Grad School Academics

We interviewed PhD students from several schools around the country to find out about their experiences getting in, getting adjusted and getting the most from their programs. These students are from a diverse range of fields. All are recent PhD recipients or current PhD candidates. Here's what they had to say about grad school academics.

How should one go about finding a dissertation advisor?

  • Art history: Spend time with a number of professors during their office hours and assess to what extent each is accessible, supportive and interested in your projects. It's wise to cultivate more than one advisor, whether officially or unofficially. This might come in handy should you need to switch advisors down the line, should you need to balance profs who provide big-name clout and hands-on support; or as a simple networking tactic. Remember that your advisors will be your chief representatives, speaking up for you in faculty meetings and writing letters of recommendation that will be essential to every grant and application you write.
  • Bioengineering: I strongly believe that the process of finding an advisor should occur even before your application is sent. The easiest route to graduate school admission is to have a faculty member at the school to which you are applying who wants to work with you. Faculty will usually have an idea of whether they will be taking students the following year, and if your research interests are a match.
  • Sociology: Some people try to take classes with potential advisors to get to know them in a formal context. Others just show up at office hours and talk it over. Either way, you'll probably want to talk to other graduate students—especially those already working with a certain faculty member—to get a sense of what it is like to work with him or her.

Is it possible to switch dissertation advisors?

  • Art history: Of course it is structurally possible. If you can't get out from under someone diplomatically and/or on your own steam, a switch can be arranged through the Director of Graduate Studies or Dean of Students.
  • Bioengineering: In science and engineering, it is common for the advisor to be responsible for paying the student's living stipend in addition to normal research expenses. Therefore, switching advisors requires that you have another faculty member lined up who is willing to take on the added financial burden. A last point to note is that switching advisors may mean starting a new research topic. If you have already devoted a few years to one project, are you willing to drop that line of work and start over from scratch?
  • Computer science: Yes. It's just a matter of talking to both professors. Religious studies: For me it'll be very easy to switch advisors, if I decide to do so. I imagine in some departments some bad blood could result from such a switch, but I haven't run into a situation like that.
  • Sociology: Switching is much like the initial search. You'll want to see if you can form some relationship with the new advisor, or at least meet him or her to discuss the possibility, before making the switch. I would avoid going without an advisor for too long, if possible.

How do PhD students choose dissertation topics?

  • Art history: Laboriously and over a prolonged period. During your coursework you will endeavor to gain an overview of your field of specialization. As this picture becomes more complete, it will be easier to see both topics of special interest and exploitable lacunas in the present scholarship. You will need to work closely with your advisor(s) to ensure that your topic is unclaimed and makes a significant contribution to the field. The topic should be interesting enough to sustain years of attention but also manageable in the required timeframe with available archival resources.
  • Bioengineering: The dissertation topic in science and engineering is often tied to the research topics for which the advisor currently has funding. Smaller details, such as research methods to be used, are usually refined in consultation with the advisor.
  • Computer science: As far as I can tell, we wander into them. The first couple years are usually spent taking classes and doing smaller research projects, often as part of a professor's long-term research agenda. It's quite common for a grad student to branch off from one of these projects into a related problem that becomes his or her dissertation.
  • Religious studies: It depends on the student. Some students enter graduate school with a clear idea of what they want to do for their dissertation and end up doing it. Some—most, I think—come up with the topic in their third or fourth year, often after doing a master's paper/exam on a similar topic. Others who have difficulty coming up with their own topic have one given to them by their advisor, based either on what he knows of them, or on something he personally would like to see investigated.
  • Sociology: Many people develop ideas from coursework, in response to papers or presentations they read or hear, and from conversations with advisors, other faculty and even other graduate students.

Does teaching take up a lot of time? Do you have any time management tips?

  • Art history: Teaching is very time-consuming, but it should be that way. Anyone who pursues a humanities doctorate purely out of a desire to do research should rethink their career choice. Teaching is the foundation of scholarship and should be treated as a worthy goal rather than a necessary means. Nevertheless, teaching can also serve your research, for the process of articulating and discussing your knowledge with undergraduates will force you to organize and clarify your thoughts. Endeavor to obtain teaching assistantships in fields that your comprehensive exams will cover and for specific courses that you will teach after graduation.
  • Computer science: Teaching and grading, in particular, take up a lot of time. Introductory courses are especially time consuming. I would suggest teaching more advanced courses when possible. Also, try to get grading done as early as possible—there's nothing more annoying than grading for a deadline.
  • Sociology: Yes, but that's not always a bad thing. Your worth will be judged primarily by your research output, but, if you pursue an academic career, you will almost certainly be teaching at some point. Getting experience now is worthwhile. Be careful, though. Teaching can become the ultimate source of legitimate procrastination. You can always spend more time on your teaching responsibilities. Set some limits.

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