These quotes are some of the responses made on the Survey of Doctoral Education and Career Preparation.  The quotes are sorted by discipline.  You can see the response from other disciplines.  These quotes supplement an article of advice for selecting a doctoral program.  Students responded to the question:  "Knowing everything that you know now, what advice would you give others entering or in the early years of graduate school? "

The quotes are sorted into six categories.  Generally, there are a half dozen comments per category, the alternating colors are different student's comments.  These categories were applied by us, as we read through the thousands of comments.  They are the most common categories of advice pertaining to the selection of a doctoral program.  The frequency with which various kinds of advice emerged varies by discipline.  You can see the relative distribution here.



Know yourself and know what doctoral study entails

16.4% of the philosophy students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


If there is anything else that you can do and be happy, do that.  If there is nothing else that you can do and be happy, then come join us.  You'll love it.  But being a graduate student is a very difficult way to live. 


Consider the decision with great care.  Graduate school takes more time, energy and thought than new grad students ever thought possible.  A Ph.D. is a massive undertaking that exceeds all predictions and estimates concerning the resources you have and will need.


Reconsider your decision to pursue a Ph.D.  The job market in most fields is poorer than your professors will lead you to believe.  You could be making a decent living or making the world a better place in the years that you'll be scraping out a living doing arcane research and teaching for a fraction of what professors are paid for the same work.   

Also, in writing your dissertation, prepare to be alone.


You should enter graduate school because you enjoy whatever it is that you are studying and be fully aware of the difficulty in finding jobs in academia.  You should ask yourself whether you would want a doctoral degree in your field of study even if you could not get a job directly applicable to what you got your degree in?  If you would not want the degree without the assurance of a job in your field you should probably not go to grad school.


Be very clear and realistic about your employment opportunities after graduating, both within and without academia. 

Make sure you have a dissertation topic you are willing to pursue each and every day, because it will consume most of your time for at least 2 years. 

Answer the following question honestly:  When I have some spare time, do I enjoy thinking about (fill in discipline and dissertation topic) or is there something I would rather be doing?

Use three faculty members at three different stages of a full career as models for your own development:  Learn about their backgrounds, assess where they are in their careers, and how they got there.  Then, answer following question:  Is this the kind of career I want for myself? 

Attend professional conferences in your area to decide if you can imagine yourself participating in them for many years.


Be sure to be interested enough in the subject to guarantee that you don't regret time spent in its pursuit.  Employment in the field is not guaranteed, but the pursuit of the graduate program can be an invigorating experience. 

Finding an advisor who is fun to work with can be vital, and there is a world of intellectual activity in the university outside the confines of one's own department. 


Investigate the program thoroughly

19.2% of the philosophy students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Seek as much information about prospective departments as possible,  particularly from faculty advisors who have a broad knowledge of the field.  It is often hard to know which schools would best suit a student's interests from the more general information available.


Make sure you know what kind of a political climate exists in your department and to talk to graduate students in the department about how they feel they are treated by the faculty in general.


If you are choosing between departments of rather similar ranking, you should choose based on (1) where you would be happy living and (2) overall atmosphere of department (the extent that you can determine it).  Do not choose based on individual faculty members and their particular interests, because faculty members move; because you may discover that you can't get along with them; because they likely won't spend that much time on you; and because your own interests will change.  This advice is based on my experience in my current and previous programs.


Find out clear information about average length of time it takes to complete the Ph.D. and find out about prospects for academic employment.  Think about whether the commitment is one you are willing to make.

Inquire about which advisors work closely with students and help them complete their work in a timely fashion.

Make attempts to meet a range of faculty members (even outside of classes) so that you will have a clearer picture of opportunities available within your department.


Visit school before hand.


Think about why they want to go to graduate school and what sort of area of specialization they might be interested in.  I think it is really important for a prospective graduate student to find out as much as they can about the university (in particular the department) that they are thinking of attending.  It is really important that the student choose a graduate school that is at least capable of meeting her needs.  One of the best ways of finding out this information is by talking with other graduate students in that program.


Understand the job market

20.5% of the philosophy students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


You must be aware that job placement is both a lottery and an enterprise that requires careful preparation.


Be aware of the lack of job opportunities on graduation and the real possibility that one will not be able to find a job after being awarded a Ph.D. 


Develop a knowledge- and skills-base that is as broad as possible, since the availability of employment opportunities (especially in the academy) are uncertain at best.


Do everything you can to get off campus: either to advance your academic career (present papers, do research elsewhere, teach at other schools, meet colleagues and publishers elsewhere) or to advance your non-academic career (do internships, explore alternative career options, etc.).  The myth that all grad students can and will find full-time tenure-track jobs in academia is still alive and well for many, many older faculty who walked right out of grad school to the academic jobs they still have.  It is close to a fair generalization to say that they will not give you good advice about finding such jobs (if they exist any more) or pursuing alternatives (which they take to be an admission of defeat).

Seriously consider dropping out after getting an MA and pursue a line of work less fraught with risk (personal, professional and financial).  It is easier to retrain for a future career change at the MA then at the Ph.D.


Know the job market for your discipline.  Be prepared for little choice when it comes to location of future job. 


Have a healthy careerist attitude from the start (unless you're not planning on getting an academic job).


Do this only if you love to do it; you'll be lucky if you can find a job in a place out of the backwaters doing it.


Understand and get funding

11.6% of the philosophy students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Don't do it without funding.


Make sure your department is clear about their commitment to funding you. 


Avoid taking out loans, if possible, since the job situation is terrible. 


Select your advisor carefully

12.3% of the philosophy students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Having an advisor who both encourages and challenges you is the single most important thing.  Like it or not, that's the person who holds the future of your career in their pen, letters really matter on the market as does having had someone to give you the kind of advice you need to make your work matter in your field and the discipline as a whole.  The advisor you select should be supportive and involved.  If he/she is not, get a new one.


Do whatever you can to work with supportive faculty who have some clout in your field.  These two qualities may be difficult to find in a single individual, but both qualities are extremely important both during your studies and when you look for work.


Get a personable mentor/dissertation director who has a reputation for moving students through. 


Also, find a mentor or advisor you can TRUST and try to work with them from early on.  But don't really hand over or trust them with your scholarly development, make sure YOU are always in charge of those decisions.


Take time off between undergraduate and PhD studies

6.2% of the philosophy students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Take time off between college and graduate school to make sure it is what you want to do. 


Realize that grad school will always be there--do not worry about getting in right after undergrad. 

Quotes from  other disciplines.   | Article of advice for selecting a doctoral program | Distribution of quotes in all fields. | Survey of Doctoral Education and Career Preparation.