Making it through your PhD

Last week during my dissertation defense, one of my family friends asked, “What recommendations would you have for someone just starting their doctoral program?”

I shared two thoughts then, and have had a few more since, in case you may find them useful.

  1. Write your emails before adding someone’s email address in the TO field, so you don’t unintentionally send an incomplete email. Relatedly, consider spending extra minutes to review your email before sending so words are not left out/misspelled. I like to have my computer read me the message aloud, first.
  2. Sign up for GoogleScholar alerts using keywords associated with the literature in your field. In the days before my dissertation defense, a critically relevant article was published, and (thanks to these alerts) I was able to include in my final diss draft. I brought the printed article to my defense, in case questions were asked about it; such questions do get asked.
  3. If you are earlier in the program, and preparing for your qualifying exam, ask around if other doc students/recent grads have the books/articles on your reading list, so you don’t have to track them all down yourself.
  4. Speaking of books, read this one by Cal Newport. I believe his suggestions of how to enter into deep work shaved multiple months off my PhD process.
  5. In your PhD journey, thinking clearly and critically are central to the progression of your degree. Training your brain for prolonged focus can help; have you tried meditation? I hadn’t in a serious way before finding the app Headspace, which has changed my life by changing my morning ritual.
  6. Speaking of ritual, how does caffeine affect your work? I cut it out for a while, but this stuff is just too tasty. Now, I make a half-caff, dialing up or down the caffeine given the day ahead.
  7. Your status as a doctoral student is precious — it means you know how to make mistakes at an advanced level. This status gives you limited access to influential people — make many connections during your time in the program, and follow up. Grow that professional network using LinkedIn. Get a business card that speaks to your work. Hand them out frequently, and work on versions of your elevator pitch that connect with your audience.
  8. Nurture a growth mindset: mistakes do not mean you have failed, but that you simply are not there yet.
  9. While you are still a student, is there student pricing on certain software to help launch your career? Are there university connections outside your department that could help your career trajectory? Ideate the next few years, and take a wide lens to shaping your career.
  10. Brand yourself — do you own your own URL? Punch your full name into your favorite browser, and into Google — what comes up when people are looking for you? For work in your field? What do you want them to see, and how can you make that a reality?
  11. Back up your work in multiple locations. Just before submitting a draft to my committee, I closed my laptop and pulled a glass of water into the vents; the computer was toast. All mission critical files were on Dropbox, and I had a full backup of my work on an external hard drive that regularly autoupdates. I was able to continue on my fiance’s laptop while my computer was fixed, and didn’t miss a beat (though my heart sure skipped a few). Keep liquids out of reach while typing.
  12. As you inch closer to defense day (congrats for making it this far!), you have become an expert in your field. Still, during defense, do not interrupt your committee members as they ask about your work; this day is as much about them as it is you, as they have invested incredible time and resource into your professional development. Here’s a book I found useful with other tips about the doctoral process.
  13. If ever a mountain seems too high to climb, consider how to break that climb into smaller tasks; we don’t need much motivation if the behavior we are trying to do can be perceived as easy to do. If the task already seems easy enough, and you think you need more motivation, maybe instead you need a more challenging situation. If you still need more motivation, draw upon the people who believe in you. Include them in your acknowledgements section.
  14. Acquire good noise-cancelling headphones. Use that noise canceling feature to find focus, or cue up some tunes to get into your work flow.
  15. Architect celebration of a job well done. Start a PhD party playlist, and watch it grow. Post-defense, hit that play button with your buddies for some serious delay of gratification.

These suggestions come from someone not destined for a career in academia, but from someone wishing to partner with academics to leverage design and tech for social good. For others heading into the academy, surely there are other suggestions worth pursuing.

Good luck!

All my best,


My name is Winslow, and I design and evaluate products for social good. My portfolio can be found at If you have an offer, connection, or opportunity involving human-centered design, let’s chat! I’m at

Leveraging design thinking for social good.

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