A Ph.D. student’s manual: The tactical, the strategic, the emotional

If I could talk to my younger Ph.D.-student self, here’s what I would tell her.

The day-to-day stuff

  1. Keep a research journal. Document every day of your research life. Document what you learned, what you did, what you read. This will save you one day. My Ph.D. research journal still makes me smile to this day.
  2. Read the best-paper-award papers. Understand why they got the awards. Understand what makes them great. Understand the writing style in those papers. Imitate it.
  3. Keep the paper-submission pipeline full. Always have a paper you’re writing, one you’ve submitted, and one you’re dreaming of.
  4. Maintain a calendar of paper-submission deadlines so that you always have goals. Always have a Plan A paper-submission deadline and a Plan B one 3–4 weeks later.
  5. Maintain a university web page with your bio, your publications, your research interests. This is for prospective employers, both in academia and in industry, to learn about you.
  6. Keep your LinkedIn profile updated. Use a profile head-shot. Update it when a paper gets accepted, when you serve as a TA for a course, when you do an internship. Post to your LinkedIn profile if you attend a conference and there are pictures of your giving a talk. If you don’t brag for yourself, who else is going to?
  7. Set up a Google Scholar citation search for all of your related-work authors and competitors. Your related-work papers will show up in your Inbox regularly instead of your needing to go hunt them down.
  8. Write an annotated bibliography paper. Do this in your first year. It will help you really grasp the related work in your field in a way that sticks. And, hey, it counts as a publication. Plus, it’s a service to other people working in your field.
  9. Get a business card. Give it out to industry visitors to your research lab, give it out at conferences. A business card is the calling card of someone with a job. It’s to help people remember you later. A Ph.D. is a job, just like any other.
  10. Introduce yourself to people at conferences. Go up to a speaker after a talk, and ask questions. They will most receptive then. They want feedback and discussions most then. It’s a more natural way to strike up a conversation than butting in when they are talking to others, or when they are at the coffee station.
  11. Find, and follow, the twitter accounts of your university, your department, your department head, faculty in your field, and departments of other universities (if you’re applying to become a faculty member there). Faculty are far less intimidating to follow and talk to on twitter.
  12. Fall in love with writing. Fall in love with grammar. They will save you. Read the The Elements of Style book by Strunk and White . Read papers on writing good papers.

The forward-looking stuff

  1. Build a network of peer Ph.D. students at your university and elsewhere. All of your peer PhD students now may be your peer faculty and peer colleagues in the future. Know them now.
  2. Go to faculty-candidate interview talks. Understand how they present their body of work. Understand which talks were memorable. Imitate them. This will help you give your job-search talk.
  3. Find the best teachers on campus, and go watch them teach. Imitate them. If you want to become a faculty member, it’s important to watch great teachers teach. Find out which classes are over-subscribed, even if they are outside your area, and go watch the faculty teach. Watch the performance of teaching, how they get their points across, how they keep the audience engaged, how they captivate, entertain, and educate at once. Imitate them.
  4. If you serve as a teaching assistant (TA) and students have good things to say about your TA service, ask them to leave recommendations on your LinkedIn profile.
  5. Ask your Ph.D. advisor if you can mentor undergraduate students on research projects. You need to learn how to manage people other than yourself. And, it’s never too early to learn to be a manager.
  6. If plan on a faculty career, pick the right courses to be a teaching assistant (TA) for. Pick undergraduate courses because the TA load is usually grueling, but you learn a lot more from teaching them.
  7. If you plan on a faculty career, ask your Ph.D. advisor if you can contribute to the next research proposal. They will embrace you like a long-lost relative.
  8. Maintain a Ph.D. pitch deck. It’s a simple 10-slide deck of your Ph.D. thesis work, and you should keep it updated every month. Every time your research lab has a visitor, every time you run into a faculty member at a conference, every time you want to explain your work, your 10-slide pitch deck will save you.

The emotional stuff

  1. Your papers will be rejected. It will hurt. It will be okay. It’s normal. Paper rejections hurt, but you don’t need to quit a Ph.D. over them. Every time your paper is rejected, think, “They’re not rejecting my idea, they’re rejecting how I communicated the idea. That, I can fix.” Use the “No” to become a better author.
  2. Don’t compare your Ph.D. journey to anyone else’s. Every Ph.D. is unique. Every Ph.D. solves a different problem. Your paths will be different by design. They are supposed to be.
  3. Don’t worry about your competitors. The fact that they exist means that your research problem is valid, your area is valid, and your work will be cited. Your competitors are the best citers of your work. They are advertising your work, every time they cite you. They are your free PR machine. They rock. Return the favor, every time you can.
  4. Don’t worry about how long it takes to write a Ph.D. thesis. Writing a Ph.D. thesis sounds more intimidating than it really is. If you submit papers to conferences, and there is a running narrative across all of your papers, your thesis will write itself. A Ph.D. thesis can be written really fast if you have all of the words written in your various papers. All you’re doing then is editing them into the semblance of a thesis document.
  5. Plan for productive research summers. Summer is the most priceless time during a Ph.D. You may be tempted to take your longest vacations during the summer (the rest of the world is, after all), but you’ll get your best work done then. Your advisor will be more available to you, and your time is also not bogged down in course-work and TA work.
  6. It will be disheartening when people ask you why you don’t have a “real job” that would make more money than a Ph.D. stipend. It’s okay. A Ph.D. is a job, too. Remember, you chose this job for a reason. You can leave it at any time, and go make more money. You have the freedom to, but you chose this path because you love the work, and it was not about the money for you. You love the problem you’re going after, you love the thrill of being the first in the world to solve something. You wouldn’t have it any other way.
  7. It will be disheartening when people ask you why you’re still in school. You’re there because you have creative autonomy. You get to roll out of bed every day and work on something you are utterly, totally passionate about and that you are in love with. Not many people can say their jobs give them the creative autonomy you enjoy every day. You are working on an unsolved difficult problem that you’re going to be the first one — in the entire world — to solve. You are going to be the subject-matter expert on the problem. You own the solution. Your Ph.D. gives you a chance to pit your brains against such a challenge, and there’s a degree waiting for you at the end of it. I’ll take that.
  8. Be bold. Every single day. Of course, it’s scary to face a research problem that nobody has solved before you dared to come along and attempt it. You might wonder what equips you, of all the people in the world, to solve it. Even your Ph.D. advisor does not — and will not — have the answers. Nobody does. Nobody will. Only you, yes, you, are going to solve this problem. The fact that you’re daring to solve it is half the battle. You’re going where nobody has gone before you. It’s supposed to be scary. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be an adventure. Stick with it. Persistence is the key to solving any research problem.
  9. There will be days when nothing goes right, when research goes wrong, when results turn out negative, when your hypotheses are invalidated, when no patterns emerge in the data, when the algorithms don’t work, when days of data collection prove fruitless, when you feel drained and defeated. These are not lost days. Every negative experience is a research paper waiting to be written. Write up the negative stuff. Someone else will benefit from your findings, and they won’t need to make your mistakes.
  10. Your relationship with your advisor is the single biggest influence in your Ph.D. career. It’s a little scary putting so much of your career and life in one person’s hands for 4–5 years of your life. The best Ph.D. advisors think of themselves as your agent. Their job is to advise, teach, mentor, guide, and to promote you and your work. Having an advisor who trusts you, whom you trust, whom you enjoy being around, whom you can enjoy a laugh with, whom you can have a vigorous intellectual debate with, who is encouraging on dark days, who is understanding on rough days, who believes in you, who believes you can do anything, who has your back, is important. Your advisor has the power to take an awful day at work and turn it into something uplifting and inspiring. The most important characteristic of an advisor is that they treat you as a peer. You are not their student alone, you are their future colleague. Choose your Ph.D. advisor well. Don’t choose them for their tenure, publication record, funding, stature. Choose the person who you want to hang around the next 4–5 years of your life, the person you want to be like, the person who is willing to emotionally invest themselves in you, who is willing to help you grow outside your comfort zone, whose joy lies in your success, and who will bring out the best in you.

Priya Narasimhan

Priya Narasimhan

I am the CEO and Founder of YinzCam, Inc., and a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. I am the Mom of an amazing 9-year old.
http://priyanarasimhan.wordpress.com