Updates from the World of a PhD Student: Reflections on the Third Year

As a part of my ongoing discussion of PhD life, I wanted to share a wrap up post for the third year so you all can see what I’ve been up to (you can see the first and second years’ posts here and here). As always, I’m happy to answer questions you have in the comments!

Let's talk about zines, baby (presenting at the iConference in Berlin)

Let’s talk about zines, baby (presenting at the iConference in Berlin)

The third year, at least in my program, is when all your coursework is finished and you focus on the rest of the steps you need to take to wrap up your degree. In our case, this includes writing prelim statements (the statements that frame the areas of expertise you’ll be tested on), then using those to take the prelim exam (a week-long written test on those areas you identified in the statements). After you take (and pass) the preliminary exam, you start work on your dissertation itself, which includes writing and defending your prospectus (typically the first three chapters: introduction, literature review, and method). Once you defend these initial chapters and your committee feels that you have enough of an idea of what you’re doing, you’re released into the world to do your dissertation data collection and analysis. Finally, you defend the dissertation, make edits as necessary, and graduate.

The amount of time this takes for everyone varies, and year three is when you start to see people at a lot of different places in their degree work. This can be impacted by any number of things (family circumstances, the type of research you do, how quickly you write, etc.), so how quickly one progresses through these stages is not a reflection of their abilities. For me, my work is going a bit faster than I thought it would, which is a nice problem to have. Here are the different things that have happened for me in my third year:

Prelim Exam

I did my prelim exam in December, and ended up putting together about 80 pages (!) during that week. I was kind of intimidated at first, but I was prepared too, so while it was a lot of long hours it was doable. A couple recommendations if you are ever doing prelim exams:

  • Prewriting is vital! It saves you so much time during the exam, and ensures that all those thoughts you’ll be too scattered to remember later are already on the page. One of my committee members recommended writing a page or so about each article you read (what it’s about, methods, strengths/weaknesses, theories used, etc.) I did this and also wrote blurbs in my prewriting that synthesized some of these articles as I noticed patterns and such. In our program, we have time set aside for “prelim prep”, which includes writing statements but also includes preparatory work like this prewriting, so there’s plenty of time to get it done!
  • Engage your support network: I’m the worst at asking people for help when I need it, but this was a chance for me to work on that. Friends brought me food and beverage, and (briefly) hung out with me when I needed a break from constant writing, and my family sent me encouragement and ordered lots of delivery food so I wouldn’t have to cook. All their support made the process more enjoyable and less stressful!
  • Plan ahead: Schedule out how you think you might take the exam, and leave some wiggle room in there too. I used the schedule some other students recommended to me, which was to take everything from the statements and prewriting that I could and organize it in each answer, then to work on one answer per day the next three days, and use the remaining time to tie up loose ends. The last day should be reserved for proofreading and editing, which in my case took longer than I thought. I also prepared myself plenty of healthy meals and stashed them in the fridge and freezer so I could eat without taking time away from the work I needed to do.
  • And finally…relax! You know this stuff, you’ve been researching it for a while, and you’ll do just fine. If your committee has agreed to let you schedule your exam, it means they believe enough in your abilities to know that you’re ready for it, so you should believe in yourself too! (I say this, but need to remind myself of it sometimes!)

Starting the Dissertation

Once you pass your prelims, you advance to candidacy, and begin working on your dissertation in earnest. In our program, we write the first three chapters of the dissertation and defend them, although this isn’t the case everywhere. The reason we do it here is so our committee (and department) can see our thought processes and give us feedback before we go all the way through the dissertation research without that help. I just finished writing my prospectus, and am defending it on August 19th, so cross your fingers! I was able to put mine together somewhat quickly because a lot of what I wrote in my prelim exams fit so could be reused. This isn’t the case for everyone, but if you already have relevant writing that you can pull in to save time here, I highly recommend it!
Our prospectus defense is similar in format to a dissertation defense: A copy of the prospectus is put on file at our library, and a public defense is held (meaning anyone can come, although usually it’s just folks from out department). The student presents their work, takes questions from the audience, then everyone but the student and their committee leave, and the committee asks the student questions then boots them out for a bit to decide whether or not they pass. This is where reminding yourself of the fourth bulletpoint above is helpful!
Once I (hopefully) pass, I’m making some tweaks as needed and then heading up to New York City for two weeks to go through the archives I need to look at. This is different from most of my peers, whose work is typically done without travel and who usually do work with human subjects (rather than historic materials). The nice thing about working with the materials I’m using is that there are fewer moving parts (e.g. participants’ schedules, changes to surveys, etc.) so I can focus on my analysis and devote the substantial amount of time it needs while still finishing my degree quickly. With any luck, I should be wrapping up in Spring or Summer of 2015!

Other Thoughts

There are a few more things that have gone on during the third year beyond progressing through the degree. First of all, I’m starting to look for jobs. Faculty jobs are interesting to apply for because you tend to apply well in advance of when you would start, so it’s reasonable to apply for a position a year out. I’m applying for other positions too (e.g. an administrator at a teaching center), and I think keeping my options open but still focusing on research and teaching positions is a good bet. The interviews for faculty positions are interesting, as they tend to include some interviews that take place while everyone is at the same conference(s), and often involve a campus visit as well. I have not started interviewing yet, but I’m looking forward to it!
Conferences are another important part of professional development during this time, particularly when you’re going to be on the job market (even if you aren’t interviewing yet). It’s a great way to get a sense of what’s going on in the field and to meet people. If you’re sharing your work at the conference (even just a works in progress poster), that’s a great way to connect with folks and share ideas.
Finally, one big focus of mine during the third year has been striking balance between lots of fun projects and the desire to finish in a timely manner. I have a couple projects I’m doing on the side, but they’re rather minimal time commitments so I can continue to do them. Doing my dissertation is a great exercise in learning to say ‘no’ to people (which I’m not great at), and it’s nice to just have one big project where I can pour all my energy and attention. It’s also important (at any stage) to find work-life balance. I love my work and spend lots of time with it, but I also make time to see friends and family, prepare meals, clean my house, and exercise. If I value myself and my well-being, and see myself as deserving of things like home-cooked meals and down time, I’m happier and healthier, and able to devote more focused and positive attention to everything in my life (including my dissertation!)

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