In part one of this series I presented two pieces of advice which I prepared for the SBL panel Things I Wish I Knew about a Ph.D. During this panel I focused on embracing one’s role as a student and preparing for one’s career from the beginning of their Ph.D. program. In this installment I will discuss some other issues that I addressed during the SBL panel discussion and other pieces of advice that I should have mentioned.
Live close to campus - This is more important than it may seem. In addition to saving money on gas and time on the road, living close to campus will allow you to stay more connected to your program. Unfortunately, I live an hour (when traffic is light) from campus and this has prevented me from attending many functions I wanted to attend.
Understand your funding options – This is especially important when choosing a program. Don’t choose a program over another based on incomplete funding information. For instance, I nearly chose a program that was going to give me 8k a year because UCLA was unwilling to give me a financial package. However, once I did my research I found that nearly all 2nd year students get TAships worth over 15K. These TAships are then available every year after, along with dissertation grants and other options. However, other programs that do not award financial packages do not ever provide financial aid and expect their students to pay tuition. Make sure you thoroughly examine all of the options before choosing a school.
Qualifying Exams – My advice here is two fold. First, warn your family, friends, etc. that this is a major time commitment and extremely stressful. You will disappear for extended periods and even when you are present in body your mind will almost certainly be elsewhere. Second, when you see your exam questions don’t panic. Answer the questions as well as you can. Some professors purposely make difficult questions knowing you will struggle.
Establish a relationship with your advisor and examiners – Establish a positive relationship with your advisor, faculty, and examiners as early as possible. The better your relationship the better your recommendations will be and the more confident your will be going into your qualifying exams. By the time I took my exams I knew my examiners so well that I was able to guess (accurately) the types of questions they would ask. There are a number of steps you can take to establish positive relationships with these individuals. Most obvious is taking their courses. There’s no better way to determine what is important to your faculty then taking a course from them. Another great way to connect with your faculty is to grade for them. I was either a TA or grader for most of my examiners.
Rely on your departmental staff and treat them well – Don’t assume your professors know everything about the nuts and bolts of your program. They may actually have all the answers, but they may not. Even worse they may have outdated information. Essentially, it’s not their job to know this information. Get to know and rely upon the knowledge of the department staff. These people know what forms need to be filled out and which hoops need to be jumped through when. Finally, treat them well and when you are in a bind they will go to great lengths to help you out.
Children, wait – My advice here is wait, wait, wait. Wait until you are done with your program if at all possible. For some reason at UCLA it seems to be a requirement to have children during your program, as all of us in the Christian Origins program have children. However, if you are going to have children during your program wait until after your exams. If you read my above advice you know that exam prep is brutal and I cannot imagine preparing for exams and caring for one or more children.
Marry someone with a “real job” – Okay this advice is a bit tongue in cheek, but most people I know who are successfully navigating Ph.D. programs have a spouse with a “real job.” Having someone in the family earning more than 15K a year makes life a lot easier.
Massive time commitment – If you don’t realize Ph.D. programs are a major time commitment then you either are not in a program or have never talked to anyone who has gone through a Ph.D. program. My advice here is to be as straightforward with those around you as you can. My first quarter was rough because my wife and I had worked out a time schedule before I started my program. However, after I began I quickly realized we had not allotted enough time for my work. Things were rough until we reassessed the situation and made a new schedule. Be honest with yourself and those who rely on you, they will understand (at least you hope they will). Set aside time to spend with your family and do your best to honor this time. Date night is a great idea.
Well that is all the advice I can think of at this moment. If I think of more advice I will post a third entry for this series. If anyone else out there has some advice please put it in the comments section. Perhaps, if there are enough suggestions, I will add a third entry into the series consisting of your advice.