11 Things I’d Tell Myself if I Were Starting My PhD Again. Advice for PhD Students.

I was thinking today about good advice for PhD students, especially those just starting out. And I imagined what I’d tell myself all those years ago.

I stepped into a PhD with very little knowledge of how to do anything. I didn’t get the language used in academia, and I barely understood the program requirements.

I was just excited. Excited by the future. The possibilities. The life-changing experience I was about to go through.

And, although I was disappointed by the lack of a tenure-track job which–let’s be honest–was the reason I got into academia in the first place, I wasn’t actually disappointed by the degree.

I learned a lot, grew a lot, and had a lot of fun. But still, I wouldn’t do everything the same.

Here’s what I’d tell myself if I were to start again, which is–surprise–also my advice for PhD students.

1. Achieving won’t make you feel worthy

I published peer-reviewed articles. I won awards, big ones. I had international fellowships and traveled.

I still didn’t feel like I was good enough.

I told myself that the next publication would make me happy, the next grant would mean I was enough.

It never did. I kept running, kept chasing. I never rested, imagining that if I beat myself into a superhuman I’d get a tenure-track job. And then, I thought, I’ll have made it. I’ll feel worthy of being here.

I never got the tenure-track job, but I know for a fact it wouldn’t have made me feel good enough. It wouldn’t have conquered the imposter syndrome.

Because the gift of self-worth comes from me. It happens internally, not externally. And I could have given it to myself on day one.

You’re good enough to be here. You deserve it. You won’t be perfect, but you’ll learn.

And no matter what happens, you are enough.

2. You’re not going to be a professor

No, you’re not. Some of you are reading this right now, and you’re thinking, Well he wasn’t. But I will be.

You’re wrong.

No, I’ll be the exception.

No you won’t.

I’ll work harder. I’ll publish more.

Even if that were true, it really doesn’t make a difference. You won’t get a tenure-track academic job.

Of course, I don’t know 100%. If tenure-track jobs exist ten years from now, not a guarantee by the way, someone will be doing them. Perhaps it will even be you.

But starting a PhD in 2020 with your vision set on being a Professor is, frankly, dumb.

If you can’t look at the other possibilities for your PhD and get excited about them, then you’re chasing the wrong thing.

3. Define the type of relationship with your supervisor you want, and ask for it

This is one of the most valuable pieces of advice for new PhD students.

One of the weirdest, new things about the PhD was the realities of working with a supervisor. Nobody ever really told me what this meant, and I’m still not sure I totally get it.

Most PhD students I see look at a supervisor as something between a parent and Gandalf. They look for affirmation, acceptance, approval, and applause from them.

And while it’s perfectly okay to want a good relationship with your supervisor, too many students just expect to fall into this type of close mentor relationship, and some get upset when they can’t have it.

The thing I wished I’d done when starting out was to sit down with my supervisor and ask:

  • What does the supervisor/student relationship look like?
  • How often should we plan to meet?
  • What would you say your supervision style is?

These types of questions are totally fair game. Some supervisors will initiate this conversation. This is ideal. But if they don’t, you can. Get a clear sense of what to expect from working together.

And if you need something specific, say regular check-ins, don’t be afraid to ask for that.

4. Apply for all the funding, then find more

Funding sets you free on this journey. Spend as much time as you possibly can applying for it. Find more. Find better ways to get funding.

When I was holding a major grant that couldn’t be held simultaneously to other grants, I realized that this didn’t include travel funding. So I applied for as much travel funding as I could, won a bunch, and then went and got paid to live overseas on top of my grant.

This sounds sort of braggy, sorry. But I have two points:

  1. This is a game. Learn to play it well.
  2. You need time to work and get the thesis done. I’ve seen way too many people cram their funded years with teaching, TA work, RA work, etc. and then not have their thesis done when the funding runs out. Get the money and get it done.

5. You’re not going to know it all

I remember stepping into my first seminar. I didn’t know what was happening, and I said some dumb things that I kicked myself for later.

And holy crap, those other students were friggen smart! What the heck was I doing here? I didn’t deserve to be among them.

As we became friends, I realized how many of them shared the same feelings, even though I still think they were all ridiculously smart-er than me.

I spent way too much time in my first years trying to show that I was good enough. Trying to prove that I deserved to be there. Trying to tamp down the feeling of inadequacy.

I wish I’d just recognized that there’s a ton of stuff I don’t know, that’s okay, and that learning is half the fun. I wish I’d asked more questions instead of waiting for chances to spout of answers.

6. Start building your non-academic exit ramp WAY before you need it

Don’t wait until the week before you graduate.

Like I said above, you’re not going to be a professor. Many students ignore this fact, pretend the end isn’t coming, stick their head in the sand, and finally–after the last academic job application falls through–ask themselves, “So what else can I do with this?”

If you’re going to have to face the reality of a non-academic job, and most of us are, you might as well get started early. It will make your exit a heck of a lot easier.

I made some suggestions in this article for how to get non-academic experience on your resume. Start exploring and figuring out where else you might go. Get involved in a non-academic project. See if there’s a policy report you can input on. Go start exploring your options. Being a PhD Candidate will open a lot of doors.

And that leads me to…

7. Grow your network right away

I wish I’d started growing a non-academic network right away. I mean, seriously, this doesn’t have to be hard stuff.

I’d tell myself to aim for one informational interview every month or two, but to make sure it happens consistently.

If I’d made the effort to start doing these informal networking chats right away, transitioning out of academia would have been a cinch. In fact, if I’d had one conversation every month with someone outside of academia, I’d have 60 people by the time I finished my fifth year.

In actuality, I had none.

8. Treat academia like a job

I don’t know about you, but by the time I got to the PhD I’d been studying a long time. I’d also worked non-academic jobs.

So one of my pieces of advice for first year PhD students is to treat it like a job. Stop thinking like a student, and start thinking like an employee.

What’s required of you to get a paycheck? How can you get more money? How can you be better at the work you do? What are the metrics of success in your new “workplace” and how can you reach them?

You can figure all this out, and take the steps you need to take to succeed at your new “job.”

This probably also means treating a supervisor like a boss and not like a parent. (Of course, this depends on the supervisor. Have that conversation about expectations.)

9. Don’t wait for people to tell you what to do

Speaking of treating academia like a job, the worst employees are those who sit around waiting for instructions. The best ones either know what to do and do it, or if they don’t, they ask what else they could be doing.

This is something like academia. Don’t sit waiting for someone to tell you to apply for grants, to research, or to publish. You know this is part of your academic output, so get moving! If you need to get the all-clear from a supervisor, fine. But for the love of God, don’t wait to be asked!

10. Don’t forget your roots

I grew up working class in a small mining village in northern Canada. I’m sorry if I reference it a lot, it’s who I am.

When jet-setting around the world, hobnobbing with famous academics and getting published in prestigious journals, it’s easy to forget who you are. To ignore where you came from, or to be embarrassed by it.

It’s easy to get mad at your family or the people in your town for being so backwards and ignorant–if they are.

But you’ve had the privilege of education. It doesn’t make you better than those people you’ve left behind, it just means that you’ve had opportunities they never did.

And don’t be ashamed of where you came from. It made you who you are.

11. Find your voice

I was about to hit publish on this article with 10 pieces of advice, and then I saw that my friend Stefanie Ginster at Career Conversations asked this exact question on Twitter–as I write this!

It made me think of one more thing, especially as I reflect on the interview that I did with Stefanie.

I’d tell my first year self to find his voice. I never did. To be honest, my imposter syndrome extended beyond the walls of my own academy and made me feel insecure about sharing ideas from my field online. So I never did.

Don’t be afraid to talk about what you’re learning. Do it on Twitter or LinkedIn if you want, or find community groups to share with! Find your voice. It will empower you to speak about your thing, even if you don’t have all the answers.

Conclusion

If you’re starting a PhD, I hope these pieces of advice to PhD students help! And if you’re already along the road, I’d love to hear on Twitter or LinkedIn what advice you would have. Just hit the share buttons and tell me!

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