So Your Ph.D. Program Is Not Going ‘As Planned’?

Full vitae career talk

By Jennifer S. Furlong and Julie Miller Vick

Julie: Fall semester means graduate-career counselors will be visited by more than a few anxious doctoral students. They’ve spent the summer worrying that their graduate-school experience is not going "as planned," and they’ve got a question for us: "How can I get my career back on track?"

Jenny: There are all sorts of reasons why they might feel that way. For the doctoral student who originally sent me this query, it was because she had nearly reached the end of a humanities Ph.D. program with no publications and no external fellowships on her CV. She was assessing her chances on the faculty job market and knew that the odds of finding a position at a research-oriented university were slim. Instead she was planning to look for faculty positions at teaching-focused colleges, for jobs in academic administration, and for openings outside of academe altogether.

That state of affairs, however, left her with a nagging feeling of failure — that she could and should have done something to make her grad-school experience go more "as planned."

Julie: What does that actually mean? Most academics would say it means you leave your Ph.D. program with stellar publications (just the right number for your field, in the right journals), external grants, solid teaching (enough, but not too much), and a continued passion for your research (among other things). That’s what most of your faculty advisers have, and, looking around, you may think that most of your peers seem to be acquiring those things, too.

Jenny: The reality is that, for most students, a Ph.D. rarely goes as planned:

  • Perhaps the direction of your research changed because you developed a new interest, your adviser wanted you to go in a different direction, or you discovered that someone else was working on the same question and was much farther along. Changing direction or starting over has postponed the possibility of publishable research.
  • Maybe your adviser seems to have lost interest in you for scholarly, professional, or personal reasons. Those reasons may not even be clear to you. All you know is that your confidence is shaken by the loss of your professor’s support.
  • Perhaps instead of research, you’ve found that teaching is your passion. Or you’ve found that it exhausts you. Either way, you are distracted from writing and finishing your degree.
  • And life — in the form of marriage, pregnancy, child rearing, moving, death of a parent, illness, or depression — may have kept you from making good progress toward your degree.

Julie: If you are relatively early on in your studies, now is the time to start educating yourself about research expectations in your field. Learn about the key professional organizations, conferences, and journals in your field. Don’t be afraid to ask advanced graduate students, faculty members, or subject-specialist librarians for advice on that front. Read a couple of dissertations that won department awards or that people in your program are talking about. That way, you understand what a "good" dissertation should look. Do the same for journal articles.

Too often, graduate students learn some of those things too late and find themselves spending the last years of their programs working madly to catch up.

Jenny: The way to develop realistic expectations of what you can achieve in your doctoral program is to, first, understand how your field "works," and then develop a manageable timeline to keep yourself productive. In some fields research takes many years, and it’s a long time before there’s anything worth publishing. Daniel McCormack wrote eloquently about this being one of the most challenging "lesser-known truths" about academe.

It’s a cliché to say that completing a doctoral program takes persistence — but it does. You will have days when you feel excited about your progress, and days when you question why you are here. That’s true for everyone, even those who don’t show it.

Julie: Your program will have stars and a few superstars. If you’re not one of them, try not to compare yourself to them — concentrate on honing your own strengths. Get your adviser to give you feedback on how you’re doing and help you articulate what you need to improve. That’s not always easy for either an adviser or advisee. Our column, "Your Third Year in a Ph.D. Program," includes some tips on managing that relationship.

Jenny: If you need help with goal setting and career planning, we urge you to use one of the many excellent — and free — web-based tools available.

  • Imagine Ph.D. provides career exploration, assessment, and guidance. It was developed by members of the Graduate Career Consortium for humanities and social sciences Ph.D. students and postdocs, and for their advisers.
  • Developed by university science administrators and supported by Science Careers, MyIDP helps the user assess skills, interests and values, and provides resources for career exploration and career planning.
  • There are also a few discipline-specific resources such as ChemIDP for Ph.D.s in the chemical sciences.

Using such web tools can help you feel a little bit more organized and give you a much-needed motivational boost.

Julie: If, despite your best efforts, it seems unlikely that you will be able to get the kind of faculty job you want, then you have some important decisions. If you are close to completing your dissertation, we would encourage you to finish (find advice about knowing when to leave academe here and here). Finishing will help you move on to the next thing.

Another tried-and-true web-based tool to consult is the Versatile Ph.D., an online community dedicated to nonacademic and nonfaculty careers for Ph.D.s in humanities, social sciences, and STEM.

Jenny: Graduate school is a place where feedback is often negative or neutral (when it is given at all). Years ago my graduate-school peers and I held in affectionate esteem a faculty member whose highest possible praise was a slightly derisory, "it’s fine." Some advisers see that type of tough love as a necessary component of producing new knowledge — the goal of doctoral level-research. But that attitude, expressed over years and coupled with an uncertain job market, wears down many a graduate student.

Julie: In my years as a graduate-career counselor, I found that I often needed to encourage Ph.D. students to be more kind to themselves and to have more confidence in their own abilities. That doesn’t mean having a naïve faith that you will be the person for whom everything works out. Rather, it means taking a realistic view of the work that needs to be done to complete a doctoral program and checking in with yourself at regular intervals along the way: "Is this work serving my career and personal goals? Am I still energized by it? Can I envision a positive future for myself?"

Jenny: In other words, be sure you are taking care of your own mental health — as graduate school seems to go hand in hand with anxiety, stress, and depression. You’ve always been a great student but in a doctoral program, you are surrounded by great students and the level of competition can leave you questioning your very sense of your own intellect.

Here are some of the tried-and-true things that graduate students have recommended as most helpful:

  • Find an outside interest in which you can see yourself making steady progress — playing tennis, dancing, cooking.
  • Get regular exercise. When you feel better about yourself you will most likely do better work and be able to maintain more helpful relationships with mentors.
  • Stay connected to friends, including those not in a doctoral program.

Jennifer S. Furlong is director of the office of career planning and professional development at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York Graduate Center. Julie Miller Vick retired as senior career adviser of career services at the University of Pennsylvania. With Rosanne Lurie they are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press), 5th edition.

Editor’s Note: This marks Julie Miller Vick’s final column for The Chronicle. She has co-written the Career Talk column since its inception in 1998 — first with Mary Morris Heiberger (who died in 2003), and then (starting in 2004) with Jennifer S. Furlong, who will continue writing Career Talk. Vick retired five years ago but, until recently, counseled doctoral students part-time. "For these 20 years I have truly enjoyed sharing my observations, insights, and experience on academic careers and career trends for Ph.D. students as well as interacting with those who wrote to us," she said. "During my 30-plus-year career working with graduate students, I’ve seen great changes in nearly every aspect of the doctoral experience and the job-search process (You can read about the reasons for those changes here and here). I have been heartened by recent national efforts to expand how we define career success for our Ph.D.s, who remain some of the best and brightest people I’ve met.

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