Top 9 tips for incoming PhD students

Summer is winding down in Canada which, for anyone in academia, means we are gearing up for another school year—and welcoming another incoming cohort of PhD students. I’ve been reflecting on my first year in the program lately and have been speaking with some of my PhD friends about what we wish we’d known heading into the PhD. Here’s a list of our top tips for being successful in a PhD program—whatever success looks like to you. 

Tip #1: Set boundaries and enforce them

I entered my PhD program as a part-time student after working corporately for about five years. My decision to wait and work between my MA and my PhD taught me that overwork and the allure of ‘productivity’ wasn’t going to give me my best life or result in me giving my best work. So, my top tip for anyone entering graduate school is to set clear boundaries and stick to them. Set a schedule for when you will and won’t work and—except in special circumstances—follow that schedule. Learn to prioritize what you really need to accomplish and figure out how to fit that into a schedule that works for you and provides you with time to relax and recharge.

Tip #2: Know your limits

“Know your own limits. Stay in tune with your body and what it’s telling you. I found this incredibly helpful when trying to counter burn out—knowing when my body was telling me I needed a break.” –Hayley Bowers, PhD, Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychology, University of Guelph.

Tip #3: Maintain friendships in and outside of academia

“Find a peer mentor in your program, but make sure to maintain friendships outside of academia too. You definitely need breaks from academia!”–Kaia-Marie Bishop, PhD, Educational Studies, Eastern Michigan University.

Tip #4: Don’t feel like you need to apologize for being in grad school

“Stop apologizing to others for your experience. Being in grad school is hard and some people won’t understand the experience. Sometimes, the balance between work and social life is off, but you don’t need to explain yourself to others when that happens. Be proud of the work and dedication you’re showing—those who know you and love you will understand and be proud.” –Hayley Bowers, PhD, Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychology, University of Guelph.

Tip #5: Join (or start) a union

“A union is a solid reminder that you’re simultaneously a scholar but also a worker. If anything, you’re a worker who happens to be a scholar on the side—a little cynical, but true. Join or start a union. Cause trouble.” –Joseph Shea-Carter, PhD student, Literary Studies, University of Guelph.

Tip #6: Other people are not your competition

Instead of seeing each other as competitors, try to focus on doing the best you can in each scenario. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be applying to many of the same grants, programs, or positions once you graduate, but giving into the competition mentality—instead of fostering community and supporting each other—only further drives a toxic culture.

Tip #7: Your relationships with faculty are a two-way street

“My advice is for students to recognize that their relationships with faculty is one in which they are allowed to express boundaries and negotiate needs—especially when it comes to things like a syllabus or classroom etiquette. Verbalize your expectations of faculty.” –Abi Lemak, PhD Candidate in Literary Studies, University of Guelph and Junior Writer, AddEnergie. 

Tip #8: Lean on each other to navigate the program

“Faculty are there to help you—it’s their job and you aren’t a burden to them! But your cohort and other students will also help guide you through the program (sometimes more than the department).” –Lauren McLean, PhD student, Literary Studies, University of Guelph.

Tip #9: Find joy

My final tip for everyone entering a graduate program is this: try to find joy in what you’re doing. Find what makes you passionate and work towards it—but be open to new opportunities. A PhD is a long and arduous road, and if you don’t find ways to enjoy it, what’s the point?

Have any other tips for incoming PhD students? Let me know! 

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