How to make the most of your PhD (h/t @Katie_PhD)

When I saw @Katie_PhD‘s post “How to make the most of your PhD: the road less traveled” – I clicked excitedly. It was a great post, but not what I thought it was going to be. Don’t get me wrong, everything she wrote about was spot on, and was more well written than most blogs (including this one!) Instead, I expected some tips on how to make the most of your PhD. And while I’m not done with my PhD- still at least a year away- I thought I’d share some things to make the most of your PhD if you’re early into a program, or better yet, haven’t started.

Get Out There
If you’ve already started your program, this won’t really matter. But if you’re looking to start a PhD program, or any graduate program, look really hard for a new place to study (rather than your undergraduate institution). Sometimes, it won’t be possible, or make sense (see below) but to get the most out of your PhD you need to start in new surroundings. Don’t kid yourself: a different program, department, college, or university is a start, but you need to pick up and MOVE. Its an experience- it probably won’t impact your research or your career, but it is an important life experience. For me, I deeply regret I’ve yet to live more than 20 minutes from where I was born (growing up, high school, college, and graduate school all in the same area) and I know I’ve missed out on a lot. Sometimes, though, other factors are too big to ignore but try your best to get out there and live somewhere else for a while.

Look at the Whole Picture
Don’t choose a graduate program based on the institution alone. I got into 1) a prestigious, private, polytechnic school local to me in biomedical engineering, 2) a public university elsewhere in the state for biomedical engineering, and 3) my alma mater for a brand new program “nanobiosciences”. Number 1 didn’t offer me any financial assistance and the research didn’t line up with what I was really interested, but I knew the environment would be great. Number 2 offered me a really nice stipend, but the living expenses there were much higher, I wasn’t sure I’d like the environment, and it lacked certain resources that the other two had. For me, #3 was the best because they offered me great stipend, I knew the environment was a good fit for me, the institutional resources were excellent, and I already had a great advisor and research lined up. My point is you need to weigh a number of factors. There is no easy answer so take your time. Visit if you can, talk to professors and graduate students and go where you can imagine yourself living and working for 5+ years.

Get Involved
No matter where you end up, get involved in your new community. There are likely student groups and organizations for graduate students- both department based and institution wide. Go to the meetings, volunteer, and network. There are also opportunities around campus- committees that need graduate students on them. Find them, volunteer, and become a part of the campus. This helps you acclimate to a new setting, add things to your CV, network, and start to imagine what life might be as an academic. It’s the “service” component of a tenure file. Also, whenever possible, participate in community days, open houses, tours, etc. Learn how to explain what your research is to a wide range of people- not just experts in your field. And it looks good too!

Say Yes
Aside from volunteering like I mention above, get in the habit of saying yes- especially to your PI. Whether it is to order supplies, or inventory chemicals, saying yes when a volunteer is needed shows you can be counted on. Further, you end up being a go-to person when side projects come up. To be fair, side projects can be an absolute time sink, but they might also bring in more money for the PI so they’re important for them. They’re important for you so you can develop additional skills. My biggest goal as a PhD student is to become an expert in my field, but also develop a veritable toolbox of skills I can apply to any problem I come across in the future. Invariably, things will go wrong and you’ll have to solve problems- and those are great things to talk about on interviews!

Listen and Read
Similar to side research projects, attending and listening to seminars, and reading literature is important for your “toolbox”. I don’t mean just attending the talks that interest you, or reading the papers associated with your research. You need to attend a wide variety of talks, and read a wide variety of papers to make the most of your educational times. I like the quote by Richard Feynman: “In this age of specialization men who thoroughly know one field are often incompetent to discuss another.” Don’t immerse yourself in your chosen sub-specialty at the expense of being incompetent in fields CLOSE to yours. I maintain having a breadth of understanding is just as important as the depth of understanding around your thesis. Plus, when you’re applying for a job someday there will then be more topics you feel comfortable talking about and working on. It is unlikely you’ll get a job in the same exact field that you got your PhD in. Finally, reading and listening to what could be boring talks gives you ideas and a toolbox to go back to. Someday you’ll run across a problem and somewhere in the back of your head you’ll remember something one of these papers or presentations talked about. Bingo. It will all be worth it in the end.

Stay Focused and Advocate for Yourself
There is a lot to do and get done in your PhD program. But you need to make sure you graduate of all things! Keep in mind the milestones you need to meet: your qualifier, your comps, your thesis proposal, publishing papers, conferences, and your dissertation. You have an idea of how long you want to be in school and what you have to accomplish. What do you need to do and finish this week, this month, and this semester to be on track to graduate. It can be overwhelming but setting and sticking to deadlines will get you out the door. Keep those things in mind. AND- keep them in your adviser’s mind. It is likely your PI has no problem keeping you around as long as possible. But, it is also likely they will accept the fact that you need to graduate someday and that might mean focusing on YOUR work. I’m not saying turn down every side project or intern, but eventually you’ll need to stand up for yourself and explain that you can’t take on anymore- you need to focus.

I doubt this is an exhaustive list, or universally applicable. But, if you’re at least THINKING about these things, you’ll get more out of those miserable years as a PhD student.

Any other important things for aspiring or new PhD students? Let’s hear them in the comments.


Nick Fahrenkopf on July 24th 2011 in Uncategorized

2 Responses to “How to make the most of your PhD (h/t @Katie_PhD)”

  1. KatiePhD responded on 24 Jul 2011 at 9:47 pm #

    Nice post! Thanks for the kind words. I agree, my title was a little misleading…but I made you look ;)

    I think you got all the top tips there. I’d be tempted to add “don’t be afraid to admit that you’ve lost focus”. I think a lot of grad students hide the fact that there are times when we struggle. The knock on effect of course is that every student then assumes that they are the only one to feel overwhelmed, and that just makes things worse.

    Oh and when someone posts on Facebook that they are “in lab 12 hours a day, 7 days a week”, remember that half of that time is probably spent on (you guessed it) Facebook.

  2. 10 Tips for how to get the most from your PhD. | responded on 28 Jul 2011 at 12:26 am #

    [...] on, Nick at “For Love of Sciences” wrote a list of tips that could help incoming and early PhD students get more out of their PhD.  Unfortunately, [...]

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