Advice for New Ph.D. Students from Recent Graduates

Dr. Karrie A. Jones
Dr. Jennifer L. Jones

Author Biographies

Dr. Karrie A. Jones is the mathematics department coordinator at Tapestry Charter High School in Buffalo, NY. She is also a high school mathematics teacher and adjunct professor at Niagara University and the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Dr. Jennifer L. Jones is the Coordinator of Student Intervention at Oracle Charter School in Buffalo, NY. In this role, she oversees Special Education and English as a Second Language services. She is also an adjunct professor at Niagara University and the State University of New York at Buffalo.


The expectations for PhD students are often ambiguous. Aside from the tasks necessary to earn this degree, many times understanding what the process of getting a PhD entails is unclear to those beginning their programs. This could help to explain why nearly half of those who seek to earn a PhD ultimately are unable to do so (De Valero 341).

Those new to the process might find it helpful to learn from those who have recently completed this task. Hence, the research question guiding this study is: What advice do the authors, who are recent PhD graduates, have for students new to the process? In this first person action research study, the authors provide insight into their doctoral journeys in the form of advice for current PhD students (Harrell and Bradley 11). First person action research allows the investigator to foster an inquiring approach to his or her life (Tolbert). It allows a researcher to act with awareness and intentionality and to examine the effect of his or her choices on the larger series of events. In this case, the authors were able to act as both researchers and participants as we chronicled our four-year journeys towards earning our degrees.

Throughout their four-year PhD process, the authors kept daily journals documenting their experiences. These responses were then synthesized into four categories. These include ideas for networking opportunities, thoughts about staying grounded, tips for dealing with the extensive learning curve, and advice for setting realistic goals. These tips are important for PhD students new to the program and to their advisors who can use these ideas to help prevent student frustration and dropout. This article is meant to provide new PhD candidates and their advisors with insight and guidance as to what they may expect throughout their PhD journeys.

Keywords: PhD process, first person action research

Imagine that you are about to embark on one of the most important journeys of your career. You are about to fulfill a lifelong dream, follow your passions and proudly earn a degree that only about 1% of the population has received (US Census Bureau). You are accepted into the university you’ve always wanted to attend and are ready to begin earning your PhD. It sounds great…until reality sets in.

What classes do I take? How to I do research? How do I write a 200-page dissertation? Who do I turn to for help? Do I have to quit my current job? Do I have to put my social life on hold? How long is this whole process going to take? These are just some of the many uncertainties facing graduate students as they enter a PhD program.  Besides the actual tasks involved in earning this degree, understanding what the process of getting a PhD is all about poses an extra challenge. This could help to explain why about 50% of students begin but do not complete their PhD degrees (De Valero 341; Nelson and Lovitts; Smallwood 10). Therefore the purpose of this first person action inquiry study is to provide current PhD students with advice they could use to obtain their desired degrees. Understanding the struggles of others may help current graduate students to reflect on one’s own progress.

This paper is designed for students who are relatively new to the PhD process, as we will address concerns that are common to this population. PhD advisors who have noticed such disconcerting levels of dropout in their own programs can perhaps use this advice to help those at risk of not finishing their degrees. This paper provides a unique perspective on the idea of PhD completion because two recent graduates wrote it based on first hand accounts with this task. This article could be used to start conversation in regard to the successes and struggles amongst current graduate students or used as a starting point for reflection on one’s personal journey.

The data synthesized in this study was the result of the examination of daily journals that the authors kept as they completed the PhD process. These issues were identified using first person action inquiry (Harrell and Bradley 11). This paper is designed to identify patterns observed by these action researchers and provide four practical tips for those beginning this journey.

Review of Literature

Doctoral degrees are costly in terms of the financial and emotional hardships associated with this level of advanced schooling (Nelson and Lovitts; Smallwood 10; Scott and Siegfried 2). As such, there has been much research on student dropout and PhD degree completion rates amongst students (Knox 1026; Van Der Haert, Arias, Emplit, Halloin and Dehon 2; Stock, Aldrich andSiegfried 458). Research examining demographic variables and PhD completion rates (Park 194) has found that variables such as age (Grove et al. 871), the number of children one has (Siegfried and Stock 16) and marital status (Lunneborg and Lunneborg 383) were all correlated with one’s ability to complete a PhD. Since everyone’s struggles are different, it is important that students can come to understand and address their own roadblocks (DeAngelis; Mewburn) before they find themselves lost in the process of obtaining this degree.

In helping to explain the 50% dropout rates of PhD candidates (De Valero 341; Nelson and Lovitts; Smallwood 10), DeAngelis outlines several “fears” that graduate students have as they begin the work necessary to earn a PhD. Such fears include concerns about how they will write their dissertations or how they will find an appropriate work and social life balance (DeAngelis). Mewburn describes this phenomenon as “PhD paralysis;” students begin the process, but do not finish their degrees out of fear. These include the fear of failure, fear of failing examinations, and fear of a lack of ability, among others (Mewburn).

Cassuto describes the work of the Ph.D. Completion Project (Cassuto). This was a 2010 study sponsored by the Council of Graduate Schools that investigated the role that colleges and universities have in these startling attrition rates. This research found that PhD candidates who do not obtain their degrees fall into two categories: those who lack the temperament or intellectual ability to obtain their degree and those who have the ability to do so but choose not to finish. He states that time spent in a PhD program is time spent on a journey of self-discovery (Cassuto). It is possible that those who do not finish lacked the support they needed from their institution.

The Council of Graduate Schools also found that the point at which a doctoral student leaves their PhD program differs based upon one’s major. For math and science based degrees the attrition often takes place before the third year. But for those in the humanities, attrition most likely occurs after the third year but before the seventh year. To curb such dropout, Cassuto suggests that those responsible for PhD programs should ensure that their doctoral candidates are a good fit for their program before the student invests his or her time and money in these programs (Cassuto).

This prior research speaks to the many issues that graduate students must consider when pursuing their doctoral degrees (DeAngelis; Mewburn). While universities often provide support for their graduate students in the form of student organizations, writing centers and on-site counseling, it may also be helpful for students to learn from those who have recently shared in this experience. In this study, we sought to reflect upon our own experiences throughout this process and then offer a solution in terms of advice that can help doctoral candidates persevere through their programs. As both participants and researchers in this study, we provide a unique perspective on the triumphs and struggles facing graduate students.

Hence, the research question guiding this study is: What advice do the authors, who are recent PhD graduates, have for students new to the process? This study may help those new to the PhD process to address their own anxieties and proactively seek solutions to these common issues. New PhD students may find that the wisdom of those who have recently graduated from a PhD program could help them with their own daily struggles. PhD advisors may find these suggestions to be useful in helping new students to successfully understand the journey ahead of them.


This concise review of prior research reveals the demand for research addressing the needs of students who are new to a PhD program. As newly graduated PhD students, we provide a unique perspective for those currently enrolled in a doctoral program, as they may currently be experiencing these same struggles. We also provide a set of advice for PhD advisors who find themselves in need of advice for struggling students.

This study is a first person action research study (Harrell and Bradley 11). As such, the authors were both participants and researchers in this study. For four years, we kept daily journals chronicling the events that brought us closer to our goal of obtaining a PhD. This allowed us to act with awareness and intentionality and to examine the effect of our decisions in reaching these goals. After graduating with these degrees four years later, these journals were analyzed and four common themes emerged. We were able to use the qualitative data that we collected to identify patterns and look for typicality or uniqueness amongst the journal entries.

A recursive process was used to extract central themes and commonalities among the journal entries. We began by printing all of the nearly four hundred journal entries, dating back to our first graduate course four years ago. Then we examined each reflection and made a note of common themes that could be turned into advice for future PhD candidates. As we examined each journal entry we recorded key ideas from each reflection and began to organize them into categories. Once we could not create any more categories from our data, these categories were combined where applicable to develop the themes that will later be discussed in our recommendations.


The authors of this paper chronicled their experiences in obtaining a PhD in daily reflective journals. These journals formed the basis for this first person qualitative inquiry study. In spring 2014 we graduated with PhDs in Mathematics Education from a large New York State university. We were two of the 45 students who graduated with education PhDs from this university during the 2014 academic year.

We became interested in the topic of graduate student dropout after noticing that some of the students who started their doctoral work did not make it to graduation. Given that we had already decided to keep a daily journal of our PhD experiences, the focus of our first person inquiry then began to take the form of advice for those students in the process of obtaining this degree.

Given that qualitative methodology is built on the fact that different people might have different experiences of similar events, these journal entries provided valuable insight into the feelings and emotions of PhD students throughout their schooling experience. Upon analyzing the data to learn more about the PhD process, we developed several pieces of advice for future PhD candidates and their advisors.

Data Analysis

Four years of electronic journal responses, approximately 400 journal entries, were coded in alignment with the process of analytic induction proposed by Lincoln (14). Through inductive analysis, the researchers attempt to understand the reality of a situation by creating comprehensive, logical theories and classifications from the collected evidence (Lincoln 14). While typical deductive approaches use previously established research to test established theories, the fluid nature of this qualitative research lent itself better to an inductive approach. An inductive process allows for modifications of concepts and relationships to evolve throughout the process of doing research. It is through this research method that categories will help to explain the phenomena being studied and those categories became the guiding structures (Lincoln 221).

Besides the four pieces of advice that appear later in this article, there were also minor themes such as time management and ideas related to perseverance that were apparent throughout the journal entries. For example, at different times in our dissertation processes, both of the authors described how tedious the data collection and analysis procedures can be. This is an essential part of obtaining this degree, yet it takes months of preparation in order to learn how to use the data analysis software, collect the data, enter the data and interpret the results. Such a situation requires time management and perseverance in order to meet the deadlines associated with these tasks. While this is just an example, these minor themes were either incorporated into the four larger categories found below or not included in our analysis.

For the remainder of this article, these categories will be explored in the form of advice for students who are new to the PhD process. This advice is meant to help those thinking about obtaining this degree, currently in the process or currently advising someone in this process. It may be particularly useful because it was derived from our perceptions of our recent experiences.

The four tips, derived from themes of our journal entries were: capitalize on networking opportunities, find a way to stay grounded, succumb to the fact that you do not know everything right now (and that you do not need to know everything right now!), and set small and attainable goals. The recommendations derived from this data will be further explored below.


The task of earning a PhD is an exercise in both mental stamina and perseverance. This first person qualitative inquiry study sought to use the authors’ daily reflections to develop advice for those still in the process. It is meant to help those who are new to this process understand the journey that lies ahead of them and help to prepare them for this task. From our reflection data, four themes emerged and are presented as suggestions and advice. By networking with others, staying grounded, humble and setting small, attainable goals, one can find great success with the PhD and dissertation process. These recommendations will be discussed in greater detail below.

Recommendation 1: Capitalize on networking opportunities

On twenty separate occasions, our reflection data mentioned the importance of networking throughout the process of obtaining this degree. This idea of networking took two distinct forms: networking at conferences and building relationships with peers. As was stated in one reflection “getting a PhD is not an independent task…it cannot be done in isolation.” Both of these categories of networking opportunities will be discussed below.

Networking at professional conferences

In our reflections, both of the authors mentioned the importance of attending professional conferences as a means of meeting other PhD students, scholars and professors. We both sought out professional organizations associated with our major of study and consequently attended conferences relating to those topics throughout our four years of study.

In our reflections, both of us mentioned that attending these conferences provided a great way to meet people who have shared similar experiences. Aside from the other PhD candidates that one can meet at these conferences, having the ability to meet people who are currently in the careers to which one aspires proved to be a useful experience. The theme of networking to enhance one’s understanding of the profession was a reoccurring theme throughout our reflections.

It was also mentioned that these professional conferences could be used as avenues to present one’s original research in the stages leading up to the dissertation defense. While all universities require PhD students to defend their original research at the conclusion of their program, these reflections highlight the fact that presenting at professional conferences can be used as avenues for novice presenters to practice their presentation skills before their dissertation defense. We noted that smaller conferences could provide an intimate setting to practice public speaking and get experience with presenting one’s research. A common theme throughout the reflections was the useful feedback that was provided from other researchers and practitioners as a result of these presentations. It was a helpful way to help us refine our public speaking skills and research methodologies.

There were several journal entries in this data set noting that novice researchers can learn just as much from someone who is a poor public speaker as they can from someone who is an excellent orator. Taking advantage of every networking opportunity experience available, and then reflecting on what has been learned was a common theme amongst all of the journal entries that were grouped in this category.

Networking with other graduate students

Both of the authors also noted in our reflections that it is important for PhD students to get to know other students who share the same dissertation advisor. It is rare that a faculty member only advises one PhD student, so a student can use this to his or her advantage. In both of the authors’ data sets, we wrote about our annual gatherings with other PhD students. During these gatherings we celebrated holidays, shared a meal and talked about our experiences. On four occasions, these data sets referred to PhD students who were in our ad hoc cohort as “good friends.” Since they are in the midst of similar experiences, these people can become confidants and friends who one can turn to for help, advice and guidance. As such, they can be a great source of encouragement and support.

Recommendation 2: Find a way to stay grounded

Since the amount of work that needs to be completed to earn this degree can seem overwhelming, many graduate students worry about being able to maintain an appropriate balance between one’s schoolwork and social life (DeAngelis). This was also addressed in our journals, as we found ourselves needing to consciously make the decision to do things for fun to escape the daily pressures of completing a dissertation. This is addressed in our second recommendation: find a way to stay grounded.

Approximately once per week, our journal entries made mention to the fact that it is easy for highly motivated PhD students to spend exorbitant amounts of time working on coursework and on their dissertations. While this is sometimes necessary in order to complete the tasks, it is also important to stay grounded in the family, friends, hobbies and the interests that one had before beginning the PhD program. Without consciously making time for such activities, it is easy to become overwhelmed in the sheer volume of tasks that need to be done.

As was written in one of the journal entries, often PhD students can be “perfectionists,” who will not settle for less than their personal best. However, if this means that you must give up time all of your with your family and sacrifice all of your friends, then it is possible that you need to rethink how you are using your limited time resources. It is possible that you may need to adjust the amount of courses that you are committing oneself to in a given semester. Or maybe you need to evaluate how you are budgeting time in order to be in a PhD program and still have a personal life. Making such decisions before it becomes overwhelming may help to prevent graduate students from dropping out of their programs all together.

In looking for more insight on this theme, many of our journal entries revolved around the idea that it is important to have family and friends who will push you to do activities other than schoolwork. This is not to say that these friends do not respect the time that is necessary to complete schoolwork, but a family dinner, or celebrating a special occasion with friends can help to make one a happier, and thereby more productive student. As was written in one entry, “in order to get a PhD you shouldn’t have to drop everything else in your life.” However, as was written in another entry, this is “easier said than done.”

Recommendation 3: Succumb to the fact that you do not know everything right now (and that you do not need to know everything right now!)

This third recommendation is the result of a major category that encompassed everything from apprehensions about entering the PhD program, to hesitations when deciding on what classes to take to questions while writing the dissertation. This included issues involving one’s perceived lack of skills in conducting research and questions about statistical analysis. This category is comprised of all of those instances of doubt and uncertainty that will undoubtedly surface throughout one’s PhD journey.

This recommendation speaks to the fact that all of the experiences leading up to the dissertation are designed by the university to prepare you to conduct your original research. It is not expected that PhD students will enter their programs with all of knowledge that they need to write their dissertation, but that is what the coursework is designed to do. This recommendation urges graduate students to embrace the challenges and struggles that accompany learning new things. Rather than dread this “learning curve,” we suggest that students embrace each new challenge as an opportunity to improve their skills.

In one of the journal entries, one of the authors wrote at length about how she felt her knowledge of statistics was not adequate to do the data analysis that she needed to do for her dissertation. The SPSS and eViews software that she was recently introduced to was overwhelming to her, and she was worried about what the data analysis would entail when completing her final paper.

However, once she identified this weakness and knew that this area needed improvement, it was easier for her to use her coursework to fill the perceived gaps in her knowledge base. She purposefully took many courses in quantitative and qualitative analysis and used the expertise of a teaching assistant in one of her classes to learn more about the statistical software she once feared. Instead of worrying about her inadequacies, she learned how to overcome them.

In this same vein, one journal entry described the uneasiness that one of the authors felt because she thought that she had to have a dissertation topic in mind from the very beginning of this process. In reality, most students do not know what their dissertation topics will be until they are well into the required course work. However, this was unnerving to her as she struggled to find a topic that she found both interesting and worthwhile.

To overcome this issue, the author had to realize that it is okay not to have one’s plan laid out from the onset of the dissertation process. While one can develop a sort of “elevator pitch” that quickly summarizes one’s area of interest, this idea can be narrowed and specified as one learns more about their general topic. It is also okay to refine this idea and change your mind along the way. It is our suggestion that graduate students spend time thinking about what one would be interested in studying and learning about those topics without dwelling on the lack of specificity early on in the process.

As a suggestion for PhD students, we would advise making a simple t-chart of one’s perceived strengths and weaknesses early in one’s PhD journey. One should capitalize on strengths, while using those things that are listed as weaknesses as target areas for improvement. By identifying those weaknesses, PhD students can seek out opportunities through coursework or through networking with others to address those concerns. In this way, students can begin to improve upon those weaknesses early on in the PhD process so that they do not become obstacles in achieving one’s goals.

Recommendation 4: Set small and attainable goals

The final recommendation derived from our qualitative analysis can be summed up in the following statement regarding the PhD and dissertation process: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” At many institutions, students have up to seven years to obtain a PhD degree. As such, having a goal of “finishing a dissertation” is much too large and vague. Since many people have jobs, families and have other responsibilities to contend with while they obtain their degrees, we found that the easiest way to accomplish a large goal is to set small and attainable goals along the way.

In one instance, one of the authors described that her goal was to “complete the literature review” for her dissertation. While this seemed like an attainable goal at the time, this target soon seemed unreachable because the specific expectations were not clear. To overcome this daunting task, first she began by looking at other literature reviews for commonalities, strengths and weaknesses. Then once she had an understanding of this bigger picture, she broke this task into smaller weekly goals such as: creating an outline, finding applicable research, reading two articles per day, taking notes about these articles, and synthesizing her findings into paragraph form. By setting these small goals, she was able to focus on these tasks without being burdened by fears of completing the final project. We found that learning how to be flexible and realistic with setting deadlines and breaking larger tasks into smaller, attainable steps, with appropriate deadlines can make the task of writing a dissertation much easier.


The authors of this paper have analyzed their daily journal entries in order to provide insight into the fears and struggles of graduate students as they embark on the PhD process. Our findings were similar to previous research on the topic, particularly in regards to issues in maintaining a work and life balance and fears regarding the lack of knowledge needed to complete this task (Mewburn; DeAngelis). However, different solutions were also raised, including issues relating to networking at conferences and using peers to make the process easier. Future research may show this aspect of the PhD process to be useful to others in this position. If so, such components could become compulsory in PhD programs.

This study is unique because it is derived from the authors’ self-report data throughout our four years in the PhD process. However, one limitation to this study is that only two PhD students, namely the two authors, contributed to the data that was used to make these recommendations. A more expansive study, with the self-report data of more PhD students might yield different patterns, recommendations and results.

There are issues related to self-report data that are prone to recall bias and distortion (Stone and Shiffman 236). Since self-report data is entirely reliant upon one’s memory, which is often imperfect, it is thereby unreliable. For example, it is possible that there are details of events throughout this PhD process went unnoticed by the authors and thereby were not reported. It is also possible that the repeated retrieval of the events that were recorded in our reflections could distort our perceptions of these events. Such recall biases limit the generalizability of these results, but these results provide advice for future PhD students to consider while on their own journeys.

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