Erin Bedford (@erinellyse) is a PhD student in Nanotechnology Engineering at the University of Waterloo and the Pierre and Marie Curie University (Paris VI) in a co-supervised program. Illustrations are by Geoff Lee who is currently working at the University of Waterloo after finishing his masters degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering. He also draws for the blog Sketchy Science (Twitter).
Dear new grad student,
I’m writing to tell you something that I wish I had been told earlier. It’s something that we’re expected to know, something that seems obvious once you know it, but something that myself and many other grad students didn’t seem to know until well into our PhDs.
It’s your PhD.
No one—not your advisor/supervisor/PI, not the post-doc who knows so much more than you, not the more experienced grad student who seems to have it all figured out—no one cares about what you do as much as you do.
In a sense, this seems like too obvious a statement to even be worth writing down. Of course it’s your PhD—who else’s would it be? Yet somehow, I’ve heard this topic come up among grad students over and over again. We struggled, we got angry, we thought about quitting, until one day we realized that it was up to us to find our direction, to fix our problems, to figure out what we needed to know in order to succeed.
The problem involves not taking responsibility for the direction of your PhD, or more precisely not realizing that you need to take responsibility for it. It helps to understand its source. In undergrad, the path to success is clear—go to class, study, get good grades—and regular grading provides nice checkpoints along the way to tell you whether or not you’re succeeding. Professors tell you what you need to know, how to learn it, and will help when you don’t understand something. When a student used to this type of learning enters grad school, she still sees the professor she’s working with as someone who will tell her what to learn and how to learn it. But this is not what it means to do a PhD. Graduate research involves pushing at the boundary of current knowledge, so while others can give you suggestions, no one really knows how to do what you’re doing. Unlike in undergrad, the path to success is rarely clear.
So how do you take charge of your PhD? It’s not easy, especially at the beginning. Step one is identifying what type of advisor you have and what kind of guidance you should expect from him or her. There is a spectrum of supervision styles ranging from an almighty boss to a hands-off advisor who you meet with once a year. Ideally, you’ll have figured this out before you started your PhD and chosen your advisor accordingly, but as this rarely seems to be the case, now is the time to do it. One of the best ways to figure it out is to ask grad students who have already worked with your advisor. Also, continue to work on good communication with your advisor throughout your PhD so that you’re both aware of the others’ expectations and thoughts about direction.
Understanding your advisor’s supervision style is important because where your advisor’s guidance ends is where your responsibility begins. This can be terrifying because it puts success almost entirely in your hands. When something goes wrong, it’s up to you to fix it, no matter whose fault it is. When your research direction no longer makes sense, it’s up to you to find a new path. Step two involves recognizing this and not wasting your energy blaming others. People you work with will make mistakes, you will make mistakes, and sometimes things will just go wrong. Fix it and move on.
Instead of blaming others, embrace your responsibility. Along with responsibility comes a tremendous amount of freedom–freedom to learn what you want, to explore what you find most fascinating, to grow your skills in whatever direction you please. It’s your PhD, so it’s you who should determine its direction, you who should make sure that you come out of it with a set of skills that you’re proud of. Your advisor may have a certain idea of where they want you to go, and of course that should be an important consideration, but don’t be afraid to put your own ideas forward, even when they differ from your advisor’s.
Step three is to learn to trust and forgive yourself. Part of the problem isn’t so much making the decision to take charge of your work as it is having confidence in yourself to make good choices. Many grad students go through a phase of being paralyzed by fear of making mistakes. Imposter syndrome definitely plays a role in this, as does simple inexperience. Don’t let this keep you from moving forward. There is no doubt that it takes time to learn how to be a good researcher; that’s why we’re doing PhDs. At the beginning, let yourself be absorbed by the literature, check your ideas with those who have more experience, and accept that you will make mistakes–the key is to learn from them and move on.
I’m writing with the hope that some of you can learn more quickly what so many of us wish we had learned earlier. It’s possible that taking charge of your PhD is something that can only be learned from experience, but at the very least, knowing the goal can’t hurt. As someone who is still working on it herself, I will tell you that it’s not always easy, but that you can do it. Good luck with your research, and good luck with your PhD.
A fellow grad student who cares
P.S. Any other ideas on ways we fail to take charge of our thesis? Tips on how to do better? Please share!
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