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Members Weigh In: Advice for First-Year Ph.D. Students

SPSP asked members to answer, “What one piece of advice would you give to a first-year Ph.D. student studying personality or social psychology?” Many of the responses we received had to do with the topics of appreciating learning and the process, academic success, relating to your advisor, and preparing for your career. You can read a variety of member responses, below.

Appreciating Learning and the Process  |  Academic Success  |  Relating to Your Advisor  |  Preparing for Your Career

Appreciating Learning and the Process:

I usually start with the Creighton Abrams quote, "When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time." New doctoral students can get anxious and overwhelmed with the amount of information to learn. So, I find it helpful to remind them that they do not have to learn everything all at once. Some material will take a whole class to learn. Some will take them until they complete their doctorate. Yet more will require a lifetime of professional research and study. Therefore, my incoming advice to them is to relax, understand and commit to the process as a marathon (not a sprint), and then take "one bite at a time". – Jeremy Nicholson, Ph.D.

Do the things that scare you! (And - don't reject yourself - make someone else do it.) – Helen Harton, Ph.D.

Graduate school is an exercise in building resilience in the face of less than optimal outcomes.  Begin anywhere, be kind to yourself, and celebrate incremental progress. – Pirita See, Ph.D.

Academic Success:

She must have the courage to opt to think out of the box so that she can feed herself from various areas of interest, including literature, cinema, music, art,… etc. and thus be able to achieve a broader point of view of the personality and social psychology of the human behavior. - Dogan Kokdemir, Ph.D.

For any first year Ph.D students especially in area of personality, is to explore the knowledge area thoroughly, different approaches to personality and make a good habit to make notes on various knowledge substrates available. They should also encouraged to make inter-disciplinary approach to study the personality. They should also make themselves well acquainted with critically reading and evaluating research available to them. – Mithilesh Tiwari (current graduate student)

In general, for any first year Ph. D. student, learn how to access all the sources of knowledge available and make it a habit of reading every day and then writing out what you have understood from the knowledge you have gathered. For a Ph. D student of Personality, in particular, gather as much knowledge about the various approaches to personality and from there, choose a specific question that can help to identify a need based solution to the society. – T. Yuvaraj (current graduate student)

I have a really specific piece of advice - I would recommend for each article students read, write a summary paragraph (similar to an annotated bibliography) and save it in a spreadsheet or one word document. It makes it much easier to write manuscripts when you can easily search which article you are thinking of, and I wish I would've started doing that right away. – Jordann Brandner (current graduate student)

To supplement others' advice about reading as much literature related to your issue/topic, I would recommend an application or software to organize those sources. They are sometimes called bibliographic management systems, and some examples are Zotero and EndNote. Personally, I used Zotero, and it was invaluable when trying to organize and cite sources in the literature review section of my dissertation. Specifically, I think personality and social psychology students want to find an important topic that they are passionate about. Choosing a topic can be grueling, especially narrowing down a new or underresearched topic. Think of real-world problems and issues, and then work backwards by thinking of what factors contribute to those specific problems. – Jessica Holmes (current graduate student)

My one piece of advice would be to set aside a weekly work period that is set in stone, where you spend time working on research--either research you are working on with your advisor or figuring out/working on your thesis. More so, making a timeline and checklist of what you need to get through during your weekly work period can do wonders!  I think most of us are pros at school at this point, but the hardest thing to get a handle on is being a self-sufficient and independent researcher. Your first year can really slip by without holding yourself accountable to making progress on your own research. - Ashley Weinberg (current graduate student)

Always remember what the theory is driving your research. It doesn't matter what the topic is or what your hypotheses are unless you have an a priori justification for what you did in the first place. Results are meaningless without a strong engine driving them. Further, a strong grasp on theory will allow you to apply it to almost any topic you want, thus making your ability to develop research ideas easier. – Mitch Brown (current graduate student)

To have a successful graduate school research career, try to answer a question that other researchers in your field want to know the answers to. – Steve Rholes, Ph.D.

Relating to Your Advisor:

If I offer only one piece of advice, then: Never embarrass your advisor. If I offer two pieces of advice, it's the above and in addition:  Starting at year one, save your advisor more time than you cost your advisor. – Kerth O’Brien, Ph.D.

I encourage students to learn to "manage-up" with their PhD advisor, who will all-but-certainly have far too much to do than to keep track of the projects in which the student is involved.  Learn to keep a calendar, run projects on time, remind people of their duties and promises in a polite and helpful way, cover and recover and renegotiate when it does not work, to find the literature on your own or learn how to ask for windows into it.  In short to come to graduate school pre-socialized in how to be part of a research program.  The best way to do this is to have already been a part of a research program as an undergraduate. – Chuck Huff, Ph.D.

Preparing for Your Career:

I would say to the student to be clear on what he/she wants to do with their degree: pursue a career in academia or find a home in the private sector, then plan their research accordingly. – Calvin Schmid, Ph.D.

I would recommend that 1st years take the time to plan for multiple career paths.  If you're set on academia, I've heard someone describe it as "finding out what you aren't choosing."  Find a way to do an internship one summer or build transferable skills. You'll have more connections and work experience if/when the academic job market is limited or you find yourself with other goals and preferences (e.g., geographic).  Do informational interviews with people who have graduated from your program or similar programs to see what jobs are well-suited for social and personality psychologists.  Know that finding an academic job is not the only way to be successful in your career and to use your research training. – Anonymous

You have four years to get ready for the job market. Start preparing on day one. Watch the job postings every year, see what universities are asking for. Then make your CV fit and be competitive. - Brandt Smith, Ph.D.

One piece of advice:  Get a large grant as a PI or as a Co-PI while still in graduate school. An established track record in getting one or more large grants has a disproportionate impact on "short list" and hiring decisions. – William Ickes, Ph.D.

Be patient with yourself and learn everything you can about doing good research, good data analysis, and good teaching. You are building skills, and it will take considerable time to get those skills up to high levels. Be proactive in seeking development of those skills, because those skills will lead to good products (scholarly and otherwise), and those products will lead to a satisfying career. Also, know that there are many career options open to you, ranging from research-heavy to teaching-focused academic positions as well as a number of industry positions. Research career options early so that you are well positioned when you graduate. – Tom Carpenter, Ph.D.

The best one-word answer is the one in The Graduate given to Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin: "Plastics."  Or, for a slightly wordier version, there is the same sentiment from Steve Jobs: "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards."- Howard Friedman, Ph.D.

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