Recommendations for first-year Ph.D. students (opinion)

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Entering a Ph.D. program is a challenging endeavor for anyone, so I thought I’d pass on a little advice to those of you beginning such a program about how best to navigate your new environment. These tips come from years of experience as a doctoral adviser, associate dean of students and teacher of courses aimed at first-year doctoral students.

Stop being a good student. You got here by being really good at doing school. That meant carrying out all the assigned work with diligence, taking lots of notes and pleasing the teacher. It’s now time to put those behaviors aside. You’re entering a terminal degree program, where you’re no longer getting ready for the next level of academics but instead preparing to shift from being a consumer to a producer of academic knowledge. That requires you to significantly adjust your attitude as a scholar and your orientation toward scholarly study, where rewards go not to those who work hard but those who work smart.

Take control of your program of study. Your primary task is no longer to do what you’re told but to become the kind of scholar you want to be. Your program of study has a series of requirements you have to meet—courses to take, skills to acquire, experiences to pursue, benchmarks to attain. But all of it is organized around your own interests, your own aspirations, your own values and your own capacities. It’s not the faculty’s program—it’s yours. So you need to assume control and make sure it’s headed in the direction you want to go.

Use the literature you encounter in grad school to build your own conceptual framework for the field. As you read through the material in your classes, work at trying to assign individual pieces of scholarship to categories according to theoretical approach, methodology, subject and so on. That will be difficult at first, since everything will seem new and unique. But over time, you’ll find that you can become increasingly skillful at identifying what type of work each piece is and where it fits in your developing conceptual framework of the field. That will allow you to step back from the specificity of each reading and start seeing how it is similar to some pieces and different from others. Soon you’ll have a structure of typologies that will help you quickly negotiate new readings by identifying clues as to their location in the larger structure.

Train yourself to skim. You want to avoid getting swamped by all the reading you encounter. Developing a conceptual framework is one way to keep yourself oriented. Another is to develop skill at skimming. This advice goes against everything you learned in the process of being the good student that got you to grad school in the first place, but it’s vital for you as a doctoral student. Skimming keeps you from drowning in the deluge of material, which is simply a matter of survival. It also trains you to attack each reading as a future producer of research rather than a passive consumer. Push back from the text and work to locate what are the key elements that can be useful to you in your developing view of the field. To do so, you need to make each text answer these four questions:

  • What’s the point? This is the analytical issue. What particular analytical slice is the author taking through the subject?
  • What’s new? This is value-added issue. What is the author contributing to the literature on the subject?
  • Who says? This is the validity issue. What data and literature do the author use to support the paper’s claims?
  • Who cares? This is the significance issue, the most important of all. Is the author’s point worth making? Is the text worth reading? Is it a major, minor or negligible contribution to the field?

Resist the lure of professionalism lite. When you enter a doctoral program, you find yourself immersed in a new professional domain where you work hard to become a credible and accomplished academic researcher. In the process, you need to learn the norms, practices, skills and language of the profession. Along the way, however, you risk becoming imprinted with the form rather than substance of your chosen profession. After all, the easiest way to adapt to a new profession is to imitate the models all around you. That’s useful at the beginning but dangerous as you move ahead in your studies. All too many doctoral students find themselves not so much becoming professional as learning to speak, interact and write in what seems to be a professional manner.

Don’t forget what brought you to doctoral study in the first place. You didn’t enter grad school to learn how to sound like a professional. You had a deep interest in a particular discipline or professional area and a passion about applying the skills you pick up in a doctoral program to intellectual and social problems that deeply matter to you. It’s all too easy to find yourself slipping away from these initial aims as you get immersed in your program and mired in the craft of designing, carrying out and writing up research studies that diligently aspire to meet a high professional standard. By the time you get to your dissertation, you may be in a place where your original aims feel remote and amateurish, and you end up writing something that is professionally competent and methodologically valid but not very interesting—to you or to others.

If your study seems to be getting away from you in this manner, stop for minute and ask yourself what led you to pursue this project in the first place. This in turn can lead you back to the really good stuff that is buried within your work, material that will make it meaningful for both you and your readers if you dig it out and place it front and center.

Develop your own academic voice and academic brand. As a scholarly writer, you want to sound professional so you will be taken seriously, but you don’t want to sound like everyone else. Instead you should focus on developing your own voice as an academic writer, a voice that ideally should be both academically authoritative and distinctively yours.

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That’s a delicate balance to maintain, since distinctiveness can easily veer into solipsism and self-caricature, but it’s worth the effort. Keep in mind that academic scholars may work for colleges and universities, but they function in important ways as independent entrepreneurs who need to establish and promote a personal scholarly brand. You have the ability to frame how other people will think about you and your work, so take advantage of this opportunity.

Finally, have some fun. This is your doctoral program and your life. You’re here because you want to explore the field that fascinates you, so enjoy your time roaming through your experiences in the program. You won’t have this much time to read and write and think and converse with other scholars when you’re a professor, so make the most of it.

And don’t treat your studies and especially your dissertation as a job to be discharged with dutiful and solemn diligence. If you’re not having fun as a scholar, get out while you still can. Alienated labor is as bad as it sounds, and the worst form is alienated intellectual labor. Factory workers and Uber drivers have put their hands in service to others, but at least they control their minds. You’ll find that parts of your time as a doc student and later as a scholar feel like work, but through judicious adjustments in how you do things you can learn to minimize the drudgery and maximize the satisfaction. And if you’re having fun, your readers will, too.

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