How to be a successful psych PhD student?
January 5, 2009 5:05 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to be entering a research-oriented doctoral program in clinical or counseling psychology this fall. Any tips on how to be a student who gets the most out of graduate school and prepares optimally for a successful academic career?
posted by shivohum to Education (13 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Apart for the obvious stuff like keeping up with current developments in your field by reading the relevant journals and being extremely disciplined about your workload, the most important thing (IMHO) in terms of building a career in academia is to submit/publish papers as frequently as possible and/or go to all the relevant conferences in your field and network, network, network!
posted by Chairboy at 5:23 AM on January 5, 2009

I think the best thing you can do is keep an eye out for a successful but kind/sympathetic grad student to have as a mentor (officially or not). They'll give you the real scoop on courses, professors, finding opportunities, publishing norms for your department, etc. If you don't make friends with the person, still keep an eye on these types of people and model yourself on them (keeping in mind that you're x years behind them). You won't be a superstar right out of the gate.

If you're wary about Chairboy's networking suggestion, remember to start small. You don't have to brazenly walk up to the biggest star in your field and make friends. Just make connections with grad students in your department (incredibly important), then make connections with students in other departments. Grad students in other departments (at other schools) can introduce you to their advisors, and then you're networking with professors without too much effort. However, you shouldn't be afraid to send the occasional super-professional email to a professor whose work you admire. Advanced grad students will help you figure out what's appropriate in your field.
posted by parkerjackson at 7:00 AM on January 5, 2009

Seconding parkerjackson, that's exactly what I would have said if I'd thought about it for a bit longer (and not been rushing to do something else x 3 - do you see the importance of discipline now? :)
posted by Chairboy at 7:11 AM on January 5, 2009

Treat going to grad school like a job - establish a routine, i.e., you will be in your office from 9-5 every weekday. Schedule your research time.

Establish a system for tracking your research, notes, papers (you've read, will cite, etc.) right away. You will need some of those papers the rest of your life, and you don't want to be 2 years into your program wondering - who wrote that paper again...? Use a system like Evernote, a wiki, or a .pdf cataloging program that allows you to tag & bag.

Learn how to use an excellent statistics program and an excellent illustration program like Corel Draw or Adobe Illustrator if you haven't already. Learn some basic graphic design principles. Follow an excellent presentation blog like Presentation Zen.

But most of all, remember the 2 P's: Passion & practice. Practice practice practice, in whatever form it will take. Passion will take you where your mastery hasn't.

Networking is important but will (often) naturally follow mastery and passion. To get people to network with you, demonstrate passion and mastery. For someone else, the best way to capture, not just get, the attention and memory of a big-wig is to ask them a very good question about their research. 5 minutes of passionate discussion outside a conference hall will take you places that a "Hello, I'm blah, good talk!" won't.
posted by barchan at 7:24 AM on January 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Keep focused on problems of interest to you; don't just follow the money. Otherwise, it's hard to stay interested as the work gets hard.
posted by rbs at 8:07 AM on January 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

The best bit of advice I've heard for new grad students is to remember that a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint.

You love your subject and are burning with enthusiasm to get started and make your contribution to the field, so it's very tempting to dive in and work at the same pace as you did for your final undergrad exams. For most people, that pace is fun and very productive for a few months but unsustainable for the years you're planning to spend. So don't burn yourself out too early; instead adopt a working pace and routine that you'll be able to sustain in the long term.

Also, as much as possible get to know other grad students in your department, field and institution. Partly because it's a useful networking thing (I ended up co-authoring a cross-discipliniary paper with a grad I met with strictly social intentions) but mostly for the support. A PhD can be something of an emotional roller-coaster, so it's great to have a circle of understanding peers to help when your stress levels go through the roof and then to celebrate when you get some really cool new results.

On a lighter note, there are several online communities for PhD students. has a fun (and sometimes depressingly accurate) depiction of grad student life and two active forums. Pop across and have a look: "On Academia" is mostly talking about work, "The Vortex" is for de-stressing, ranting about supervisors, telling bad jokes and whatever else you feel like. It's good fun, if a little overwhelming at first!
posted by metaBugs at 8:09 AM on January 5, 2009

all of this is good advice, but i think it also takes for granted a) that academe will continue to exist according to a model that is actually pretty precarious, depending on your disclipline and that b) it should.

It's important to situate yourself realistically towards the dynamic nature of what it means to be doing a research-oriented PhD at this moment in the united states (i assume, perhaps foolishly, that's where you are). having an advanced degree doesn't guarantee you a job, by any means, and those jobs with security which are available are becoming increasingly scarce, making your chances of landing one smaller still. also, the academy is a deeply politicized place -- in both the ideological and the interpersonal sense. try hard to disabuse yourself early of any idealistic view to the contrary. if you are doing work that is more or less consistent with the prevailing episto-economic trends, you will probably be ok. if your work is critical in any serious way and/or difficult to instrumentalize, you will struggle.

One important thing is to prepare yourself to be overworked and underpaid. Depending on your circumstance, you will probably be doing research and/or teaching for a good portion of your time in the doctoral program -- which means that the university will be exploiting your labor in order to add value to its product at a bargain. This circumstance is exacerbated by the fact that your labor, as a graduate student, is deeply precarious (i.e. you're not really an employee, you generally can't unionize, you have no security and no benefits), but that such precarious labor is becoming, more and more, the industry standard.

A moderating note -- this is coming from someone just entering the dissertation phase of my own PhD, and I believe that going back to school was the best decision I have made in my adult life, professionally or otherwise. And one of the reasons why it's a good situation to be in is because it is full of bright, proactive people who are critical, and who are working, from various positions within the university, to make it better. Also, once I let go of most of even my most stubborn and tenacious fantasies about liberal education, I was able to reimagine my experience in a much more positive light.

Most importantly, I think, don't make the mistake of thinking of this as just another level of professional credentialling (unless, of course, you are primarily focused on being a clinician and not actually interested in research). Don't imagine that you are in school and waiting to join the workforce with an advanced degree -- you are part of the workforce, and the work you do for the university (particularly the teaching) is as important in this moment as it might be one day when you are more comfortable. With this in mind, take care of yourself as a worker and as an intellectual by following the advice of barchan and rbs -- the only reason to follow this path is if you are actually compelled enough by the subject and believe that you can sustain (or evolve) your interest over the long haul. you will be happier -- and you will be a better scholar if you stay realistic about what the university is, live your real life now, and strive to be intellectually honest about where you fit in to both the disciplinary knowledge to which you seek to contribute and the institutions in which you propose to do it.
posted by milkman at 11:17 AM on January 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Be very, very discerning about what the research projects are, so you don't end up surprised by projects you find ridiculous. Also, it's true what they say about choosing a mentor - they're like a spouse and a parent in one. Unless you're extremely independent, take someone up and coming over the rockstar who refuses to hold your hand to any extent. At least in my experience.
posted by namesarehard at 11:47 AM on January 5, 2009

Yeah, the "networking" thing is funny. The idea gave me the heebie-jeebies when I first started grad school. I think a lot of people who go into academia are similar — we aren't interested in being all high-powered and well-connected, we just want to work on the stuff that interests us. "Networking" sounds like something for the suits, not for us.

But in an academic context, "networking" really just means "talking to interesting people about interesting problems." And when I started looking at it that way, it got a whole lot less threatening.

Go to the talks your department hosts, and stick around afterwards for coffee. When questions occur to you that are too big and hairy to ask in class, ask them after class. Ask older students what they're working on. Stuff like that. You're doing this because you're interested in psychology, right? So, yeah, talk psychology with the people around you who are interested in it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:53 AM on January 5, 2009

A great way to get a sense of what is required for academic jobs in your field is to be the student rep on a hiring committee. Being a rep on other kinds of committees is good too, as it can give you a chance to meet professors who you don't take classes with and also help you learn about the dynamics of your department.

I agree with most of the advice above, but would add, don't get too married to the idea of a "productive schedule" (i.e. regulating your work from 9-5) unless that works particularly well for you. Time management is really critical in grad studies, and a little different than in less intellectual kinds of work (because "put more in" does not always equal "get more out"). Experiment around with some different modes of working, keeping in mind (in light of the marathon comment) that you should schedule some time each day and week for yourself, allowing grad duties to impinge on that time only as the exception (for me, I was taking each Saturday off before I started fieldwork, but for a friend that was too anxiety provoking, so she took each Saturday and Sunday afternoon off). It's important to keep some boundaries in your life, because this kind of study is very fluid and consuming. It's easy to burn out, and there's always something more you have to do, so make sure you set some maximums for yourself. My maximums are, for instance, 100 pages a day (I can't read more effectively); if I drop below 5 sentences an hour, I stop writing (might as well enjoy some free time because you're not really getting any work done). I've found for myself, that using a combination of time limits and efficiency limits is best (I will work 6 hours today or write/read X pages, whichever comes first).

Some days you just won't have the mental energy to be productive, and holding yourself to a time-based schedule won't always work. For these days, I have my "tiers of procrastination". In the first tier is acceptable procrastination: writing grant applications, editing papers for publication, marking papers; then my second tier, semi-acceptable procrastination: searching for grants/journals to publish in, organizing notes, writing to-do lists. The third tier is true procrastination: answering questions on askme, etc. :)

Lastly, a prof once told me a piece of good advice, which was think of something, some reason besides your research that makes grad school worth-while for you. It can be something silly (like getting to sleep in three days a week or whatever), but have something to hang onto through the down time, when you can tell yourself, "ya this sucks, but at least I __________".

Good luck!
posted by carmen at 12:44 PM on January 5, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! This is very useful info.
posted by shivohum at 8:54 AM on January 6, 2009

A couple of more links that you might find useful a little bit later, once the reality of your circumstance has sufficiently pissed you off:

Marc Bousquet's webiste can be depressing, and is certainly strident, but he's also probably the single person doing the best and most responsible work right now on the corporatizing neoliberal university as an institution in increasingly grim times.

Also, you should try to stay abreast of ongoing labor battles among graduate students. This bookfocuses on NYU, but is theoretically broad and is certainly significant to other sites.

Edu-Factory is a good collaborative site maintained by young scholars concerned with the future of the academy.

Also, you might be interested in checking out the Reworking the University Conference, April 24 - 26 this year in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. I was at the first conference last year and was deeply impressed by the smarts, passion, and dedication of the organizers. UMN is another embattled site with a grad student unionizing fight and other labor issues, which have set off wide ranging discussions about frightening trends in higher education and what we, as its current and future labor force, might be able to do to resist those trends.
posted by milkman at 10:28 AM on January 6, 2009

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