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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

How To Do a Stress-Free PhD

So you’ve been accepted into your PhD program. Congratulations??! Doing a PhD can be stressful at times, and stress is likely a major contributor to only 50% of PhD students finishing their programs. And so for this entry, I’ve included a few tips that I hope will ease the pain and help get you through the ridiculousness that can be PhDness.

Form Healthy Relationships W/ Those in Your Class
Let’s face it, PhD programs are generally pretty tough to get into. The applicant pool typically ranges from 75 to 200, but the number of folks actually selected ranges from 5 to 13. If you’ve made it this far, then you’re all probably geeks (in some capacity). But each geek likely has different experiences and areas of expertise in which they excel above the rest of the class. It is very important that you form an alliance with these folks early on, in order to benefit from those areas that you may be weak in. I’m no statistics whiz, but there are 2 or 3 folks in my Biostatistics II class that are amazing, and they’re extremely helpful in giving me tips to help me get through the class. On the other hand, folks think me to be a very talented writer, and so in classes when we have multiple specialized papers to submit, I’ve had a few classmates seek help from me in this area. Make sure that you humbly respond to any requests for assistance by your classmates, as today’s student may be tomorrow’s tutor.

Pick a Helpful Advisor (Even if You Have to Switch)
Most doctoral students are automatically appointed an advisor upon entry into the program. Graduate- level professors are usually pretty busy with research, so unless you knew them personally beforehand, I can almost promise you that they won’t give a damn if you decide to switch advisors. The key here is to talk to several students (emphasis on several, because one student may love a professor that everyone else despises) that have been in the program in order to find out who is friendly, helpful, and has some influence. Friendly and helpful are my top 2 qualities for an advisor to have, but influence can be important also if you desire a letter of recommendation for a job, or if you want to get in on a particular project and your advisor is able to recommend you to the primary investigator. It can also make all the difference in the world when it comes time to do your dissertation. If the professor has a reputation for stressing students out during that process, this is important to consider when selecting an advisor. It also usually doesn’t have to be done immediately. And so taking a semester or two to get to know all the professors so that you can form your own opinion may also be a helpful strategy.

Don’t Talk to Random Folks About the PhD
I often catch a hard time from friends about not talking about my PhD with others, but I definitely have my reasons. I’ve run into more discouragement by talking about the PhD with random folks than I have anything. In telling folks in random conversation that I wanted to do a PhD, the first response was typically along the lines of, “Oh, are you sure you need to do that?” or “I thought about doing that, but I wanted to work instead, because I’m tired of being broke.” It’s because of these responses with negative undertones that I refuse to talk about PhD life outside of family, close friends, and folks involved in the program. Some people who have a naturally competitive spirit (that’s what we’ll call it to be nice) hear PhD and think of it as a ranking. And so the sound of you mentioning a PhD may subconsciously trigger that person to either say something that would demean the PhD, or express that they could have one if they wanted to (even though we discussed earlier how difficult it is to get into these programs). They may not mean any harm, but you should avoid conversations about your PhD with these folks at all costs. Your reasons for pursuing it are your own, and they are not to be defended to someone (stranger or loved one) who insists on acting as the judge of whether or not your reasons for PhD pursuit are justifiable. With all the doubt that may be flooding your mind about your PhD in the first place, negative, non-constructive feedback is likely the last thing you need. And if you’re deciding whether to apply, and you need to talk to someone, talk to a professor in your PhD program of interest. They are, hands down, the best folks to consult, and almost always open to discussion with potential students. These professors can honestly let you know, without any type of bias, whether the PhD path is something that you should pursue.

Go Out and Have a Good Time Every Now and Again w/ Friends Who Matter
If you’re doing a PhD, the list of friends you hang out with is probably about to shrink. But it’s important that you don’t become a social leper. One of the best ways that I’ve personally found to offset frustration is to link up with friends and have a good time if I don’t have anything pressing due. Going out to dance, shooting pool, or just having your friends over to kick it can be incredibly therapeutic. While you should take post-graduate work seriously, there’s no reason it should take over your entire life. And also, it doesn’t hurt to have a few friends who are in a graduate program that can trade stories with about your crazy professor or super-eccentric classmates.

Employment, Family, and Other Obligations
Some folks work and do part-time classes during their PhD, while other folks elect to go full-time and receive funding from their program in exchange for contributing a set amount of research hours per week. There are also folks that work full-time, take full-time classes, and have children at home. Regardless of your combination, it’s essential that you determine what you can reasonably handle. Doing a PhD is much, much easier without having a full-time job or family, but if you have one or both of these things going on, you may want to consider being a part-time student. Once again, each individual has their different limits, and you simply must do what works best for you.

Take Care of Your Appearance
This pretty much speaks for itself. Going to class looking crazy is ridiculous. Taking care of one’s appearance is extremely important. While your first thought may be that you’re doing a PhD, and you’re super busy, so who cares about appearance, you must keep in mind that the PhD is one of the best opportunities that you may have had up until this point in your career to make professional contacts. How you dress definitely influences how professors and classmates perceive you, and consequently how they interact with you. I’m not saying that dressing bummy will be the reason that your genius gets overlooked. I’m simply saying that regardless of how intelligent or adept you are in a particular area, dressing nicely will only help to influence that perception.


  1. and still you have enough energy for such a blog post!! kudos to you!! congrats on the PH.D program

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