Learning to think: Becoming a functional PhD student

Alannah Oleson
Dec 20, 2018 · 5 min read
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Credit: MaxPixel, CC0.

Last week marked the end of my first quarter at the University of Washington’s Information School. After ten weeks, I can confidently say that I have this research thing down. I can quote seminal works at the drop of a hat. Every sentence that falls from my keyboard is publishable. I have transcended time and space and now exist on a dimensional plane of pure scholarship.


Wrong. So very wrong.

Though I have a better idea of what I’m doing now than I did three months ago, it takes a lot of work to be a successful PhD student.

To scaffold this work a bit, I’m approaching the process of becoming a functional researcher as I would any other skill that I want to master, beginning with recognizing where I’m starting from. Consider Martin Broadwell’s model of competence popularized in the 1970’s.

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Broadwell’s four-stage competence model of mastering a skill. Credit: TyIzaeL [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

In this four-stage model of mastery, each learner begins in unconscious incompetence, fully unaware of their lack of knowledge, then advances through conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and finally unconscious competence, where they’ve internalized the skill and its intricacies. In the grand scheme of mastering PhD studies, I’m probably somewhere in between conscious incompetence and conscious competence.

As with any new skill, though, I’ve hit stumbling blocks that trip me up on my path toward mastery. Since my current research involves understanding barriers students face when learning user experience (UX) design and I’m very primed by that train of thought, I’ll flippantly call these difficulties PhD student learning barriers. This framing allows me to do four things:

  • Scope from a nebulous “Grad school is hard” to the more actionable “I struggle with this particular aspect of research”;
  • Understand that there must be some way to address the barrier, since others have overcome it;
  • Identify needed information to help me progress past the barrier; and
  • Recognize when I overcome the barrier and gain competence in the skill.

The following are a subset of PhD student learning barriers I’ve found myself facing in the past ten weeks.

Barrier 1: I don’t feel like I have enough grounding to ask the “right” questions.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. From the field of UX design, we know that iterating on an idea can make it better. This applies to research, too. Though I may not have the right questions now, I can work toward them by iterating on an initial question. Some strategies to make meaningful gains in between iterations are:

  • Reading relevant literature from a broad range of related fields (not just your own)
  • Talking to experts and leveraging their intuitions
  • Describing questions to non-experts and getting fresh perspectives

Each of these allows me to refine my questions and work toward what I’d really like to know. When in doubt, try something, see what happens, triage the fallout, and do better next time.

Barrier 2: My advisor/instructor/collaborator told me to do something, but I don’t know how to do it.

A good way to learn the component skills of research is (surprise surprise) asking the successful researchers around you about their methods and processes. Much of academia seems to hold to oral tradition and you’ll likely find the best advice by being around people who have been there, done that, and come out mostly unscathed. By asking around, I’ve come up with explicit strategies for lit reviewing, reading and writing papers, and getting feedback from professors so far.

The way I see it, my first couple years as a PhD student are an apprenticeship. I am here to learn these skills and get very good at them, so I can leverage them to do dissertation research later on. So it’s okay to ask questions.

Barrier 3: I have so many things to do/read/research, but I can’t keep track of them long enough to make meaningful progress.

To stay sane and semi-productive, I’ve taken to externalizing as much of my cognition as possible. Zotero keeps my ever-growing reading list in check. Google Calendar manages my schedule (though I’m looking into getting a old-school paper planner). Notion collects my workflows and To-dos.

If you think you’ll remember it later — you’re wrong. Write everything down. Why impose extra load on your memory? Free up those mental resources for the Big Thoughts™️ that will move your field forward.

Calling it now: strong organization skills will be a major reason I make it through the next five-to-N years.

Barrier 4: I want to do well but…I’m not sure I can.

I’d be lying if I said that I was fully cured of my own imposter syndrome after a short ten weeks of PhD life. This is a barrier I’m actively working on. However, I’ll keep the following in mind as I keep trudging toward competence:

You don’t deserve to be here more than anyone else, but no one else deserves to be here more than you, either.

What barriers to becoming a functional PhD student have you faced, or seen students face? What novel (or mundane) strategies did you use to overcome those barriers?

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