The Chemist: The Road to Graduation

Updated: May 3, 2020

Hey Everyone! I hope you all are doing your best to stay safe and healthy during these times. I know we’ve been home for a while but try to hang in there. This week, we’re talking about how we advance in our careers and for me that means heading towards graduation, so here’s how I’ve been doing that.

Set realistic goals

As a PhD student, your degree is mainly based off your research so you have to make sure you’re progressing. Now depending on your lab’s dynamic you may or may not have others that can help hold you accountable, but either way you have to be self aware. Take time and plan your experiments, think about what you need to finish projects, set a REALISTIC timeline to get it done, and start writing sooner than later. The key to graduating in a “timely” fashion is making sure you’re getting your work done in a “timely” fashion. Some projects take longer than others, which is expected, but you have to be diligent and disciplined to work at a healthy pace. You don’t want to just work with no end it sight, set goals, give yourself something to work towards, and once you’ve hit that goal do it again.

Constant (read efficient) communication

This is so important. You have to have a target date in mind for graduation, but you also have to make sure your advisor knows that. After candidacy was when I really had to start thinking about when I wanted to leave and once I had a date in mind, I started working towards it. But this only works if you talk to your advisor as well. They also need to be on board with your plan so you have to make sure you’re communicating with them, talking about your projects, getting your papers published, figuring out what they are expecting you to get done before you leave, etc. At the end of the day, yes you’d want to be able to freely have these conversations with them but sometimes that’s hard. Sometimes they don’t offer a space where you’re comfortable speaking up for yourself or maybe you have a committee member that you’re more comfortable with instead. My advice is to make sure you have a solid foundation before having these talks. These relationships are give and take, you have to put in some work to get what you need, so approach it as such. Update your CV and resume, have a good case for yourself that’s more than “well I’m supposed to be at this point by now” or “this person is doing this now so I should be to”. PhD's are individual degrees, the only thing you do with other people is take classes, the rest is up to you. If you’re putting in the work, be confident in that and lead with it. Talk to your mentors to see how they’d suggest handling your advisor as well. The goal is to keep communicating and checking in with them. You want to make sure they know where your head is and you want to know what their expectations are, that way you can work towards getting out of there.

Be proactive

There’s going to come a point where your advisor isn’t going to hold your hand anymore because they trust you to be able to self manage. It is at that point that you want to be extremely proactive. I want to note here that this works best if your advisor has cultivated a space where they encourage this. All advisors are not created equally, this is just my personal experience. Have an idea for a new project? Do the leg work, work out the details and how it fits in your thesis before you pitch it to them. Want a fellowship? Compile a list of the things you need to do and the things they need to do, with deadlines, and then set a meeting to talk to them about it. Want to present at a conference? Write up a draft abstract for the project you want to present and talk to them. My advisor likes to see that I can think for myself and go after the things I want. We’re at the point now where things aren’t just *he’s telling me to do something so I do it*, we discuss them together, I can throw out other ideas, and he lets me run with it. He’s confident I can create a story with my work and that it’s going to be good when I show him what I’ve done.

Have an exit strategy

This is where I am currently. We’ve agreed on an intended date (ahhhhhh) and I have an idea of what I want to do post graduation. He knows, and I’m sure we’re going to talk about it more with and without my committee members, but this is on me now. I control (the bulk of) my exit strategy. I know his expectations and now I have to do my best and motivate myself to finish these last few things. Graduating and not having something lined up is something I personally don’t want to do so this summer and fall I’m going into overdrive and find a job. I also have to write. Your exit strategy doesn’t have to be planned to a T, mine sure isn’t. I just know the type of work I want to do and I’m working on making the appropriate connections. It also includes a lot of writing, which requires discipline. You need an idea, what have you done over your PhD journey, and what do you want to do now. Start there. Once you have that, think about what you need to get there. Is there a new skill you need, prior experience, do you know someone that does that type of work, could you meet someone, does your advisor have connections? These are all questions you should use to frame your exit strategy and in your last year/year and a half your goal is to fill in the blanks.

I’ll keep you all posted on my last leg of my PhD race and feel free to ask me about it too! What are some ways you’re advancing your career? Let us know on social media.

- The Chemist