If you’re a PhD student, you are in great company. But "being in great company" has a very special meaning that's important not to overlook -- it means you are not alone. Your bumpy PhD experience is surprisingly universal across different schools and different programs. If you’re a PhD student in microbiology, you have more in common with a PhD student in history than someone in medical school. If you’re a PhD student in economics, you have more in common with a PhD student in physics than with an MBA student.
Despite this universal experience, many, many PhD students feel very alone. They feel anxious about their uncertain future, anxious about their abilities, and anxious about a personal life that seems to be passing them by.
Having been an informal confident to many PhD students in different majors or with different advisors, I’ve found that many of their real concerns are difficult for them to talk about. This further magnifies their feeling of isolation because they don’t realize how many other people have faced and often conquered a similar problem. There’s power in knowing someone else found a path out of the same woods you feel you’re in.
For about 20 years I taught an interdisciplinary PhD course at the University of Illinois and then at Cornell. Aside from the academic objectives, one of my personal objectives of this course was to help students begin to conquer these anxieties. One way we tried to tackle this was by asking students if they wanted to volunteer to write a short description about a “friend” who was facing a troubling problem. Many weeks we would discuss one of these anonymously written “case studies” for 10-15 minutes during class.
Two good things happened almost every week. First, the 8-16 students in the class all realized that they weren’t alone in some of the problems they faced. Second, they heard a wide range of rational (non-emotional) solutions and perspectives to each problem they probably wouldn’t have heard from an officemate or a partner.
There are three examples of PhD Student Case Studies in the downloadable pdf, and they can be used in a number of different ways.
There’s power in knowing there are a lot of different ways a PhD student can get out of the woods.
There are 100 things on your mental To-Do list. There are daily duties (like email and office time) and pre-scheduled stuff (like classes and committee meetings). But what still remains at the end of the day are the things that are easy to put off because they don’t have hard or immediate deadlines – things like writing an intro to a paper, submitting an IRB proposal, drafting a grant, completing some analysis tables, and so on. At the end of the year, having finished all of these might be what makes the difference between an exceptional year and another “OK” one.
But these projects are also the easiest things to put off or to only push ahead 1 inch each week. If you push 100 projects ahead 1 inch each week, you’ve made 100 inches of progress at the end of the week, but your desk is still full and you’re feeling frustratingly resigned to always be behind. This is an incremental approach.
A different approach would be to push a 50-inch project ahead until it is finished and falls off the desk; then you could push a 40-inch project ahead until it falls off; and then you can spend the last of your time and energy pushing a small 10-inch project off your desk. This is the “push-it-off-the-desk” approach.
Both approaches take 100-inches of work. However, the “push-it-off-the-desk” approach changes how you think and feel. You still have 97 things left to do, but you can see you made tangible progress. For about 12 years, I tried a number of different systems to do this – to finish up what was most important for the week. Each of them eventually ended up being too complicated or too constraining for me to stick with.
Eventually I stopped looking for a magic system. Instead, at the end of every week, I simply listed the projects or project pieces I was most grateful to have totally finished. Super simple. It kept me focused on finishing things, and it gave me a specific direction for next week (the next things to finish). It’s since evolved into something I call a “3-3-3 Weekly Recap.”
Here’s how a 3-3-3 Weekly Recap works. Every Friday I write down the 3 biggest things I finished that week (“Done”), the 3 things I want to finish next week (“Doing”), and 3 things I’m waiting for (“Waiting for”). This ends up being a record of what I did that week, a plan for what to focus on next week, and a reminder of what I need to follow up on. It helps keep me accountable to myself, and it keeps me focused on finishing 3 big things instead of 100 little things. Here’s an example of one that’s been scribbled in a notebook at the end of last week:
Even though you’d be writing this just for yourself, it might improve your game. It focuses you for the week, it gives you a plan for next week, and it prompts you to follow-up on things you kind of forgot you were waiting for.
Sometimes I do it in a notebook and sometimes I type it and send it to myself as an email. It doesn’t matter the form it’s in or if you ever look back at it (I don’t), it still works. I’ve shared this with people in academia, business, and government. Although it works for most people who try it, it works best for academics who manage their own time and for managers who are supervising others. They say it helps to keep the focus on moving forward instead of either simply drifting through the details of the day or being thrown off course by a new gust of wind.
If you work with PhD students or Postdocs, it could help them develop a “Finish it up” mentality, instead of a “Polish this for 3 years until it's perfect” mentality. It’s also useful as a starting point for 1-on-1 weekly meetings. If they get in the habit of emailing their 3-3-3 Recap to you each Friday, you can share any feedback and perhaps help speed up whatever it is they are waiting for. Especially if it’s something on your desk. Ouch.
Good luck in pushing 3 To-Dos off your desk and getting things done. I hope you find this helps.
In 2017-19, about 18 of my research articles were retracted. These retractions offer some useful lessons to scholars, and they also offer some useful next steps to those who want to publish in the social sciences. Two of these steps include 1) Choose a publishable topic, and 2) have a rough mental roadmap of what the finished paper might look. That is, what’s the positioning, the study, and the possible contribution.
The topics I’ve described here offer one set of roadmaps that could be useful. First, they were of interest to journals in medicine, behavioral economics, marketing, nutrition, psychology, health, and consumer behavior. Second, they each show what a finished paper might look like. They show the positioning, relevant background research, methodological tips, and key implications.
Table 1 and Appendix A lay out an estimate of how much effort it might take to do studies on these topics, and I’ve also estimated what I think the practical impact each research project might have. These are my own subjective estimates, but you might find them a useful starting point if you’re looking for a tie-breaker between two different topics.
I would strongly encourage anyone who’s interested in publishing in these areas to closely follow principles of open science, from preregistration of hypotheses and analytic strategies to open materials and open data. Making specific hypotheses and testing them by following open science principles will be the best next way forward. A good introduction to these principles, along with hands-on advice, is this: Klein, O., Hardwicke, T. E., Aust, F., Breuer, J., Danielsson, H., Hofelich Mohr, A., … Frank, M. C. (2018). A practical guide for transparency in psychological science. Collabra: Psychology, 4(1), 20. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1525/collabra.158
Academia can be a tremendously rewarding career both you and for the people who benefit from you research. Best wishes in moving topics like these forward, and best wishes on a great career.
• Non-native English speakers and shy students have a hard time participating in large classes. Class Previews help them. An hour before each class, I hold a Class Preview that tells people the discussion questions I’ll be asking that day, and then we discuss them ahead of time. Anyone’s welcome to show up.
• For large classes, try to have TA office hours every day (or M-Th)
• Try to be super specific about what you expect for an A assignment, and what your policy is on late assignments and missed classes.
• Rather than having both the final exam and their project due at the end of the semester, I frontload the course with the most work and move their project up to the half-way point.
• Letting students drop their lowest scoring assignment reduces their anxiety and the pressure they feel.
• By having students turn in two copies of their project (one to grade and one to file), it helps ensure the same projects don’t show up year after year.
• I have a screen-down, no-laptop policy. If people say they are taking notes, I ask them to send me the notes after class to see if what I’m teaching is coming across like I hope.
• Class insight cards can give class contribution points to well-prepared, but shy students.
• Extra credit opportunities are great. They help reduce student anxiety.
• If your course is cross-listed with both undergrads and grads, the graduate students will need to do something more (usually about 20-25% more). I also have four specialized class sessions (and a dinner) only for them.
• I try to organize the course into very discrete sections. This way I can frequently review each section in class before I start a new one. This way it very discretely shows how the parts of the course build on each other.
• The Final Project was renamed “Integrative Assignment” and moved to the middle of the semester. They have to work a lot harder early on in the course, but the quality goes up, and their Finals Week stress level goes down.
• You can get the most from a guest speaker’s visit if – before class -- you require students to read something written and published about the guest speaker. (It also makes the guest speaker more of a celebrity). On the day they speak, I will usually show a short Youtube clip of them before introducing them.
• I want the last class session of the semester to be valuable. After they turn in their exam and their course evaluations, I give them the option to leave. For those who stay, I tell them stories of two big lessons I learned in life (the hard way), and how they can deal with challenges in the future. It’s an unusual way to end the class, but it always ends it on a high and memorable note.
Good luck writing a great syllabus, having a great course, and having a triple-great semester.
I went to a super small college in a super small town, and I clearly remember my advisor having me and my college sweetheart over to his home for ice cream on the day I finished my senior project. That reconfirmed to me that I wanted to be a professor. When I was in my master’s program, three of my professors each had us over to their homes for dinner on the last day of the classes. I still remember where I sat and what we talked about.
Over the past 30 years I’ve had way over 200 dinners or parties at my home with graduate students, visiting scholars, summer interns, teaching assistants (TAs), advisees, lab teammates, and so on. The last class session of every graduate class is a dinner, we have welcoming parties for any new person in the Lab (and going away parties when they leave), we celebrate every time we get a major grant by having a party, and when I have a speaker or colleague in from out of town we’ll usually also invite a student or two for dinner with them.
These dinners and parties were always lots of fun. They created of team committment, a lot of good “buzz” (people really wanted to be TAs), people felt very quickly accepted and valued, lab members felt appreciated, and so on.
Looking back, I also think a lot of things could have gone wrong that fortunately didn’t. There was sometimes lots of wine, they’d sometimes last really late, and they were sometimes pretty loud. Sometimes people brought musical instruments and we jammed, sometimes people turned the stereo up to 11, and sometimes neighbors complained. Most of my colleagues tend to not have students over to their homes, partly because of what they imagine could go wrong. They're partly right, but that's largely a shame. There's a solution.
Over the years as I started seeing how different things could spin off the tracks, I gradually started coming up with little rules of thumb I’d use to try and keep things in check. About 10 years ago, I finally honed in on some guidelines that have luckily worked for me. For new summer interns or graduate students, I’ll do them all. For long-term employees or post-docs, I'm more liberal:
 Put a start and ending time on the invitation (like 6:00 to 9:00)
 Have lots of interesting nonalcoholic things to drink
 If there's going to be alcohol, only serve wine
 Only offer the equivalent of 1 glass per person.
(People will often bring other wine or beer, but this usually keeps things in hand)
 Keep everybody on the main floor or on the back deck (and close other doors)
 If there are still females around after 9:00, make sure my wife stays up until they leave
 At 9:00, turn the music off and don’t open any more wine
Now, I used to have none of these rules. I remember when I was a single 30-year old MBA professor, and I was having 26-year old Dartmouth MBA students over to my apartment for end-of-semester dinner parties, there’s a number of things that could have gone wrong. Fortunately they didn't, but these guidelines would have good idea.
My best memories as a student were when professors had me over to their homes. I admired them, and I wanted to be like them. Being invited over, made me feel like part of an inner academic circle. It might not mean anything to some students, but it might also be remembered by others 40 years later.
How to graduate, get a job, get tenure, solve problems, and make fewer mistakes.