Advice for New PhD Students

I’m currently wrapping up my PhD in computer science, getting ready to enter the next season of my life and career. Looking back on the last five years, I’m very happy with how things have worked out. There are some things that I wish I had done differently, but I learned some valuable lessons along the way. The following is my advice for future PhD students, under my advisement or otherwise. I write from a Christian perspective, but several of these points may apply to non-believers. I’m also writing about what worked for me, so your mileage may vary. I may update this list over the years as I gain experience as an advisor.

  1. Your research and career are not your life
    • Don’t pin your worth on the success or failure of your research. We are children of God, and He calls us by name. While you can glorify God through the uncovering of new knowledge, all your material work will fade. The relationships you foster and the disciples you make here on Earth are what will last.
  2. Your PhD work is a job, so treat it like one
    • As much as possible, try not to work on weekends. Try to keep a consistent 9-5 schedule. Sure, working 80 hours per week for 5 years may result in better research output and better job placement. But it will absolutely crush you, and there’s the law of diminishing returns. It’s not worth it. See point #1.
  3. Be involved in your local church
    • Participate in a small group. Serve in some way. Be a leader, if you are called to that.
  4. Have friends that aren’t grad students
    • You can still have friends that are grad students, of course, but it can be easy for you to get caught up in the academic bubble. Seek out people with “real-world” jobs. They won’t want to talk about academia, so you’ll have to find other things to talk about. That’s a good thing. It helps keep you grounded in reality, more pleasant to be around, and better equipped to deal with stress.
  5. Live away from campus, and only go to campus when necessary
    • You’re not a college student anymore, so you won’t really be interested in (or have the time for) all the hubbub of on-campus activities that the undergraduates engage in. It can be easy to get stuck in the college bubble if you live close to campus. Live a decent drive away, if you can, and have a physical separation between your work and personal life.
  6. Have a designated workspace
    • If you’re most productive in the quiet of your home, work there. If you need to be in your lab or office on campus, work there. If you get energized by being in a coffee shop, work there.
  7. Have hobbies
    • Have something productive and fun to do that is not work.
  8. Try to start a family
    • I could have a broader discussion about the problems with modern dating, but just know that it will take considerable effort. If you want to get married, you have to make that a priority and work towards it. Put yourself in positions where you can meet a potential spouse (see point #3). Date intentionally. Date with purity. Date only for the amount of time that it takes to determine if this is a person you want to marry. Then get engaged and get married as soon as possible.
    • Having a spouse can change your entire outlook on your work and career. It’s no longer just about you. You are now forced (for the better) to allocate time for another person. You can save on rent and expenses with a double income, especially if your spouse isn’t a student, freeing you up to invest your meager graduate stipend. Life becomes much more fun and fulfilling when you’re serving others, and marriage locks in that service for life. If you don’t find that person, however, don’t fret. Serve your church, your neighbors, and your friends.
  9. Go on adventures
    • Ideally, you have a lot of flexibility with your time during grad school, and multiple opportunities to travel for research conferences. Take advantage of those! Travel as much as you can and explore the world.
  10. Don’t be afraid of your advisor
    • A quick Google search will reveal many advisor horror stories spanning verbal abuse, impossible expectations, hypocrisy, and the like. It can be easy to feel like your advisor holds a lot of power over you. In reality, I think it’s less one-sided, especially in a small lab. Your advisor expects you to produce good research, and he or she can make or break your degree progress on that basis. At the same time, Your advisor depends on you for that research, to some extent. If your advisor makes life difficult for you, then you won’t produce good work, which means it will be harder for him or her to secure grant funding in the future. If you have a really bad advisor, you’ll probably figure that out early on in your PhD journey. If you find yourself in that situation, you should change advisors. That might mean a slight delay in your progress, but it will be worth it for your mental wellbeing.
    • Be honest with your advisor, even if critical. If I am ever overly difficult towards my students, hard to reach, tardy, etc., I hope that they will bring their concerns to me and we can have an honest conversation. I want to be open to criticism, because I know I have many flaws. We should always be trying to improve ourselves.
  11. Don’t compare yourself to your peers
    • You will almost certainly get imposter syndrome, but you need to fight against that. Avoid the temptation to compare your research results (number of publications or citations, attention, popularity) to others, especially if their research is in a different topic. If you are making the above points a priority, then there are definitely other students who are working harder and longer hours than you to achieve that notoriety. Others benefit from access to better academic resources and connections. Still others simply get lucky. It’s okay to not be one of those people. You need to decide for yourself what you value and set reasonable goals for yourself.