10 Things Every PhD Student Should Know


I got my PhD when I was 27. Now in my 30s, how I came up differs considerably from what the current generation of doctoral students expects and experiences. I made a lot of mistakes along the way and I see this generation making their own. After working with PhD students for a few years, here are my top 10 points.

"PhD Student" Is Not an Identity

Do you get a kick out of posting dissertation jokes or writing blog posts about “PhD life?” Instead of "PhD student," I recommend you think of your own role as that of an “aspiring scholar.” The sooner you aspire to be a scholar, the sooner you actually will become one.

Burn Your Dissertation Thesis

In a field where everyone has a PhD, your thesis is probably not going to be your most important work. Likewise, complaining about your thesis makes people think that you may not be made for greater things. I recommend writing your dissertation thesis quickly and then burn it symbolically, not to dismiss it, but to close this chapter of your life and move on to greater things.

Talent Is Overrated

Compliments from senior scholars can be flattering but they probably mean very little in the end. Everyone accepted into a PhD program has potential. As with everything else, 5% is talent, 95% hard work.

Learn to Say No

"Manage your time wisely" is a polite way advisors often use to tell students to learn to say no. Don't become a hermit but scholarship actually requires you to cut down significantly on social stuff. Or as a mentor once said: let your ideas structure your life, not the other way around.

Don’t Wait to Be Told What to Do

I do not recommend running idle in between meetings and waiting for marching orders. Develop strategies of your own; create an idea on where you want to go next and then go there.

Take Criticism Like an Adult

When overflowing amounts of praise are the exception, running on criticism seems like a good idea. As with any gift, the wrapping may be thorny and unattractive but the content may actually be very valuable. Probably the most valuable gift that can be given to you in life is a rejection.

Read Less But More

It is very easy to read 50 papers in one semester and not understand a single one of them. Make one paper your “paper of the week,” spend plenty of time with it, and allow it speak to you. Read “in between” papers whenever you can to crystallize the larger debates.

Yes, It’s About Journal Articles

Accept that, while books, films, poems, posters, blogs, Facebook posts, and tweets are all legitimate vehicles for creative expression, they have far less stand-alone institutional currency in most fields (yet) than journal articles.

Publish Programs, Not Papers

Your longevity in the field is not only a matter of number of publications. It also depends on your ability to create and “own” one or more areas of study. Avoid 100-project syndrome and low-hanging fruits that do not directly support your field-building efforts. Prioritize the forest for the trees.

Be a Good Citizen

One simple definition of a field is a group of people who look out for each other. This means two things: showing respect and tolerance for your colleagues' various backgrounds and talents, not just publishing, but also organizing, mentoring, entertaining, advocating, and living. And second, altruism - helping others more than others may help you.