My thoughts on “What I Wish I Had Known When I Started My Doctoral Program”

In September 1st, I talked at the 2015 graduate & professional students orientation panel with four other PhD peers. The topic focused on “What I Wish I Had Known When I Started My Doctoral Program?” The orientation was sponsered by The Graduate School. University of Minnesota.

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Please raise your hands, and show me if you feel fulfilled now. Not all of you feel really happy and emotional payoff even you already got accepted by a fancy phd program, right? I experienced the same feeling as you guys do. My personal story traces back to when I was 23 years old. I got a very stable and nice job, I was the youngest lecturer in an a-level college in China. I celebrated it with my friends and parents. Everyone from the outside saw me as a successful young lady with a promising future. After 3 years of work, I got tired of my work and my life, and became confused of myself and my future. Then I started to pursue something new, started to apply for phd programs in US. In 2013, I got some admission letters from phd prgrams, I decided to come here. Again, I celebrated it by enjoying a nice meal all by myself, since my parents didn’t support my decision. (it’s another story) After the meal, I returned back to my room, I thought I would still enjoy the excitement and fulfillment. But it soon disappeared. I returned back to the confusion about myself, my future. From that moment, I started to think what is wrong with my life. Why completing milestones did not bring me emotional payoff. Then I figure out my thinking and behavioral pattern was wrong, it was like this: once I finish this, once I get that, I will feel happy and fulfilled forever. But the reality is when I get done of something important, there are some new projects, new papers, or new courses waiting for me. Then the circle starts and repeats. In the whole process, I didn’t really enjoy my work and my life at each moment. It takes me several years to figure out why my thinking and behavior mode was wrong, and how to change it. I wanna share with you a useful way to change this mode, that is scheduling life and work, developing happy and meaningful routines, and sticking to these habits and routines. It applies to our academic work, which including researching, writing, and speaking.

First, thinking about your academic writing. I was a binge writer, and kinda proud of it. When I have to finish a proposal, a course paper, a speech, I assigned one week or so to finish it right before the deadline, and write at least 3-5 hours per day in that period. If I haven’t finished it that day, I feel very anxious and restless. And this repeats again the next day, until I finish the paper. But it never ends, I finish this paper, I need to write another; I submit this paper, I will probably get rejected, I need to revise and resubmit again. In the whole process, I have never really enjoyed my writing. So how to write a lot and at the same time enjoy it? The only way to write a lot is to write regularly and make it as my habit and everyday routine. I just started this routine in this summer. I get up at 7 am, eat something, then write from 8-10. Writing doesn’t just mean typing words. In allotted times, work on the publication project, reading articles, analyzing data, reviewing papers, etc. Once I start it, I always don’t stop at 2 hours writing. I have once written about 7 hours a day in this summer. I already finished two papers, about 20,000 words.

Second, for your academic work in the next 4-5 years, it basically includes course works and research projects. They are related to each other. find a specific field you want to work on as soon as possible. Schedule your research by setting up short term goals, like one year goal. For me, my short term goal is to publish at least two papers before my prelim exams, and go to several conferences. In addition, taking related research courses, doing research with your professors, writing papers together, starting your own research project. If you can find your research focus as soon as possible, then in your courses, you can actively combine your research interest with the course content, and read and write for your own research rather than your professor’s expectations. In the first or second year, you may focus on your coursework and don’t see your future research focus. In this process, always say yes to any research chance, even you don’t get paid. I have joined two research projects in the past two years, without any payment. The benefits is, I get familiar with the whole research process, IRB application, collect data, analyze methods, write a manuscript, present it in conferences, find potential reviewers, find a journal home, submit, get rejected, revise it, find another journal, submit, get published. You can’t learn this experience from a course. So finding your research focus as soon as possible, start your project and write papers, or if you haven’t found your research interest, cooperating with your professors, conduct a project together, write a paper together, help your professor write proposals.

Third, an important aspect I wanna share is how to improve your public speaking. As a phd student, you have to do presentations in your course, conferences, and dissertation defense. As an international student, I am not confident at my English. In my first semester, I always kept silent in the classes and I felt very bad about myself. In the second year, I made a commitment to myself, I push myself go to conferences, meetings, panels and workshops. And I have cultivated a habit, I must propose or answer at least one question, or at least say something at every class and meeting. I gradually build up my confidence through speaking and talking in classes, meetings, conferences. In addition I make a regular schedule on doing toastmaster every week at Monday night. I even avoid taking courses on Monday nights, cuz I have found it very helpful, although at the beginning, preparing a speech and do public speaking do cause some anxieties. And I sometimes feel bad when I didn’t do well in my speeches. But I overcome the it and get it into my regular schedule, I do get great improvement. So my suggestion is present at conferences and department research days, join research or administration committees, go to panels and workshops, go to social events, go to toastmasters.

 What has helped most in coping with the pressures of graduate study?

(1) map my life, at the end of each day, write down and reflect upon on how we spent our time, with this evaluation, we can increase the time with both pleasure and meaning. For example, as an introverted person, I naturally prefer reading and writing to socializing and speaking. But all of them have significant meaning for me. I realized I spent many time on reading books and I really enjoyed it while I didn’t hang out with my friends a lot. Then I started to build up relationship with friends, open up myself to them. So mapping your life and find the sweet spot (both meaningful and pleasure).

(2) take care of your body and spirit, take some PE courses, I took weight training, swimming, and will take a meditation course in this semester.

(3) get a support system, I have a cohort girl group, it’s a study group, writing group, social group. We have a shared google spreadsheet, recording our everyday writing process, we write together at least one time a week, at a public library or coffee shop. We also go to toastmaster club and practice public speaking together. We also hang out, go shopping, see movies, go to bars, talk about guys together. Find a couple of real friend, who will push, challenge, and support you.

(4) change your thinking mode and enjoy your struggling life, as I just said. Because life is basically tough, all of us are struggling at some thing at some point. see struggling as a good thing, because it means you are really trying; rejection is a good thing, means that you try a lot; The more paper you write and submit, the more rejection you receive, and the more paper you publish. You wanna be the most rejected writer in your program, follow these tips.

What have you done to advance your own professional development, apart from your academic work?

(1) Set up a long-term goal and build up your professional social network. two concurrent goals: short term goal (18 months) I would say, my short term goal which starts at this summer, is to publish 3 papers, and attend several conferences. And Long term goal, this can be aggressive, like I wanna run my own company, combing research, online education, and education consulting. And I still wanna some free time to travel around the world. It doesn’t need to be accomplished, but it can make me more focus on what I need to do in my life.

(2) Go out of my comfort zone. It may cause you some anxiety—in my case, it was a lot of anxiety—but it’s one thing you should absolutely get ready for. No one will force you to attend those guest lectures, or travel for talks and conferences. present at conferences, department research days, join research or administration committees, join student societies, organize social events, form study and writing groups. get to know professors people in these events; let them know you, introduce yourself to them, get some real connections and find some collaboration opportunities

(3) Build personal website or blog, record your thoughts, personal and professional life in your site. Print a business card

Finally, I wanna say my struggling mode is always on. And your struggling mode will be on very soon, and it’s on a multitask mode. We can’t change this reality, but we can change our thinking and behavior mode. struggling is a common thing, but please see struggling in a positive way, because it means you are really trying; rejection is a good thing, means that you try a lot; cultivate your resilience, change your thinking into this: it may not work out this time, I have learned something from it. things will work out finally.

PHD is an important period in your life, it’s not very short, and it will not be very long if you keep yourself in track. Don’t see it as the most important thing in your life: I will do my best on all coursework and studies in my program, I will spend all my time on study. once I finish my PHD, I will have a happy and successful life forever. I can tell you, life is tough in general, You have a long way to go. So take care of yourself at this moment, enjoy your life at each moment. See it as a journey, schedule your life and your work, foster some happy and meaningful life routines, stick to these habits and routines, find a support system, let yourself go a little crazy or insane if you feel it right. this talk is also a very important reminder to myself. I wish you all good luck, and to myself too.


One thought on “My thoughts on “What I Wish I Had Known When I Started My Doctoral Program”

  1. Pingback: My first experience speaking in front of 200 | Mixed. Random. Scattered. Records

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