My Advice to Incoming PhD Students (Skinner)

PHDReaders of this blog will know that I recently moved from North Carolina, where I’ve been teaching for the past six years, to Chicago to take a position at Loyola University. These past two weeks have been filled with various sorts of orientations as we prepare to begin classes next Monday, so it’s been difficult to to find enough time to get back on the blog. I’ll return to series of posts I was working on very soon, but while I had a moment today, I wanted to share something that has been on my mind since Monday.

One of my new roles here at Loyola will be section coordinator for the PhD in New Testament / Early Christianity. Earlier this week I had a chance, along with the other three section coordinators, to meet all of the incoming MA and PhD students and welcome them to Loyola. We were asked by the graduate student caucus to discuss our responsibilities as section coordinators and then to share any advice we would like to give to the students. I thought it might be helpful to repeat that advice here on the blog and also share something I was a little hesitant to say on Monday (but probably should have).

(1) Make friends while you’re here. A well-known refrain from one of Maya Angelou’s poems reads, “Alone, all alone, Nobody, but nobody, Can make it out here alone.” Doctoral study can be one of the most difficult, most intense, (and for many) loneliest periods of your adult life. This is especially true if you are in a hyper-competitive or isolated environment where every student is out for himself/herself. I encouraged our students to make friends with one another and thereby create a support system that will sustain them throughout the program and even after their time in graduate school. For my part, I was privileged to have four friends with whom I remained close during my time at Catholic University. When I published my dissertation, I thanked all four of them for the role they played in my transformation, but also for how their friendship sustained me through the long and difficult period that is PhD studies.

Alongside the transformative element of making friends in your program—let’s be honest—establishing and maintaining friendships in this field is also a matter of sheer pragmatics. Finding success in academia—which is measured by things like gainful employment and publication—like many professions, is significantly impacted by who you know. In other words: opportunities accrue to those with robust social networks. I have now collaborated on three different book projects with two of the four friends I mentioned above and have met numerous people in this field as a result of my relationships with them (and vice versa).

(2) Start presenting your research and publishing as soon as possible. I am well aware that this piece of advice will not be as universally agreed-upon as my previous point. I conceded this when talking with the students and then said, “On this point, I’m talking specifically to the PhD students in New Testament / Early Christianity.” More and more, we see freshly-minted PhDs entering the job market with numerous professional presentations and a handful of publications already listed on their CVs. In a perfect world, students would focus on getting through their coursework, finishing comprehensive exams, and writing a solid dissertation before attempting to publish. (There’s obviously greater flexibility for publishing during your program if you’re in a European setting.) The problem is that the job market is saturated and therefore incredibly competitive; everyone is doing everything within reason to make their CVs as impressive and competitive as possible. This might not have been great advice 20 years ago, but it seems to me it’s a necessity in the current market.

(3) Enjoy yourself. Very few people have the opportunity to take several years out of their lives to read, study, and learn about a topic of great interest alongside other students and experts on the subject matter. As difficult as it can be at times, it can also be intoxicating….so try to enjoy yourselves.

(4) *What I didn’t say (but probably should have).* What I would have said if (a) I weren’t brand new and eager to make a positive first impression, and (b) I didn’t want to completely discourage the entire room, is that PhD studies require tremendous sacrifice over a period of years during which many people quite literally put their personal lives on hold. So, if there’s ANYTHING ELSE you think you might want to do other than this, press pause and go do it. If there’s enough uncertainty, you should think long and hard about what you’re about to do. At the end of your period of study and sacrifice, there’s no guarantee that a job will be waiting for you. In fact, the outlook for the academy here in the United States is presently, very grim, especially with nearly 51% of college faculty serving in a contingent capacity. In other words, you will expend a lot of energy over several (possibly many) years, potentially sacrificing a great deal, and it could all very well be just an exercise in personal enrichment.

I hope that advice was neither too extreme nor too grim, but reflective of the realities of pursuing a PhD in our field in 2016. I would love to hear what others might have added (or removed) from my list.

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