© Ambernectar13 (under CC license)
by Don Shaw, Fourth-Year Doctoral Student at George Mason University and APPAM Student Member
Being a student in a Ph.D. program requires much more time and effort than any academic program you may have previously undertaken. Naively entering my first semester, I thought I could easily juggle the demands of a full-time job, a family, and a full course load. After all, I had done it before and was an excellent student. Why would this be any different?
The first challenge presented itself shortly after the first week of classes ended and I began working on my assignments. WOW! There was an awful lot of reading to be done in a really short period of time. This was going to be tough! I then needed to schedule 30 minutes to meet with a professor about a paper topic. As we looked at our schedules, I found that there would be times I would need cooperation from my employer if I was going to make this work. I was quickly learning that this academic experience would be like no other and if I was going to survive, I would need to learn how to balance school, family, work, and everything else that comes along.
Regardless of whether you are pursuing your Ph.D. on a full-time or part-time basis, the process will be a major part of your life for many years. I have found that there are three challenges that can work to derail your progress: distractions, disorganization, and discouragement. By recognizing the “Three D’s” when they appear, you can more effectively further your studies.
Whether it’s your favorite sports team playing, opening weekend for a blockbuster movie, or the latest social networking site, there will always be something to distract you from your studies. Other demands on your time include work, family, and outside commitments. It’s a struggle for a Ph.D. student to balance everything. At the moment you are engaged in any of the commitments that are a part of your life, that commitment takes priority over all others. From the perspective of your studies, anything else is a distraction. The challenge is that you have only 24 hours in a day.
Schedule your study time on a calendar and stick to it. Treat it with the same priority as your other commitments and share the calendar with friends and family. If you still find yourself not accomplishing everything you need to, adopt a time management technique such as The Pomodoro Technique. Make it a habit to take a book with you everywhere you go. Take advantage of the time spent riding metro, waiting for appointments, or any other down time to read; even if for only five minutes.
Adding the requirements of multiple courses to your already busy life tends to throw your old routine into a state of chaos. On top of that, each course will levy unique demands on your time and abilities. Without some method of organization, the majority of the time you have allocated for studying can easily be spent searching for materials instead of focusing on the lesson.
One of the advantages of being a student these days is the abundance of organizational software that exists. Take advantage of it! I use three specific applications to organize my studies: Dropbox, Evernote, and Zotero.
Zotero is integral to every paper I write. Not only does it format references automatically (which saves a lot of time), you can attach the source file to the reference within the folder structure for future use.
I use Evernote to take notes in class, save and organize source information for assignments, and collaborate with others. Each course has its own folder and as the work matures, I move it over to Dropbox.
Finally, Dropbox is my formal file structure that is available everywhere and I organize the top level by semester. Each semester folder has subordinate folders for each course, and each course folder has subordinate folders for each week. At the beginning of the semester, I download the syllabus and all readings that are available in electronic form.
These are just three of a multitude of applications that can help you organize your studies. Work with your peers to learn what works best for them.
It’s easy to get discouraged when faced with the rigors of a Ph.D. program. If “impostor syndrome” didn’t strike in your first semester, there is a good chance it will find you at least once before your experience is complete. This is natural and you will find that you’re not alone; your classmates likely have had similar crises of confidence.
Solution: Find an Outlet
The key to dealing with discouragement is to establish the necessary support structure before it occurs. Form an informal group of classmates to kibitz about your experiences. Meet every couple of weeks to check in and see how things are going. This might not seem as necessary early on because you see each other all the time. You will notice, however, that as you progress through the program, you will have fewer and fewer classes together and the group will become more and more necessary to stay connected.
Start a blog. There are several sites that will provide you space free of charge. Blogger and WordPress are two of the most well-known. A blog doesn’t take a lot of time to maintain and you can look back on it when you’re discouraged and remind yourself why it is you chose this undertaking in the first place.
Finally, spend time on yourself doing something you enjoy. Whether it is running, yoga, hiking, or something else, it is important that you unplug from time to time and recharge.
Participating in a Ph.D. program is a big commitment. It will be a significant part of who you are for many years. Don’t let the challenges discourage you; find ways to overcome them and remember why you chose this path. The suggestions I have presented in this article are what works for me; it’s important to find what works for you.
This blog was originally posted on Currents: Life at Mason School of Public Policy and was reposted here with permission.