What gets you a PhD? Research, coursework, teaching, learning, and networking
There are three formal aspects of a PhD: research, teaching, and courses.
- Research is the priority.
To be clear, research is what earns you the PhD. You want to excel at everything else too, but research is usually the most important measure of your PhD success. Very few people notice that you got an “A” on a course, and among those no one will care after you graduate, not even you or your mom. What you and your mom care about is whether you find a good job. And to get there, research is more important than coursework or teaching duties.
By the way, this is true regardless of your career plans, not just faculty positions at research institutions. Even teaching positions at primarily undergrad institutions often ask for a solid research proposal. For industry positions, a good research record shows that you have problem-solving skills, can lead a project to completion, and can collaborate with a team to produce results. Of course, research publications alone do not guarantee any job. You have to complement them with good communication and networking skills as well as generally being a productive and fun person.
- Courses and teaching are an opportunity.
The other two traditional aspects of PhD studies are coursework and teaching duties. We provide details on these topics in separate articles. To summarize:
Courses: Finish with coursework early in your PhD. Study well but do not stress about courses; they are secretly not very important. Your research work is much more important. Use the courses as an opportunity to get to know and network with your classmates. Choose courses creatively, even if that means venturing outside your department. Take the course that your advisor gives. Make the most of these opportunities to shore up on knowledge gaps.
Teaching: Be professional and passionate. Respect students. Prepare very well every single time. Take the extra step to do a great job, not just the minimum needed to satisfy your duties. Learn student names. Teaching is your job, do it with integrity, honesty, and passion. Learn from teaching. Make the most of teaching to shore up on knowledge gaps.
- Learning is an under-emphasized aspect of PhD.
It sounds strange to say that “learning” is an “under-emphasized” part of graduate studies. Isn’t that all you do in grad school?
The fact is that PhD studies are very very specialized to the extent that you can miss out on learning basic stuff, both science stuff and outside world stuff. You need to proactively and periodically take a step back, evaluate your weaknesses, and learn. Otherwise, you risk becoming too focused on a research problem that not many people care about, with little ability to adapt to other research areas or jobs.
Consider investing time in:
- Broad understanding of science, beyond simply your research project. Learn more by casually reading public science books from the school library.
- Project management and business acumen; an incredibly under-appreciated skill by academics. Learn more by taking an online course and by chatting with non-researcher humans who live in the real non-researcher human world.
- Communication and writing. Learn more by attending a workshop or a class, and by practicing. We also provide a couple of nice realPhDeal sections on this topic.
- Life in general. Learn more by volunteering. There are tons of volunteering opportunities accessible to you.
- Networking is another under-emphasized aspect of PhD.
A network is a group of contacts and acquaintances whose experiences overlap to some extent with your career and research interests. Having a solid network can open new doors and shape your career, either by your careful planning or by circumstance. Building your network is a long-term process throughout your PhD and beyond. We examine this topic in more detail in a later article.
Here’s the PhDeal. Among teaching, research, and courses, i.e. the three traditional aspects of your PhD, research is the most important. You should prioritize research, but at the same time be studious and professional about your coursework and teaching duties.
In addition, learning and networking are under-emphasized yet crucial aspects of your PhD. Most of the time, we worry more about the next experiment/task because it feels more urgent, and we neglect building a solid foundation of skills and connections for the longer term.
How to make the most of your PhD courses
- Fill in those knowledge gaps. Think beyond the course. This is your best chance to shore up on the basics. You will only get busier later in your career. You will also become more and more focused on narrow research topics. Challenge the more general subject material that slipped away from you as an undergrad. For some reason, reading the same textbook again as a grad student is much smoother than expected. Somehow you raise your game and approach the topics as a scientist, not as a student. Think of the graduate courses as your platform to re-learn the basics.
- Make friends, courses are your best chance. Meet new colleagues and take advantage of your last chance at a “classroom environment”. Be engaging and socialize. Once everyone settles into their research groups, it will become harder to make friends. Soon, your social life will be reduced to awkward “hellos” in the hallway or lunchroom.
- Get to know your future PI. If you are interested in working with a certain professor, take their course. You will get to know their research more, and that will help you decide whether or not to join. It is worth saying that some professors who are extraordinary advisors are not extraordinary teachers (and vice versa). Also, the advisor’s students will take the same course, which gives you a chance to know them, discuss their research, and learn some “inside information” about the research group.
- Finish with the course load early. Do not let the courses drag over several semesters. If the requirement for the PhD is six courses, perhaps the best option is to start with three courses in the first semester. Be ready, because this will be intense. You will be teaching, going through orientation and safety training, choosing your PhD advisor, and starting a research project. You can still do it. Being busy with all the other stuff will help you give the courses the right amount of attention: Not too much so the courses don’t take over your research and life. But not too little attention that you do poorly in them. Finish with the courses early, then the real PhD fun begins.
- Be creative in your course selection. Sometimes the course offerings are very limited, which can be frustrating at this level. One option is to check out what’s being offered in other departments. For example, if you are a chemistry major, check the courses in biology, medicine, or math depending on their relevance to your intended research. You might even take an advanced undergraduate course from another department. Sometimes, that can be more helpful than an intense graduate course in your department on an unrelated field.
- Do not stress too much about the courses. As an undergrad, courses are the most important thing. As a grad, research is much more important. Very few future employers will care about your grades more than the quality of your research or the types of instruments you can operate or your broader knowledge or your communication skills or your problem-solving skills. The courses alone will not land you the job of your dreams. Be fair and dedicated in studying for the courses, but do not get carried away and neglect your research for more than a whole semester.
- Getting an “A” is surprisingly easier in grad school. Professors are relatively lenient in graduate courses. If you show some commitment and do the assignments, then you are already on the right track. It is kind of hard to fail a graduate science course, unless you actively decide to. At this level, you are clearly serious about your studies, and will not have the luxury or time to retake courses. The assignments are usually non-traditional, with more emphasis on reading papers and take-home exams. You will not ace the course just by showing up, but it might be easier than you think.
- Audit courses. Wait, more courses? After completing your course requirements, you might realize that there is an interesting one being offered. One option is to request to audit the course. You would have to get approval from the professor, and then you can sit through the lectures. This can be incredibly useful. Or it can be an incredible waste of time. On the one hand, you have chosen this course voluntarily, so clearly it is somehow meaningful to you. You are also relieved from the burden of homework and exams. However, it will be difficult to be serious and retain the material without homework and exams. So maybe you would be better served by simply reading through the textbook yourself. Or maybe not. It’s an option worth considering…
- Transfer credits from your Master’s degree. If you have received a Master’s degree from outside the US, you might be able waive some of the PhD course requirements.You will still take courses. But you might transfer one or two of them. That’s a big deal. It will still save you a lot of time. By the way, maybe no one will mention this option. Ask your PhD advisor and the graduate student coordinator. Insist if this is what you want.
Here’s the PhDeal. With all of this in mind, remember that the courses are during the first portion of your PhD (1-2 years). This is a very busy time, and you have a lot on your plate… You are choosing your research group and starting a project, teaching college classes possibly for the first time, and settling in a new city/country. So again, how important are these courses? Remember this balance: study for the exams and do your assignments seriously, but do not over-prioritize the courses and neglect your research commitments since they are more important in the long run. Aim for a GPA > 3.6. If you are an achiever – which you are – a 4.0 might be easier than you think.
How to build a network of connections during graduate school
Networking is about being curious and proactive and genuinely interested in people around you. There are multiple media for networking: in person, by email, or through social media networks (ideally more professional ones such as LinkedIn).
- Connect with your academic neighbors
Learn about the research that folks around you are interested in. Chat with your group colleagues and classmates about their work. Check out the websites of professors in your department and visit them in their office with questions. Become familiar with the main problems in their research fields. It is important to know the strengths of your department, and what everyone there is generally up to. Otherwise, you become too narrowly focused on your own work. That’s not good.
- Learn about seminar speakers who visit your department
Most seminars are super-exciting, for the first 5–90 seconds, before they devolve into a depressing spiral of complicated slides that seem incredibly unrelated to your own research. But wait! Seminars can truly be an opportunity to learn about professors, their research fields, their recent results, their funding sources, their departments, their career trajectories, and how all of that information can be useful to you. Turn attending the department seminar from a chore to a networking opportunity. For example, send the speakers a follow-up email telling them something interesting you learned from their talk. Also, ask whoever organizes the department seminars to consider you for lunch or one-on-one meetings with the speakers.
Oh yes, and ask seminar organizers if you can suggest and invite speakers whose work you’re interested in.
- Go to conferences, and make the most of them
This is a very very important topic. We have a dedicated realPhDeal section on making the most from conferences, and why a conference is worth your time and research money investment, how to choose the right conference, be proactive to meet folks and learn more at a conference, and build on your network by reaching out to people after the conference; a crucial part of successful networking.
- Reach out to people of interest
If there is a researcher whose work interests you, get in touch. There does not have to be a grand event or formal introduction to do this. Just send them an email.
Express your interest in their work. Share a relevant paper you just published. Describe briefly your current project that they might find interesting. Tell them that your PI mentioned their exciting research. Ask if they are attending any conferences soon. Mention an accomplishment by their research group that you found about through social media.
Even simple emails can start a useful email chain and conversation. People you connect with will start noticing your work more and citing your papers. Also, an existing email chain is a good launching pad if you want to ask about something more serious in the future, such as potential job openings. But networking is not just about being calculated and playing chess. Science is more fun if you are up to date and connected with the top researchers in your topic.
- Request informational interviews
In addition to informal emails to start a conversation, you can request informational interviews. The main idea is to send an email or LinkedIn message to someone whom you might or might not know, and request to ask questions about their job. This is particularly effective if you are interested in industry positions.
Informational interviews are useful to: 1) Gain inside info about a job prospect that you are interested in, 2) Come across as a responsible, pro-active person, which encourages your new acquaintance to consider you for future job applications.
Here’s the PhDeal. Networking is a long-term process, not a “I’m gonna build my network of fancy connections this week since I’m graduating in three months” process. Interesting people are all around you. Create opportunities to meet with them. No single contact is the contact to have. Chat with and learn from people. What seems unimportant information now might become very useful very soon.
How to supervise an undergraduate student
Time flies in grad school. Sooner than you think, you will find yourself saying: “Wait a second, I’m the senior student around here? With real-life adult responsibilities?” One responsibility supervising an undergraduate or a new graduate student. Consider this:
- Safety first. Be very clear about the safety protocols in the lab. Lead by example.
- Respect their time. Your mentee is your colleague and their time is important. Keep your promises. If you arranged an experiment on a given date, own your word and show up. Be straightforward about what you can and cannot help with. Even if your advisor asked you to do something else at that time, courteously decline and explain that you already have a commitment with your mentee. You earn respect by giving it.
- Respect their experience. Make sure everything is clear to the student, but do not insult their intelligence. Do not over-explain what a beaker is, but do not under-explain your experimental methods. Do not throw around words that you think they should know, then fake shock and disbelief if they don’t. In short, do not act like the world is your oyster. (Wow, I have finally found a valid use for this expression, I think).
- Set smart scientific goals. Do not simply give the the student random assignments to put them off for one more week. Try to set up a worthy and realistic objective. Communicate well with them and with your advisor. The point of undergraduate research is not simply to pass some time in the lab. By the way, they might actually be thinking of it this way. Instead, try to make it a worthy scientific experience, and not just a way to fill time and add a “line on your and their CV”.
- About those goals. Many times the student is instructed to perform maintenance tasks such as preparing stock solutions or cleaning glassware. That’s fine in some cases. However, I truly believe that they should have a defined research objective. It should be a simple, achievable, and clear goal. I guess this is more difficult in certain research fields than others, but one can at least try…
- Create and sustain momentum. Undergraduate researchers typically have to juggle many courses. During exam periods, they are sometimes absent for weeks at a time. Even during the regular semester, they might only be working in the lab for a few hours. It is difficult to build and maintain research momentum at this rate. That’s why you have to make sure to communicate effectively and discuss the next research steps. Keep last-minute cancellations to a minimum.
- Stand up for them. Do not purposefully make your mentee look bad in front of your advisor or anyone else. I do not mean that you should cover up for them if they purposefully destroyed a million dollar instrument. Or create excuses if they are not showing up for work. But do not throw them under the bus. Be fair and professional. Defend them like you would want your advisor to defend you. Fairly of course. Again, earn respect by giving it.
- Respond promptly. This is an excellent habit in general, but especially when supervising a student. If they have a question on how to use the microscope, just go on the spot and show them. It only takes 10 minutes anyway. If you tell them to come back next week, then you are already slowing the momentum and making life miserable for everyone. Same with emails. Answer quickly.
- Let them shadow you as you do experiments. Depending on your energy levels, you can either make this incredibly boring or quite fascinating. Even things in the lab you take for granted might still be interesting to discuss. At least make it that way. You can make a useful five minute story about proper technique, possible errors, and why an instrument is useful. Make it fun for you as well. Be passionate about science. Passion is contagious.
- Do not forget your priorities. With all that being said, it is important to remember that what gets you the degree are your research results. Supervising a student earns you many useful skills, but you still need data to graduate. Do not neglect your own research to supervise a couple of temporary students. A healthy PhD career is about finding the right balance.
Here’s the PhDeal. Make their experience worth it. The lab visits should become something they look forward to, not dread every week. Let them build a good appreciation of science and research. Do your best and care about their professional development. You might inspire, or at least encourage, their next career step. By the way, there is also great benefit in this experience to you as well. You will revisit research concepts and learn management skills.
How to find a grant, award, or competition to apply to
Here we provide an overview of this topic. A more detailed discussion was written by Hadi Fares in the Expert Forum.
- University office for graduate fellowships: Many research universities have an office that helps grad students apply for grants, fellowships, and competitions. Make use of this office. At least schedule an appointment once and inquire about what they do and how they can help. Remember that your school really wants you to be successful, and of course to bring grant money to the school.
- Award databases: There are many databases that help you search for opportunities and filter them down based on eligibility and type. Some of them require institutional access that your university might or might not have. Ask about them.
- Department awardees: Check out opportunities that your colleagues have applied to in previous years. For example, find updates on student awards on the department webpage or social media. Do not be shy in asking these students about advice in applying.
- Rest of the world: Beyond that, there are a lot of hidden gems. Hunt them down! Search on social media for announcements. Track down opportunities on conference webpages and at the different academic societies. Some competitions might involve preparing a video of your work, presenting a three-minute thesis, or sending an artistic photo of your science experiment.
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), awards beget awards. The reason is that the grantor is more comfortable giving the award to someone who is a proven winner with previous successes. That is why you want to get into that loop early if possible.
Here’s the PhDeal. Any application requires time and effort. Some less than others. For example, you can process some data into a nice image for an Art in STEM competition in one afternoon, but writing a small research grant might take a month. However, remember that if you apply for something half-heartedly, you will probably not win it. Pick your battles wisely, and fight hard for them.
How to handle administrative emails in grad school
- Respond promptly. You will be receiving a lot of administrative emails, almost on a daily basis. These can be about a range of topics including course registration, tuition payment, insurance policy, as well as documents you need to submit as you advance in your PhD. Eat your vegetables. You have to reply to these emails at some point anyway, so you might as well do it promptly and almost cheerfully. If you are in the middle of something and cannot respond immediately, write a reminder note. Make a habit of meeting deadlines.
- Re-check your older email. Sometimes we read an email quickly with the intention of re-visiting it later during the day. But the email is then forgotten for two weeks until we receive a reminder (angry?) email. If something needs to be handled today, and you cannot do it now, mark it as “unread” in your inbox. Also, make it a habit to re-check your emails from the past day.
- Appreciate the staff. For example, when the graduate student coordinator sends a mass email about a registration deadline, reply with a quick “Thanks for the reminder”. Simple, quick, and thoughtful! I do not mean that you should fake your appreciation. But remember that the graduate program would not function without the support of the administrative staff.
- Know the staff. The staff members have different responsibilities that help keep the department ticking. These include your academics, paycheck, lab safety, lab waste management, conference reimbursement, teaching duties, facilities management, as well as workshop support for your research needs. Get to know who is responsible for what. If a new staff member joins, send a nice welcome email to make them feel at home. A happy workplace is an efficient workplace.
- Respect, beyond emails. Break the norm. Drop by a staff member’s office when you are nearby, not just when you need their help. If you are in the office early one day, say hello or share a coffee with a staff member. Here’s another example: If you are travelling for a conference of for vacation, get a souvenir fridge-magnet for the common staff room. If nothing else, it is a fun conversation starter.
Here’s the PhDeal. Do not miss deadlines. Respect administrative emails. Also, your positive energy can help create a more enjoyable workplace. Always thank the staff who help you survive grad school on a daily basis. You are going to be working here for five years. Do your part to make it more fun.
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