Beki Grinter

Using those Six Years

In academia, academic management, computer science, discipline, research on December 11, 2012 at 10:49 am

One of the most common things I hear from new PhD students is that they do not want to be in graduate school for six years. There are a variety of reasons for that including explaining it to parents, wanting to earn a decent salary, and just not being able to imagine what one might spend six years doing.

It’s this latter point I want to take up today. What might one spend six years in graduate school doing. Recruiting for the next job is one way to think about it. Many students come into graduate school not really knowing what they want to do. I respect that, many people who embark on a PhD are fairly young, life is going to involve many changes (as an advisor one of the loveliest things I’ve experienced in graduate school is weddings, seeing my students and others find their partner). But that doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t give some thought to what you want to do post-graduate school.

Perhaps a different question is what are the options available that I would like to explore when I leave. And this begs a second and far more important question, what will I have to achieve while I am in school if I want to explore those options? Since you are probably only going to do one Ph.D. you might not want to leave these things to chance. And the later in graduate school the more your options have been made, either by what you chose, or by what you didn’t. This applies not just to how you are mentored while in graduate school but what you are being mentored for post-graduate school. Understanding that you are responsible as the student for finding someone who can do both is part of (as the book says) “getting what you came for.” I want to reiterate this point… in addition to finding someone who can mentor you effectively during graduate school, you want to find someone who can effectively mentor you for what you want to do post-graduate school. You can not leave this to chance. Or you can, but then you’ll have effectively made some choices that you may never have realized.

So, how do you know what you want to do? Look at what students who’ve graduated have gone on to do. Can’t decide among those choices, then plan for the one that looks the hardest for you to accomplish. You can course correct later on, but only if you’ve started down a path that allows for it. This is what you should use those six years for, and this is what you, as a graduate student, are responsible for doing. Irrespective, I would say, of what you might get told, you need to develop that internal sense of what you want and decide whether there’s appropriate alignment. You may have to ask to get what you want, or whether that’s even possible. Its crucial to understand that your goals may not align completely with another person’s, but it’s still your responsibility to get what you want (or risk becoming what someone else wants you to be).

Aside: to me this is just a variant of understanding evaluation. Every year in corporations, and regularly in academia, people are evaluated routinely as well as for promotion. Understanding how you are going to be evaluated is essential to understanding what you need to do to be successful. There is not always a clear alignment between what others may want and what you need to succeed. But your odds of succeeding are so much better if you pay attention to the means by which you will be evaluated and you plan to achieve it.

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