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Who Are We Becoming? A Voyage Through the PhD Experience With the Scholar's Compass

Student Success Graduate
August 22, 2023 Abby Wilfert Vic Massaglia

JCC Connexions, Vol. 9, No. 3, August 2023

The Scholar's Compass: A Voyage Through the PhD Experience – A Series of Articles in JCC Connexions

The Quest

Hello, Fellow PhD Explorers! We’re Abby and Vic, and we are inviting you to join us on a voyage through the PhD experience. Together, we will navigate the uncharted waters of shaping a distinct scholarly identity.

Much like a seasoned sailor relies on a compass to find their way, in this inaugural post we will present “The Scholar's Compass.” This metaphorical compass can serve as a guiding beacon, helping us navigate the challenges, conquer self-doubt, and uncover new horizons on this academic journey.

Your Mission 

What drew us to the PhD? Much like other students, it wasn't just the allure of academic prestige and the letters behind our names. It was a calling to contribute to our respective fields and an opportunity for personal growth. One’s purpose for pursuing a PhD stands paramount as the true north guiding a budding scholar “from where they are now to the achievement of their future aspirations and accomplishments” (Steger & Dik, 2009, p. 133). In the spirit of Stephen Covey's (2020) second habit from his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People —“begin with the end in mind”we embarked on our individual PhD journeys at the University of Minnesota aware of our destinations.

We each entered the higher education program driven by unique backgrounds and with specific purposes. While working in career services and public relations, Abby observed the immense challenges college students face as they enter the workforce. She returned to her hometown of the Twin Cities with a vision: to enhance the lifelong well-being of college graduates through vocational development research. Vic, as the director of the Career & Professional Development Center at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, brings his mission on this journey as well: to support those who dedicate their careers to the service of others while advocating for social justice, character development, and spiritual growth.

Reflection: What called you to your PhD journey? What is your mission?

Who Are We Becoming?

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine you are at your commencement ceremony where you are about to be hooded with doctoral regalia. What does it feel like? What emotions are elicited? What skills have you developed? Who has come with you? Who has supported you? How has this academic voyage changed you? Who have you become?

Pursuing a PhD necessitates the formation of a new identity framework, including both technical and character development. Technical skills such as research proficiency, critical thinking, time management, writing ability, data analysis, and presentation acumen are the hallmarks of a well-prepared scholar. These abilities are essential for conducting rigorous research, contributing to the scholarly community, and successfully completing the doctoral journey.

Although receiving less attention, we argue that character development is equally important. Character development involves embodying core ethical values such as caring, honesty, fairness, responsibility, and respect for self and others, as defined by the Character Education Partnership (2010 in Berkowitz, & Fekula, 1999). As Pala (2011) further articulates, “Your character is the sum of all the qualities that make you who you are. It’s your values, your thoughts, your words, your actions…it’s YOU” (p. 25). By integrating character development into the PhD journey, emerging researchers can cultivate a holistic identity that prepares them to navigate challenges, foster integrity, promote ethical conduct, and make a positive impact in their academic and professional pursuits.

Reflection: Write down the skills and traits that have served you well during your PhD voyage thus far. Then, capture your thoughts regarding the questions that are presented at the beginning of this section. Who are you becoming? Who do you want to become?

Cultivating Keys for Success

A study by Mowbray and Halse (2010) explores the concept of personal resourcefulness, which refers to the practical knowledge and capacity for action that PhD students cultivate throughout their journey. Personal resourcefulness encompasses skills such as assertiveness, confidence, resilience, persistence, and determination, enabling students to navigate their PhD while balancing other commitments. It is a reflexive, perceptual, emotional, and contextual capacity that guides students' decision-making and actions. With this understanding, cultivating personal resourcefulness becomes a key factor in achieving success during the PhD pursuit.

Technical Skills

Developing technical skills as a PhD requires a proactive approach. Below, we have consolidated a list of possible activities that can significantly enhance your academic proficiency:

  • Dedicate time to writing regularly, whether through journal articles, research proposals, or literature reviews.
  • Actively participate in research seminars, workshops, and conferences to broaden your understanding of different methodologies and theoretical frameworks.
  • Collaborate with fellow researchers, engage in research projects, and seek opportunities for hands-on experience in data collection, analysis, and interpretation.

Reflection: In which of these professional development activities are you already partaking? Which ones could you prioritize during the upcoming academic year? How will you hold yourself accountable to make these investments in yourself? As you write down your goals, ensure they are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART).

Character Development

Developing strong character traits calls for engaging in practical activities that support the formation of values. Here are some key skills you may wish to cultivate:

  • Reflect on the values that guide your research and your life. These are your true north. Tools like the online Values in Action (VIA) Survey can help you explore your personal character strengths.
  • Seek mentorship and form meaningful connections with professionals in the field to receive guidance and to learn from their ethical practices.
  • Actively engage in conversations about ethics with friends and academic colleagues to refine your personal decision-making processes.
  • Continually practice self-care in your work and learning environments. It is critical to prioritize work-life balance and reassess commitment to your values.

Reflection: What values guide your studies? How have you handled ethical dilemmas since beginning your PhD program? Who in your community could provide support when you face future tests to your character?


"A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor," Franklin D. Roosevelt once said. The PhD journey, much like a voyage at sea, is fraught with challenges, yet each hurdle we overcome not only strengthens our research abilities but also refines our character. We invite you to join us in this grand adventure of becoming scholars.

The scholar’s compass tells us that true north isn't a place, it's a direction. So, fellow explorers, as we ask ourselves, “Who are we becoming?,” we must also remember to ask, “Where are we heading?” Until our paths cross again, we wish you fulfilling travels on your voyage.


Berkowitz, M. W., & Fekula, M. J. (1999). Educating for character. Journal of College andCharacter, 4(5). https://doi-org.ezp3.lib.umn.edu/10.1177/108648229900400504

Covey, S. R. (2020). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: 30th Anniversary Edition (The  Covey Habits Series) [Special Edition]. Simon & Schuster.

Mowbray, S., & Halse, C. (2010). The purpose of the PhD: Theorising the skills acquired by students. Higher Education Research & Development, 29(6), 653-664. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2010.487199

Pala, A. (2011). The need for character education. International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanity Studies, 3(2), 23-32. https://dergipark.org.tr/en/download/article-file/257330

Steger, M., & Dik, B. (2009). Work as meaning: Individual and organizational benefits of engaging in meaningful work. Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Workdoi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195335446.013.0011