Help me make my doctoral program a success
August 13, 2017 2:18 PM   Subscribe

I am a non-traditional student who will be starting a doctoral program this fall. I am looking for concrete strategies, resources, and practices that will help me to have a successful experience, despite a variety of life challenges.

I am excited to start a doctoral program this fall. The program will likely take around 6 years and is partially funded. I have two Masters degrees, one in the field of the doctoral program. There will be an approximately 70/30 balance of qualitative vs quantitative coursework (e.g. social science stats). No lab or clinical work.

- I will be attending school part-time and working full-time (not ideal, but it is what it is)
- I have chronic physical health issues of long standing; I am decades older than most students embarking on a doctoral program; and I have a demanding job
- I probably have some variety of dyscalculia (no formal diagnosis but have symptoms; can you even get a formal diagnosis as an adult?)

- I am very organized, focused, highly motivated, very productive, and do not procrastinate
- I have devised many lifehacks, tools, and compensatory strategies over the years (e.g. Getting Things Done, Evernote, Trello) to manage work/life/health/productivity.
- I have a supportive family, boss, and a flexible work environment
- No money worries
- I am familiar with advanced math and concepts (I'm just not stellar at it )

My Ask
For those of you who have completed or are in the midst of your doctoral programs of any type, particularly if you are a non-traditional student and/or had to wrangle with health issues or working full time, or any other challenges that sapped your energy/productivity, too: please share your strategies, tips, tools, technologies, apps, and suggestions to help me start off on the right foot and ultimately be successful in this program. There is a ton of information out there, but I really want to know what has worked for you, not rely on hype from Amazon reviews.

This post and this post were very helpful for general advice, but I'm really hoping for suggestions from people who have faced similar life challenges.
posted by skye.dancer to Education (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a professor and, as such, finished a doctoral program back in the day.

Be forewarned that if you're in a program where few of the students are part-time, you may face some difficulties related to that. Some programs like education or nursing are full of part-time students, but most other programs are not and faculty (including myself) can have a hard time adjusting to part-timers' needs. This is especially true for the limitations you'll have in taking courses. For example, I had a part-time student ask me to supervise an independent study for them. It was a course that I offer every other year. I asked them why they hadn't taken it the previous year nor would take it the following year. It just didn't work out for them schedule-wise. Yet for me, supervising an independent study like that is a pretty big pain-in-the-ass (especially because they were not *my* student, I wasn't even on the dissertation committee). Another example is that there is far less leeway for part-timers to change their interest. Another example from my own experience was with a part-time student who wanted to change their topic and primary methods of inquiry pretty dramatically after their MA thesis was done. In order to pass the qualifying exams in New Topic, this student would need to take a much larger set of course work than they would have if they had stuck with Old Topic. Moreover, the frequency with which courses in New Topic are taught meant that they would probably have to stick around for another 2-3 years to get them done. I strongly advised them to stick with Old Topic. I wouldn't have had to have done that with a full-time student.
I would also suspect that a challenge for a part-time student would be engaging in all of the social/extra stuff that is so important in scholarly communities - colloquia, hanging out after class, etc. Please try to do those things as much as you can so that you can benefit from them.

One of the biggest shocks for new doctoral students is the intensity of the work. The amount of reading doesn't compare with undergrad and will likely be noticeably more intense than in your MA programs. It consumes your life.

With regard to topic, stay in a steady path. Even though that class in Indigenous Family Structures sounds cools, if it doesn't line up with your dissertation topic that will be 3 months of time spent reading and writing about something that you'll never work on again. Instead view your dissertation topic as a sandcastle beginning pile at the beach. Each class is a new bucket of sand that you're dumping onto it. You're then, hopefully, crafting some nice windows and a roof and stuff out of that bucket. And yes, occasionally the bucket of sand is a garage or something just adjacent to the main castle and that's okay. But only do that if it does fit into the bigger picture and helps your overall understanding. You want to be a Badass MF on your dissertation topic and really understand it deeply. Unrelated coursework is a distraction. I wish that it wasn't because learning is fun. But you only have so much time. You can learn about that topic after you have tenure.

Engage in active self-care -- eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, etc. so that if you're having a downspell it won't hit you as hard. Be proactive with the work so, again, if you're in a downspell, you won't be screwed. In my program, if I took 3 classes over 3 months, I'd spend each month writing most of the final paper for each class rather than 3 at the end. Some people fetishize suffering. Don't buy into that.

Most scholarly topics/subareas are like conversations. There are people working on roughly the same thing but different aspects. And journals and conferences are where those conversations peak. Figuring out your community and where they hang is absolutely key to success. Your advisor/faculty should help nudge you into that community, but you have to do a lot of the leg work. Know who those people are, what they are saying, and when you talk to them, demonstrate that you are familiar with their work. If you have tenure track goals, a lot of getting there is networking within these communities. Take every opportunity that you can to go to doctoral consortia and workshops and things at other universities and at national conferences. Get to know those faculty in your area so that when you're up for jobs, you're a recognizable name. Even better, have someone from outside of your university serve on your dissertation committee. If your advisor is supportive, they can help facilitate this.


It sounds like you have a lot of things going for you. Good luck!
posted by k8t at 3:26 PM on August 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Find a citation management system that works for you and get all of your references and readings into it. I'm partial to Mendeley.
posted by k8t at 3:31 PM on August 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Getting what you came for

posted by SyraCarol at 7:02 PM on August 13, 2017

I finished a doctoral program in 2016. I'm not in the tenure-track (don't want to be) but have a 2-year-post doc with a competitive fellowship program that will put me on an "alt-ac" path I'm really excited about.

That said, my doctoral experience was a sh*tshow. I was non-traditional to begin with (older with kids) and during my program I went through a divorce, a cancer dx and treatment, and a dissertation chair with a life-threatening medical issues who had to bail while I was writing my dissertation. The hardest parts were not finding the experts in my topic, managing the workload, and presenting and networking at conferences.

The bigger challenges were dealing with the politics of a profoundly dysfunctional department and an increasingly abusive "business model" of producing PhDs in the wider space of higher education in this country. Higher ed systems are troubled. And if you are in any way perceived by the powers that be in the academy as non-standard (older, with a disability, with a child, working full-time, non-white, etc.) it's just that much worse.

By all means attend colloquia or conferences or whatever if they are valuable to your area but my best advice is to guard your time. I wish I had hours back I spent listening to self-serving faculty comments-masquerading-as-questions posed in colloquia or drafting papers with faculty "collaborators" that went nowhere.

Be strategic about what serves your ends - and your end is finishing that degree. If you have true passion and interest in your field it will you see you through the tough spots you will find your tribe. But entering a doctoral program in 2017 is fairly brutal - take care of yourself.
posted by pantarei70 at 10:36 PM on August 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you don't procrastinate, you've already eliminated the worst problem. If you're organized, another large problem is gone. Set up a workflow and keep track of and notes on what you read. Write consistently. Seek help and feedback early and often. Do go to other people's presentations (not always but often enough to learn about different ways of presenting research and the culture around both presenting and discussing). Be vigilant about signs of burnout and take blocks of time truly off. Look for role models, particularly good theses or articles and reflect on what is good about them and how you can emulate this. If at all possible, switch out advisors or committee members that are clearly unreasonable. Get engaged in the research community to some extent. Reward yourself for good efforts or successes.
posted by meijusa at 11:20 PM on August 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of good advice already here, and I will likely have more to say later, but I just want to note: internalize the motto These are the last grades I will ever get. I'm a non-trad doctoral student teaching full time in another department at the same school I'm working on my phd at (a pretty normal route at my esteemed institution), and I decided when I started that I wanted to do well but I wasn't going to sacrifice having a life/time with my family/etc to do this. As long as your chair is happy, you're going to conferences and presenting, and you're making forward progress towards your dissertation, that A- in a 500 level class when you haven't taken a closed book test in 8 years (ahem, I have got to figure out how to do better before comps) isn't going to matter.
posted by joycehealy at 12:39 PM on August 14, 2017

Thank you so much, everyone, I really appreciate this. These are fantastic ideas and insights. I am definitely taking all the advice here on board and plan to implement these suggestions. If you have advice you would rather share privately, please do Memail me if you would prefer.
pantarei70, your perseverance is amazing and an inspiration!
posted by skye.dancer at 3:04 PM on August 14, 2017

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