Everything I wish I knew when I was a Ph.D. student
I was recently invited to give a keynote address at a Ph.D. student conference. The topic on which I was asked to speak is: “Everything I wish I knew when I was a Ph.D. student.” I now want to share the key insights with you.
I always imagine how different my life would be today if I were able to go back in time and have a word with my younger self. I could have avoided so many mistakes, but, alas, it’s too late for me. But if you’re just getting started with your Ph.D. this blog entry is just in time for you.
So here they are. My advice to you is:
LOOK AFTER YOUR PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH. Our work culture centers around long hours and weekends in the lab. Our standard salutations usually involve some outrageous claim of how hard we’ve been working. “My grant application was due today. I only slept four hours last night on the floor of my office.” It’s almost as if we take pride in our sacrifices to the sciences gods. But trust me. Everyone has a breaking point. I’ve reached mine several times. It’s called burnout, and it is debilitating. It usually starts as psychological distress that spills over into physical/ psychosomatic symptoms. Success in academia is a long-game and it’s predicated on good physical and mental health. This means stepping back from time to time and disengaging from your work.
FIND YOURSELF A GOOD MENTOR (WHO’S NOT YOUR SUPERVISOR). Relationships between Ph.D. students and supervisors break down all the time. When they do, you’ll have literally no one to turn to. The power dynamic is too strong for you to overcome by yourself. When things do head south, you will need advice from a trusted mentor. Find another professor, not necessarily in your department or even your university, and regularly meet up with him or her over coffee. Trust me. I have seen supervisory relationships break down and they rarely end well for the student.
SUBMIT YOUR FIRST PAPER BY THE END OF THE FIRST YEAR. I should preface this piece of advice by saying that this objective is secondary to the first one mentioned above. But let’s not fool ourselves. Although we can’t work too hard, we still have to work hard. Given: (1) that the academic job market requires publications at the time of appointment to Assistant Professor and (ii) it takes, on average, two to three years to get a paper accepted, you need to start playing the game early. At the end of the first year, make it your goal to have one paper under review.
CO-AUTHOR, BUT ALSO SINGLE AUTHOR. Single authored papers send a message to search committees: “I can do this on my own. I’m not riding in anyone’s coattails.” This is a strong message that is likely to put your application at the top of the pile. But I strongly advise against only single authored papers at the start of your career. This was a mistake I made. I missed out on two important benefits of co-authoring: (1) exploiting the synergies of tackling a question from different perspectives and (2) exploiting the name recognition, and therefore citations, of senior authors. Just adding one “big name” to your paper as a Ph.D. student will dramatically increase your citation count.
FOR YOUR FIRST PAPER, AIM HIGH, BUT NOT TOO HIGH. How many times have I seen Ph.D. students who only submit to the top journals in their fields? More than I’d like to. This is a huge gamble. If you slide one through the net, it could pay off big time. Got a publication in Nature or Science? Academy of Management Journal? American Economic Review? Your tenure track job is in the bag. But your chances of success in these journals are extremely low. More often than not, you’ll end up with nothing to show for it. There are top journals, and there are top-of-the-top journals. Don’t be afraid to submit to those lowly top journals because they’re infinitely better than nothing.
VOLUNTEER TO PEER REVIEW. My own writing improved by leaps and bounds after I joined my first editorial board. There’s just something about seeing others’ mistakes that keeps you from making the same ones. Obviously, Ph.D. students don’t just end up on editorial boards, but you can certainly register yourself as a peer reviewer. You can also send an editor a gentle e-mail expressing a willingness to review. As an editor myself, trust me when I say that’s music to our ears.
PAY MORE THAN JUST LIP SERVICE TO TEACHING. Times are changing in research intensive universities (like my own). Of course, internationally excellent research is necessarily—always will be—but it’s not sufficient. Increasingly, universities are demanding excellent teaching, even from their star researchers. As governments spend less on research and universities depend more on student tuition fees, you will be expected to deliver in the classroom. If you can’t, it will seriously hold back your promotion (maybe not indefinitely, but certainly for some time).
ACCEPT THAT ACADEMIA IS NOT FOR EVERYONE. This is a hard pill to swallow. I understand. You work so hard to produce an original piece of research that advances our understanding of the arts or sciences, and then you find out that, in spite of your best efforts, you cannot land a tenure-track job. The reality is that there simply aren’t enough of them out there to cope with the number of Ph.D. students graduating. You need to prepare yourself in advance for the possibility of a non-academic career, and there is no shame in this at all. In fact, if you play your cards right in industry, you can end up making more than an academic anyway!
There you have it. I hope you can really take something away from this blog to help position yourself better in the labor market, and in life. I love working as a professor, but there is a darkness to our profession and the best way to combat it is through clear expectations and diligent preparation.