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How to Succeed as a PhD Student: Wisdom from the DGS

I had graduate school orientation yesterday (can’t believe I’m finally here!), during which the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) for the English Department gave us some advice that was altogether sobering, practical, and inspirational.  I’m pleased to say I was very happy with how cooperative and friendly everyone in the department seemed; I couldn’t have asked for a better fit in that respect. Here is some of the things I’ve “learned” from my initial days in my PhD program.

The expected advice (that it may behoove you to hear if you are applying for graduate school):

The availability of tenure-track jobs crashed during the recession and is yet to fully rebound. They showed us the statistics. Hiring reached a high point in 2008 with a steep plummet the following year. Since then, the job market has been creeping back up, but is no where near where it was pre-2008. Right now, only about 1/3 of people with a graduating with a PhD are able to find a tenure-track job the year after they graduate. I imagine this was especially dire news for those graduating in 2009, who entered their programs thinking that they would likely get a job as a tenured professor. It should be no surprise to anyone that there is a lot of negativity about the academic job market these days, just take a lot on the internet and you’ll find TONS of embittered bloggers and writers. The good news: it is on the upward trend now. And when you look at statistics based on percentage of recent grads who get tenure track jobs, having an article already published greatly increases your changes of being one of the ones who gets a tenure track job. This reinforces the point that in order to get a good academic job, you need to get your degree from a research institution with an influential department, because this is the type of school that will have the connections and resources to get you published.

Avoid graduate drift. It’s no secret that the retention rate for graduate students is far from 100%.  Getting your PhD is truly a marathon, not a sprint. My fear in applying for and attending some of the programs with more cutthroat reputations – where students are cut or have to compete among each other even after they are admitted into the program – was that it would inspire a sort of “sprint” atmosphere that would cause students to burn out early on in the program. Our DGS admitted that at her graduate institution, they cut half the class after the first year! Students would actually horde library books to keep them from other students in the program. Luckily, not the case here. They are actively trying to help students avoid that slump in the first place. The hard truth though? There’s no point in staying if you have done some soul searching and no longer want to be a graduate student – then it’s in the best interests of both the student and the program that you pick yourself up and move on.

Stay visible and don’t sequester yourself. I’m not in the introverted/loner camp, even though that is the stereotype of graduate students, but it is still good advice and something I’ve heard repeated over an over again. Just like most people need a life outside of their 9-5 job to be happy, graduate students need a life outside of graduate school. It’s best to take the approach that graduate school is your job, and teaching, writing, and taking classes is the work that you do. When work becomes your life, every inevitable failure, every criticism, and every unmet goal is a life crisis. Knowing you have friends and other reasons you are a valuable person with a fulfilling life is essential to staying afloat in graduate school.

The unexpected advice (stuff that I wasn’t necessarily expecting):

Don’t pour all your time into teaching. Most graduate students pay for their degrees by also teaching undergraduate classes. I’ve heard the criticism of both professors and graduate student instructors that they care more about their own research than their students. Unfortunately, that is the truth of successful academics. Our DGS warned us that it is easy to get carried away with teaching – perfecting PowerPoints and pouring tons of time and energy into making sure everything is perfect for class. However, she came out and said that successful graduate students prioritize their research above teaching. Those are the ones that get ahead and eventually get the jobs. She also said that if teaching is what you really love, you would be far better off leaving with your MA and teaching at a private school or community college. Graduate studies at a research university is about just that: research.

Curb your enthusiasm (but not too much). The “creative type” are often particular likely to get big ideas and bite off more than they can chew (I have been guilty of this from time to time). We have been advised not to get ahead of ourselves. Getting some big, outlandish idea has lead to many graduate students mulling over their dissertation for years beyond the expected time frame as they try to ponder out these ideas and synthesize them. In order to prevent this, our DGS recommended always seeking the advise of peers and advisors before embarking on some wild goose chase.

Get work published, but not too many of your dissertation chapters. Publications prior to graduating with the PhD definitely put people ahead in this filed (the statistics don’t lie), however, those who publish too many of their dissertation chapters often find trouble finding a university that is willing to publish the work as a whole. The lesson: always be thinking of how you can get papers written for seminars published, attend conferences, and don’t waste opportunities!