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Career Advice

How to successfully complete a PhD

Advice for new or potential graduate students.

BY DANIEL BECKER + KATHERINE BECKER | OCT 02 2013

As recent graduates of a doctoral education program, we recall the best advice we received along the way very well. It could benefit any doctoral student in education, no matter the institution. A lot of the advice can also be applied to doctoral candidates in many other fields. We gratefully acknowledge the mentors who shared this wisdom as we pay it forward to tomorrow’s graduates.

Pick your passion

Choose your area of concentration because it blows your hair back, not because of trends in University Affairs job postings. Selecting a focus in literacy based on the perception that you will be in-demand may not sustain you through the monumental commitment of a doctorate. The same goes for your dissertation; choose a topic you want to stay up past midnight reading about. That said, you should still read job listings to learn what employers request in application packages.

Interview the faculty

When looking for a thesis supervisor, talk to your program chair about your passion and ask which faculty members share your interests. Create a shortlist and contact those faculty members to request an appointment. Before each meeting, read a selection of the person’s recent publications.

When you sit down with a potential supervisor, ask questions to ascertain their suitability to mentor you. Do they have time to work with a new student? Do they have any advice for you? You might get the brush off or catch someone just as he or she is leaving on sabbatical. If a meeting is not going well, ask about someone else you might speak to. On the other hand, you might meet the future chair of your dissertation committee. Your timing might be perfect to help with an exciting study just getting off the ground.

Never say no

Strongly reconsider before declining any invitation. If a faculty member offers you an opportunity and you say no once, you may not get asked again.

Dive into the literature

Ask a school librarian how to conduct a thorough search on a topic. Take full advantage of any tutorials on using the library and its databases. Amass a collection of articles on your chosen topic and scan the reference list of each article for author names that appear more than once. These are authors that you need to read.

Research topics are often applicable to multiple fields, so try expanding your search. For example, anyone might guess that articles on outdoor education can be found in education journals. But outdoor education articles also appear in journals included in sociology, philosophy, psychology, gender studies, environmental impact and biomedical databases.

Get rejected, and be ok with it

Review the articles you’ve collected and note which publication they came from. Visit the website of each publication and read their submission guidelines. Write an article that is in line with a publication’s mandate. Ask a faculty member to read it and give you feedback.

Once your article is in top shape, format and submit it. Then wait for one of three outcomes: an acceptance (unlikely); a revise-and-resubmit request (slightly more likely); or a rejection (quite possibly). Don’t be discouraged by rejection; look at it as an opportunity to produce a better article. If you receive constructive feedback, promptly thank the editor, incorporate it, and submit the improved version elsewhere. If you are fortunate enough to get a revise-and-resubmit request, thank the editor, make the changes, and promptly resubmit.

Get connected

Join at least one professional association related to your area of concentration. Read its publications. Attend the annual meeting. It’s a chance to physically plant yourself in the big picture.

Dissertating Do’s

Try to choose a committee chair with a working style congruent to yours. If you need structure and deadlines, find someone who is willing to check regularly on your progress. Read everything your chair has published. Read the dissertations of several previous graduates of your program. Access the ProQuest Dissertations & Theses database. It houses over a million dissertations. Search for those that share your topic or research methodology. Mine the reference lists for works that you should read.

It’s all about relationships

The worth of your degree depends on the strength of your relationships. These will get you the recommendation letters you’ll need to get a job, the offers to collaborate on research, the advice you’ll need to succeed, and the friendships that will sustain you in your career. Always thank those who help you on your way, and once you’ve arrived, pay it forward.

Daniel Becker is a postdoctoral fellow at Lakehead University, Orillia campus, in the department of sociology and interdisciplinary studies. Katherine Becker is an assistant professor in the department of undergraduate studies in education at Lakehead, Orillia.

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