Thriving while PhDing, Part 1: Academic Resources

As I’m wrapping up my PhD, I’ve been reflecting a lot (my alternative is to write my dissertation, so…). How have I gotten where I am? What are the ingredients that have helped me develop a research program on the relationship between metaphor and cognition, to present and publish this work? What wisdom have I absorbed as I’ve woven eleven experiments into a behemoth of a thesis?

I credit much of my own success to many resources that other people have been generous enough to create and share. Here I’ve compiled a list of my favorites — those that provided ideas or skills that I latched onto and others that I wish I had discovered earlier.

General Guides & PhD Advice

  • Philip Guo’s (free!) PhD memoir: It’s awesome to read about someone else’s experience doing a PhD, even though much of the PhD process differs greatly from one person to the next.
  • So long, and thanks for the Ph.D.! by Ronald Azuma: Discussing many of the most important traits for success in a PhD program, including initiative, tenacity, flexibility, interpersonal skills, organization skills, and communication skills. Azuma also includes insights on choosing an advisor and committee, keeping perspective while in grad school, and seeking a job after.
  • Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students by Stephen Stearns: This one has some points and that I especially appreciate now, at the tail end of my PhD, like psychological problems are the biggest barriers and avoid taking lectures — they’re usually inefficient.
  • Ten types of PhD supervisor relationships – which is yours? by Susanna Chamberlain. Every advisor is unique, so might not actually fit into these 10 types, but your relationship with them is crucial for your mental help and academic success. Put in the effort to figure out the dos and don’ts of working with your supervisor, and take managing that relationship very seriously.
  • How to manage your PhD supervisor by Kevin O’Gorman & Robert MacIntosh. This topic is seriously really important. This piece includes concrete recommendations.
  • Five things successful PhD students refuse to do by Dr. Isaiah Hankel. Because what you don’t do is sometimes just as important as what you do.
  • Deliberate Grad School by Andrew Critch. The point is simple, yet something that’s really hard to remember when you’re entrenched in a PhD: “you have to be deliberate to get the most out of a PhD program, rather than passively expecting it to make you into anything in particular.” This article is focused on the ways you can actually make the world a better place while working on your PhD, which I find a really productive way to think about the process.
  • A survival guide to starting and finishing a PhD by Nathan Yau. A post in which the author reflects on what he’d tell his pre-PhD self if he could go back in time. His heartening conclusion: “A PhD can be fun if you let it.”
  • The N=1 guide to grad school (and hopefully, knowledge work) by Adam Marcus, with friends. Some of the advice here applies mainly to computer science, but it’s a thorough and interesting read with plenty more links contained within for those who want to go down the grad school rabbit hole.

Intangibles

  • Academic “older siblings”: These people don’t need to actually be older than you, they just need to have some wisdom and background in your field that you admire. Ideally, they’re not faculty, but are instead grad students or post docs, since they’ll be much more likely to have time to walk you through that new analysis or might be better at identifying with your grad school troubles. My academic older sibs were not in my lab, but our research areas were similar. It was always a morale boost to be able to learn from and emulate people a few steps ahead of me in their academic careers.
  • Talks and questions: Go to as many talks as you can in your first couple of years. Pay attention to the way the speaker frames their topic — what kinds of information are they telling the audience? How do they weave theory and experiments together? How do they present their findings? What kinds of questions do people in the audience ask? This will provide implicit learning opportunities. Before you can do great research, you have to truly internalize what great research in your field is. Reading papers is another way to do so, but I found the in-person observation experiences to be irreplaceable.
  • Contribute to the academic community: It’s important to pull yourself out of your own work and participate in your intellectual community. You can pick up beer for happy hour, cook a dish for the department holiday party, or volunteer more regularly. I spent one year as the grad student rep at faculty meetings, which taught me tons about the dynamics of the department and allowed me to make sure grad student voices were heard when topics of interest to us were discussed. I also spent two years as the larger Cognitive Science Society’s grad student rep, and contributed to the society website and social media, served on a committee to assist scientists who couldn’t come to our annual conference because of the travel ban, and created an event at the conference to offer a professional development opportunity to grad students. It’s important to do things like this because we depend on our departments and societies to support and promote our work, and it sometimes has unexpected personal benefits too, since influential people in your field now know who you are and that you can get stuff done.

Specific Skill Resources

If you’re in a science field, there will probably be technical skills you need to learn or improve for your research. For me, that was mainly programming: I had to figure out efficient ways to implement experiments on the computer, often online, and to analyze the data they generated.

  • Data Science courses from Johns Hopkins on Coursera. I did a handful of these courses, and they were helpful for learning to use R for statistical analyses. A strength of these courses was that they gave a good sense of context, so I could actually apply the principles they discussed to my own data. Importantly, you do not need to pay for these. You can audit every class in the series.
  • R Resources. Dan Mirman’s Cheat Sheet here is extremely helpful. It’s well-organized so that even when you’re not quite sure what function you’re looking for, you have a sense of where on the sheet to look. Once you find the function, the sheet tells you how to use it.
  • How much statistics do psychological scientists need to know? Also, a reading list by Xenia Schmalz. Her answer to “how much statistics…?” is “As much as possible,” which resonates with my experience. I actually just recently found this guide so haven’t taken advantage of many of the resources suggested, but they look great.
  • Statistics Tutorials by Bodo Winter. Linear models and mixed models have become extremely popular in my field, because they allow you to model your data and understand how much variance your factors (as main effects and interactions) explain, while also taking individual participants and stimuli into account. Because they’re so powerful, they’re also a bit complicated to learn, but I’ve returned to Bodo Winter’s tutorials many times because they describe what’s really going on when you use these models and include detailed examples.
  • jsPsych by Josh de Leeuw. jsPsych is a “JavaScript library for creating and running behavioral experiments in a web browser,” which is incredibly useful for making experiments available to a broader audience than the typical participant pool (undergraduates who can participate in person) and for collecting data quickly. There’s thorough documentation, a tutorial for getting started, and a Google group for getting help when you hit snags. I used jsPsych for at least half of the experiments that have made it into my dissertation.
  • Research Digest: Thinking about Statistics by Christopher Madan. A great reading list covering statistics concepts to actually help you understand what all your numbers and analyses mean.

These lists just scratch the surface of resources that have helped me thrive academically while working on my PhD. Please let me know if you have other favorites I should consider adding.

In my next post, I’ll continue to share resources that have been crucial to my success in grad school, but this time I’ll focus on my top personal resources — things that helped me stay healthy, both physically and mentally, and motivated to do my work.

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Riding the Grad School Motorcycle

From my journal, October 2013, about one month after I began grad school:

This morning when my alarm went off I was deep in a dream – a rare experience for me. I was learning to ride a motorcycle, and my learning method was just to go for a ride on the highway. As I was picking up speed on the ramp, I yelled to my dad’s friend, on a motorcycle beside me, “How do I shift gears?!” His reply: “With your hands.” That much I knew. If you know how to ride a motorcycle, maybe “with your hands” is an adequate explanation of how you shift gears. Since I’ve never driven one, just knowing I had to use my hands did not seem like useful information.

I was puzzled by where this dream was coming from until I remembered that today was my day to lead a seminar discussion on 120+ pages of material that I barely grasped. A little like learning to ride a motorcycle by just speeding ahead and giving it a try. The advice to shift “with my hands” is also pretty analogous to the advice I’ve gotten since I’ve started grad school. The answer may as well have been: “figure it out.” Luckily, the negative consequence of not figuring it out is much harsher in my dream than in real life.

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On top of Trinity Mt at 300ft by Craig Howell. CC

Maybe this dream was some unconscious way of coping with my stress, or maybe it was just a coincidence. But almost 3 and a half years later, I still really like the analogy. The whole point of academic research is to uncover knowledge that is currently unknown by anyone. With that task, it’s often hard to give concrete advise on how to do things. People can give vague advice like shift with your hands (or find a work-life balance or communicate your science clearly), but those pieces of advice are often followed by the question how? and that answer is more elusive. That can be stressful.

But it can also make research so much fun.

Choose your own framing.

Dear Future Grad Students

These next couple of days are Open House in the Cognitive Science department at UCSD. Prospective PhD students submitted applications in December, and a subset were invited to visit this weekend. A subset of those visitors will be invited to begin their PhDs in our department in the fall. The two days will include one-on-one interviews with faculty; department lunches, dinners and happy hour; lab, campus, and beach tours; and most likely, exhaustion.


Dear Future Grad Students,

I’ve been thinking about you all week. I vividly remember my own visit here 4 years ago, and each year as Open House approaches, I find it useful to reflect back.

I left snowy New York in February and was greeted by a typical San Diego sunny afternoon. It was my first time in California, which is basically a mystical land to lifelong New Englanders like me. Even before going to campus, I walked to La Jolla Cove. I was hangry because I didn’t have enough snacks for my cross-country flight, but as soon as I had a few bites of food, I realized I was in love with San Diego. And as soon as I realized I was in love, I started thinking, oh no. No, no, no. Don’t fall in love. You haven’t been accepted yet.

The next day on campus, we were told that the department was not just interviewing us, the candidates, but we were also interviewing them, deciding if this was the place we wanted to be. They’d be on their best behavior. Ah! Please don’t woo me, I haven’t been accepted yet!

It was a great weekend. I met interesting people, and one in particular ended up in a grad program elsewhere, but became a great friend. I heard about fascinating research that had never crossed my radar. I saw the beach, and I saw so much Cog Sci enthusiasm.

But I was also stressed. I wanted to come to UCSD. I wanted to be part of the community of researchers doing mind-blowing work on language and cognition. It didn’t feel like a want then, though. Definitely a need.

I’d like to think I handled those feelings maturely. I took a red-eye back to New York, and once back in my apartment, I called my mom bawling. What if I don’t get accepted? Can I possibly apply again next year? But could I face rejection twice? (This was the question on my mind before I had even been rejected once).

Version 2
After my teary phone call to my mom, I went to a formal at West Point with my then-boyfriend, now-husband Steven. Happy on the outside, frantic inside.

To state the obvious, I was accepted. Of course my reaction seems ludicrous now. And most of you are not going to feel or bawl like I did. But you’ll have your own stress, your own feelings, and your own reactions. And we, the current grad students (and likely the faculty), can relate. Four years ago, I wish I had been better able to acknowledge my stress and put it aside to savor the unique opportunity that just being at Open House provides. I fell a little short there, but you don’t have to.

I encourage you to take a moment to put your CV away, unclench your shoulders, and breathe. You’re here. No matter where you are in life, you have some direction of where you want to go. You have have solid, original ideas about Cognitive Science, and you successfully portrayed those in your application. Members of the UC San Diego Cognitive Science Department want to meet you. Whether you end up joining us here at UCSD or not, I hope you can enjoy these next couple of days. We are happy to have you.

Stay Curious,
Rose

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True. (This image and feature image: cogsci.ucsd.edu)

P.S. There are tons of resources with advice for choosing PhD programs. I take them all with more than a grain of salt — probably more like a McDonald’s super sized meal’s worth of salt. There are a few that really resonate with me though: