A Survival Guide to Starting and Finishing a PhD
Tips on making it through, what I would tell my previous self going in, and advice on taking advantage of the unique opportunity that is graduate school.
Disclaimer: Everyone’s graduate school experience is different. Mine wasn’t a typical one, mainly because I spent so much time away from campus (in a different state), but hey, most of your PhD experience is independent learning anyways. That’s the best part.
Before you begin (or apply)
You should really like the field you’re thinking about pursuing a PhD in. You don’t have to have this, but you kind of do. A doctorate is a commitment of several years (for me it was 7), and if you’re not fascinated by your work, it feels like an impossible chore. There are a lot of things that are actual chores — administration, research results that go against your expectations, challenging collaborations, etc — and the interest in your work pulls you through.
I don’t know anyone who finished their PhD who wasn’t excited about the field in some way.
On that note, do your research before you apply to programs, and try to find faculty whose interests align with yours. Of course this is easier said than done. I entered graduate school with statistics education in mind and came out the other end with a focus in visualization. The size of my department probably allowed for some of that flexibility. Luck was also involved.
So what I actually did was apply to more than one program and then wait to hear if I got in or not. If I only got into one place (or none), then the decision was easy. In the end, I compared department interests and then went with the one I thought sounded better.
Consider it a red flag if it’s hard to find faculty information because there’s little to nothing online. There’s really no excuse these days not to have updated faculty pages.
Okay, you’re in graduate school now. The undergrads suddenly look really young and all of them expect that you know everything there is to know about statistics (or whatever field you’re in). This becomes especially obvious if you’re a teaching assistant, which can feel weird at first because you’re not that far out of undergrad yourself. Use the opportunity to brush up on your core statistics knowledge.
I had coursework for the first two years, but it varies by department I’m sure.You also take classes yourself. Don’t freak out if the lectures are confusing and everyone seems to ask smart questions that you don’t understand. In reality, it’s probably only a handful of people who dominate the discussion, and well, there’s just always some people who are ahead of the curve. Maybe you’re one of them.
Tough early goings has a lot to do with learning the language of statistics. There’s jargon that makes it easier to describe concepts (once you know them already), and there’s a flow of logic that you pick up over time.
There’s usually a qualifying exam after the first two years to make sure you learned in class.Don’t hesitate to ask questions and make use of office hours (but don’t be the person who waits until the week before an exam or project to get advice, because that’s just so undergrad). Once you finish your coursework, it’s going to be a lot of independent learning, so take advantage of the strong guidance while you can.
The key here is to absorb as much information as you can and try to find the area of statistics that excites you the most. Pursue and dig deeper when you do find that thing.
I remember the day I discovered visualization. My future adviser gave a guest lecture on visualization from a mostly media arts perspective. He talked about it, I grew really interested, and then I went home and googled away.
Oh, and read a lot of papers. I didn’t do nearly enough of this early on, and you need proper literature review for your dissertation. Background information also informs your own work.
Find an adviser
Actually, I don’t think I ever officially asked my adviser to be my adviser. It was just assumed when I became a student researcher in his group.I kind of had an adviser from the start of graduate school, because I was lucky to get a research assistant position that had to do with statistics education. However, as my interests changed, I switched my adviser around the two-year mark.
This is important and goes back to the application process. After a couple years, you should have a sense of what the faculty in your department work on and their teaching styles, and you should go for the best match.
I think a lot of people expect an adviser to have all the answers and give you specific directions during each meeting. That’s kind of what it’s like early on, but it eventually develops into a partnership. It’s not your adviser’s job to teach you everything. A good adviser points you in the right direction when you’re lost.
Jump at opportunities
Statistics is a collaborative field, and there are a lot of opportunities to work with others within the department and outside of it. A lot of companies are often in search of interns, so they might send fliers and listings that end up posting to the grad email list. Jump at these opportunities if you can.
Graduate school doesn’t have to be expensive.Opportunities within the department or university should be of extra interest, because it usually means that your tuition could be reduced a lot, if not completely.
If something sounded interesting, I’d respond to it right away, and it usually resulted in something good. A lot of people pass up opportunities, because they see the requirements of an ideal candidate and feel like they’re not qualified. Instead, apply and let someone else decide if you’re qualified. There’s usually a lot of learning on the job, and it’s usually more important that you’ll be able to pick up the necessary skills.
At the very least, you’ll pick up interview experience, which comes in handy later on if you want one of those job things after you graduate.
Learn to say no
As you progress in your academic career, you’ll look more and more like a PhD (hopefully). You have more skills, more knowledge, and more experience, which means you become more of an asset to potential collaborators, researchers, and departments. A lot of my best experiences come from working with others, but eventually, you have to focus on your own work so that you can write your dissertation. Hopefully, you’ll have a lot of writing routes to take after you’ve jumped at all the opportunities that crossed your desk.
So it’s a whole lot of yes in the beginning, but you have to be more stingy with your time as you progress.
There are probably going to be potential employers knocking at your door at some point, too. If you really want to finish your PhD, you must make them wait. I know this is much easier said than done, but when you start a full-time job, it’s hard to muster the energy at the end of a day to work on a dissertation. I mean, it’s already hard to work on a dissertation with normal levels of energy.
All the times I wanted to quit, I justified it by telling myself that I would probably have the same job with or without a doctorate. I also know a lot of people who quit and are plenty successful, so finding a job didn’t work for me as a motivator. But it might be different for you, depending on what work you’re interested in.
This might’ve been the toughest part for me. During my first two years in school, I hung out with my classmates a lot and we’d discuss our work or just grab some drinks, but I had to study from a distance from my third year on. I’ve always been an independent learner, so I thought I’d be okay, but my first year away, it was hard to focus, and it was lonely in the apartment by myself. I didn’t want to do much of anything.
I eventually made friends, and pets provided nice company during the day. It’s important to have a life outside of dissertation work. Give your brain a rest.
Separation from the academic bubble wasn’t all bad though. FlowingData came out of my moving away, and my dissertation topic came out of a personal project. So there are definitely pros and cons, but it’s mostly what you make out of what you have in front of you.
I found Twitter useful to connect with other work-at-homers and PhD Comics proved to be a great resource for feeling less isolated.Anyways, my situation is kind of specific, but it’s good to have a support system rather than go at it alone. I mean, you still have to do all the work, but there will be times of frustration when you need to vent or talk your way through a problem.
Write the dissertation and defend
Despite what you might’ve heard, a dissertation does not write itself. Believe me. I’ve tried. Many times. And it never ever writes itself.
I even (shamefully) bought a book that’s lying around somewhere on how to write your dissertation efficiently. That’s gotta be up there on my list of worst Amazon impulse buys. The book arrived, I started reading, and then realized that it’d be a lot more efficient to be writing instead of reading about how to write.
Procrastination comes in many forms.
The hardest part for me was getting started. Just deal with the fact that the writing is going to be bad at first. You come back and revise anyways. I’ve heard this advice a lot, but you really do just have to sit down and write (assuming you’ve worked on enough things by now that you can write about).
If you already have articles on hand, it doesn’t hurt to take notes so that it’s easier to clean up citing towards the end.Don’t worry about proper citing, what pronouns to use, and the tone of your writing. This stuff is easy to fix later. (It can be helpful to browse past dissertations in your department to learn what’s expected.) Focus on the framework and outline first.
Just google “successful PhD defense.”By the time you’re done writing, you know about your specific topic better than most people, which makes your defense less painful. There’s a lot of online advice on a successful defense already, but the two main points are (1) your committee wants you to succeed; and (2) think of it as an opportunity to talk about your work. In my experience and from what I’ve heard, these are totally true. That didn’t stop me from being really nervous though and probably won’t help your nerves either, but there you go.
I like this video by Ze Frank on public speaking.The best thing to do is prepare. Rehearse your talk until you can deliver it in your sleep. Your preparation depends on your style. Some like to write their talks out. I like to keep it more natural so it’s not like I’m reading a script. Go with what you’re comfortable with.
It’ll all be fine and not nearly as horrible as you imagine it will be.
So there you go. A PhD at a glance. Work hard, try to relax, and embrace the uniqueness of graduate school. There are many challenges along the way, but try to learn from them rather than beat yourself up over them. A PhD can be fun if you let it.
Any graduate students — past or present — have more advice? Leave it in the comments.
Ready for more? Access 100+ in-depth tutorials, courses, and guides with a membership subscription.Get the Details
This is for people who want to learn to make and design data graphics. Your support goes directly to FlowingData, an independently run site.
What You Get
- Instant access to tutorials on how to make and design data graphics
- Source code and files to use with your own data
- In-depth courses on visualization in R
- Hand-picked links and resources from around the web
More Tutorials See All →
Interactive Time Series Chart with Filters
Time series charts can easily turn to spaghetti when you have multiple categories. By highlighting the ones of interest, you can direct focus and allow comparisons.
Using Color Scales and Palettes in R
Color can drastically change how a chart reads and what you see in your data, so don’t leave it up to chance with defaults.