• Anonymous Graduate Student

Changing Perspectives: A Graduate Student's Journey

Updated: Oct 3, 2021

Written by, Anonymous Graduate Student

30 September 2021

The first and most significant change in perspective is on the role of coursework. 

From the ever-complex research problems to the painstaking long problem sets of graduate school courses, the challenges that come as a Ph.D. student are not often described but rather experienced firsthand. They stem from a shockingly challenging process of changing your perspective in your academic pursuits.

Whether a student arrives directly from undergrad or an industry role, their conjugation with academia remains as traditional education, and they believe their performance is still correlated to grades. Yet, preached early and often, graduate school emphasizes the importance of a change of perspective. Not only how one approaches their research problems but also how they approach their studies.

The first and most significant change in perspective is on the role of:

1) Coursework

A Ph.D. student should no longer seek an excellent grade but rather knowledge. Often easier said than done, a Ph.D. student needs to prioritize becoming the best researcher and not the best student. This goes with undoubtedly stating that being a researcher includes being a student yet, the distinction in the coursework is keen.

In other words, a student should overcome the discomfort of not receiving a perfect grade because they were placed in a position where skipping an assignment or reading is more beneficial to their growth than completing it. At the surface level, this statement appears counter-intuitive, but considering that a Ph.D. student is often overwhelmed with coursework and research demands, they must ultimately decide which assignments are worth the 24 hours they have in a day. These 24 hours in graduate school seem ever precious, and a change in outlook to becoming the best researcher is critical.

Photo Source: Danielle Ewig, 2016

Change in perspective related to:

2) Self Reflection:

The journey to receiving a Ph.D. is a marathon and not a sprint where understanding that a bad week in research or class may actually act as a good week in the long run. This understanding comes with a change in self reflection. More specifically, the Ph.D. journey is lined with more failures than successes. These successes are often spread out and small, yet they contribute to a much larger picture when combined.

A Ph.D. student must be able to reflect on their more extensive pursuits. Such as, a negative-appearing week when research results seem to be meaningless. However, it usually means the researcher is looking in the wrong direction or not digging deep enough. Both insights are essential to progress. The student’s PI often leads these insights, but they should also work on building the student's intuition. It is important for students to build on these insights, and that might be procured if why is asked multiple times (at least five times). Asking why is necessary to change and develop strong reflection skills.

Perception of their:

3) Personal Life

It is invaluable that a student can be satisfied with the work they have completed in one day. In other words, it is uncommon for a Ph.D. student to run out of “things to do,” therefore, one always feels like there is something they should be doing. This pressure may lead a student to have difficulty forming a work-life balance and is extensively experienced during the first year of graduate school.

Some key considerations in achieving this balance include recognizing that (1) having formal non-working time during the day to maintain habits and activities that male one feel happy and joyful is critical, and (2) eight hours of pure work is as valuable as twelve hours of a half-fast effort. Each of these considerations have a multitude of ways of being achieved and a student should really find what works best for them. A poor work-life balance will lead the student to lose themselves, resulting in a struggle to finish their journey. In short, making sure that the Ph.D. is engaging, exciting, and fun begins with a solid work-life balance.

Photo Source: Shutterstock

Achieving all three changes of perspective should be led by a student’s curiosity and not by their presumption of what a Ph.D. student is. These changes require trial and error coupled with discomfort and frustration. Yet, all will lead to a more focused, happy, and enduring Ph.D. journey.

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