Things I wish I had known about getting a PhD

By Kate McGrath

March 28, 2017

   The author and her cat. 







I decided to pursue graduate school for two reasons: 1) it seemed like the logical next step in my career as an anthropology major, and 2) it provided a guaranteed, albeit small, income for 5 years. Until I overheard a conversation about stipends among grad students at the Koobi Fora Field School, I didn’t know that most STEM PhD students are fully funded. Now when I visit schools to do outreach, this is one of the first things I tell the students.

When I enrolled at GW in 2012, my understanding of PhD programs was limited. I didn’t know a single person with a PhD growing up. I kept expecting our program director to hand over the guidebook, but it never came. A lot of this information is supposed to “trickle down” via word of mouth, but just like trickle-down economics, it doesn’t work. If we want PhD programs to attract and retain students from diverse backgrounds, who often prioritize financial concerns over intellectual pursuits, we need to better communicate what PhD programs have to offer in terms of marketable skills. Our program recognizes these concerns, and is seeking to revamp our curriculum to better reflect the job market and the diversity of student interests.  In the meantime, here is a list of Things I Wish I Had Known, broken down by year in the program.

*N.B. I do not delve into the political and/or social realm here, as that would warrant a second NSFW blog post. I should also stress that is it imperative to have other things  going in your life. That could be anything from video games to running to having a cat, like me.

THE FIRST YEAR – Sink or swim. You will be thrown into heavy coursework and teaching. You are expected to attend all department events, including journal clubs, relevant lab meetings, and guest lectures. Brownie points go to the (female) students who do extra work. It feels like everyone is watching, and that is mostly true. Don’t be alarmed; you are an expensive investment and everyone is rooting for your success. You will learn how to speed-read papers (i.e., abstracts and figures). It’s a good idea to apply for grants to fund field or lab work. They might be small, but by applying, it demonstrates your initiative to the faculty. Whether you are successful or not, you’ll be better positioned to get bigger grants in the future.

THE SECOND YEAR – Do everything listed above, and on top of that, start thinking seriously about your dissertation. If you entered the program with clear research interests, great. If not, get cracking. Talk to everyone who will listen. Get advice on the scope of the project so that you don’t try to do more than is possible in five years. Senior graduate students and postdocs are happy to offer advice, so start a conversation. Make sure you can explain your ideas clearly. One of the most important skills you can choose to pursue during grad school is the ability to effectively translate complicated scientific concepts into English. This allows people to actually understand what you’re saying, and it will help you get a job in the future. Have regular meetings with your advisor(s), and come prepared with questions. There are many of you, and only one of them, so don’t overthink everything. They’re not losing sleep over your typos.

In CASHP, we have three comprehensive exams. Two are taken when you finish the associated courses in the first two years. Those are painful, but survivable. Moving on.

THE THIRD YEAR – Dissertation proposal preparation. You are forever-done with coursework (!) and it’s finally time to focus on research. You might also be teaching, but it’s manageable… unless you choose to TA a class like gross anatomy for the first time, in which case, it’s time to juggle. I hear there’s a lot of juggling happening at the faculty level, so we might as well get some practice. If you take away one thing from this post, let it be this: Everything. Takes. Longer. Than. Expected.


THE FOURTH YEAR – You’ve defended your dissertation proposal, which entails a public talk followed by a private interrogation by your dissertation committee. This was the final comprehensive exam, and you are now ABD (all but dissertation). At this point, you’ve submitted the written dissertation proposal, or plan of action, to funding agencies (e.g. NSF, private foundations) in hopes that they will provide enough money to carry out your experiments. If those applications were successful, congrats! If not, you’ll likely need to reapply. The good news is that your chance of getting a grant on the second try is usually much improved.

THE FIFTH YEAR – You’re now close enough to realize just how far you are from finishing. You overhear junior students say they’re almost done and you wish you were still so naïve. If you’re on track, you should be writing up the results of your experiments. In our program, we have the option to write our dissertation as a series of publications rather than writing a dusty tome. If you’re like me, you’ll scramble to apply for dissertation writing fellowships because you need more time to finish, and your stipend is about to expire. Most programs offer five years (or as our wonderful anatomy mentor reminds us, four years and 10 months) of funding, and if you think you won’t finish in that timeframe, plan ahead. Fellowships are usually due one year out.

Early on, I used to look at the senior students and think “what do you do with all your time?? How do you possibly stay busy without teaching or coursework?” Now I know better. You do everything. All the things. You gain more responsibility in your lab, take on interns, and do “extra” things like outreach and blogging. There are conferences and lab meeting presentations and other students who need your help. But not everyone does everything I’ve mentioned here, and as science stands, those people won’t necessarily be penalized. The classic threat is that we must “publish or perish.” The established perception is that nothing else really matters. But a growing number of us disagree. The skills I have gained by being an active participant in the scientific and broader community around me are tangible. After doing 300+ hours of outreach, I’m very comfortable speaking in public. That makes me better at giving scientific talks, and allows me to communicate my science with anyone, not just other specialists. The reality is that most of us won’t end up as tenured professors, and we can’t hide behind our jargon in the real world. I already wrote a blog about the benefits of outreach, but I’ll just add that if you haven’t had a little person look up at you and say “now I know what I want to be when I grow up” in a while, you should give it a try.

I wrote this blog because I won’t always be around to distract junior students with my advice. I hope these tidbits are helpful to students in some way. If not, I’m always available to talk, whether it’s about grad school or cats.