Background image
Image by Stefan Schweihofer from Pixabay

What is it like to be a doctoral student?

When I was searching for Ph. D. programs, I basically knew three things: during my program, I will take courses, do research, and teach or assist faculty members to get funding if I’m lucky. I was pretty fuzzy on the details. For anyone who’s considering applying for a doctorate degree, the specifics can make a difference. To give you guys a better taste of what it’s like to be a doctoral student, I’ll describe my academic routine over the past 4 years. One post won’t be enough to cover every nuance, so I am planning to write a series of articles expanding on each aspect of graduate life and update this article with the links to those posts

My program is in Educational Psychology (social science nerd here), and my university is huge (think over 60,000 students). I got my Master’s as I was working toward Ph. D. (my program accepted me with a B.A. degree). The specific flow and requirements of doctoral programs largely depend on:
- University policies
- College and departmental policies
- Program policies
- Your field of study

Some of my experiences may not directly apply to your program. Nevertheless, I hope that the info in this post will help demystify the general Ph. D. milestones..

With this in mind, let’s begin!

My program requirements and policies:
- 30 credit hours for M. A.
- 57 hours for Ph. D. after Master’s; 87 after Bachelor’s
- M. A. courses are counted towards Ph. D. requirements, but the hours are not
- Available sources of funding:
--- Teaching Assistantship (TA)
--- Research Assistantship (RA)
--- Fellowship

Yeat 1 activities and funding

Let’s start with funding. I consider myself lucky to have landed a fellowship in the first year. I had to complete some paperwork when I was applying for the program and was chosen as one of the fellowships recipients. If I hadn’t received a fellowship, I would have probably been assigned a TA position. The fellowship covered all tuition (read: I didn’t have to pay a penny for courses and some university services) and a stipend. The stipend was about $1,200, which was enough to rent a room, buy food and other essential stuff, and even save some money (keep in mind that I don’t have dependants, am rather frugal and don’t have a car). I was covered for the entire year (Fall, Spring and Summer semesters). This is important because TAs and GAs in my program tend to cover only Fall and Spring semester, meaning you have to find summer funding

International student advice:
Always make sure you know how many semesters are covered for by your funding, whether you need to search for extra funding for summer, and what the credit hours requirements are for international students in your program (especially in summer, especially if you have a fellowship! If you are on an F-1 visa, getting a job to pay the bills, especially off-campus, is really hard. If your university has an office of international affairs or some kind of international student center, they should know this information.

Now, my fellowship required me to be enrolled in 12 credit hours. A typical semester-long course is 3 credit hours, so I was supposed to take 4 courses. My adviser recommended taking 3 courses and one independent study course to make sure I do not overwhelm myself considering I had just moved to the US. The independent study course consisted of reading research articles, participating in a study conducted by my adviser and developing a conference presentation based on the results. It may differ based on the approach of your adviser/instructor.

I took a seminar where we talked about what graduate/academic life is like - an intro to the academic world, if you will. We mostly had discussions, posted questions on a discussion board each week, and did short readings. The second was an introductory statistics course because I knew absolutely nothing about statistics. I spent 5 hours each week reading the textbook to understand every concept, mostly because the textbook was written poorly (most stats textbooks are) and I had zero prior knowledge. The third course was my major-specific requirement, where we were taught basic concepts related to the major theories in the field, read a textbook and sometimes research articles, and discussed things. Discussion-based classes are common in my field. In my Russian undergrad, I was lectured to death in almost every class, so having discussions felt new and weird. So did the lack of final exams and the written format of the few exams we did have.

Overall, the workload felt really moderate compare to my undergrad - to my surprise. I met with my advisers (I am co-advised by 2 professors, which is not very common) regularly and participated in a research study led by one of them. Her research lab had weekly meetings where we would discuss the study design, procedures, plans, and responsibilities. I got to learn how to collect data in the field, transcribe and code data, and analyze it. It was a great experience!

Now for the paperwork. Aside from small stuff such as university account and email configuration, setting up payments directly to my bank account instead of paper checks, my medical and insurance accounts, I had to fill out paperwork for research. I had to take a CITI course developed to teach the fundamentals of ethics in research with human subjects. I had to go through a background check to do research work in a school. I had to fill out financial disclosures. Some of it took a while but overall it wasn’t too bad. Just keep in mind that you’ll have to do a lot more paperwork than you expect.

Somewhere in December-January I applied for funding for the next year. Funding in my program is distributed on a yearly basis, meaning such applications are to be submitted every year. While our preferences and skill sets should be taken into account when making a decision, the process happens during a faculty meeting and I’m sure many other factors are at play too.

The Spring semester looked pretty similar. I took 4 courses, making sure to cover the requirements first to get them out of the way. The coursework was focused more on reading research papers and discussing them. Typically, we had 2-3 papers assigned for each course; reading each in depth could take me up to 1-2 hours. I kept working on coding and analyzing the data our research lab collected to prepare for a summer conference presentation. I think I wrote and submitted the proposal for it in late December. That was my first academic proposal ever and my writing was a disaster!.. But my advisers were patient and supportive, so now writing is as ordinary as brushing my teeth in the morning.

After my adviser and I attended a talk on digital games in education, I realized it was an exciting topic for me, so we started brainstorming what we could do for my Master’s thesis related to that topic. Gradually I fell for the whole technology thing and ended up doing my dissertation study on Virtual Reality in education.

Finally, I went through what’s called “Annual review” in our program (this might be specific to my particular program, though; only our program faculty had access to this information). I filled out a document with a few questions about what I did during the academic year (e. g., any publications, conference presentations, services such as volunteering or peer reviews, etc.) and updated my CV. I also had a meeting with my advisers to review my coursework, research progress, and to determine what courses I should take next. I then got feedback from the program faculty based on my annual review documents. Again, this wasn’t an official thing, meaning, it didn’t directly impact my grades or stipend. That said, considering this feedback was important because I had another 4 years of work with these faculty members.

As I already mentioned, I had to take credit hours in summer because I was on a fellowship. I wanted to live in a different city all summer for personal reasons, so I took a short, 1 month-long course in statistics and the rest were independent study hours. I finished the course and left the city in early June, moving to Boston and doing a bit of traveling. All summer I was reading research papers and working on my Master’s thesis study design and my conference presentation, which took place in early August. After the conference, I came back and started preparing for my second year.

Year 2 activities and funding

The second year was probably one of the hardest for me. The courses required a lot of reading and writing. Most of the courses were related to my major, some to statistics. Teaching on top of the coursework was tough but it was my favorite part of my entire Ph. D. career. I was in charge of all teaching duties, including preparing, conducting classes and grading. In-person classes were 1 h 20 min long, twice a week; online classes were asynchronous. Teaching prep took me at least a couple of hours before each class, grading took 2-4 hours a week. Add in the time spent replying to students’ emails and meeting with them, too, and the time I spent at TA meetings.

There is a commonly shared view about teaching being less important than your research activities, even in the educational research field - a preposterous idea in my opinion (I’ll explain my view in a separate article). I believe that teaching is one of the most rewarding and awesome experiences you can get in your Ph. D. career. But more on his later!

I spent hours working on my Master’s thesis study which took me 2 consecutive semesters (Fall and Spring). Part of the problem was designing a technology-infused curriculum from scratch and integrating a stubborn platform (Second Life) in a general education course throughout two semesters. That included mastering the platform, setting up the environment, creating and piloting activities, conducting the technology-mediated parts of the class, and solving all technical problems (we had a ton of them) - on top of all usual research stuff such as assessments, data management, etc. I was very stressed and slept very little. This is when I felt like grad school was hell. Now that I think of it, I should have managed my time differently and stopped trying to be 100% productive every single day.

I was super happy to take a break and go see my friends and family in Russia that summer. I didn’t enroll in any classes and didn’t search for funding. I sublet my room to cover the rent and utilities and left for 3 months. Having no income for 3 months was not optimal but I lived with my parents and friends so I didn’t get too broke. I also started writing my Master’s thesis based on my research during the previous two semesters.

Year 3 activities and funding

The third year was also one of the hardest for me. Part of it was because I experimented with teaching a lot. I piloted the use of new technology in my class, wrote a textbook with my online class, and restructured most of my in-person class plans to reflect my changing teaching philosophy. It took a lot of time but I have  no remorse, no repent no regret. I took a 3D modeling and a game development course which were a huge challenge for me. I was also writing my master’s thesis and doing other coursework.

At the end of the Fall semester I met a new research team that worked with VR technology in physics education. We started working together and eventually that led me to my dissertation topic (which is the use of technology to develop visuospatial thinking skills). We started working on a big project which became my dissertation pilot study.

I defended my Master’s at the end of the Spring semester, which was pretty late but not unusual considering how many required courses I had to take. In summer I lived in a different city and taught online. It gave me a lot of time to write a bunch of articles based on my Master’s thesis.

Year 4 activities and funding

I am currently in the Summer phase of Year 4. Since I passed my candidacy exam, I didn’t have to do any coursework anymore and focused on research. I will describe Candidacy and Dissertation Proposal exams in a separate article. Candidacy papers took me 10 weeks to write (4 papers, 30-50 pages long), and Dissertation Proposal took just a few weeks scattered throughout the semester because my Candidacy gave me a great foundation for it. Teaching still took a lot of time because I completely revamped my teaching approach, and it ended up being the best semester of teaching for me!

Finding funding for the fifth year is challenging in our program, so I made sure to apply for grants and fellowships. I ended up landing a very good fellowship from the university which covers this summer and the next two semesters. I am now starting my dissertation study, including participant recruitment and developing the intervention.

Year 5 activities and funding

No coursework, no teaching, dissertation all the way!

Alright, we’ve covered a lot of ground here. I hope seeing this timeline gave you a better understanding of what it’s like to be a ph. D. student. I still have a year to go but I have a lot to say about the past 4 years. Stay tuned for more details - I will update this post with links to related posts explaining certain aspects of a Ph. D. career.