Paul Kei Matsuda

Advice for New Ph.D. Students

An annonymous reader asks: "Do you have any (general) advice for incoming Comp/Rhet PhD students? I want to read this post!"

Here are a few things I can think of:

1. Read a lot. I've said this many times, and I'll say it again. Being a graduate student--no matter how you may feel at the moment--is a luxury. You may not have a whole lot of money, but you have plenty of time. (Relatively speaking, of course.) If you think you are already too busy as a doctoral student, wait until you get a tenure-track position. (But then again, you may not get to that point if you don't read a lot now.)

2. Start developing your own professional library. Your investment will start paying off as soon as you begin to write your first seminar paper. You will probably notice the benefits most strongly when you take the preliminary/comprehensive exam, but it will also continue to be helpful throughout your career. When I was a grad student, my professional library included all the books on my primary field of interest (i.e., second language writing) as well as most of those books that I found remotely interesting or those that were cited or mentioned frequently. Reference books (e.g., encyclopedia, bibliographies, MLA and APA manuals) would also help. Start early because you won't have the time (or money) to buy all the books you need when you get your first tenure-track position (if you get to that point, that is).

3. Have a "room of one's own." Create a space where you can focus on your projects. Even if you live in a small apartment, try to devote a desk to your professional work. Set it up so you have all the resources--including books, articles, a computer, a printer, notepads, pens, sticky notes, etc.--available at your fingertip. Stock up on office supplies so you don't have to put your writing on hold when you run out of notepads. A moment of interruption could kill the momentum!

4. Develop a network of people who share similar interests or concerns. Starting a reading group is one way of accomplishing this. Creating or joining an email discussion list is another. Going to a conference regularly is yet another.

5. Get to know the faculty members in your program. Taking classes is not the only way of getting to know them. When they are giving presentations locally or at conferences, go to their sessions and ask questions (but try not to monopolize them). Take them out for a cup of coffee or a glass of beer or wine or whatever they fancy--within your graduate student budget. Find out what they find interesting (and what they find boring), what they know (and don't know), what kind of methodological approaches they like (or dislike), and how they interact with you, with other students, and with other faculty members. Knowing the faculty members and the interpersonal dynamics among them would be especially important when you choose your dissertation/exam chair and committee members. (And when you choose your dissertation committee members, always consult your chair.) Keep in mind that your default advisor (if there is one) doesn't have to be your dissertation chair.

6. Be open to a wide range of theoretical and methodological approaches in your field. Although sometimes it's important to trust your gut feelings and follow your intuition, you don't always fall in love with the right topic or methodology at first. Try to develop a large repertoire before deciding on your dissertation topic.

7. Have fun. If you feel like you are sacrificing something else when you read and write in your field, entering a Ph.D. program may not be the right career decision. If you have that much discipline to complete the degree requirements without really enjoying the process, you might consider choosing from many other career options out there that don't require a Ph.D. and that you might actually enjoy.

Hope this helps. Good luck to you all!

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Last update: January 6, 2008