What would you do differently in graduate school if you could go back in time?
I know many PhDs have regrets about their graduate school experience, especially if it took longer to complete than expected.
I interviewed over 100 PhDs who are now successful professionals in industry or academia and I asked them “What would you differently if you could go back to graduate school?”
Some of the answers were similar, and I divided them into 12 categories ranked according to how frequently they mentioned.
Perhaps not surprisingly, nobody said they would have worked more hours.
If I could start graduate school all over again, I wish I had:
1. Joined a thesis writing support group
The number one complaint of former PhD students was that they felt isolated and lost motivation to do work.In college there were support groups in the form of study groups, office hours, and the residential community. In graduate school many student do not have any type of support.
In contrast, the students who did join a support group thought that being part of a community was one of the best ways to keep themselves motivated.If there is no official support group in your school, find one friend and set up a weekly meeting to talk about how each of you progressed, and what challenges you had to overcome.
If you are already writing, swap your drafts and give each other feedback. It does not matter if your friend is not in your field (but it would certainly help).
Simply knowing that someone else is going to read your draft by a specified time will motivate you to complete your drafts on time.
2. Networked more with professionals
Many students in their final year of graduate school are surprised at how difficult it is to find an industry position. First, the competition for PhD level jobs is fierce.
Second, many jobs only require Bachelors or Masters degrees and employers are reluctant to hire overqualified candidates.
While your technical skills are probably in line with the jobs you apply for, you have a much higher chance of landing an industry job if you know someone in the company.
If you worked 12-15 hour days in graduate school and were always too busy to attend networking events, you will graduate without any professional contacts who can help you in your industrial job search. The advantage beginning to network during your early years (even in your first year) is that you don’t have the pressure of having to find a job.
Where do you find professionals? Many universities have professional development workshops. If the topic is relevant, it is a good idea to attend because 1) you will learn about that career path, and 2) you can chat with the speaker afterwards, get their information, and follow up with them later with a thank-you email. Professional societies also have regular meetings and conferences. These are great opportunities for networking with people in your field. Be sure to follow up with everyone either over Linkedin or an email soon after the meetings.
If you meet people for the first time do not ask them for a job. Just get to know them and follow up occasionally so they keep you in mind. As you get closer to graduation, ask people if they would have lunch or coffee with you or at least chat on the phone for 15 minutes. Some people might ignore your emails, but I was surprised at how generous some professionals were with their time when I was looking for a job.
If you do meet or speak with a few people, simply let them know you are looking for career advice. Then, let them do most of the talking about their company or career path. If they mention a job opportunity that would be a good fit, you can let them know about your background and why you would be the solution. If they do not have a job opportunity, ask for a referral to someone else who might be able to help you. Whether or not they help you to find a job, send them a thank you card promptly after your meeting (hand-written if possible).
3. Learned more marketable skills in graduate school
One PhD I interviewed did his thesis research in such an obscure field that he was completely unemployable in industry after he finished graduate school. He decided to do a postdoc in a field that gave him more marketable skills and he did find an industrial position. Other PhDs did learn a few marketable skills, but wished they had learned more in the form of a collaboration. If you network with professionals and look at job ads, you can find out what are the specific skill sets that companies look for. Use your time in graduate school to get experience with as many skill sets as you can.
Most companies care more about your skill set than your publication record. They want to hire someone who will be the solution to their problem. Publishing many papers will not impress them unless they are directly connected to the position they are hiring for. It does not matter if your advisor is famous, or even a Nobel Laureate if you don’t have the right skills. I know this because I worked for a Nobel Laureate as an undergraduate for a few years, and none of the companies I interviewed with seemed impressed by it.
4. Stood up against my supervisor’s bullying
Several students had micromanager supervisor’s and it took a toll on their health and relationships. For example, one woman had a supervisor who expected her to work 7 days a week. When she did not go to lab he called at her at home to remind her how urgent the project was. Finally, she felt burnt-out and told him that she could not work that many hours. She set up new boundaries, such as limited time on the weekends and no calls at home. If he wanted her to be productive he would need to respect her hours. She recalled that he was speechless and reluctantly agreed. That was a great example of how a student resolved an ongoing conflict with a supervisor.
Others did not have the courage to stand up to their supervisor’s even when the requests were unreasonable. For example, one woman wanted to leave town for a few days because her grandmother had suddenly passed away. She asked her supervisor for permission and he said “No” because there were other priorities. She reluctantly stayed but later wished she had gone out of town anyway. Did a few days really matter in a PhD that took over 7 years to complete?
Several students recalled that their supervisor’s had unreasonable expectations before letting them graduate. They worked harder and harder, and a result the supervisor’s asked for more and more. In the end they got the go-ahead to defend, but in retrospect they wished they had stood up sooner to their supervisor’s. I was very fortunate that a senior student told me that I would need to be very assertive during my committee meetings, and persuade them that my research was sufficient to graduate based on past theses.
Prior to my committee meetings I wrote down answers to all the potential questions they would ask, so I would be well-prepared to negotiate. While I did have to do more work than I wanted to, I was able to reduce the amount of work necessary to graduate. This piece of advice probably saved me 6 months in graduate school.
5. Done lab rotations before deciding which group to join (or changed groups sooner)
This advice came from the students who realized that either the research or the supervisor was not a good fit for them. I remember that my academic advisor told me to look for two qualities in my supervisor: 1) Easy to get a long with, and 2) Well-known in their field. Of course, it is difficult to predict how well you will get along with your supervisor, or whether you will like your research. But to my advisor’s point, if you realize that the research or the supervisor is not a good fit for you, it is in everyone’s interest that you change groups as soon as possible.
Some departments allow (and even encourage) students to do lab rotations. I don’t have enough statistics to say whether students who took advantage of this opportunity were more satisfied with their choice of supervisor, than the ones who had a choose a supervisor without rotations. I do know that those students who had wished they had done rotations, realized that the group was not a good fit for them in the first few months. It is possible, that given the opportunity to do rotations they would have found a better group and wasted less time.
A few unhappy students remained with their supervisor because they did not want to start their research all over again, but later wished they had changed groups. Other changed groups, but after several years of wasted effort in a group they did not like. My department did not encourage rotations and most students were assigned a supervisor in the beginning of their first year. However, there was one student who insisted that she wanted to do rotations,. After a few discussion, they allowed her to work for a few research groups before making her choice. If you want to do rotations (and it is not too late), simply ask. Most professors do not mind an extra pair of hands in their groups.
6. Made sure I was on the same page as my supervisor
Most conflicts between a graduate student and a supervisor result from lack of proper communication. As an example, one woman was offered a job when she finished her 6th year of graduate school. When she mentioned this to her advisor, he simply told her that she had not done enough to graduate. Since the company assumed that she was getting her PhD soon, they withdrew the offer when she told them that she needed to stay for a few more months.
Another student told her supervisor that she was going on vacation a few weeks in advance and he agreed. When she returned, her supervisor called her to his office and asked why she hadn’t told him she was going out of town. She reminded him of the conversation they a had a few weeks prior. “Oh I can’t remember that,” he replied. “You need to tell me a few days in advance so I can plan accordingly.” Obviously, this student had no realized that this supervisor needed many reminders.
A big source of conflict comes from asking for recommendations. supervisor’s are very busy and you letter of recommendation is one of 100 things they need to do. Many supervisor’s forget that they have to write a recommendation letter, which can jeopardize your chances of getting extra funding or a job. How often do you remind them? How can you make it easier for them to write it?
One student got very angry because after asking his supervisor repeatedly for a letter of recommendation the supervisor still did not write it. The deadline was a few days away. This student took matters into his own hands. He wrote the letter of recommendation and asked him to sign it. The supervisor signed it reluctantly. I am not sure whether most supervisor’s would like to sign a recommendation letter written by someone else, but I do know that they appreciate a bulleted list of your accomplishments. I also know that some supervisor’s prefer to write recommendation letters in the summer when they don’t need to teach. If you need a recommendation letter be sure to ask your supervisor how you can make it easier for them to write it.
A PhD program usually takes a toll on students’ relationships. Spouses who are not in a PhD program sometimes have a hard time understanding how you can spend 15 hours a day at work 6 days a week. The situation can get even worse if the spouse has a real job and they are supporting the student financially. I have witnessed several breakups (marriages, engagements, dating) due to the strain that a PhD program puts on a relationship.
However, I also know students who were able to nurture their relationships despite the challenges of graduate school. I wrote a blog earlier about how spouses can support each other while one (or both of them) are attending graduate school. To summarize, it is the little things that count. Even if you are working 12-15 hour days, you can still make the time that you spend with your spouse special. Simple things include eating your meals together, going out for ice cream, and committing to a few hours every week to spend with them, regardless of how your research is going.
In addition to wishing they had spent more time with their significant others, some students would have liked to spent more time with their friends, especially if they shared extracurricular activities. As I wrote earlier, not having a support network is one of the major problems that graduate students face. Keeping in touch with friends and participating more actively in extracurricular activities was one of the top stress-relievers for students in graduate school.
8. Taken time off on the weekends to recharge
It is tough to work extra long hours 7 days a week. Everyone needs time to recharge their batteries. In fact, it has been shown that the best ideas come to you when you are away from your desk. The reason is that there is a part of your brain, called the Default Mode, which is activated when you are at rest. The default mode helps you to be more creative and find new solutions to a problem you have been facing. Any of you who get great ideas in the shower, know what I am talking about.
The best way to activate the default mode is to take a break from your work. It is difficult to come up with creative ideas when you are chained to your desk and staring at the screen. It is best to activate the default mode by taking a break from your work daily. Either take a walk or do another activity that takes your mind off from work.
The reason that some students wished they had taken a break on the weekends, was that they found that working on the weekends did not make their research go faster. Either they were too tired to produce high quality data or putting in extra hours did not speed up research. If you work on weekends it is a good idea to assess how much progress you make compared to the hours you put in. If you burn out from working so many hours, working over the weekends can actually slow your progress down.
9. Traveled more & taken vacation during graduate school
Graduate students are not paid well (and they do not have much vacation) but there are still opportunities to travel locally. One student did his PhD in another country and when he graduated he realized that he had not seen any of the sights in the country during his 5 years. If you do not have the budget or time for extensive travel, see if you can travel at least locally to see some new sights.
As an example of how you can make the trip of a lifetime possible on a graduate student stipend, one student saved up for 3 years to go on a trip to Europe. She had never been there before, and she saved between $100-$150 a month and collected information about student discounts. When she finally had enough money, she spent 3 weeks in Europe traveling to 5 different countries. With all of the student discounts she had collected she was able to see all the sights and stay at reasonable hotels.
The PhDs who regretted not traveling attributed it to not having the courage to ask their supervisor for time off. It was usually not a matter of money. One student cancelled a trip to China because she was worried that her two week trip would affect her research negatively. In retrospect she regretted it, because she later realized that 2 weeks off is insignificant in a 6 year PhD program.
10. Wasted less time on the Internet
I actually expected this one to be higher on the list, because I know that many students spend a very significant amount of time on email and social media. Perhaps they did spend a lot of time on the Internet, but if they could change just one thing, it would be one of the items above.
One student who said that this would be the one change she would make, recalled that her supervisor walked in on her frequently when she was checking email. When her research did not go well, he said that it was probably because she spent too much time emailing. In this student’s opinion the time she spent on the Internet was not excessive, but it did lead to conflicts between her and her supervisor. The students who cited this as the number one thing they would change, said that they used the Internet as a form of procrastination disguised into relaxation. In other words, they thought they were taking a break from work, but they were actually wasting precious time that could have been used for a real break such as a walk.
Some students regretted spending so much time in front of the computer, mentioned that they developed pain their arms or backs due to spending long hours in front of the computer. Research usually requires many hours of computer use, and adding social media on top of that can really put unnecessary strain on one’s body. For example, one student developed pains in her arms when she switched from a desktop to a laptop. Laptops are notorious for poor ergonomics and unless you take special precautions to set up a separate monitor and keyboard, you will probably end up in a very uncomfortable position
11. Exercised more
Most graduate students I interviewed found the time to to exercise if they wanted to. There were a few students who struggled with lack of energy or weight issues. These students admitted that if they had put some effort into it, they could have found the time to exercise. One student said: “Whenever I do exercise I am more efficient, but for some reason I just forget about taking a break and going to the gym.” Exercising will not happen on its own. If you want to exercise, you need to set aside time for it, otherwise it will not happen.
12. Take fewer loans
The students who complained about the excessive amounts of loans were usually in the humanities or social sciences. Most PhDs in math, science, and engineering received enough funding to at least get by.
Students whose tuitions were not covered had to take out massive loans of tens of thousands of dollars per year.
One student, a literature major at an Ivy League School, spent 7 years on her PhD, working part-time to cover at least some of her expenses.
When she graduated, she could not find a faculty position. She eventually took a teaching job that did not pay well, but it helped her to pay back her loans slowly. Most students who had excessive loans realized that prior to entering the PhD program they had not evaluated the career paths and salaries of PhDs in their fields, nor the financial resources available to them . In retrospect they wished they had evaluated whether a PhD was a good investment of their time, money and in line with their overall career goals.