What I Wish I Knew Before Starting My PhD


This blog post originally appeared on my website on February 8, 2018.

Now in my fifth year, writing my dissertation, I’ve had some time to reflect on my beginnings as a PhD student and the years preceding it when I was getting my Masters. I’ve attended the same institution for 7 years and watched it change for 9 (I took a 2-year break between degrees). I’ve realized that if you’re not careful, there’s a lot that can bring you down within the walls of academia: impostor syndrome, competitiveness, interoffice politics, adjunct exploitation, and advisers who are, inevitably, extremely busy and not always able to be there for you.

Few people tell you about what can bring you up. So here are some things that may be useful if you’re just starting out or if you find yourself struggling.

1. It’s Easy to Critique and Harder to Be Generous

It takes a long time to feel like you’ve earned a seat at the table. Some scholars hide behind jargon and critique–don’t let it get you down. Jargon can be intimidating because it sounds impressive and grand, but what matters are ideas. Critique can get out of hand, too.

Scholars too often tear apart authors without consideration for context or an ounce of forgiveness. One cannot possibly cover everything there is to say in 30 pages or even in a book-length project. You can’t have it all. Don’t ask for the impossible because you’ll never write your own article if you hold yourself to the same standard.

Take-downs can be useful and productive, but they often distract from the merits of an author’s work. It’s easy to tear something apart but what are some ideas that you would introduce to complicate another author’s argument? Remember that we stand on the shoulders of all who came before us. Be generous and your criticism will become more nuanced and complex.

2. Go to the Small Conferences and Nerd Out

If you take all your coursework at your own institution without exposing yourself to ideas forming elsewhere, your knowledge of the field will be limited to the viewpoints of your immediate advisers and peers. Meet other scholars in the field. Once you know what you’re interested in (e.g., an author, a theory, a period) look for the small, specific conferences that will attract like-minded people. Don’t wait. Start early.

Your newly-met colleagues are your peer-reviewers, collaborators, and friends of the future. Go to two or three conferences a year until you feel that you grasp the field outside your own institution. It will make the prospect of graduating and moving somewhere else feel (slightly) less daunting. You’ll see the folks you know again soon at the next conference.

3. Learn About Milestones a Year Before You Hit Them

Pay attention to colleagues who are a year or two ahead of you. Buy them lunch and ask them for advice.

I was fortunate to come into my PhD program with five years of funding. Knowing I would need to apply for more for a sixth year, I went to workshops and panels about funding opportunities in year four, a year early, thanks to some wise advice from a friend. I also started flagging all of the emails about fellowships and funding that came into my inbox. I used to delete them, thinking they didn’t apply to me. Think again!

It takes persistence, preparation, and a bit of luck to win funding. In the spring of my fourth year, an opportunity came up that was in an email I would have deleted without my new habit–and I got the job. That never would have happened if I hadn’t taken the advice of friends a couple years ahead of me…

Three of eight things are listed here. To read the full blog post, click here.