As PhD students, we tend to live day-to-day while keeping in mind the potential of a future in academia. We leave little room to think about how we might frame today’s experiences when they become our past. Dr. David Whillock, who finished his doctoral research in 1986, reflects on the lessons he has learned after 30 years in Higher Education…
They say that hindsight is 20/20. There is a lot of truth to that. As I get to the end of a long and wonderful career in higher education, there are several things I wish I had known while going through the Ph.D. process and things I wish I had known as an Assistant Professor attempting to gain a reputation and building a case for tenure. I’ll pass these along in hopes I may be able to tap into some of your concerns, frustrations, or hopes.
My best advice to those who are just entering into doctorate programs is to have a passion for and to focus on the subject for your dissertation. The first thing you need to do, I mean the first, is to find an advisor/supervisor that you identify with and will accept your premise and methods of your subject matter. You don’t want to start a program attempting to “change the mind” of your dissertation advisor. That is a long and losing battle you don’t need. Trust me, in defending your dissertation, you want to make certain your advisor is fully on board with your content, method, and findings. Then is not the time to argue a point, but to enlighten the life of the mind.
While in your program, use every opportunity to move your dissertation forward. Attempt to make every class/conference/journal paper an opportunity to use your content and/or methodology of your dissertation.
One more thing, remember you are writing a dissertation, keep that goal clearly in your head. The book will come later, if you can’t finish a dissertation, you won’t earn a Ph.D. Dissertation first, book later. Some colleges and universities won’t even count your dissertation toward tenure, even if it is in book form. So, focus, focus, focus.
When I served as Chair and Dean, many of my new hires were eager to make a name for themselves in their field of study and in the classroom. That level of energy is a good thing. I would suggest being strategic in this desire to make certain that, if you want tenure at your institution, you have a higher chance of getting it. As Chair, I asked my “junior” faculty to resist volunteering for everything, or anything really that does not move you forward in your desire. Have the Chair help you be selective in the committees you serve on. You want to be known on campus outside of your department and college. Many serve on the University’s committee that will approve, or not, your bid for tenure. Choose wisely. The same applies as a Ph.D student: be strategic and selective.
Interestingly enough, I tell first year students the same thing I would tell my new faculty members: manage your time. It is imperative that you literally put on your calendar time to research and reflect. Take a walk… visit faculty from other departments outside of the building you are working in. Some of my better ideas come from faculty colleagues outside of my discipline. Indeed, several collaborative opportunities have come from these walks. But most important, a clear head and knowing the world will operate and be fine without you for a period of time is important.
One last thing, get balance in your own life. Anyone in any working environment who doesn’t have a hobby nor life beyond the academy, will eventually be lost. I have a lot of colleagues well into their 60’s who have no plans for life beyond the academy. I want to stress the importance to balance your life with people, events, and activities beyond the academy. Eventually even the best faculty realize it is time for a new generation of scholars to take the stage and push a new group of students to excellence. Stay relevant in your scholarship, but “get a life”.
Are there things you already wish you could tell your younger self? Have you been actively selective and strategic during your PhD Life? Tweet us your advice at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Dr. David Whillock is the Associate Provost and Dean of the Academy of Tomorrow. He holds a Ph.D. in Critical Studies from the University of Missouri. His specialization in teaching and research include History and its Depiction in Cinema, The American Vietnam Film, A Cultural Perspective on the Blues, and Ways of Knowing. He is the guitarist for the South Moudy Blues Band. He is published in the Journal of Film and Television, The Journal of Popular Culture, and Southern Communication Journal. He has contributed chapters in America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, Hate Speech, and Vietnam War Films.