PhD Quest: Year 3: The Program Strikes Back!

Continuing an annual tradition, it is that time of year again in which I reflect upon completing another year in my PhD program and think about how things have changed (or not) since I last reflected.

In my 3rd year as a PhD student, I finished my coursework, formed a dissertation committee, and successfully proposed my dissertation topic.  I also served as a Teaching Assistant for Introductory and Intermediate Statistics, and presented at an academic conference for the first time.  If I were to break my experience thus far into phases, I would say the first semester in the program was the introductory phase, and was the most difficult.  The next semester of my first year and the whole of my second year was the middle phase, and also the most enjoyable/fun part, because I knew what I was doing and had a good structure in place.  Then my first semester of my third year was the beginning of the last phase, and has been more difficult than the middle part but not as tough as the introductory part.

The first semester of my third year was the last semester of my coursework.  I had two courses, one independent study, and I was TA'ing one course.  It was very satisfying to finish my coursework, but it was also difficult to do everything for my courses, and make progress on my dissertation proposal at the same time.  I started that semester thinking I had worked out everything I needed to do and would be done with drafts of my first three chapters by December.  When December rolled along, I was still working on things I thought I'd be done with back in October.  It was demoralizing to watch my classmates make progress and move towards their proposal hearings, while I felt like I was banging my head against a wall, rewriting my first chapter over and over and over.  Second semester third year, I had no more courses, but kept busy with work and writing my proposal.  Just as I thought I might make my goal of having a proposal hearing before April, I had to rewrite everything with a new variable added to my dissertation by my committee.  Then just as I finally made chapter 1 work, I learned one of my committee members was leaving for the summer early, and I had to propose sooner than I expected or have to wait until September and perhaps miss my data-collection window!

Thankfully, with some good luck, help from my committee and especially my committee chair, I was able to make my proposal hearing in time.  I did, however, in the process hit my one mini-freakout, trying to figure out how to do an a priori calculation of the power for a negative binomial regression.  I knew just enough to know that I was in way over my head, and that I needed to ask specific questions to get out of this, but I didn't know enough to know what those questions were.  It felt like it was the Peter Principle in action.  Fortunately, that mini-freakout was contained to half-a-day, and by the evening I had figured out an approach to get me around my problem, although it did look bleak for a while.

While I knew it intellectually from watching other PhD students, going through the past year really reinforced how important your dissertation committee is in shaping your post-coursework experience.  Obviously they are the ones who sign off (or not) on your proposal and final dissertation defense, so they're important, but the way they do that job is perhaps even more important.  Your committee can make your dissertation more complex, or more streamlined/focused.  If your committee members work well together, they can give you feedback that feels congruent and help you move forward.  If they don't work well together, you could get feedback that is contradictory, or your dissertation can become the ground upon which faculty struggle with each other over.  All of this is especially true of your committee chair. They can make things more complicated or more focused for you.  If you work well with them, they can help push you forward and advocate for you.  If you don't match well with them (for personal or stylistic reasons, or any other reason) your experience can be much more difficult.

Although I struggled during my third year to figure out exactly what my approach to my research was going to be, and what the exact problem was I was going to investigate, I wouldn't change my committee if I could do everything over again.  Obviously it would have been easier if they just loved everything I did the first time I did it, but that would have been a pretty low quality dissertation.  I know that my committee wants me to succeed, and they want me to produce quality research.  My chair read drafts and gave me feedback faster than she had to, and my committee members were willing and able to meet in June, when they could have said no.  I'm thankful for that and know that when it's all said and done, I will have accomplished something truly worth being proud of.

Over the course of the next year, I will actually collect my data, analyze it, and create original knowledge.  I'll have to finish my dissertation, defend it, and hopefully graduate by the end of the Spring semester.  I'll also be job searching, and probably looking for a new place to live.  Look for (hopefully) many big changes reflected upon in next year's update!