This past December, I quietly marked a milestone: my 20th anniversary of earning my PhD.
Earning my PhD was one of the most challenging exercises I’ve ever undertaken. It was intellectually difficult, of course, but it was also difficult in other, unexpected ways: navigating the tenure denial, reinstatement, and then departure of my thesis advisor; negotiating a change in advisor and research topics between the MS and the PhD; coping with undiagnosed anxiety and depression; dealing with sexism and harassment.
I’ve spent some time recently reflecting on the past 20 years, post-PhD, and specifically what key lessons I’ve taken with me from the experience. Here, I’ll share the top 3 lessons from that time, and how they’ve served me in my career.
Lesson 1: Earning my PhD taught me as much about how to “learn” a subfield as it did about the process and history of inquiry in my specific thesis subfield.
I haven’t done a single bit of research on my thesis topic (other than getting articles out from the diss) since defending. I transitioned to other research projects in related areas in my postdoc, continuing one of those when I arrived at Carleton, and have continued to branch out to other areas since. I’m in the process of learning an entire subfield in which I was not trained (HCI), and for the moment, primarily publishing in that space.
It’s true that I learned enough to make me the “world expert” on my thesis topic at the time. But those skills are useful for picking up any subarea in any subfield. Skills like knowing how to do a literature search and review. How to learn, develop, and practice the common research methodologies in an area. How to learn the predominant writing style, and develop and tweak it to your own writing style. How to review and critique your own ideas and the ideas of others. How to figure out how the questions that inspire you, fit into the discourse of the field/subfield. How to frame an argument. How to discuss and contextualize results.
And, as it turns out, a number of those skills translate well to learning new topics and areas enough to teach them — a skill that’s vital when you teach at a small liberal arts school, where more often than not you’re teaching “outside your area”.
Lesson 2: Perseverance and consistency are underrated keys to success.
Inspiration gets way more credit than it should in terms of conditions for success. We like to think the most successful researchers are the ones with the best ideas. And that’s true, to a point. But the best ideas often start out as messy ideas — “quarter baked, not even half-baked” ideas as one of my post-doc colleagues called them. You need time and patience to wade through the muck of an idea or question to find the core nugget. And you need to be willing to play the long game, because sometimes you have to wade through A LOT of muck to get anything useful, and sometimes you wade through a lot of muck only to realize that it’s all muck, and you need to start over. Or, you think you’ve found the nugget, but those reviewing your work disagree and think it’s still muck.
Research is deeply unsexy, when you think about it.
My PhD trained me to show up and put in the time every day, whether I felt like it or not, whether I got some workable results or found a bug that meant I had to throw out all the code I wrote over the last month. It taught me to deal with the inevitable rejections of conference and journal papers and grant proposals, to dust myself off, identify the key points of valid criticism, and try again. It helped me grow a thicker skin. (Which, as it turns out, is also helpful when you work with undergrads at a teaching-focused institution and teaching evaluations play a large role in your tenure case.) At the same time, it helped me develop confidence in my ideas and in my work, which has also helped me persist when a line of research seems to be heading nowhere.
I’ve since used this perseverance to good purpose in my personal life, from training for marathons to earning my black belt to recovering from injuries to navigating the world of international adoption. Consistency and perseverence yields results.
Lesson 3: Your network is your lifeline.
Grad school was not a shiny happy experience for me, as I alluded to above. It was hard. As one of the few women in the program, it was isolating. It could have been lonely — if I hadn’t found my people.
The connections I made with the women in my department were my lifeline. My roommate, a fellow EE major from my undergrad institution, with whom I navigated those early years and classes. The woman who started in my lab at the same time, who took almost every class with me, studied for months with me for the quals, suffered through our respective dissertations together, and became a close friend. The women in other labs, both older and younger, who became friends and allies and fellow advocates for change. The (painfully few) women professors, who modeled how to deal with everyday sexism with grace and strength and modeled how to change the system from within the system — and that leaving a toxic situation instead of attempting to change it is sometimes the best choice.
I also learned how to identify male allies, and how to cultivate those connections, with both peers and professors. I’m grateful to the male professors who helped me figure out ways I could foster change in the department, and who willingly went to bat for me. I still use those lessons to this day. And to my peers, who helped provide pockets of acceptance and safety in an environment that often felt unwelcoming.
At the time I was in grad school, the idea of a “mentor network” was not in vogue — but that’s exactly what I was developing. I’ve continued to do this post-PhD. My network was vital to my earning tenure, and navigating my department as the only woman professor. It continues to be vital as I explore moving into administration full time in the next phase of my career. And it continues to grow.
And of course, as a senior woman in my field and department (and academia generally), I work to improve my mentoring skills, so that I can be a valuable resource, sounding board, and advocate for those coming up behind me.
I wish, in retrospect, I’d written down my reflections at my other PhD anniversaries. How did I view the PhD 5 years, 10 years, 15 years out? How did my recollections, and what I deemed important, change over time? Hopefully, when the 25th anniversary rolls around, I’ll remember to jot down my thoughts.
However, one thing was true then, is true now, and will be true in the future, I’m sure of it: I will not mark the anniversary by re-reading my dissertation. No. Thank. You.