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My Top Tips for New PhD Students
Learning Skills to Increase Productivity and Fulfillment
It’s the time of year that eager PhD recruits are preparing to begin their new programs with a mix of excitement and nervousness. Incoming PhD students often wonder what they can do to set themselves up for success in their studies. If that’s you, then read on! I also suspect some of the skills I discuss will be useful for more seasoned folks as well.
As a new PhD student you will likely spend much of your first few years trying to increase what you “know” through coursework or reading copious amounts of literature. But, a less formalized and structured part of graduate education is learning how to manage the multiple responsibilities of an academic. You will need both content-area knowledge and skills to manage your work.
I mentioned in a previous post that the academy generally does a better job teaching us to dissect difficult concepts and critique arguments than it does to train us in all the skills we need to manage our careers. Some programs will ofter a couple formal skills courses or a few workshops or panels, some advisors provide professional development through mentoring, but the reality is that PhD students often have to seek out these resources themselves.
I believe professional development should be more formalized in graduate programs, but that’s a post for another day.
With these realities in mind, I highly recommend that you begin your PhD program with the awareness that there are many skills you can learn to manage your scholarly life—and learning these skills can produce greater productivity, more fulfillment, and less stress.
I recommend grad students prepare to devote time and energy in reading books and websites on things like how to be a better or more productive writer, how to manage one’s time, how to plan out a research project from conception to completion, etc. Publish not Perish is one such resource at your disposal!
Here’s a list of my top four skills to learn while in your PhD program.
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Skill 1: Managing Time
Many new graduate students feel like a hamster spinning on a wheel when they begin their studies. There’s much to read, to write, to grapple with, to teach, etc. The things that will get your main attention are scheduled for you: assignment deadlines, readings for class, classes you TA for, meetings, etc.
The things that will be more challenging to fit in your schedule are the ones without built-in accountability like reading, writing, and professional development. I recommend you begin learning to guard time for these tasks on a regular basis so that you develop a rhythm and habit for doing this type of work. It will be easier to transition into the dissertation phase if you have already prioritized reading and writing on a regular basis. For more info, here’s an article from APA on time management in graduate school.
Skill 2: Creating a Reading Strategy
The volume of reading one undertakes in a PhD program is staggering at first. You might wonder, “How do you find the time to read everything and still do other things?” You will feel the need to read every manuscript word for word and will get stuck on passages that you don’t understand. The more you read, however, the more concepts, turns of phrase, vocabulary, and document organization will become familiar. You will learn to find the most important information quickly. It takes time to develop effective reading strategies and you must be patient with yourself as you ride the learning curve. Here’s a few specific strategies:
For foundational theories that come from the previous centuries and beyond, I recommend finding summaries online that give you a framework of understanding why a reading is important to your field before digging into dense manuscripts. This strategy will help you contextualize a work within the time it was written and understand why your field still finds it important.
Think of readings as genealogies instead of isolated documents. Ideas have connections to earlier ones and it's helpful to understand who an author was reading or responding to when they wrote their original thought. Mapping out these connections help you better understand how ideas build and develop.
You will need some sort of note taking strategy that works for you. Here’s some useful advice on note-taking.
As with all my other advice, try on different strategies with an open mind and sincere effort, adopt the ones that work for you and cast aside the others.
Skill 3: Developing a Writing Rhythm
Prioritizing time to write is one of the hardest things to carve into one’s schedule even though finishing a dissertation and publishing journal articles are paramount. It’s so important to develop a regular writing schedule that guards writing time. I recommend plotting time to write in your schedule each week. Some will argue for a 30 minutes of writing a day model, others will prefer larger blocks of writing time a few times a week, still others try to meet daily or weekly word count goals, but I say experiment with a few formats and find out what makes sense for you.
This writing time doesn’t have to be drafting a final version of a seminar paper; instead, much of your writing can be more like journaling as you work through ideas you learn in classes. Developing a practice of flow writing will help you create a sustainable writing rhythm. As the semester progresses, I recommend working on final writing assignments early and at a regular pace. Saving all your writing a couple weeks before the term ends will prove stressful for many and won’t be your best work because you haven’t allowed enough time for your thoughts to percolate.
Skill 4: Navigating the Big Three
PhD students often navigate imposter syndrome, perfectionism, and procrastination while completing their programs. Each of these stem from insecurities around belonging and ability and are rooted in individualized experiences and marginalization based on race, gender, class, ability, language, etc. I recommend reading about the big three (see the links above to start) to better inform yourself how they manifest in your feelings about writing, research, or teaching.
I use the reflective practice of journaling to identify the roots of any negative feelings about a writing project. For example, when I was writing my book I went through several weeks of paralyzing perfectionism near the end of the draft. I kept journaling about these feelings and eventually realized that I was imagining a particular scholar that I admired as the audience for the book. That scholar intimidated me and writing for them made me doubt my work’s worth and slowed my progress. I decided to reframe my imagined audience as people who intimidated me much less: my students. Having this audience in mind instead allowed me to write more clearly and confidently.
Journaling about my feelings around perfectionism, imposter syndrome, and procrastination was helpful for me, but you can also talk with trusted colleagues, friends, or family and/or use therapy as a space to explore strategies to overcome these challenges.
A Final Thought on Self-Kindness
I’ll leave you today with a final thought as you navigate your PhD program and learn the skills you need as an academic. Keep reminding yourself that you are in your PhD program to learn exactly the things you don’t already know, so go easy on yourself.
As a teacher of grad students, I don’t expect you to have it all figured out. I don’t expect you to quickly grasp every great thought read in theory class. I don’t expect you to know how to write a really excellent paper filled with original ideas. I don’t expect you to know how to manage your time or your feelings about writing and research productivity. These are all things you are meant to learn in the program and not before you get there.
Be kind to yourself. That self-kindness will release your inhibitions so you can be the learning sponge you were always meant to be.
Now I want to hear from YOU! What tips and tricks can you offer that might be useful for new PhD students? PhD students: what challenges do you face in terms of academic life management skills? Leave questions and comments below!
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