. Taking matters into your own hands might even make a good impression on others that you didn’t anticipate, perhaps including professors from whom you will later need references.

4. Get to know your potential supervisors before you make a commitment.

This applies to prospective new grad students, of course, rather than those who are already in a Ph.D. program.

Interpersonal problems between student and supervisor are behind a large proportion of grad school dropouts. (I have written more about this in a previous commentary). If it becomes impossible for a particular grad student and supervising professor to continue working together with mutual respect, it may be possible to switch to a different supervisor part way through a program — if the student can actually find a professor in the department who is willing —  but it is next to impossible to gracefully change supervisors. And there is no doubt that changing supervisors will add considerable time to a Ph.D. program.

You can’t ask people directly whether they are good graduate supervisors, but you can look for clues. Making a personal visit is the best way to find out in advance how a particular professor works with students. One should give at least as much attention to meeting with a professor’s graduate students as to meeting with the professor. Use your intuition, but also look for other warning signs that there may have been problems in the past, such as current students who have been working on their Ph.D. for an unusually long time, or stories of former grad students who either quit without finishing or changed to a different supervisor part way through their program.

Dealing with a difficult supervisor

Universities do not generally have much in the way of quality-control mechanisms to ensure that individual professors do a good job of supervising their graduate students. Luckily, relatively few professors truly abuse their authority over students. There are some bad apples, of course — professors who think of grad students and postdocs as research employees, without any regard for their career-development or personal needs. It’s not an all-or-nothing attribute; some professors are far worse than others.

A student who feels that he or she is in this kind of situation may need to clear a few potential impediments before taking steps to deal with it. One potential obstacle to resolving such conflicts concerns the emotional state of the student

Conflicts that arise between graduate student and supervisor tend to be emotionally charged. This can seriously impede attempts to resolve issues to the student’s satisfaction, because strong emotions can cloud a person’s judgment and bias his or her perception of a situation.

If you feel angry with your supervisor for letting you down, that may in fact be justified. But if you want to get through a predicament you absolutely must shed the anger and forget about the blame game. Remember that your goal is to finish the program — it’s not to take your supervisor to task for something you think is an injustice.

But there is no doubt that some professors spend more time managing their own career than looking out for the interests of their students. The effectiveness of a student’s efforts to work through a Ph.D. program with an unsupportive or abusive supervisor will depend on their perception of the student-supervisor relationship and expectations regarding how this relationship is intended to work for the benefit of both parties.

Many professors share the notion that giving doctoral students plenty of work to do in the lab is all that’s needed to train them to become good researchers. But all this does is train a student for a career as someone else’s research employee, and this is exactly the type of career that many doctoral students end up with after years of “training” — one postdoctoral position after another, never having long-term job security, and never becoming an independent researcher with grant money and facilities of their own.

Students should push back at being treated like an employee. The greatest danger is accepting that this is the way it’s supposed to be. It’s easy to get lulled into that belief over time, especially when other professors and grad students seem to have accepted that this is the right way. But it is not supposed to be that way. Students must fight the illusion that they are their supervisors’ employees. Those who assume the role of employee and behave accordingly are likely to continue being treated that way, and some of their needs as doctoral students may be neglected.

If it gets to the point that there is too much distrust or other bad feelings between you and your supervisor, or if you suspect you are being abused, it will be necessary to seek advice and support from the Graduate Program Director (GPD). The GPD probably knows your supervisor in ways that you don’t, and may know some things about this professor’s supervising history. The GPD is likely to at least understand your situation and offer perspectives you haven’t been able to see. Thus, at the very least, the GPD should provide hope that you’re not entirely under the thumb of your supervisor.

One should also keep the other members of the Ph.D. committee abreast of what’s going on. Since your supervisor doesn’t own you, you are free to seek advice or guidance from other professors. It might not seem that way, depending on the prevailing culture amongst students and professors in your program; but just because the majority of your peers tend to consult only with their supervisors, that does not mean you have to limit yourself in such a way. Most of your professors are extremely knowledgeable and willing to help. But they will not come to you, so you must go to them.

One or more of those other professors might even have some novel insights or useful suggestions for you. When asking a professor for advice or guidance on such a touchy subject, however, it is important to behave in a professional manner at all times.  If seeking advice from another professor, do not speak disparagingly about your supervisor or blame them outright for any of the problems. This never helps, and it usually costs the student some credibility.

Remember that these other people will be watching how you deal with this difficult situation. You are likely to need letters of recommendation from them at some point in the future, either when applying for a postdoctoral position or for some other employment.

Further Reading


About The Author

Dave G. Mumby, PhD is a professor at a major University in Montreal, Canada. He is an academic advisor for undergraduate Psychology students, as well as a graduate supervisor for Master’s and Ph.D. students who share interests in behavioural neuroscience. Dr. Mumby is on many selection committees in his department, and is a regular contributer to, which features advice from experts on applying to graduate or professional school.

10 Ways To Successfully Defend Your PhD

Well, I’m back. After 3 months of intense thesis writing, revisions, and successfully defending (all while working a part-time job in industry), I want to share with you Part 1 of 3 of this series. Part 2 will be how to finish your thesis in a timely manner (and write a good quality thesis). Part 3 will be life after a PhD, making the transition into the workforce, and how to prepare ahead of time (i.e. apply for jobs before, during, or after writing your thesis).

First, what does it take to give a successful PhD Defense? How can you prepare, keep the stress levels low, and make sure you have the highest chance of success?

I’ll just say that everyone’s PhD Defense is unique and is unpredictable. Your talk/presentation is only as good as you want it to be. And you cannot fully prepare for all the endless possibility of questions. If you wrote a 200 page thesis, your thesis commitee can pick apart an error bar on a graph on page 133. They can ask you what you meant by a word in a random sentence in any given paragraph. Keep in mind, this is all just apart of the PhD hazing process, and in a sense is just to humble you. At the end of the day, if you wrote a good quality thesis and are CONFIDENT, you should have no problem successfully defending and leaving that room with a sense of relief. Either way, I wanted to share my experience while it is still fresh in my mind

1) Do not underestimate how long it takes to prepare your slides/talk and make sure you give multiple practice talks

When I turned in my thesis two weeks ahead of time to my committee, I thought the hard part was over. Although a very important milestone, don’t let your guard down. If you already have most your slides ready to go, then you are lucky. I ended up getting data at the last minute and my story changed. I had to make many model slides from scratch.

If you want to give a GOOD thesis talk, you need to practice multiple times. And this means that you don’t cram it all in a couple of days right before your talk. I’m not talking about giving just one practice talk. You need to give multiple group practice talks. In between, you need to practice on your own.

You certainly don’t have to memorize every word of your thesis defense talk, but you should have it well-polished. There is no limit (or requirement) on how many practice talks you should give, but give as many talks as it takes until you feel like you are ready. If you are unsure of the quality of your talk (or being “ready”), tape record yourself or watch a video of yourself to see just how good it is. You might be surprised when you play it back to yourself.

You should also time your talk. I noticed that I tend to talk faster (by about 5 minutes) when giving the actual public talk vs. when I practice on my own. The length of the talk can depend on many departmental factors. My talk was ~45-50 minutes long which also leaves time for questions.

Either way, do not procrastinate on your slides and/or talk until days before. Make sure you use the full two weeks to perfect your slides, polish your talk (and be very concise about your words), and review material you are unsure about.

2) Listen to other thesis defense talks

The best way to mentally prepare for your thesis defense talk is to listen to other thesis defense talks. I actually went and got a few talks on DVD (the good ones that I remembered). If their research is on a similar topic as your own, this would be more ideal-but take what you can get. When you watch the talk, ask yourself what makes it good or bad? Were they enthusiastic and sincere? Did they keep the energy throughout the talk? Were there some rough areas of the talk? When nerves are running high, talks may not go as expected. You can battle this nervousness by showing up well-prepared. If you are, the thesis defense talk is just a formality.

If you cannot obtain any thesis defense talks on video, make sure that you go to actual public thesis defense talks. At least go to one so that you have a good idea of how to TIE the whole story together and give your audience the big picture. Keep in mind that you are giving a talk to a general audience. This means that use of jargon and highly technical terms will only put your audience to sleep. Make sure it is clear and understandable. Simplify it the best that you can and put it in the larger context of your research field. Use cartoons or model slides (if necessary) to give your audience the general, overall picture.

3) Have your friends, labmates, and others drill you with questions

What’s the best way to prepare for unforeseen questions? Have others that are familiar with your work drill you with questions. Chances are that even though these questions may not be the actual questions you will be asked either by the public and/or your thesis committee, it prepares you to think on your feet. It also builds your confidence. And the questions that your labmates or friends ask you may just be the same question you will get asked on your defense day.

4) Re-read over your entire thesis and write out your own list of questions

You may be sick of reading your entire thesis over and over by now, but you need to keep everything fresh in your mind. I actually read over my entire thesis multiple times during my final two weeks and came up with my own list of questions that I thought my committee would ask me. In addition, I also came up with a list of questions that I had of my own (questions that I was unsure of or that I thought were a weakness of mine). If you cannot come up with a list of good questions, then you are not trying hard enough.

Even though my committee didn’t ask me my exact list of questions, the process of  coming up with my own list of questions-then finding the answers to those questions (beyond my thesis)-actually helped me gained a deeper understanding of my project. And it was a confidence booster in disguise.

5) Don’t let distractions get to you

Completing your thesis is a huge milestone. Those last two weeks until defense day can be stressful. Whether you are doing job interviews, applying to other jobs, or you want to “jump the gun” and finally start your post-PhD life, don’t give into temptation. Keep your guard up until your actual defense day. This is key to giving a good talk. You need to go in with the mindset that you will kill your presentation and give a long lasting impression to your audience. I have actually heard that some people who gave great thesis defense talks were offered a position shortly after (i.e. a postdoc).

You are going to want to do all those little tasks that you have been putting off for so long because you have spent X amount of months writing your thesis in solitude and you had no time to do them. Your list could be very long. I can tell you that one of the things on my list was to keep publishing blog articles and keep my blog running. I simply did not have enough time. Prioritize and focus on your defense talk and nothing else. If you are looking for jobs during this time period, I will be writing about this in Part 3 of this series.

6) Get plenty of sleep, keep your diet in check, and take care of yourself

This might be the most difficult thing for anyone. I struggled with this the most while writing my thesis. Skipping meals, late nights, overloading your system with caffeine just to stay awake. You have to fight it the best that you can. A month before my defense talk, I hit the gym 3x a week (for the first time in months). Everyone handles the anxiety of their defense talk differently. I am someone who thinks about it constantly. So it becomes hard to focus on other things, like taking care of yourself.

Once your thesis is turned in to your committee members, during those final two weeks- sleep and a proper diet are KEY. The day of your defense, make sure you are well-rested (don’t stay up all night stressing about it) and eat well. Don’t sell yourself short. By taking care of yourself, you ensure that you have the highest probability for giving a great thesis defense talk and showing your committee members that you are confident about your project.

7) Keep your cool and relax

When your defense day comes, you have to remember that you have put in a lot of HARD WORK to get to this point. You know your topic better than anyone. Because of this, you have no reason to be stressed out.

When your committee pushes you and asks you questions, they again will push you to your limits. You will meet a point where you won’t know the answer. Also, a question could simply be a future direction/experiment that you simply haven’t tested yet. Remember that they are simply trying to test your knowledge and humble you. You don’t have to know all the answers. Therefore, when you are answering questions, keep your cool and relax. Answer the questions the best that you can and you should have no problem passing. And in all honesty, the prelim (or qualifying exam) was much harder than the actual defense…

8) Don’t focus on the after-party until you have actually reached the after-party

Who doesn’t want to spend their final two weeks planning the celebration? Although I did have an after-party, I did not go to great efforts to plan it like a wedding party. As I said in #5, prioritize and focus on your thesis defense talk and nothing else. Plan your after-party while you are on break from your practice talk/preparing for questions/working on slides but do not make it a number one priority. Once you have passed, then you can change your focus. The feeling is indescribable (see #10).

9) Have a good structure

A good thesis talk also has a good introduction before going on to the next idea or slide. It should flow in a logical manner and be smooth. That is why #1 is important, because many people don’t spend enough time in the creation of good powerpoint slides. Your slides and talk have to MATCH up, meaning you can’t have really good slides and a mediocre talk (or vice versa) if you want it to go well.

This is why practice is important, and if you spend enough time on BOTH the talk/slides you will give a very good talk. A lot of times while I was actually practicing my talk, I had to go back and change the order/wording of slides or how I introduced certain slides (the wording) so that the flow would be better.

Be formal in how you word things (i.e. say “our data show that”… vs. “you see here that”…). To give a good introduction, it might be wise to use slides that ask a question in between. This question slide (break) in-between your next idea allows for your general audience to CATCH UP and understand your logic. Why are you doing this experiment? If you just show a bunch of your published data with no introduction (and maybe a title that gives an interpretation/punchline), you will overwhelm and bore your audience.

Many scientists forget that although they are an expert on their topic, what seems easy and understandable to them-does not apply to others outside of their field.

Before you go to your next data slides introduce the idea (based on this data I wanted to ask this question). Then tell them WHY you performed this particular experiment (which is basically in the form of a question). Once your audience understands why, go on to the next slide and give them your interpretation. In other words, don’t just jump to the interpretation. This will keep your audience’s attention and make sure that your thesis defense talk gets a lot of positive feedback and leaves a good impression on your committee members (it really does show).

10) Visualize yourself giving your defense each day and think about how good it will feel when it’s over

This one is pretty self explanatory. I will say that when it is all said and done, it feels like a huge burden has been lifted off your shoulders. It is emotional and you finally feel that all that hard work and time that you put in over the years-was all worth it in the end. Good luck to all those who are preparing for their defense talk in the future! Think about what it will be like to get up in front of a large audience and show everyone how you moved a field forward. This is YOUR moment to show everyone you are an expert in your field. The more you keep this mentality, the better your talk will be. Keep your cool and relax (#7) and everything will be fine.

If you would like to see an example video of a defense talk that illustrates the advice I’ve given, a link to my PhD defense can be found here:

Best of luck to all!

Further Reading


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, 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