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Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

Go to Grad School Guide: PhD Programs

Wondering if grad school is right for you? This week, we’re putting together a guide to the grad school experience, brought to you by those who know it best: current students and recent alums. Check in all week for an inside look at med school, law school, PhD programs, and more!

Thinking about an in-depth degree in your field? We sat down with three PhD students in three very different programs—Poli Sci, Communications, and Environmental Toxicology—to get their take on the grad school experience.

Bronwyn Lewis, PhD in Political Science/International Relations

School: UCLA

Age: 26

Background before grad school: I taught for two years as a Colet Fellow at St. Paul's School of London, a 500-year-old British boys' secondary school, before completing a one-year MSc program in comparative politics at The London School of Economics. During the year I completed my master's, I also worked part-time as a GMAT and SAT Instructor for Kaplan London and ran a freelance international admissions counseling service for London students wishing to apply to U.S. universities.


Why did you choose this type of degree? 

I unexpectedly fell in love with teaching during my time at St. Paul's School, but I’ve always felt intellectually sharpest when I was a student myself. I realized that if I wanted to remain both a teacher and a student in the long term, then I might be happiest as a university professor.

I chose to study international relations out of personal interest. In a practical sense, though, it was also important to me that the training I would receive as an IR specialist at a school like UCLA would also be transferable to careers outside of academia, should the university job market be less than ideal when I complete my degree.

Why did you choose your particular program? 

Honestly? I had been living in London for three years by the time I applied to UCLA, and it was of vital importance to me to pursue my PhD in a less rainy, less gray, less cloudy location! UCLA was the only top-10 political science school that also seemed to be located in a meteorological Promised Land. It was the right choice, too—I can’t tell you how great it is to work off stress by riding my bike to the beach after a long day of class or research!

What tips do you have for someone applying to your program? 

First: UCLA is unique among top political science schools in not requiring PhD students to undergo qualifying exams in order to advance to doctoral candidacy (which happens in the third year of most programs). Quals are notorious for being extraordinarily stressful: They are long oral exams in which a committee of your professors "grills" you on your mastery of the literature on your research interests. Instead of quals, which bear no practical resemblance to the work academics actually do, UCLA requires its students to produce two "field papers," which are publishable-quality journal articles. If this sort of philosophical difference appeals to you, UCLA might be a great place for you to apply.

Next, UCLA has historically been at the forefront of integrating methodologies borrowed from economics into the study of political science. So all doctoral students there are expected to develop at least a working proficiency in empirical methods (i.e., how to use statistical analysis to learn things about political behavior) regardless of whether you plan to use these methods in your own research. But that said, don't worry if you haven't exercised your quant skills in a while. If UCLA admits you, you'll be able to handle the training.

What do you wish you had known about the program before coming? 

I spent a lot of time extremely stressed about my academic performance in my first quarter. I don't think I fully grasped that the entire philosophy of a PhD program is not to test you so much as to nurture you into becoming a scholar. In some ways, a doctoral program is an ideal learning environment, and anxiety expended on your "grades" is largely wasted energy. Coursework is only there to enable you to learn. Of course, I say this now—and I will be a madwoman again the next time that finals roll around! But the stress is largely self-inflicted, and that is one way that a PhD program differs significantly from a JD or MD program.

What are your ideal post-graduation plans? 

In the best case, I will be offered a tenure-track position in International Relations or Methodology at another research university in California. But let's be honest, that's a huge pipe dream. If the job market is not favorable immediately upon graduation, though, I would jump at the opportunity to work at a foreign policy and security think tank like RAND Corporation, just up the road in Santa Monica.

Maureen Savage, PhD in Mass Communication

School: Indiana University School of Journalism

Age: 24

Background Before Grad School: I’ve gone straight through on all three of my degrees (a BA in Film, Video, and Media Studies, an MA in Communication, and now a PhD), but during the summers I would either intern or work for a public radio station (WUOM, WMUK in MI). I currently work as a part-time board operator for Spirit 95 FM (WVNI) in Bloomington, IN.

Career Goal: To teach university-level communication and media courses, as well as work for a public radio station newsroom reporting on arts and culture.

Activities/Extra-curriculars: I work part-time work at WVNI and in retail, I’m active in the Lutheran Campus Ministries at IU, and I develop new hobbies like gardening and sewing in what other spare time I have.

Why did you choose your particular program?

After my visit to the campus, I liked the feel of the city and everyone I met at the school was great. The professors seemed genuinely interested in what I was looking to study, and they did a nice job of really selling the program to me and making me feel welcome. It also helps that they offered me a great financial package (full assistantship as well as a fellowship), so it’s great knowing I don’t have to go into debt to get my degree.

What tips do you have for someone applying to your program?

For applying for a PhD in general, my tip is just to have some idea of what it is you’d like to research before getting into the program. It’s okay if you don’t have your dissertation topic picked out—that’s what you’re there to figure out, anyways! But knowing a general topic of interest that you’d like to pursue makes things a lot easier when it comes to planning your research papers for your classes each semester.

What does your typical week look like?

Full-time doctoral students take three courses each semester, so I go to my classes Monday through Thursday. I’m also a research assistant this semester, so I spend a few hours a day helping my professor with her research projects. I make a point to get up early on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and work out with a neighbor to get a jump-start on my day. Evenings are typically dedicated to homework and reading (lots of reading). I always try to give myself one day where I can relax, clean my apartment, and run errands if need be. Then I have two jobs that I manage to work in there, too—so I keep pretty busy during the week!

What’s been the most challenging part of the experience? 

The hardest part is finding your balance, in every sense of the word. You have to balance your school life, social life, work life, and some personal time as well. If you only focus on school all of the time, you’ll find yourself burning out really quickly. It always helped me to have friends around who are outside of academia; spending time with those friends felt like taking a little mini-vacation from the “real life” of school.

What’s been the biggest surprise about your program?

Sometimes, you end up finding things that catch your interest that you never knew existed. I never knew I really enjoyed teaching until I got an assistantship during my master’s program, and that is part of the reason why I decided to continue my education. You also get some amazing opportunities to meet a wide variety of scholars in your (and other) research fields. It is always a little bit of a thrill to meet the scholar who wrote one of your textbooks!

Have your post-grad plans changed since you first started grad school?

My plans definitely changed. When I entered my master’s program, I had no intention of going on for a PhD. I had the opportunity to work with some amazing professors who really got me excited about teaching and research, and encouraged me to continue in my studies. So, clearly that path has led me elsewhere than where I originally intended. Luckily, many public universities have radio stations on or near campus, so it worked out pretty well that I enjoyed teaching, too.

Morgan Willming, PhD, Environmental Toxicology 

School: Texas Tech University

Age: 25

Background Before Grad School: BS, Biology

Career Goal: I’m not entirely decided—maybe academia.

Activities/Extra-curriculars: I’m involved in departmental grad student groups that organize student activities and participate in community service.

Why did you choose your program?

I decided I wanted to study environmental toxicology because it was a good synthesis of my interests in biology, chemistry, and environmental science. There aren't many such programs in the country, and my program had a strong reputation in the field and offered me funding.

What tips do you have for someone applying to this type of program?

Often when applying for a graduate program in the sciences, it can be more about choosing your advisor, not just choosing the school. Be sure to find an advisor whose interests are closely aligned with yours and one with whom you feel compatible. He or she is ultimately the one who can make or break your research and determine your future success. Do plenty of research into his or her publication record and funding.

Most importantly, ask current or former students about their experiences and honest opinions. Also, make sure you know how much time students are typically expected to spend teaching or on other research projects.

What do you wish you had known about your program before coming?

When visiting a school or program, I feel it's always a good idea to ask current students about any negative aspects to the program. Also, make sure you have some idea about the morale of faculty and students. Is there enough funding for students? Are people happy with how the department is run? Every department has its issues, and I wish I would've known a little more about those beforehand.

What does your typical week look like?

I'm generally in the lab, at my desk, or in class Monday-Friday 9 to 5 or so. However, this is really dependent on what I have going on in terms of research. Some weeks I'll have to put in lots of extra time, whereas other times I'll have much less going on. Sometimes I'm working for part of the weekend, too. Often times, your schedule can be determined by expectations from your advisor. Overall, there’s a lot of variability in what kind of time and when students are working.

What have been your favorite classes?

My favorite classes have been those that allowed me to get first-hand practical experience with techniques or instruments that I will use in my current research or in the future. I also have enjoyed journal clubs where we discuss current research articles in depth. Understanding the literature is a fundamental skill to develop in grad school, since nearly all scientific work is based on reading others' research and successfully publishing your own.

What are your post-grad plans, and have they changed since you first started grad school?

My plans are constantly in flux. As I've interacted with a wider range of professional scientists, I've learned about the ups and downs of a variety careers and it's given me a lot more to consider in choosing a specific career. Also, I've realized that I don't have to choose one career for the rest of my life. Many successful scientists might work for government or industry for a while before moving into academia.

Photo of science student courtesy of Shutterstock.