Transitioning from being an undergrad to a PhD student

How you can adapt to graduate school

By Hetvi Doshi

Failure is Progress. Image Credits: Jorge Cham, former Stanford PhD Student

I started graduate school right after finishing my bachelor’s, without pursuing a master’s or research experience first. I love science and was ready to dive right into my program and become a scientist. Unfortunately, like many others, I was tripped by the transition from the structured undergraduate life to the unknown graduate one. Here is what I wish I had known.

1. Publications = Success

2. Progress is invisible

3. No structure!

4. Striving for a work-life balance

5. The scientific community is large

First, success in academia is measured in “publication units”. Written work becomes a metric to ascertain impact in the field. If you conduct an experiment, prove a theorem, or criticize another philosopher’s thought, without committing it to paper those actions cease to exist. During your PhD all your projects culminate at the same endpoint: a paper, not graded by your professor but by other experts for publication. The extreme reliance on this production metric is contradictory to the messages we absorb throughout high school and college: cultivate a varied portfolio of coursework, extracurriculars, and in general strive for a well-rounded life. Whether it should be this way is a matter of considerable debate, but the reality is right now “publish or perish” is real. I didn’t know at the start that I was expected to publish 4–5 papers during my Ph.D. and that most of them are written in the final two years. Despite its importance, this unspoken “requirement” is subject to the program and your advisor. When you start, find out what your field and advising team expect so you can set realistic expectations and progress checkpoints.

Second, progress during your PhD may be invisible until you hand in your dissertation. Since papers are the main metric of progress, feeling accomplished before anything gets published is difficult. Unlike college, where an A is an accomplishment and each term you engage in new activities, research is one continuous event spanning across your entire graduate experience. When you feel unaccomplished, know that “every paper read, every email replied, every cell nurtured, and every meeting attended is progress.” Start a CV of failures. You will spend time applying for funding and positions that may be rejected, but a CV of rejections and attempts will help you track time and measure progress.

Third, the accountability structure shifts. The scaffolding of homework, deadlines, and constant supervision falls away in graduate school. If you do not fill in your schedule and to-do list with research, social engagements, or non-academic commitments, no one cares. You can take five years to finish your PhD or 10. You are accountable for yourself.

When my structure shifted, I struggled to create a reliable work ethic because I “reported” to nobody. Learn your advisor’s mentoring style early on. Ask them what their style is and let it guide your methods of communication. Find complementary work habits. Once I learned that my advisor prefers to give feedback, rather than instructions, I found three strategies to aid productivity:

To get work done, I set up regular meetings with my advisors. I co-regulated: scheduled study sessions with friends because I work best around others. It is also common to have days when work consists almost entirely of good ideas, and you find that you don’t have any. So, I became flexible. Now, I love the lack of structure because I can work when I feel inspired, rest when I am tired, and pursue projects that I believe in!

Though these strategies may work for you, successfully navigating a Ph.D. will require self-awareness, so you can implement methods that work best for you.

Fourth, lack of structure blurs the work-life boundary. Since there is no structure, and progress can be any task you do that’s research-related, you are always working. The long timespan of projects and reliance on internal accountability introduce guilt into spare time. Deploy strategies to keep a healthy work-life balance during your PhD. Here are a few that have worked for me and my friends:

Lastly, the community you collaborate and communicate with is exponentially greater than your undergraduate world. It exists because it is incredibly rare to be brilliant in a vacuum; most of our ideas are intertwined with all the experiences we have communicating them. “Your work” becomes “teamwork”. But while others can help, they can also hinder your progress because they have different goals or standards. Listen to the “experts” and find your voice to agree or dissent.

Though this is a summary of my experiences, these strategies will ease your transition. The next few years will be tough and transformative. Get pumped for what is to come and return here when you need help from the community.

I would like to thank my advisor, Adam Anderson, my mentors, Julia Nolte and Elizabeth Riley, and Yugantar Prakash for their feedback on this article.

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Third year Phd Student in Affective Neuroscience at Cornell University. Born and raised in India, undergrad at UCLA. Experimenting with science and life.

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Hetvi Doshi

Third year Phd Student in Affective Neuroscience at Cornell University. Born and raised in India, undergrad at UCLA. Experimenting with science and life.