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Going Back for that Ph.D.

Everything I Wish I Knew

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Going back to school after being out for so long can be scary. The thought of assignments piling up and the inevitable time crunch between work and school assignments, one would be crazy to go back, right? Well, I did. I’m a part-time Ph.D. student attending a limited residency program. By day I shell away engineering solutions for my bosses and by night, I comb through piles and piles of research articles in my plight to one day be called Doctor.

Why did I go back? Well, it wasn’t to leave the industry and join my colleagues in academia nor was it for the possibility of a pay bump. I did it for the flexibility in work I can perform and for the comprehensive research exposure. I did it for me. There are some things I wish I knew before starting though, so now I’m sharing them with you.

Leverage all Resources

As students, we get access to just about anything either for free or heavily discounted. Most schools with Office 365 offer the office suite for free along with several gigs worth of cloud storage in OneDrive. For those coding in any aspect of their research efforts, GitHub provides a tier free to students. Can’t pay for that one conference? No problem! Some conferences and leading industry giants may provide scholarships for students to attend or present and may include accommodations as well! Double-check your grants, department program, and your fellowships for conference stipends; some have them included as part of the package or program.

There are plenty of financial aid resources outside of student loan providers. The struggle is finding the aid that matches your current situation. Often times the listings describe very specific attributes for their candidates. The good thing about these oddly specific listings is that they are query-able. Are you a parent? There are funds for that. If you are a female or identify as female and are going for a STEM degree, there are countless scholarships and fellowships available from industry and government sources alike.

The more comprehensive the financial aid package is, the more competitive the application process will be. Don’t wait until the last minute to obtain information on these opportunities as some allow applications to submit their packages prior to commencing their studies.

Keeping the Future in Mind

You will get arguments from both the academic and industry sides of the house as to how obtaining a Ph.D. will make you ineligible for regular industry jobs or how difficult the ramp-up time is in academia. These arguments are true if action is taken at the very last minute. If your goal is to move forward with academia, start making the necessary connections and put in the work to make yourself visible. If you intend to stay or transition to the industry, take up internship opportunities and build your network and portfolios early.

Regardless of your choice, showcasing your work and networking will become your top priority outside of your normal responsibilities as a grad. The connections you make in your presentations, professional associations, and social settings will become a lifeline when you walk out of your program and into what I’d like to call post-doc purgatory. Too often I hear that a post-doc is stuck in limbo due to poor planning or lack of networking, leaving them without an opportunity to dive into research, teaching, or industry work. If you find yourself in post-doc purgatory, take the time to build your network and portfolio. Taking a breather before your next move is fine too, just don’t stay away for too long that you begin to lose everything you worked so hard to build.

Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

Skill Up

A common misconception is that all skills required will be learned through the classes one takes leading up to the research phase. Your advisors will tell you differently. Some important skills that are often neglected are submitting contributions to a scientific journal, performing data analysis properly, networking in and out of academia, and grant writing, to name a few. There are some other skills that I would recommend for anyone wanting to participate or move toward scientific communication or SciComm, such as video editing, effective communication on social media, and branding.

Mindful Publishing

What now? Yes, you read that right. We are in a state where you have to publish first and publish often. In turn, we often neglect our health, relationships, and oftentimes, the quality of the work itself in order to meet this expectation. You get what you put in. If the work produced is rushed and not reflective of who and what you can be as a researcher, then the results may not be what you hoped for. Find time to step away and recharge before diving into your work once more. This will help reduce the number of common errors in your analysis and write-ups, giving way to quality submissions to journals and your supervisors.

It’s Not for Everyone

Wait, wasn’t this a pro-Ph.D. article? Yes, but hear me out. There is a strong misconception that being unable to complete a Ph.D. or any program for that matter means that a person is incapable of performing research or that they are less than. We, as a society, need to accept that these programs are not designed for everyone. We also need to decouple our perceived self-worth from success or the "performance" in any program. It’s exceptionally hard putting life on pause to pursue a doctorate degree. People have kids, move, lose loved ones, etc. Stuff happens! It’s impossible to adapt to every situation. Sometimes folks have to change course altogether.

Final Word

School is difficult and can feel like a never-ending journey at times. It’s important to celebrate the small successes to avoid getting into emotional and mental slumps. Own the fact that you read n number of articles today. Throw a get-together for that published paper. The importance of your work in the eyes of others does not matter. What matters in this journey is that you are trying and putting in the work weekly if not daily. Our Ph.D.s are a part of our lives, not the other way around. Keep up with your health, maintain those relationships, and do not forget to continue celebrating the small things. It’ll make your journey that much more enjoyable.

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