What advice do you have for a new PhD candidate?
July 31, 2006 8:29 AM   Subscribe

PhD advice! I am starting a PhD program in Communications this fall. I'd like some general advice from those who have survived. I'm looking for ideas on wise steps to take as far as department politics, TAing, getting published, attending conferences, funding, trying to survive on no money, being in a relationship with a non-student, etc.

More specific details: I already have an MA in International Relations and Development and my BA is focused on a specific area of the world, for which I have gained extensive language skills. (I also spent the last 5 years working in either tech jobs or international development with a tech focus.) I chose my PhD program because the university has a multi-discipline institute for Technology and Society with a PhD focus in Technology and Society in developing countries. This is exactly what I want to study.
I was offered only a TA-ship for my first year. (Boo.) I've applied for a Fulbright next year.
posted by k8t to Education (16 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
As someone who's been in grad school since 2000 (masters degrees, currently finishing up my PhD) here's some advice I found useful. It was written for grad students in Ecology and Evolution but most of what he has to say applies to grad school in general. Take it with a grain of salt. If you find this too cynical, check out a reply by someone else [PDF] thats more positive.

good luck.
posted by special-k at 8:44 AM on July 31, 2006

Best answer: I recommend getting your hands on a copy of Robert Peters' "Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning an M.A. or a Ph.D." It will tell you virtually everything you need to know from an academic standpoint (maybe not so much the relationship stuff).
posted by hazelshade at 8:45 AM on July 31, 2006

Response by poster: I also found this guide:

posted by k8t at 8:46 AM on July 31, 2006

Response by poster: And a friend of mine mentioned to me that you can only publish an article once, so before submitting to every journal on the planet, talk with them first to see if they are even interested in publishing your piece.
posted by k8t at 8:51 AM on July 31, 2006

My husband just finished graduate school, and I was his non-student SO for the entire time. Most of this advice could translate to friends, as well.

First, the bad news:
-Please don't yammer on incessantly about department politics with your SO. We don't care, and it makes things really awkward when we have to meet these people.
-Please don't wax loquacious about meaningful your work is, and how enlightening whatever text you just read was. We REALLY don't care.
-Please understand that we have lives too, and the relationship does not revolve around the fact that you have an exam.
-PLEASE don't invite your department colleagues to go out with us. We really don't want to hear half an hour of bitching about your department/classes/professors/workload.
-Also, all grad students do is bitch. Accept this.

Now, the good news:
-I was (usually) understanding about study time and exams and meetings and all the assorted political crap. If you've already got a non-student SO, talk with him/her about how your relationship might change. Make appropriate plans for what little free time you have time, and for god's sake stick to them. But don't forget to take some time for yourself.

Also, at the end of the semester, sack up and take your SO out to dinner, TA salary or no. We deserve it for putting up with all this shit.

YMMV. :)
posted by timetoevolve at 8:59 AM on July 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

For the relationship bit: does your SO like to read or have work/hobbies they can to do at night/on the weekends? If so, that helps tremendously. You guys can still be "together" and hanging out while you're researching/writing, even if you're not "doing" anything. Also, make sure you make time for him/her and include him/her in activities with your classmates. PLEASE DO NOT TALK ABOUT SCHOOL ALL NIGHT LONG with those people. Be sensitive of your mate; make sure they know what is going on in your life of course, but talking about school is so boring to those not in it. Also, and this sounds totally cheesy, but you could mention your SO to your new classmates and how he/she really likes whatever they just mentioned that they liked (not going overboard of course). When I met my SOs classmates, they already knew I existed and he had told them a little about me, so they were all, "SO has told us so much about you! How is work going? I heard you just got a new job!" etc. Also, make sure you go along to stuff with his/her friends too so its not one-sided. Try to take some time for the two of you every once in a while, date-nights, etc. (on preview, timetoevolve and I should get a drink together and share war stories :))

As for the other stuff, work hard and be nice. Don't talk about people behind their backs; if others try to, worm your way out of the conversation. That stuff will bring you down in no time, since no one keeps your secrets as well as you think they will. In the end, being mean or overly political will only hurt you, so the best bet is to work hard and be pleasant. Sounds a little Pollyanna-ish, but can work. Academia is rife with fights and politics over the tiniest things you can imagine and people get upset at the drop of a hat. If you are a consistently pleasant person, even when you screw up or upset someone, you'll rebound much faster than if everyone can tell you're out for blood. That doesn't mean be a pushover, but don't be evil.
posted by ml98tu at 9:03 AM on July 31, 2006

for what little free time you have time Damn. And I even previewed!

ml98tu, I forgot the bit about not gossiping. My husband was TERRIBLE at that one.

I've got a lot of war stories. And I like amaretto sours. :)
posted by timetoevolve at 9:22 AM on July 31, 2006

I'm not the SO of a PhD student, but while I was getting my Masters I was the roommate of one, so I got to see quite a bit of the PhD social life. I spent a lot of time puzzling out what made her lab so different from the groups of people I hung out with in my Masters program.

1. When you realize that you hate some of your labmates (and you will realize this sooner or later), you also realize that you're stuck with seeing them almost every day for the next 4-6 years. This leads to little things getting blown all out of proportion. You may find yourself getting angry because someone doesn't bring you a Coke from the shared fridge, because someone does bring you a Coke from the shared fridge, because two labmates are dating when one of them still has a SO back home, because someone got third author on someone else's paper (a paper you're not involved in at all) while doing minimal to no work, or because someone consistently goes home early from the bar because his girfriend says that she is tired.

2. By already having a SO that isn't part of the lab, you'll undoubtedly escape some of this craziness, but the lesson is still the same even if you aren't hoping to get into your labmates' pants. Don't let your department become your only social life! As at any office, it's hard to avoid getting caught up in the gossip and drama, but it's even more important to do so in this case, because you can't get away from these people by changing jobs.

3. If you disregard #2, at least hold off until after the first semester before taking any sides in the ongoing lab wars, and never ever ever trash-talk your labmates to your advisor or blame someone else in the lab for making it difficult to get your work done. I can guarantee your advisor doesn't want to hear it. Remember, you want this person to be your colleague, not your mommy or daddy.

And yes, what timetoevolve said is very true. Don't tell us the minutiae of your lab's politics or your research. We love you, but we don't care.
posted by MsMolly at 9:28 AM on July 31, 2006

I second Getting What You Came For. That book is a godsend.
posted by chickletworks at 9:49 AM on July 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

I know it was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I can't say I agree with timetoevolve's advice. I do speak from experience as someone involved with a non-academic when I was in grad school.

-Please don't yammer on incessantly about department politics with your SO. We don't care, and it makes things really awkward when we have to meet these people.

Don't tell you SO about your day-to-day life. They don't care.

-Please don't wax loquacious about meaningful your work is, and how enlightening whatever text you just read was. We REALLY don't care.

Don't tell your SO about your passion, the thing that you are so interested in you have decided to devote your life to it. They REALLY don't care.

-Please understand that we have lives too, and the relationship does not revolve around the fact that you have an exam.

Your time revolves around your relationship. Your work-related deadlines are unimportant.

-PLEASE don't invite your department colleagues to go out with us. We really don't want to hear half an hour of bitching about your department/classes/professors/workload.

Those people who share your passion, who you spend most of your time with? Don't be friends with them. It will bore your SO.

If you're willing to follow this advice, don't go to grad school. Or be happy with a relationship involving two very isolated people.

I must also add: everything that timetoevolve complains about applies equally to any other non-student job, such as your SO's. Do you care about your SO's office, colleagues, goals? You probably should. As in any relationship, both of you must balance work and life.

The main difference is that you will have less free time and more obligations than your SO if they have a 9-5 job. If your SO is a corporate lawyer, you might be equal. You need to communicate and figure out the same issues as any two people with widely varying work demands.
posted by underwater at 11:28 AM on July 31, 2006 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Department politics: Eyes open. Mouth shut.
TAing: Never see your students as adversaries. Sure, they are ignorant. But the opposite of ignorant is educated. You're an educator.
Getting published: Always aim for the "least publishable unit." A long paper with two ideas should be two short papers. Parsimony is a virtue.
Attending conferences: Don't get shitfaced the night before your presentation. Show up to your colleagues' presentations.
Funding and money isses: If you like to teach, there are almost always opportunities to grab a few thousand bucks here and there. The poverty is no big deal. You know all that shit you think you need? You're about to find out that you don't need it at all.
A relationship with a non-student: Beats the hell out of being in a relationship with another student in your department any day. In a few years, you will very glad that you aren't one of those dual Ph.D. couples looking for matching tenure track jobs.
posted by Crotalus at 6:37 PM on July 31, 2006 [7 favorites]

I lived in a house with grad students, was married to one. How can you SOs not care? Even my roommates' work interested me. wtf?
posted by bleary at 7:16 PM on July 31, 2006

TAing: don't be too nice. We used to joke that whoever got the TA award was going to drop out.
posted by bleary at 7:17 PM on July 31, 2006

I care, I just don't want to sit in a bar and listen to my SOs classmates go on and on about various neurological pathways. I feel the same way when I go out with my friends that are in law school; I don't want to talk about torts all night either. There is a line between sharing information (and the SO caring) and going overboard (where the SO tunes out, it becomes boring, etc). Each couple/friendship has to find the balance that is right for them. (sidenote: it probably helps if your SO at least understands what you're studying/doing. Makes everything more interesting and makes them less likely to tune out. My SO and I can discuss my grad school stuff, since the subject is more commonplace, but he's a science guy and his stuff is WAY over my head. Even though I try really hard to understand, I get lost and it makes it harder to stay involved in the discussion.)

The general message here seems to be, "Don't lose yourself to the degree/program/politics/people/etc." Maybe the approach was too cavalier, but the main point is that it is really easy to get sucked in to the minutae.

Of course, this goes for just about anyone in any situation, whether it be school or work. I know that there is only so much discussion I can have about work or school before the people around me think, "Enough already!" I just see it happen a lot more to people that are in school. Because it is your entire life, and the life of your classmates, it becomes all-consuming, and that's when you become a boring person. It's all about balance. Just don't go overboard.
posted by ml98tu at 6:38 AM on August 1, 2006

What underwater and Crotalus said. Especially Crotalus, as a matter of practical day-to-day advice. Print that comment out and carry it around with you!
posted by sennoma at 12:55 PM on August 19, 2006

I am an SO of a PhD candidate. For me the most important thing is to understand how your scheduling affects your SO:

1) The ever-changing schedule. It's so hard to structure my free-time activities so that I get to have fun AND spend time with my mate. This semester I may have Weds evenings to myself, but NEXT semester, maybe it will be the only evening we actually get to spend together.

2) Everybody says grad school is a lot of work, and I have no reason to doubt this. Dealing with a grad student SO who juggles schoolwork, TA-ing, and not one, not two, but at least three recurring outside-the-home activities/hobbies means that there is very little time left for a home life.

I think sometimes spouses take each other for granted, but year-in year-out having the spouse take back seat to school and work and voluntary activities is not the way to maintain a marriage.

Bottom line: Don't get so mono-focused that you can only talk about grad school with other grad students, but don't go so far in the other direction - doing so many other things - that you have no time left to maintain your relationship.

Also: If there are changes that will affect how long you are in school - discuss them with your SO. If you have flexibility in your decisions, let the SO weigh in. It can be a major pain to have an SO in grad school.

Suddenly finding out that the endurance act that was supposed to be done in 12 more months is going to take an additional 18 more months than planned is a real bombshell to drop and you must do so with sensitivity.

You can either make grad school * something you two are accomplishing as a team**, or you can make it **something you are doing to your spouse**.
posted by katyusha at 2:39 PM on November 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

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