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  • PhD Q&A: Finding Success as a Scholar

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    We interviewed PhD students from several schools around the country to find out about their experiences getting in, getting adjusted, and getting the most from their programs.

    The students are from a diverse range of fields; all are recent PhD recipients or current PhD candidates. Here's what they had to say about finding success as a scholar, in grad school and beyond.

    What was the smartest move you made during your program? What do you wish you had done differently?

    Art history: Stay open–minded and honest enough to constantly reevaluate your goals, motivations, interests and happiness. In choosing a program, consider that a department or school that prioritizes teaching, mentorship and community may have advantages over one with a more prestigious name or roster of professors. Foster sociability and solidarity among your fellow graduate students rather than succumb to competitiveness. Your peers will provide you with feedback, moral and intellectual support and a social network that will keep you sane during grad school and keep you in the loop once everyone has graduated and is dispersed throughout academia.

    Bioengineering: I think my smartest move was getting to know several faculty members on campus besides my own research advisor. Not only do other faculty members often have great insight into research problems, they can also be reference–letter writers–and most academic jobs require four or five references! Looking back, I wish I had not stressed so much about first-year classes and general exams. They really had no bearing on the success of my PhD program.

    Computer science: I wish I had gotten my classes out of the way as soon as possible. If you're coming straight out of college, you might be tired of classes and eager to get involved in research, but, later in your career, you will find it tiresome to continue taking classes.

    Sociology: My smartest move was getting involved in a brand new research project from the start. Finding an engaging project with good faculty is a great way to develop intellectual ideas, get access to data, find funding and gain valuable practical research experience. I do wish I had come in with a more concrete sense of what I wanted to study. A clearer sense of academic interest from the start would have streamlined my path through graduate school, and maybe put me on track to finish six months to a year sooner.

    Are there any special perks of being a PhD student that you recommend taking advantage of?

    Bioengineering: Attending research conferences becomes a great excuse to travel the world. I have had the chance to see places that I never would have had I decided to go straight into industry instead of pursuing a PhD.

    Religious studies: Theoretically, being a PhD student could help with the ladies, but that hasn't been my experience. It has been my experience, however, that it helps win over their mothers. One of the best things about being a PhD student is how much free money you're entitled to. We get to travel to Asia for free every summer, just because we're PhD students.

    Sociology: There are a lot of unique cultural events and opportunities on and around college campuses that you don't really find elsewhere. Student life is also remarkably flexible in terms of time. You set your own hours, so if mornings aren't your thing, work afternoons and evenings. The flexibility issue has a downside, though. Because you could be working at all times, on all days, you may often feel like you should be working at all times, on all days. It can be a rather overwhelming sensation, and you can find yourself working long, hard hours without feeling like you're making a lot of progress. This is a tension that lots of graduate students deal with during their graduate careers.

    Do you have any tips for post-graduation job placement success?

    Art history: Start insanely early and build your resume with publications and speaking engagements. Go to all relevant conferences and network as much as possible.

    Bioengineering: Your advisor plays a key role in your post-graduation job placement success, especially if your goal is to land a job in academia. Often the only difference between the candidate who gets the job and the one who doesn't is that the hiring committee knows the successful candidate (or his or her pedigree) better than the other. For this reason it is so important for your advisor to help get your name out to his or her colleagues and create a "buzz." Of course, at the end of the day, you have to prove there is substance behind the hype.

    Computer science: It's important to have publications at the big conferences and to meet influential people in your field.

    Sociology: I would say it's very important for you to work on your public speaking skills well before you go into the job market. A brilliant idea presented poorly is not going to get you a job in a tight market, especially at departments that see junior faculty members as potential teachers of introductory courses that need to attract undergraduate majors.

    What are non-academic careers that graduates of your program pursue?

    Art history: Museums, commercial galleries, and publishers (of art criticism or other subject matter) offer the primary career alternatives. However, an MA rather than a PhD would suffice for these. There is no point in writing a dissertation if you do not want to teach and research at the university level.

    Bioengineering: The biotechnology sector is rapidly expanding, providing many opportunities in industry for PhD graduates.

    Computer science: Research labs (e.g., Sun, IBM) are a frequent target.

    Religious studies: Graduates of my program who haven't gone into academics have ended up at NGOs, working for the CIA, and as translators for various organizations, most of them religious.

    Sociology: I can't think of any good specific examples at the moment, but I know of people considering jobs in think-tanks, politics (campaigns, Congressional staff positions, elected positions), government work (the Census Bureau), and even marketing and consulting jobs.