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Three Needs to Consider When Researching Doctoral Programs

Region II Graduate New Professional Undergraduate
November 23, 2020 Nontalie Morrow, PhD @anyquestions4us on Twitter

The key to choosing a doctoral program that suits you is knowing what you want and need from a program and from your life overall. I didn’t figure that out after completing my Master’s and PhD. So, I’m here to tell you what I learned about my needs to help you think about what is important for you to consider when exploring doctoral programs. In general, they break down into three categories: academic, professional, and personal.

Academic Needs

Coursework was largely not an issue for me. Where I needed support was selecting courses that would be most beneficial to explore my research interests. Even more so, I needed guidance choosing an actual research topic. I had six single-spaced pages of ideas organized by theme but no way of narrowing down into a specific focus. I also had zero experience with research prior to this point and I don’t think my advisor at the time had much experience working with research novices, so I felt very stuck. This was one of my greatest struggles during the first half of my program. Eventually, I talked to different faculty, changed advisors, and things worked out from there, but this was a difficult lesson. I was relying on the default support that the program assigned me, but I really needed to branch out and ask for help that was specific to my needs.

Key lessons regarding academic needs:
1. Look for programs that have a clear path regarding coursework but flexibility to explore beyond the core curriculum.
2. Your advisor relationship is everything. You should have someone who understands your academic background, needs, interests, and goals. They should be able to work with you in a way that is most helpful with these things. If they are not, ask to change advisors.
3. Talk to current and former students who can speak candidly about the program, coursework, and faculty.

Professional Needs

During my PhD, I was the only person in my cohort and one of the few people in my program who wanted to pursue administration rather than faculty work. This wasn’t a deal breaker because I had a practitioner-based assistantship where I could continue building my experience working with students. However, my professional interests shifted slightly and I wanted to explore administrative areas outside of student services. The problem was, I didn’t really figure this out until the last year of my program. The first four years I was so focused on sorting out my research I wasn’t thinking about life after the PhD. I was also naively waiting on someone to give me guidance about career options. It probably would have been more helpful to be in a program that more directly prepared students for careers outside of faculty roles, but I should also have taken more time to explore new professional routes on my own.

Key lessons regarding professional needs:
1. If you know you want to work in administration or another non-faculty arena, look for programs that prioritize that. It should be reflected in their objectives, curricula, and faculty backgrounds.
2. I had more agency than I realized when exploring new career routes. Don’t feel like you have to wait for instruction from the program to explore. Connect with as many people as you can outside of your program (and assistantship) and find out if their work interests you.
3. Look at the career path of the program’s current and former students. If their next steps are similar to your professional goals, that’s a sign that there are faculty and staff in the program or at the institution who can support you professionally.

Personal Needs

After starting my PhD, it didn’t take long for my motivation, drive, ambition, and mental health to completely disintegrate. Grad school essentially ended up being a long-term mind game: what did I have to do to convince myself not to quit? On the whole, graduate school is not a healthy endeavor or practice, but that doesn’t mean it has to strip you of your well-being.

Key lessons for personal needs:
1. Life exists outside of the lectures, readings, and papers. Live it. Graduate school shouldn’t be your primary responsibility every single day. Explore the ways you can nourish yourself and pursue them. School can absolutely be enriching, but on the days when it’s draining, be ready to shift your attention to something else.
2. Build your circle. I cannot stress this enough. You need various groups of people who can support and encourage you. You have to be vocal about your needs and it should absolutely be reciprocal, so invest in supportive relationships. They are critical to your stability, particularly when you are deep in the weeds.
3. Ask for help. Learn what your needs are so you can get the help that is best suited to you. When something is wrong, take time to find out specifically what it is and think about what you can do about it. Not everything has an obvious remedy or a quick solution, but don’t give up on yourself. You’re worth it.