Reflections on My PhD Journey Thus Far

As of this writing, I am a PhD candidate in my third year of the Geography PhD program at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Though I could have stopped taking courses a year ago, I kept going because there were courses (Spatial Epidemiology! Methods in Epidemiology!) I couldn’t pass up (plus, they are offered only once every 2-3 years).

I passed my qualifying exams in the second week of January 2018, and my proposal defense was given a “pass” by my committee in mid-September 2018. However, I noticed that these landmark moments get most of the attention from incoming or rising graduate students. I’d daresay, they are a reflection of the work that precedes them.

For example, I transferred into the Geography PhD program (long story) in Fall 2016, but both (1) studying for my qualifying exams and (2) data acquisition and cleaning for the first chapter of my dissertation began the summer prior. I cannot stress the importance of preparation in this journey enough. To be fair, in my situation, I had switched to a new field and I needed a great deal of “catching up.” Regardless, given academia’s “hidden curriculum,”** it cannot hurt to be prepared.

What Works

(1) Establish a filing/organization system for your articles and citations as soon as possible

  • Within a folder called “Geography Readings”, I have topical and sub-topical folders for articles (photo below)
  • All file names should be searchable! For example, for academic articles, I usually use “author name (publication year) paper title (minus . : ; ! ?)”.
Screenshot of my folders on Box

(2) Set up both passive and active backups for all of your files

  • Many universities have “free” access to Google Drive, DropBox, or Box. Use them. You pay for these services!

(3) Read early and often!

  • This refers to both course readings and reading relevant to your dissertation project. Reading is instrumental in helping you to situate your project within your field or subfield, so read widely and deeply as able.
  • “Reading” doesn’t mean reading every single word of the article. It’s ok to skim strategically, so long as you know the structure of papers in your field(s). Admittedly, it is much harder to “skim” qualitative papers.

(4) Figure out what note-taking approach works for you and standardize your notes across topical areas

  • For example, I like Cornell-style annotated bibliographies organized by topic. Under each full citation (in my field’s commonly used format), I type up bulleted notes with page numbers for direct quotes. The notes should summarize the data & methods, results, and a brief summary of the significance of the findings so that you remember why you read the article 6 months or a year down the line.

(5) Start working through what you want your project to be ASAP

  • Because I felt that I was behind from the beginning, I began working with datasets for my dissertation in the summer before I began as a student. Doing so helped a lot with the first term paper I wrote that Fall, which became the first draft of Chapter 1 of my dissertation.
  • This also helped me greatly with my dissertation proposal

(6) If you have preliminary data- qualitative or quantitative- it helps to have a preliminary or prospective analysis to test your research question and project significance

  • This is really important for fellowship and grant applications

(7) Get to know and appreciate the office managers/staff in your department.

  • They do work that makes your work possible, after all

(8) Work on your dissertation proposal as soon as you are able 

  • This may begin with asking your adviser or the director of graduate studies about the guidelines for proposals and whether there are standardized formats (e.g. NSF or NIH-style proposals for US-based researchers).
  • Your proposal is a prospective document. It will change and evolve as your thinking changes and evolves. Even after your dissertation proposal is passed and approved, your project will change. That’s what living things do.

(9) Version control version control version control 

  • In addition to backing up your files, save drafts or versions so that you can go back to the work you had on X date. This applies to code/syntax as well.

(10) Have a draft ready for feedback sooner than later

  • It’s nerve-wracking to subject your life’s work to critique, but it’s a necessary part of the research process. Having a draft in the earlier stages can mean less work in the long-term if it means catching errors in the study design or omissions from the literature review. Don’t get me wrong, though. There will always be more work, and that’s OK.

(Bonus) As far as you are able, reject the culture of overwork

  • Depending on the culture of your department or field, you may (or may not!) feel pressured into commiserating about your PhD experience.
  • Sidebar: When I was a MA student, I found myself wondering why I was expected to brag about missing sleep or relying on [alcohol/”uppers”/other] to cope with a class or thesis. It was a way of signaling that one is so busy, so serious. But it also signaled a fundamentally dysfunctional definition of “the work” of being a graduate student.
  • REMEMBER: You’re here for your degree. Do what it takes to finish and be ready for what comes next.


What Doesn’t Work

(1) Comparing yourself to others

  • Don’t do it, y’all. The playing field is not level– especially if you’re a first generation student, disabled, a “racial minority” or come from a low socio-economic status background. Take note of the “what” and “how” of the uneven ground you’re traversing and move accordingly.

(2) Competing with anyone other than your best self

(3) Not taking necessary breaks from dissertation or course work

(4) Waiting for permission or external validation

  • You might just be waiting forever. Go ahead and face your work. You got this.

(5) Doing it alone

  • Writing a dissertation can be a profoundly lonely experience. It’s your project, and you’re pushing the boundaries of knowledge in your relatively narrow domain. It’s easy to feel isolated as you become more immersed in your work. I recommend the following:
    • attend department colloquia or presentations – stay up-to-date on developments in your field and see your fellow grad students
    • if available, join a writing group – my university library reserves a quiet room with a table, outlets, and snacks for writing groups. I’ve enjoyed a sense of sharpness and clarity as I write surrounded by other productive people
    • talk to other people about your work! – it’s good practice in translating your work within and across disciplines, and even outside of academia. After a while, you may develop a better sense of your project’s relevance to different audiences– an important aspect of science communication!

The above reflects what has been valuable for me thus far in my PhD journey, as a social scientist. It may not be as relevant for someone in, say, Biochemistry, but I figured I might as well put it out there and pay it forward to another first-generation graduate student.




**Now, I made a reference to academia’s “hidden curriculum” earlier, and it almost demands follow-up. I think I’ll be better equipped to talk about it after I finish this PhD, honestly.

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