Reflecting on the PhD: Things I learned (Part 1)
Hey there, party people. The blog is back after a brief (not-so brief?) hiatus. For this return to blogging, I wanted to provide current and prospective graduate students with some insight into the things they might expect and strategies for how to succeed. To do this, I thought it would be ideal to enlist a recent PhD graduate from my biomechanics lab, Dr. Luke Chowning. Dr. Chowning graduated from Texas Tech University with a PhD in Exercise Physiology in 2022 and is currently an Assistant Professor at Dakota State University. The content to follow is 100% Luke's. Happy reading!
When I began my journey in my doctoral studies, I didn’t exactly know what to expect. I spoke with my mentor (shout out to Dr. Harry) and other individuals who had received their doctorates to try and gain insight into what it would take to be successful. The purpose of this series is to share tips and strategies that I found helpful while I was completing the required coursework and dissertation, along with making the transition to a new faculty position.
Lesson 1: "Hard things are not bad; they are just hard. I was talking with a researcher in the Texas Tech University Health Science Center before I began my journey in grad school, and he said, “for some reason we [as a society] think that hard things are bad. Hard is not bad. Hard is just hard!”
In case you are wondering or don’t know, doctoral programs are hard. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s true.
You have to read, study, complete your own research, read some more, write, manage your time and stress, and read.
You will be drained mentally, emotionally, and physically. You will doubt yourself. You will wonder why you even chose to complete a doctoral degree. As I reflect on my time in the doctoral program, there wasn’t a semester when I didn’t have those feelings or doubt myself while I was completing my coursework.
How is this helpful, Luke?
Consider this. You are taking an easy class in your undergraduate program, and your first exam is approaching. How much do you mentally prepare for that exam? Maybe you study for 2 hours the night before. Now, compare that to a really difficult class that you took, and the first exam is approaching in that class. How much did you prepare? Perhaps you spend 20 hours studying in the week leading up to the exam. Why spend 10x more in preparing for the exam in the difficult class compared to the easy class? Because you know it’s harder.
Simply knowing that a task is challenging changes your mentality when completing the task. Think about it; when things get hard in grad school, you won’t be surprised because that is what you are expecting!
Lesson 2: Figure it out. Let’s be honest, you will have a ton of questions that you will need to answer throughout the entirety of your graduate program. Some are simple like “where do I upload my direct deposit information?” (if you receive a stipend), while some are more complex like “why on earth isn’t my MATLAB code working?”
Figure it out.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ask questions. Rather, you should try to find the answer to your question on your own first before you ask someone else.
Because this aids in your learning and development as a student and researcher.
When I was a master’s student, my mentor crafted my script in Visual3D and then talked me through why he included each command in the script. When I had to make my own script in Visual3D for my first project in my doctoral program, I was lost. After I worked through the process on my own, I knew why each command was included and I gained a better understanding of how the software works. I learned far more by stumbling through the process on my own compared to when my hand was held.
Are there times when it would be quicker if your hand is held?
Will you learn as much?
Lesson 3: Intelligence is important, but work ethic is vital. I remember a conversation that I had with Dr. Harry at the beginning of my first semester. I don’t remember the entirety of the discussion, but I remember his analogy very clearly: “getting a PhD is like holding onto a pull-up bar…. Those who choose to keep hanging on when others let go are the ones who get the degree.”
The conversation wasn’t earth-shattering, but it highlights a critical message. Success in a PhD program is predicated on your determination and work ethic more so than your level of intelligence. Now this may seem like a steep claim, so allow me to elaborate.
Does one need to be smart to be able to get a doctorate?
How smart does one need to be?
Smart enough to meet the admission requirements of the program.
That’s about it. If you have the credentials to be accepted, then you probably have the intellectual capacity to be successful.
Lesson 4: Don’t be afraid of being dumb. This may just be an extension of the previous lesson, but it needs to be explicitly stated. You’re intelligent, but you don’t know everything. Here’s the really important part; you aren’t expected to know everything! This is why you are in the program. Keep your ego in check and ask clarifying questions.
Now Luke, this contradicts Lesson 2: Figure it out!
On the surface, it appears that these two lessons are in conflict. So, let’s hash this out.
Lesson 2 pertains to things that don’t really involve your understanding of specific concepts in your area of study. Lesson 5 applies more to the theoretical principles in your field of study.
Here’s an example.
One of the variables that I included in my dissertation was normalized peak power during the concentric phase of a countermovement vertical jump. Two questions came up: 1) why include normalized peak power, and 2) how do I do this in Visual3D?
Understanding the answer to the first question was critical for determining which variables I wanted to include/exclude from my research. So, I discussed this with Dr. Harry.
As for the second question… I figured it out.
Here is my rule of thumb: if you ask a question that might require someone else to look it up, then you can look it up (i.e., figure it out).
I have more to say on this topic, but that’s it for this post. Stay tuned for part 2!