Hello prospective Doctoral students. After barely 6 months into my PhD, I have come to realize how important it is to have a mentor who can guide you with both your personal and social lives besides just academics.
Someone you could go to with the silliest questions that you might have as you start a new life from scratch in a new place.
So this post is all about why you need to try and find one as soon as you can after reaching your dream university and also about highlighting some of the key factors that I think play a crucial role in shaping you as a Doctoral student.
Firstly, coming to a new country altogether as a student, in itself can be pretty daunting to some.
Getting acquainted to the drastically different climate, the language, the accent, the culture, the public norms and moreover a much diverse group of people who have been brought up differently and have varied beliefs and attitudes takes considerable time. Fairly a semester I’d say.
Not only that but living alone takes some courage too. Especially for those who have never stayed out of their parents’ before.
Being solely responsible for one’s own housing, dishes, laundry, cooking, managing finances and after all keeping oneself motivated to study and work seems quite a feat for a beginner. Doesn’t it?
Not to worry. You shall cope up with time. Everyone does. As long as you go with the flow with a smile on your face and not consider it a huge unachievable task in your mind.
Now here, getting accustomed to the new culture will be a cake walk for those of you who are pretty extroverted. In fact, you will enjoy the whole process of meeting new people, getting to know their cultures, their beliefs, their interaction styles and attitudes. Trust me, it will be fun!
However, for those few of you who like to keep to themselves, it’s going to be a bit of a task. But again, nothing concerning.
I know you’re primarily more inclined towards your work but having a social life will be beneficial in the future.
“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham (www.phdcomics.com)
Remember, you’re going to be spending at least 4 years of your life in that same university and so mostly amongst the same people. Hence it’s always better to at least make an attempt to meet new people and have a small if not a large group of friends.
Secondly, let’s talk a bit about the indecisive frame of mind that you get into at the start of your PhD.
Not unusual at all! Now this is the period while you’re still trying to figure out what a PhD is all about and what is expected from you in terms of research apart from taking courses and if at all teaching.
Trust me it takes a few months for that responsibility to sink in. At least for me, it did.
And mind you it’s perfectly human for you to be in double minds about the PhD or your research or your advisor and doesn’t make you inferior to or less competitive than your peers.
In fact, the only thing it portrays is that you’re being honest to yourself about your likes and dislikes, which many people by the way, lack the courage to.
They are too much into judging themselves to realize what it is they actually love doing.
And if I were to advise you, it’s always better off to politely avoid opinions from such people if you ever happen to come across them.
How to do that you ask? Simply nod your head to whatever they preach and ultimately do what YOU want to!
Getting to know your research
Coming on to the core of a PhD – Research!
Now, irrespective of whether or not you have a strong theoretical base of your subject, performing research is a different ballgame altogether.
Here, you might slightly have an upper hand if you have done some hands-on work in your research area.
If not, you initially need to gain a fair understanding if not thorough, of what it is that you are going to be researching. And gaining this understanding takes a lot of reading which obviously takes a hell lot of time.
At first, it may seem overwhelming because reading and comprehending scientific literature that reports all the previous findings in your research area or a related field isn’t an easy task to accomplish.
Not just that, you also got to learn the techniques that you might need to use for performing your experiments.
Yes, you may take certain courses designed to teach you how to efficiently perform those techniques but mostly it’s going to be you trying to understand it by reading about it in someone else’s published research or some company’s manual.
Getting to know your Advisor
Ahhhh… If you ask me personally, I’d say prior to knowing your research, it’s more important to know your advisor. Why?
The reason being it is this very person whom you are going to be constantly interacting with for the next 5 years of your life and hence it makes sense to not only know him professionally by going through all his previous work but even as a person.
Believe it or not, knowing a few of his likes and dislikes, interests and hobbies shall help you connect better with him.
Now, that doesn’t mean you bug him/her every day asking what he/she’s been up to OR invite him to enjoy a game of football over beer OR I don’t know what it is that girls do when they hangout, have a friendly chat maybe.
NO! Remember one thing, unlike most of us Indians, people are not very social here and like to have their own space.
However, a weekly conversation of his/her whereabouts and activities outside of lab won’t hurt.
OK. Now, if you’re going to be teaching partly during your graduate studies as a teaching assistant, buckle up to put in 10 more hours of work every week as compared to a research assistant post. Why?
Because now you not only have to take courses and perform research but also teach and grade undergraduates if you wish to get paid.
Now it’s pretty obvious that teaching is not everybody’s cup of tea and so you need to develop additional skills for being an effective and efficient communicator without being condescending to your students. And believe me the latter part of the previous sentence needs to be taken more seriously because students get offended pretty easily here.
And trust me you do not want to deal with complaints wherein students feel insulted in your class or lab. It’s a nightmare.
So if you’re going to be teaching as a graduate student, start building your patience from now on and learn to fake that smile on your face even if you’re utterly disgusted at a student’s answer or by his/her performance on the quiz or a practical.
The only advice I could possibly give you here is to be thorough enough with your presentations, be considerate and to not get too emotionally attached to your students. The less you care, the more at ease you will be.
At last, coming on to your pretty limited spare time. Now during your first semester since you would not have made a bunch of friends, you shall mostly find yourself chilling alone at home whenever you’re free.
Doing what? Self-analysis! That’s correct!
You will have all sorts of questions bubbling up in your minds
- Am I sleeping enough or oversleeping?
- Am I sticking to the schedule I made?
- Am I eating right?
- How much money am I spending?
- What is it that I’m spending the most on?
- How can I save up more?
- Am I well ahead of all the deadlines or not?
- Am I reading enough?
And he most dreaded question of all, am I good enough to get through the PhD?
I kid you not but these are just a few of the plethora of questions that you shall come up with.
Now constructive introspection is always useful in some or the other manner because every single time it tells you something new about yourself.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a positive or a negative quality. Discovering and accepting yourself is the best thing you could possibly do and mind you it’s not easy. It takes courage.
Having said that, it is very important to realize that you need to keep a check on these thoughts of yours to keep them from jeopardizing your self-image and confidence.
You see, empty vessels make more noise. So the moment you notice the noise going beyond limits, fill your vessel.
Get BUSY! Always have a hobby or some activity that you really love doing to your rescue.
Something that makes you feel lively and worthy. That shall keep you on track without losing your minds.
With that, I would pretty much like to wrap up my write up without sounding like a consulting agent. I’ve tried to be as honest as I can in giving you insights into the initial months of starting one’s PhD.
Now I do plan to specifically write more about time management and organizational skills that one needs to develop as a PhD student and maybe what a typical working week of a researcher looks like.
Apart from that if there is anything that you guys want me to specifically elaborate more about, kindly let me know through your comments and I shall be more than happy to shed some light onto those topics in my next blog post.
Lastly, if you find this post helpful and wish to read more of my work, you can always visit my blog, wherein I recently shared one of my most enthralling and motivating experiences of 2013. A good read for all you fellow dreamers.
About the Author:Ankush Korisetar is aPhD student in USA.