Doctoral education is a funny thing: a long, late in life preparation for life that takes up a significant proportion of one’s life. One of the key requirements for success is stability, and the challenge of maintaining a sound mind, body, and life arrangement poses a very real threat throughout the duration of one’s studies. Transitory mental illness is pretty much a given, and unfounded feelings of inferiority may derail anyone’s progress. Further, while the pay may be sufficient to make ends meet, the lifestyle affords little margin for error. Few professionals would ever accept a job projecting no raises for five years outside of academia.
Given these costs, it is important to maintain clear goals and strategies for extracting the maximal benefit from your stay. Such beliefs don’t have to be rational, but they do need to be motivating. Following is a list of general tips I’ve picked up along the way for tackling these challenges:
1. Make yourself indispensable to interesting people:
Per the stability section, the odds of one getting through their doctoral program without facing some sudden existential threat are slim to none. Funding is often a zero sum game and life happens quickly. Five years is a very long time, and in that time people will be born, get married, get sick, and die. One of these happening close to you can very quickly change your perspective as well as your arrangements. Likewise, changes in politics at any level can threaten your funding, especially if your work doesn’t fit a convenient, long term establishment narrative.
At the start of your graduate career you will have little to no meaningful power. When faced with such threats your first line of defense will be your merits. Do you bring funding in to the department? How about collaboration, interesting data sets, or recognition? Regardless of how you do it, your first goal in starting a doctoral program should be to become exceptionally useful at something such that your loss will be missed. The chopping block is coming, find a reason not to be on it.
2. Have selfish goals, seek altruistic solutions:
There is a theory of morality known as rational egoism. It essentially states that no one is truly moral in the ideal sense, all altruistic acts are performed for a perceived benefit. Even renowned altruists such as Mother Teresa stated a specific, direct enjoyment in doing what they were doing. Such should be your path in grad school. Within grad school, you should have a clear and identifiable purpose for every unselfish deed you commit, even if it simply makes you feel good.
A wise friend of mine once said that he will only do favors for his friends if he wants to. He reasoned that the underlying goal of a favor is to strengthen the friendship. If he was to extend himself and perform a favor he did not wish to do, the resulting stress would only breed resentment and in turn weaken the friendship. Within graduate school there will be endless opportunities to reach out, to try a new thing, and chances to make someone’s pet project a reality. You won’t have time for all of this. Tackle as many as you can, but tackle that which you can do well, which you will enjoy doing, and that which will help you tell your story first.
3. Know what people do, know what people need:
There was an old adage in business to business sales that one must listen for the language of need. Many people have unused talents sitting around waiting for their day. Many people also have dreams and goals just beyond the reach of their abilities. By taking a careful mental note of those in your network’s core talents you will accelerate the progression of interdisciplinary research within your periphery. By knowing what people need, be it on an individual or aggregate scale, you can guarantee an eager audience for your work or that of your peers. Network centrality is a thing, by playing matchmaker between those whom require and those whom possess key skills you will also make yourself an indispensable source of information. Outside collaborators who valued your talents as a student may go to great lengths to keep you proximal as a graduate.
4. Avoid petty rivalries:
Anywhere there is competition there will be strife, and graduate school is extremely competitive. Stanford students were willing to torture their peers based upon the results of a coin flip, and people get punched in the face daily for wearing the wrong team’s jersey to the wrong bar. While most researchers may be mature enough to handle their differences properly, it only takes one simmering personality conflict to drastically alter one’s life course. Likewise, given the rigors and stressors of doctoral education, I firmly believe that no one enters such a program without at least one glaring personality flaw; try to stay on the right side of everyone’s flaws.
In a previous, more contentious field of study my survival strategy was this: hiking and mushrooms. For anyone I’d observed frequently speaking ill of others or who otherwise triggered my spider sense, these were the only things I’d discuss with them. It was interesting enough to be memorable, maybe even to be shared with others, yet simultaneously too boring to take a strong opinion on. No good can come of picking factions wrought by meaningless in-group rivalries.
5. Have a hobby:
As a doctoral student you will be working on mostly one thing for five years. The odds of staying within your capacity for boredom during that time are almost negligible. You need something that engages the mind and encourages learning and development that has nothing to do with the primary course of your studies. Sure, perhaps you may build some talents that later feed into it, but it cannot be your main work.
Many people will claim they have no time for a hobby. Unless you are working a second job or caring for others this is most likely patently untrue. You could spend 4 hours a night on facebook and netflix and find yourself a depressed zombie, or you could spend the same time tinkering and up your joie de vivre game. It doesn’t have to be something of any merit, utility or importance, but it should be something you’re excited to tell others about after your 203rd time explaining the differing activity levels of northern swamp grass and southern swamp grass carboxylase.
Grad school is stressful, you will spend prolonged periods of time sleep and nutritionally stressed, sitting in a chair and drenched in adrenaline. There’s also a pretty good chance you’ll up your use and abuse of alcohol, caffeine, and/ or nicotine. If you don’t do something to vent this stress you will knock years off your life and the quality of your work will suffer. Pick an activity that takes you around beautiful things and inspires you and do it often.
7. Understand the value of adding lines to your resume:
Through the course of grad school you may find yourself embroiled in activities that sound amazing on paper but seem to serve little purpose. Clubs, honor societies, who’s who among american highs school students and the like. While a full resume may prove invaluable in seeking employment, employers are also pretty skilled at detecting fluff. If an effort does not fall into one of your hobbies or increase your ability to affect change in your field, consider not spending all that much on it. There is a veritable industry in leadership academies, student ambassador programs, test prep courses and the like that cost thousands yet provide little for their adherents.
This also applies to massive open online courses, or MOOCs. MOOCs are the crisper (crispr amirite?) drawer of academics: they are where good intentions go to die. Unless a course is directly sanctioned by your employer, your odds of completing an unessential task under the pressure of mounting obligations are low. Consider making it a hobby instead.
8. Know your limitations, know your niche:
The impostor’s complex is strong with academia. You will be surrounded by the best and the brightest at extremely narrow tasks. It is important to recognize the presence of this specialization and recognize that you cannot learn everything. Hard logic types may excel in computational and mathematical skills, yet flounder in realms of creativity and fuzzy logic. Fuzzy logic types may grasp the subtle interplay of nebulous forces in biology and medicine, yet lack the retention for the strict delineations of the quantitative fields. Each type may be useful, and if one has a grasp of their networks’ needs and talents one may quickly overcome their own shortcomings through collaboration. Conversely, if you possess two talents seldom found in the same person, consider leveraging that advantage as often as possible.
9. Over-commit, but know when to quit:
Graduate school is an excellent time for acquiring new skills and specializations absent profit motives. Failure is accepted and often encouraged if the periodic successes prove novel and interesting. It’s an excellent time to broaden one’s web to as many fields, collaborators, projects, and organizations as possible. But, one should have a very carefully tuned concept of the value of each.
Early on in my doctoral career I enrolled in Network Science, a PhD level mathematics course which promised to be accessible to those of all disciplines. Emboldened by my newfangled grown-up work ethic I thought I could hack it. I couldn’t. I’ve never been a mathematician and my brain rejects hard logic fields with impunity. Four weeks into the class, I reasoned that if I restructured my life to spend about 20 hours a week studying for the course I stood a pretty good chance of passing and keeping the thousand spent on tuition up until that point. A wiser friend clued me into the sunken cost fallacy. That thousand dollar was already lost, nothing was going to bring it back, and by staying in the course I would most likely sacrifice 20 hours a week, receive a poor grade if I even managed to pass, and waste the full two thousand dollars. I dropped the course the next day. It is far better to bow out gracefully when one is over their head than to ride a sinking ship to catastrophe.
10. Don’t get a kitten:
Seriously, don’t. They’re cute and all, but sleep is pretty nice too. Older cats wont attack your face while you’re sleeping, multiple times, while yowling. Just don’t do it.