What they didn’t teach you in graduate school

June 3, 2009 at 11:41 am Leave a comment

The PhD

It can be argued that you do job hunting (the subject of chapter 3) before you receive the PhD. However, the PhD is the prize you seek above all from your graduate experience. We therefore discuss it first.

(editors note: the numbering does indeed start at #7).

7. Finish your PhD as early as possible. Don’t feel that you need to create the greatest work that Western civilization ever saw. Five years from now the only thing that will matter is whether you finished. If you don’t finish, you are likely to join the ranks of “freeway flyers,” holding multiple part-time teaching jobs.

8. Be humble about your PhD. You don’t need to flaunt the degree. Everyone has one. Many of your colleagues, both in your institution and outside it, will be put off if you sign everything “Doctor” or “Jane Jones, PhD” In fact, the main use for Doctor is making reservations at a restaurant. When you call and ask for a table for four for Doctor Jones, you will get more respect and often better seating.

9. Remember that a PhD is primarily an indication of survivorship. Although the public at large may view your doctorate as a superb intellectual achievement and a reflection of brilliance, you probably know deep in your heart that it is not. It represents a lot of hard work on your part over a long period of time. You probably received help from one or more faculty to get over rough spots. Your family, be it parents or spouse, stayed with you over the vicissitudes of creating the dissertation. You stuck with it until it was done, unlike the ABDs (All But Dissertation), people who complete all the other requirements but bail out before they finish their dissertations.

10. A PhD is a certification of research ability based on a sample of 1. The PhD certifies that you are able to do quality research. Unlike the MD, which requires extensive work with patients followed by years of internship and residency, the PhD is based on a single sample, your dissertation. The people who sign your dissertation are making a large bet on your ability to do quality research again and again in the future.

11. A PhD is a license to reproduce and an obligation to maintain the quality of your intellectual descendants. Once you are a PhD, it is possible for you (assuming you are working in an academic department that offers a PhD program) to create new PhDs. Even if your department does not offer a PhD, you can be called upon to sit on PhD examining committees either in your own or in neighboring institutions. This is a serious responsibility because you are creating your intellectual descendants. Recognize that if you vote to pass someone who is marginal or worse, that PhD in turn is given the same privilege. If candidates are not up to standard, it is likely that some of their descendants will also not be. Unlike humans whose intergeneration time is 20 years, academic intergeneration times are 5 years or less. Furthermore, a single individual may supervise 50 or more PhDs over a 30-year career.

12. You must have the PhD in hand before you can move up the academic ladder. The world is full of ABDs. We talked about them briefly in Hint 9 and will again in Hint 161. ABDs may be much abler and more brilliant than you but they didn’t possess the stamina (or the circumstances) to finish the degree. In our judgment, being an ABD is the end of the academic line.

13. Be aware that the key danger point in any doctoral program is the one where you leave highly structured coursework (Phase 1) and enter the unstructured world of the qualification examination and the dissertation (Phase 2). Here are two strategies to help you navigate Phase 2:

1. Stay in touch with your professors, especially your adviser. One of us insists that students come in for a meeting each week, even if nothing happened. Just the fear of not being able to report anything stimulates the mind.

2. Meet regularly, ideally every week, for lunch or dinner or afternoon coffee, with two or three fellow graduate students who are also struggling with Phase 2. Compare notes and progress.

14. A special note for the part-time student working on the dissertation. Although all PhD students used to be on campus and often worked as teaching or research assistant part-time, in many fields today that attract midcareer students (for example, education) the norm is to work at an off-campus job full-time and on the PhD part-time. Others, such as computer science students, develop an idea for a start-up company (e.g., one of the founders of Google) and drift from full-time to part-time. We applaud part-time PhD students. This hint is addressed to these students.

If you are working on your PhD part time, you will find it difficult enough in Phase 1 to tell your boss that you can’t attend that nighttime budget crisis meeting or tell your spouse that you can’t go to your child’s soccer game because you must be in class. It is even more difficult when you’re in Phase 2 to tell him or her that you won’t be there because you must be home, in your study, staring at a black computer screen trying to get past writer’s block.

As a part-time student, you need to find ways (in addition to suggestions 1 and 2 in Hint 13) to be physically present on campus. You can do so in many ways, such as spending time writing in a library carrel (1). Physical presence is important psychologically. If you never visit campus and become caught up in your work and family activities, you face the danger that your uncompleted PhD program can begin to seem like something you used to do in a faraway time and place.

15. Avoid Watson’s Syndrome. Named by R.J. Gelles, this syndrome is a euphemism for procrastination (2). It involves doing everything possible to avoid completing work. It differs from writer’s block in that the sufferer substitutes real work that distracts from doing what is necessary for completing the dissertation or for advancing toward an academic career. The work may be outside or inside the university. Examples given by Gelles include:

* remodeling a house

* a never-ending literature review (after all, new papers are being published all the time and they must be

referenced)

* data paralysis-making seemingly infinite Statistical Analysis System (SAS) and Statistical Package for

Social Sciences (SPSS) runs

* perfectionism that doesn’t let you submit until you think it is perfect (and it never is perfect)

If you suffer from Watson’s Syndrome, finding a mentor (see Hint 5) who pushes you to finish will help you get done. For many, however, particularly those who always waited until the night before an examination to begin studying, the syndrome is professionally fatal.

16. Celebrate your PhD! When you hand in your signed dissertation and pay the last fee that the university exacts from you, go out and Celebrate! Celebrate! Celebrate! You’ve achieved something marvelous, and you are one of a very small number in the population who can say you are a PhD. A rough calculation shows that about 3 of 400 adults in the United States hold a PhD. Attaining a PhD is a big deal! Honor that.

A PhD, like life, is a journey. It marks the end of one stage and the beginning of what lies ahead. Don’t fail to appreciate the moment of your accomplishment. Yes, other big moments await you. But like almost every PhD, you never had a moment this big, and it will be a long time before you have another one that matches it.

Notes

1. The library is a large building filled with books and journals. It functions sort of like Google, but deeper.

2. This hint is based on R.J. Gelles, “Watson’s Syndrome,” Inside Higher Education, June 19, 2006, http://www.insidehighered.com/workplace/2006/06/19/gelles

via copied from Julian Sweet’s note so that those who aren’t his FB friends can read it.

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