Guest blog post authored by graduate student Ran Xiang (PhD candidate, Art Education).
I posted this question on my Facebook page before I started my PhD: which will come first, my PhD or being able to do the splits? I am still working on both; neither will come any time soon. Three years into my program, there are 10 things I wish I had known before I started.
1. Rejection is part of the PhD experience, so don’t take it personally.
PhD students need to apply for scholarships and funding, submit articles to conferences and journals and apply for jobs, academic or otherwise, while a PhD. It is impossible to attempt these many tasks without getting rejected. Rejections are hard to swallow. Acknowledge these feelings, do something to feel better, identify ways to improve and keep working. Rejections do not define you or the value of your work.
2. The supervisory relationship is a two-way operation.
While the supervisor relationship is inherently hierarchical, it does not mean that PhD students have no say and need to agree with everything their supervisor says. It took me quite a while to feel comfortable voicing my disagreement and negotiating with my committee. Your PhD is also about getting challenged and being able to defend your choices—healthy dissent is the key. Also, your interest as a PhD student and the interest of your supervisor are not completely aligned. Be aware.
3. You need support groups.
I mean beyond your cohort and your supervisor. Your support groups can be anywhere in the world. They can be your family, friends, coworkers, other PhD students or professors you come to know. are there to support you and cheer you up when you feel down, sad, depressed. You will have those feelings and having people to chat with is important.
4. A PhD is more than an academic program.
Academic progress and success only paints part of the picture; thinking about career development during your PhD is equally important. A tenured professor that I know recently decided to quit academia and switch gears. Even seasoned scholars change career paths, so for novice researchers, it is better to keep your options open and explore.
5. Networking is not just for industry jobs.
Talking to professors or other students at conferences might lead to collaborations, publication opportunities and/or paid jobs. It might not be the dream tenure track position, but something that can lead to other things in the future. You should consistently work to grow and maintain a strong network of colleagues, it will be your gateway to opportunities throughout your career.
6. Exercise self-care at all times.
Prioritize your emotional and physical wellbeing, period. A PhD is a long and sometimes lonely process that cannot be done without you being healthy. Academia champions an overworking culture, but don’t sacrifice your health for a publication. Eat well, sleep enough and exercise regularly. Don’t fill your schedule with work; rest is also necessary.
7. Publish or perish?
It’s true that getting published is important for an academic career. But keep in mind that quality is more important than quantity. Follow your passion, do the research and write the paper that you believe in.
8. Don’t compare yourself to others.
Some PhD students get into the program with a list of publications. Some finish in three years and some can finish another master’s while doing a PhD. People start their PhD at different phases in life, so have your rhythm and move at your pace and don’t forget to cheer for others.
9. The power of saying no.
It is ok to say no to invitations, responsibilities or even offers. We only have 24 hours per day and can only commit to so many things. Saying yes to everything is neither possible nor productive. Release yourself from the pressure to say yes. No is an acceptable answer.
10. Make plans and be flexible.
The past three years have already taught me that I need to go with the flow sometimes, because things cannot always happen according to plan. This is not to say planning is not important, but just don’t fret over imperfection or taking more time to finish something. Be open-minded about contingencies and deal with changes as they come.
This post originally appeared in the GradStart Orientation Canvas module for new graduate students and was developed during COVID in 2020.