Completing a PhD: What worked for me

I defended my PhD on a Wednesday in November. One week later, I boarded a flight to Washington, D.C. from San Diego. I had sold almost all my furniture, donated books and clothing, and packed the rest of my belongings in cardboard boxes that my husband helped me schlep over to USPS. The day before my flight, I filed for my PhD. I had forms signed by each member of my committee, and held my breath as the administrator flipped through my dissertation to ensure that every margin, header, and sub-section met regulations.

I arrived in DC 10 days before starting a new job. In those days I attended a conference, unpacked the few belongings I had shipped, made multiple trips to Target to supplement, and celebrated Thanksgiving with family.

When I started work, I was intellectually overwhelmed by the social and scientific issues I would be working on, the research methods I would hone, and my brilliant colleagues.

With this rapid and major transition, I didn’t have much mental energy to devote to reflecting on my PhD process immediately following my defense. But it’s been a few months, and I have some of that energy now.

I defended my PhD just over four years after I started grad school. In the US, and starting this process just months after earning my Bachelor’s degree, this was pretty quick. But I didn’t start grad school with the goal of finishing quickly; the process of earning a PhD is so much more important than the end point that racing to finish will, in many cases, seriously detract from the quality of research someone produces and their experience along the way. Finishing quickly is not the reason that I feel that my PhD experience was “successful.” However, I am proud that my research was high-quality, that I had a positive experience in grad school (overall I loved it!), and that I had enough of a sense of what I wanted for myself intellectually and professionally after four years that it made sense to finish.

Here’s what worked for me.

 

Granular Planning: For Academic Expedience

A PhD is a multi-year project, so there’s no way around planning. I think it’s a natural strategy to work on breaking the massive project down into smaller ones, and maybe breaking those smaller ones down further, to generate a timeline, and I certainly did this (again, recalibrating often). But my work plans were more granular than that. I often set goals for the week, and for each day, and then scheduled the time specific time that I would do each task (usually scheduling specifics about two days in advance). I was also conscientious about the time of day I scheduled different types of work for. For me, mornings are great for deep work, like challenging statistical analyses and writing, so those tasks were scheduled for mornings. Whenever possible, afternoons were reserved for meetings and reading.

Probably not surprisingly, my weeks almost never went exactly as they were initially scheduled. Some tasks took longer than I had anticipated, and sometimes things just came up and plans were derailed. Luckily, Google Calendar is forgiving. It lets you drag and extend or move entries, which can encourage user flexibility.

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But there was always a default plan for how I’d use time, and that was huge. I never sat down at my desk and wondered what I should work on. Even when I had short gaps between meetings or classes, I had deliberately decided what I’d spend that time doing in advance. Without that default plan, I’d inevitably start mindlessly checking email, Facebook, and Twitter and going down rabbit holes until the next commitment.

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Introspection: For Charting and Changing Course

I’m introspective by nature — constantly asking myself, What do I like about my situation? What do I not like? What are my personal and professional values and priorities, and how do they fit into my current situation? Sometimes I wrote my responses down. Other times I just talked about them with people I’m close to, or reflected while commuting or jogging.

It’s been invaluable to continually recalibrate my actions and goals when I realize my current situation doesn’t line up with my values and priorities. What I wanted last year might not be what I want today, and my actions tomorrow should reflect that acknowledgment.

For me, quality introspection requires down time. I can’t reflect on how well my daily life aligns with my broader ideals if I have no break from that daily life, if I’m constantly working. I’ve made space for hobbies like crafting (crochet, knit, and greeting cards) and exercising (training for my first half marathon in my first year of grad school did wonders for my mental health and introspection).

Non-Research Research: For Ideas and Opportunities

Reflection can only get you so far when it comes to figuring out what you want to do after earning a PhD. You also need to gather ideas to give you something to reflect on and seek out opportunities that will make it possible to achieve your goals. PhD students hone their critical thinking and information-finding skills, which can be applied to “non-research research” — idea- and opportunity-seeking outside your academic research.

There are many ways to do this non-research research, so individuals can find what’s best for them. For me, Twitter was a huge conduit for this research. I followed accounts related to my interests (psychology and cognitive science, language and linguistics, science communication), my location (university and city), and people I came across in real life or online who intrigued me. I follow the digital magazine Aeon, for example, and one day stumbled upon an article by Michael Erard on his work as a “metaphor designer,” which put FrameWorks, a communications think tank, on my radar. Today, I work there.

Twitter’s use of hashtags makes it easy to discover more accounts to follow and to find specific content. For example, I learned about ComSciCon, the communicating science workshop for graduate students, by browsing #scicomm. I’ve written about ComSciCon numerous times, so for now I’ll just note that my involvement in this group has been incredibly influential for the path I’ve taken and where I am today.

To sum up…

It’s important to take an active role in your PhD progress and your post-PhD prospects. My own PhD “success” is largely thanks to consistent planning, introspection, and curiosity.


Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

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Faith in science

We have a bit of a science problem in America. For some reason, our students aren’t learning it very well, or at least not as well as they are in many other countries. Most people seem to acknowledge this issue and advocate for an improvement in our education.

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And if students aren’t learning it, that probably means that adults, even those who are generally educated and motivated, probably have some conceptual gaps too (for example, when asked whether the earth orbits the sun or the sun orbits the earth – a question that gives people a 50% chance of getting it right if they guessed blindly! – only 74% of Americans correctly reported that the earth orbits the sun). Our widespread knowledge gaps are Problem Number 1.

A related problem is that many people tend to distrust science. For one, science is not always right on the first try (eggs are bad for your cholesterol! No wait, eggs are good for you!). Relatedly, some people do actually do crappy science (Problem Number 2), and other times good science gets reported badly (Problem Number 3). The recent “study” that recruited a very small number of participants, gave half of them chocolate, measured a ton of correlations to find a few that would reveal significant results, and published these results in a phony journal highlighted this. This hoax demonstrated both bad science and exaggerated, sensational reporting, and people who were initially fooled into believing that chocolate is the key to weight loss probably feel duped – rightfully so.

Problems 1-3 are a recipe for societal skepticism about science. It’s really difficult to evaluate science even when you’re being trained as a scientist, let alone if all of your training is in an entirely different field. Science can easily seem foreign, unrelatable, and unreliable. Who has the power to do something about this? Prominent scientists could maybe help sway the public’s opinion, but we might need a revolution in our cultural ethos towards science, and old people are rarely behind revolutions. What about wide-eyed and idealistic science grad students?

In a few hours, I’ll be on a plane heading to ComSciCon, a workshop on communicating science for grad students. The goal is to help us become better at communicating our own science as well as other people’s science – hopefully a step towards society’s impending science ethos revolution.