Posted by: mwiika | January 16, 2013

Advice to Future PhDs from 2 Unusual Graduating PhDs

Advice to Future PhDs from 2 Unusual Graduating PhDs

Posted on May 9, 2012 | 14 Comments

Next week I will be attending my official graduation from The Fletcher School to receive my PhD diploma. It is—in a word—surreal. I’ve been working on my PhD for almost as long as I’ve known my good friend and colleague Chris Albon, which is to say, a long time. Chris is also a newly minted political science PhD and recently joined the FrontlineSMS team as the director of their Governance Project. Needless to say, our paths have crossed on many occasions over the years and we’ve had many long conversations about the scholar-practitioner path that we’ve taken. With graduation just a few days away, we thought we’d write-up this joint post to share our pearls of wisdom with future PhDs.


First: blog, blog, blog! The blog is the new CV. If you don’t exist dynamically online, then you’re not indexable on the web. And if you’re not indexable, then you’re not searchable or discoverable. You don’t exist! Blog-ergo-sum, simple as that. Chris and I have been blogging for years and this has enabled us to further our knowledge and credibility, not to mention our network of contacts. The blog allows you to build your own independent brand, not your advisor’s and not your program’s. This is critical. We’ve received consulting gigs and keynote invitations based on blog posts that we’ve published over the years. Do not underestimate the power of blogging for your professional (and yes, academic) career. In many ways, blogging is about getting credit for your ideas and to signal to others what you know and what your interests are.

Second: get on Twitter! Malcolm Gladwell is wrong: social media can build strong-tie bonds. Heck, social media is how I originally met Chris. If the blog is the new CV, then consider your Twitter account the new business card. Use Twitter to meet everyone, everywhere. Let people know you’ll be in London for a conference and don’t underestimate the synergies and serendipity that is the twittersphere. Chris currently follows around 1,200 people on Twitter, and he estimates that over the years he has met around half of them in person. That is a lot of contacts and, frankly, potential employers. Moreover, like blogging, tweeting enables you to connect to others and stay abreast of interesting new developments. Once upon a time, people used to email you interesting articles, conferences, etc. I personally got on Twitter several years ago when I realized that said emails were no longer making it to my inbox. This information was now being shared via Twitter instead. Like the blog, Twitter allows you to create and manage your own personal brand.

Third: decide whether you want an academic career, a professional career, or both. The path you chose will require you to take different turns to excel and get ahead. Chris and I chose the combined scholar-practitioner route, which we personally find the most rewarding, flexible and exciting path. If this route appeals to you, then be sure to use the research papers you write for your coursework as an excuse to interview individuals and organizations that you may want to work with in the future. This allows you to learn more about the organizations themselves and to actively network during your studies. Moreover, your resulting papers will be stronger and more interesting, not to mention policy-relevant. This means both your professional contacts who your interview and your professors will gain from your research. Indeed, being in graduate schools gives you more time to think and explore issues in depth—a luxury that many practitioners simply do not have. You get to delve into the literature and fuse those insights with those gained from your interviews and hands-on research. The result is a solid and unique research paper, both academically and policy-wise.

Fourth: Consult on projects outside of academia and be sure to pro-actively identify and attend interesting conferences. And yes, do so even if it means skipping a few classes and getting a lower grade. But do let your professor know why you may be absent. In my case, profs were always supportive of external engagement. In your consulting projects, be strategic and explore how you can combine deliverables with required research papers in your coursework. This will yield both stronger consulting deliverables and research papers. Be sure to blog about your consulting projects and the conference panels that you find most interesting. Going to conferences will set you apart and these events are often important fora for new ideas that have not yet made it to the peer-reviewed literature or even blogs.

Fifth: Teach, whether formally or informally, whether in person or online. The process of creating the ultimate syllabus on the topic you’re most interested in is highly informative and educational. Think about taking an independent study course to do this. Having teaching experience will also set you apart and be good fodder for blogging as well. Like conferences, teaching a course exposes you to others who you wouldn’t otherwise connect with and can thus be an excellent  source for new ideas and insights.

Sixth: Selecting a dissertation topic is probably one of the most important steps in the PhD process. We can’t stress enough how important it is to select a topic that you yourself are personally excited about. The topic you select should be one that you are most likely to remain passionate about for years to come. I actually changed dissertation topics after taking my comprehensive exams. And while this may have set me back a year, I have absolutely no regrets given how excited and I’ve been regarding the topic I wrote about. If you’re taking the scholar-practitioner route, than the topic should be one that figures in the media from time-to-time (preferably on a regular basis). Why? Because that ensures you’re working on something that’s relevant and of interest to wider community than just fellow academics. Plus, if you’re doing a PhD on a topic that is of interest to the media, this increases your chances of getting visibility, especially if you’re also blogging. This can be rewarding and a great way to remain excited about your topic. Indeed, be sure to use your blog to flesh out the concepts you’re exploring for your dissertation, especially vis-a-vis the literature review. This is a very productive way to get feedback.

Seventh: The right dissertation committee can make all the difference to the PhD experience. And “right” here can mean different things. Do you want strong hands-on support from your committee or your Chair in particular? Or are you someone who works best with minimal “interruption” from said committee? Obviously, you’ll want to select each committee member carefully. Avoid at all costs any faculty members with attitude problems and those who feel like they have something to prove. What you’re looking for is a real mentor, particularly for the Chair of your committee, and someone who not only approaches the PhD process as a partnership but who will also be your ally long after your PhD. In building your committee, think about diversity. If you’re taking the scholar-practitioner route, be sure to have a good mix of strong academics and policy folks. In other words, be strategic and deliberate. In our opinion, the best committee allows you to do your own thing. The worst shoehorn you into following their career path.

So there you go, some (hopefully) straightforward advice from Chris Albon and yours truly. Best of luck on your career path if you do go for a PhD!




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