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Poll for advanced students & faculty: What were the most difficult aspects of graduate school?


Poll: Advanced students & faculty only - what were the most difficult aspects of graduate school?  

7 members have voted

  1. 1. Looking back on the process as a whole, what would you say were the 3 most difficult PHASES of getting a PhD?

    • Applying [Formulating an SOP, gathering recommendations, taking the GRE, assembling a list of schools, filling out applications, biting your nails and waiting, deciding which program to attend]
      0
    • Being new to graduate school [learning the ropes, trying to find ones place, realizing how very much there is to learn]
      4
    • Slogging through coursework [dealing with requirements that may or may not be useful, persevering through things that distract you from your research]
      4
    • Finding an advisor / committee [navigating interpersonal and academic politics, choosing and/or breaking up with academic mentors, figuring out who your allies are]
      1
    • Learning how to do research [figuring out what questions are interesting and doable, how to design execute and complete your research]
      2
    • Completing the MA/MS thesis [getting through that first great test of ability and dedication]
      0
    • PhD Exams [studying and taking oral/written qualification and/or preliminary exams]
      3
    • Formulating the dissertation proposal [deciding on and creating a project that will set the tone for your early career in academia]
      1
    • Conducting dissertation research [the lonely and alienating nose to the grindstone slog of data collection and interpretation]
      0
    • Writing the dissertation [actually putting pen to paper and getting the behemoth done]
      4
    • Defending the dissertation [taking ownership of your intellectual work and preparing to set sail on the academic seas]
      0
    • The job search [selling yourself in an ever more competitive and cutthroat academic market]
      2
    • Taking a leave of absence at some point during my graduate study
      0
    • Other
      0
  2. 2. What were the 1-3 most difficult ASPECTS of your overall experience in a PhD program?

    • Learning how to be a graduate student
      0
    • Learning how to conduct independent research
      0
    • Learning how to write
      2
    • Learning how to teach
      2
    • Time management
      3
    • Work/Life balance
      3
    • Dealing with interpersonal / departmental politics
      2
    • Feelings of inadequacy / impostor syndrome
      3
    • Financial difficulty
      1
    • Jumping over departmental hurdles (required classes, exams, teaching)
      1
    • Learning how to ask interesting questions
      0
    • Coming to terms with your intellectual interests and potential limitations
      0
    • Learning where your work fits in the discipline
      1
    • Losing sight of the other things that are important to you in life (family, friends, activism, spirituality, etc)
      0
    • Spending so many of my best years in school / impoverished
      0
    • Feeling "overeducated" / forgetting how to communicate outside of academia
      1
    • Feeling that my work would likely have little impact in the "real world" / outside of the academy
      2
    • Feeling inadequately prepared to be a faculty member
      0
    • Feeling unsure whether I will be able to arrive at the future I work so hard to achieve
      0
    • Other
      0
  3. 3. What would you have done differently? (check as many as you like)

    • Waited a few years before committing to attend graduate school
      3
    • Chosen a different discipline altogether
      2
    • Chosen a different department / reapplied the following year if necessary
      2
    • Chosen a different subdiscipline / spent more time finding the right one
      0
    • Chosen a different advisor / been more careful in the advisor choice
      0
    • Chosen a different dissertation topic / been more diligent in the topic choice
      0
    • Been more qualitative
      0
    • Been more quantitative
      0
    • Taken more / different courses
      2
    • Pursued linkages / other interests in different departments or academic disciplines
      2
    • Gone to graduate school before getting married and/or having children
      0
    • Gone to graduate school after getting married and/or having children
      0
    • Been more forceful with my advisor/department about my research ideas and academic needs
      2
    • Published more
      1
    • Focused more on getting outside funding
      1
    • Spent more time collaborating / bouncing ideas off of my cohort and colleagues
      0
    • Spent more time engaging with faculty
      1
    • Invested more in getting professionalized (public speaking, interviewing, networking, etc)
      2
    • Pursued another career altogether
      0
    • Other
      1


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I'm hoping to spark a thoughtful discussion among those who have already spent several years in graduate school as well as those who have moved on to bigger (and hopefully better!) things.

 

This poll is intended to inspire the dispensation of some advice to those of us who are still in graduate school. So- Junior faculty and advanced graduate students: Help us see the big picture and avoid some of the biggest mistakes that you never saw coming!

 

Thanks!

 

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For the last one, I would have read more. Everyone's life circumstances are different and most folks need to find a place where they can cut corners in graduate school to help retain their sanity. My way of doing that was reading very little outside of what was necessary for research or teaching. I wish I had been more sociologically curious in that sense, but - for a number of reasons - it just wasn't possible (it's also much easier now than it was in the olden days because the internet puts so much at your fingertips). 

 

I also wish I would have appreciated just how good I had it as a graduate student. Becoming a tenure-track faculty member, with so many more obligations to juggle, was an incredibly difficult transition. Enjoy yourselves!

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You didn't list grantwriting and waiting to hear about funding to do research in Q1 but it probably should be in there. It's definitely a difficult phase, especially when you apply for things and then have to wait 6 months to hear back. What to do in the interim can be a challenge. I was lucky in that I got funding but those who don't then go through an even more difficult phase (do I switch to another topic, do I reapply for funding, do I take out loans to pay for the research, etc.). Definitely not an easy time.

 

And the difficulty of the job market and preparing for it exists whether or not you decide to go the academic route. If you want a US government job, you have to learn how to write resumes for USAJOBS that showcase your experience and that demonstrate that you meet the KSAs for the position. All of your experience that you're counting in questions has to be included on your resume, whether it's from paid or volunteer work. For academic jobs, it's really more like a lottery these days. You can do everything you can while in grad school (present, publish, do interesting research, network, etc.), and still be left out cold at the end of the hiring season. That's just the way it goes. 

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Thanks to msafiri and faculty for your insights! 

 

The poll function on gradcafe is unfortunately a little clunky (not to mention the obvious fact that the 'data' are absolutely not scientific). I certainly agree that "reading more" and "grant writing" should be added. 

 

As someone who spent a great deal of my own free time reading academic work prior to beginning my PhD program, I have to wonder about the pedagogy of the coursework phase of graduate school. Personally, I have found my innate curiosity and desire to learn stifled by college-style busywork and deadlines. I now read with an eye to what I know I will be evaluated on in the short term. I read with an eye to what I know the particular faculty member in charge of the course/qualifying exam thinks is important. I suppose this is a useful skill (at least I am learning how sociology as a discipline organizes material), but already it has put a dent in my publication lineup. 

 

 

Personally, it's hard to imagine right now how good I have it as a graduate student. Though I will acknowledge that a lot more could be made of the 'gift of ignorance' that comes with being the low man on the totem pole. I get to ask all kinds of questions of faculty and more advanced students. Many times I get the feeling that some 'more-senior' others wished they had the guts to ask the questions I am asking. 

 

What aspects of life as a faculty member are worse than life as a PhD student? And how can PhD students better prepare to be successful faculty? I wouldn't say my program is especially wonderful at professionalizing its graduate students. We receive very little instruction in teaching, grant writing, publishing, networking, etc. In fairness, colleagues at other top programs have expressed this same concern. (In contrast to colleagues who have gone through the MBA, JD, MSW, or MPP and have taken whole classes on these kinds of non-cognitive skills)

 
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You hit on one of the main things that I missed as a junior faculty member - relatively unfettered access to colleagues (faculty and other students) who I felt that I could safely (and easily) ask for help with things, without worrying if it somehow came off as weakness. There comes a time when you have to break off, at least in large part, from your advisor and establish yourself. My social networks were rich in other ways in grad school. Moving to a new place where I basically knew no one was hard (although it helps you focus on work). But the nearly singular focus on work is a luxury of graduate school. There is way more to do as a faculty member. I taught as a graduate student, but I taught one class a semester and/or summer. Teaching loads vary, but very few students will end up in a job where they teach that little. I was involved in service as a grad student, but not the amount I was as a faculty member. At a liberal arts college, this is mentoring undergrads in addition to serving on department and university committees and attending frequent social functions for the school. At a research school, you're mentoring grad students, serving on exam/theses/dissertation committees, and on the department and university committees. You're more likely asked to do external service as well, reviewing manuscripts and joining section committees. Of course your pay goes up, but the expectation that you start living like a grown-up makes expenses increase dramatically as well - housing, retirement, insurance, clothing budgets, taxes, etc. For me, student loans kicked in, too. I am further from home than I was as a grad student, so spend more money traveling in the summer or for holidays to see my parents and siblings (even with much less frequent visits). Some things you might have had in graduate school don't magically disappear: feelings of insecurity/impostorism, time management issues, work-life balance, coming up with (and funding/executing) research projects, etc. The pre-tenure years are tough, as you feel constantly evaluated and unsure of what the future holds. That might be a bit like grad school, but it's different.

 

Those are just what come to mind. I feel a tinge of PTSD typing it all out as it's long behind me now. I would not change my job for the world. I absolutely love what I do, but transitioning into faculty life (and I hope you're all so lucky) makes most of us (albeit not all) long for the grad school days.

 

Edited to add: As far as what students can do to better prepared... I do think that I was better off than most having taught, worked, been active service-wise, etc. in grad school. People who are singularly focused ("This semester I'll teach a class. Next semester I'll work on that paper. I don't have time to serve on a stupid committee.") fared much worse than I did. I also had a couple of papers and projects in the works and under review when I finished. Many of my peers had even more. That helps lessen the pre-tenure crunch. Be mindful of the loans that you take out as a student, as they'll have to be paid back at some point. Ask a lot of people (fellow students, faculty members, alumni) about their strategies for work-life balance, time management, and productivity. There's no one-size-fits-all approach, so it's helpful to get ideas from a lot of people and determine what works best for you. Make connections with scholars outside of your department, people who you can draw on and socialize with that help expand your professional network and are there to read drafts, bounce ideas off of, etc. - and maybe even working in the department that you'll one day work in. Those are just a few ideas...

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As someone who spent a great deal of my own free time reading academic work prior to beginning my PhD program, I have to wonder about the pedagogy of the coursework phase of graduate school. Personally, I have found my innate curiosity and desire to learn stifled by college-style busywork and deadlines. I now read with an eye to what I know I will be evaluated on in the short term. I read with an eye to what I know the particular faculty member in charge of the course/qualifying exam thinks is important. I suppose this is a useful skill (at least I am learning how sociology as a discipline organizes material), but already it has put a dent in my publication lineup. 

 

 

 

 

Thanks for saying this.  I'm not an advanced graduate student yet, but I swear 95% of the coursework I've done in my Master's program has been busywork.  It seriously drives me crazy!  I do however spend as much of my free time as I can reading on topics of interest, trying to learn what new research is out there, bios of particular faculty/researchers, etc.  It's nice to know now that going into a PhD there will be even more busywork, because I actually thought it would end lol.  Silly me =)

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Great question, Gilbertrollins! I also often feel that cloud of guilt. In contrast to my past life in the 9-5 world, I have long ago given up on the idea that my weekends are my own. But equally important to recognize is that burnout is quite real, and it has a way of sneaking up and making you more unproductive than ever! 

 

Another question I have for advanced students and faculty - Looking back on those who struggled to get through a PhD program and/or left altogether, are you able to point to any common predictors? I recently read a commentary about women and minorities who leave academia. In most cases, departmental leadership chalks up what is actually a statistically significant disparity in drop out rates to "individual circumstances." I suppose we could take raw demographic categories more seriously. But, in your (anectdotal) point of view, what are these "individual circumstances"? What were the kinds of things that tended to be the last straw for colleagues who left your program? Was there a 'push'? (Academic burnout, failure) Or more of a 'pull' (lured away to a non-academic job, shift in family obligations, illness)? 

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Great question, Gilbertrollins! I also often feel that cloud of guilt. In contrast to my past life in the 9-5 world, I have long ago given up on the idea that my weekends are my own. But equally important to recognize is that burnout is quite real, and it has a way of sneaking up and making you more unproductive than ever! 

 

Another question I have for advanced students and faculty - Looking back on those who struggled to get through a PhD program and/or left altogether, are you able to point to any common predictors? I recently read a commentary about women and minorities who leave academia. In most cases, departmental leadership chalks up what is actually a statistically significant disparity in drop out rates to "individual circumstances." I suppose we could take raw demographic categories more seriously. But, in your (anectdotal) point of view, what are these "individual circumstances"? What were the kinds of things that tended to be the last straw for colleagues who left your program? Was there a 'push'? (Academic burnout, failure) Or more of a 'pull' (lured away to a non-academic job, shift in family obligations, illness)? 

 

I'd like to know this too actually.  My mind wandered to a lucrative job, family obligations, and illness as well, but I also wonder if a lack of a support system is part of the problem.  When I was in undergrad that was discussed at length when it came to minority students (I don't recall this being said specifically about women).  The thoughts of the faculty were that for minority students who come from families where college isn't the norm they go home and have no one to talk to that understands the college experience, the struggles, the excitement, etc.  Then they attend classes and are surrounded by students with completely different life/family experiences and it may be hard to relate or make any solid connections.  I could easily see this happening in grad school even for a student that comes from a family where college is common because undergrad and grad school are very different.  Now of course each school is different and each academic program is different, so this may be a factor in some schools and not in others.  Regardless I too would like to know what "individual circumstances" really means. 

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  • 7 months later...

I'd like to bump this topic/poll up because there are still a lot of unaswered questions lingering here that are particularly important to both recently accepted and currently attending students.

 

To recap: How do you know when to chill out and let yourself relax? For those already in school or teaching, did you notice any common denominators for students that left your program? Any tips for being better prepared for the work force or more generally as a grad student?

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1. Honestly, I really had a hard time relaxing until after tenure. I'm not joking. Even now, it's often hard to switch off. That said, I tried to develop habits that let me separate my professional and personal life. I almost never worked at home during grad school, for example. I tried to leave work at work. But that also means being willing to be on campus at least 40 hours a week (more like 50-55 if TAing or teaching) and remaining really focused during that time (e.g., no [OK, very little] random browsing of the interwebs).

 

2. In my somewhat limited experience, students who leave PhD programs tend to do it very early or too late. Some people realize quickly that this isn't for them and they get out. Good for them! Better to know sooner. Often they though academic soc was something it really isn't (e.g., saving the world). The ones who leave late seem to just struggle to get projects together. They are often very smart and well read but they just can't pull a coherent project together for some reason. (The ability to consume knowledge and produce knowledge are hardly perfectly correlated.) So they often end up slowly gravitating toward other things and eventually end up with other jobs. 

 

3. Maintain reasonable anxiety. Don't worry about publishing in year 1. Just really soak in your classes. For your MA paper, take on something tractable so you can get the feeling of success under your belt before moving on to a more ambitious project. You're learning the research process so keep it simple. There will be time to change direction later if you want. And finally, try to be happy! Remember that you're getting paid to do something way more interesting than most people!

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Thank you for the insight and very thorough answer! I think as long as I can remember to be grateful that I'm doing what I want to do and getting paid for it, even when its hard, I will be fine for the most part. Personally, I'm going to try scheduling in some relaxation time. If I have it on my to-do list (I'm a big list person) then I'll feel good about checking it off while still getting to relax.

 

To-Do:

Study for such and such

Write such and such paper

Watch 1 episode of House of Cards...(x3 because who can watch just one episode?!)

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Thank you for the insight and very thorough answer! I think as long as I can remember to be grateful that I'm doing what I want to do and getting paid for it, even when its hard, I will be fine for the most part. Personally, I'm going to try scheduling in some relaxation time. If I have it on my to-do list (I'm a big list person) then I'll feel good about checking it off while still getting to relax.

 

To-Do:

Study for such and such

Write such and such paper

Watch 1 episode of House of Cards...(x3 because who can watch just one episode?!)

This. Everything about this lol. (Expect something else in place of House of Cards, cause my bf tried to get me into it the other day and I did fall asleep to his extreme annoyance.)

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1. Honestly, I really had a hard time relaxing until after tenure. I'm not joking. Even now, it's often hard to switch off. That said, I tried to develop habits that let me separate my professional and personal life. I almost never worked at home during grad school, for example. I tried to leave work at work. But that also means being willing to be on campus at least 40 hours a week (more like 50-55 if TAing or teaching) and remaining really focused during that time (e.g., no [OK, very little] random browsing of the interwebs).

 

2. In my somewhat limited experience, students who leave PhD programs tend to do it very early or too late. Some people realize quickly that this isn't for them and they get out. Good for them! Better to know sooner. Often they though academic soc was something it really isn't (e.g., saving the world). The ones who leave late seem to just struggle to get projects together. They are often very smart and well read but they just can't pull a coherent project together for some reason. (The ability to consume knowledge and produce knowledge are hardly perfectly correlated.) So they often end up slowly gravitating toward other things and eventually end up with other jobs. 

 

3. Maintain reasonable anxiety. Don't worry about publishing in year 1. Just really soak in your classes. For your MA paper, take on something tractable so you can get the feeling of success under your belt before moving on to a more ambitious project. You're learning the research process so keep it simple. There will be time to change direction later if you want. And finally, try to be happy! Remember that you're getting paid to do something way more interesting than most people!

This is re-assuring to hear, but I'm still worried!

 

Coming from a non-academic background, meaning that I didn't do much independent research in college and the like, I'm worried that my lack of awareness in certain methodologies and approaches to sociology are going to hinder what would be an otherwise passionate time of study!

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