The Doctoral Diaries: Choosing Your Mentors
Choosing to pursue a doctoral degree guarantees you at least another handful of years in school. For those students taking classes only part-time, a doctoral degree in my particular program could take five or six years—a huge commitment of time and energy. For some reason, I had it in my head that I was only tacking on another 3 years after my master’s degree, but found out quickly that 3 was an overly ambitious number, even for a full-time student.
Still, even with another 3 and a half years ahead of me, I’ve felt an immense amount of pressure to start thinking about my dissertation, and the professors I’d like to work with when I reach that phase of my program. Right now, I’m in a kind of crash course with the other newbies that is designed to help us plan our programs and prepare ourselves for the work ahead. This class has dumped a whole lot of information on us in the last two months, and all of us tend to leave there feeling like we’re already behind when we’ve only just begun.
Since this is my first year at my school, I have absolutely zero knowledge of the faculty members outside of my immediate concentration. I didn’t go here for my undergrad or master’s degrees, whereas many of the other students in the doctoral program here have at least some previous experience at this university, and many more specifically with this program and department. I’m still learning names and research areas, so the idea of asking a very accomplished and established professor to be on my research committee is absolutely terrifying.
Thankfully, I’ve grown close with my immediate program director, and she has been immensely helpful in navigating this tricky doctoral landscape. She helps me choose my courses each semester, helps me understand aspects of this program that are new and foreign to me, and she’s there for me when I need to be reminded that yes, I am in fact worthy of being here (even when it feels like all the other students are distinguished scholars and I am a potato). Since she will be my director when it comes time to start that dreaded process of comprehensive exams and my dissertation, I’m lucky that I’ve already started to build that relationship with her, so that I will have her in my corner when I need that support the most.
It’s going to be up to me, though, to branch out and take courses with other professors and build similar relationships with them. It’s intimidating, yes—again, when you feel like a potato amongst scholars, sticking your hand in the air and trying to contribute to the conversation can feel like the most terrifying thing ever. But, it’s a necessary process, whether you’re a doctoral, master’s, or even undergraduate student. Building relationships with professors and having them on your side when it comes time for the trickier parts of your academic career is important.
So, here are a few tips I’ve gathered from students and professors on how to build those meaningful relationship and put together a dissertation or thesis committee.
I’m in my very first semester of doctoral studies, and I’m brand new to this university and its faculty. But now is the time for me to start meeting all the faculty members I can, letting them learn my name and who I am and what I’m about. I need to take classes with a diverse group of professors and put my best foot forward in that coursework. Ask questions. Engage with the material. Be willing to learn new things and examine things from new perspectives. If you start right away, those relationships will happen more organically.
Plan your course of study effectively.
As a grad student, your course of study should be pretty clear right from the get-go. You should know the core courses you need to take, and be able to pick out elective courses you want to take while you’re in your program, prior to moving into thesis/dissertation hours. Think about what kind of independent studies you’d like to take on, and find out which professors have similar interests and might be willing to guide you. Plan to take courses with many different professors, and if you can take a class or two outside of your immediate discipline, you should! It will open even more doors for you.
Talk to other students.
One of my best and most valued assets is the information I get from students who are in their second or third years of study. They know the faculty, they’ve taken a bunch of classes already, and they can offer some advice on who to work with and how to approach different professors. They can put you in touch with other students who have similar research interests, and they are an awesome form of support during those first few semesters. The people in my program are the real reason my head is still above water—they’re always there to remind me that they went through this, too, and they made it out alive.
Look up the faculty members in your program.
Do a little research. Google the faculty members and see what they’re all about—find out their past research interests, look at books or articles they’ve published, get to know their field, and see what classes they have taught and currently teach. Get to know them on an academic level. Not only will it give you a better idea of whether or not they’d make a good addition to your committee, but it will give you some great talking points when you do reach out to them or first meet them.
I’m only a little more than halfway through my first semester, but so far, I haven’t had (too many) breakdowns. Picking my mentors will just be another thing on the seemingly endless list of things I still have left to do, and if you’re starting your graduate program, don’t worry—you aren’t alone in this!