Your advisor will not let you defend your document until
he/she thinks it is sufficiently polished and if he/she
is relatively sure that you will pass. Hence, when your
advisor agrees to a defense date he/she believes that you
Nothing really prepares you for a thesis, proposal, or
thesis/dissertation defense other than seeing the process
unfold for yourself. These hearings are sometimes open
to the public. Your attendance at a defense hearing should
be based on the tradition in your department. Even if it
says in the graduate student handbook that the defense
hearing is “open to the public” but no one
in your department ever attends another student’s
defense it is wise not to break this tradition. The repercussions
will not be pretty.
If you can’t attend another student’s defense
ask fellow graduate students about their “hazing” process.
You should focus on questions such as these:
- How did it start?
- How did the advisor facilitate the process?
- How difficult were the questions?
- How did you know it was over?
- Did anyone else other than committee members attend
Even if you get top scores on your teaching evaluations
as a teaching assistant, understand that the PhD is a research
degree. Many professors believe that teaching is a task
that can be learned over time with practice. As a professor
your tenure and promotion will be based primarily on your publishing record.
To prepare you for the "publish-or-perish" academic environment, the faculty
focuses primarily on developing your research skills.
Hence, the faculty values research and the apprenticeship
model above everything else. They believe that the majority
of your time in graduate school should be spent conducting
research. As such, securing a fellowship or traineeship/research
assistantship is better than a teaching assistantship.
However, securing a teaching assistantship is better than
not securing any funding at all.
As a PhD student in a research program, participation
in campus luncheon seminars is required. Presenting your
research findings at a brown bag seminar gives you a chance
to practice your presentation skills in a relaxed atmosphere
before you ever have to teach a class, give a job talk,
present at a national conference, or defend your proposal,
Master’s thesis, or dissertation. Honing your presentation
skills will help to increase your self-confidence in public
speaking. Presenting your research findings on and off
campus establishes your expertise and enhances your professional
In graduate school there is often a generation gap between
students, faculty, and professional staff. The faculty
and staff established the culture in the department with
the expectation that when students are admitted they will
adjust their behaviors accordingly. Often the faculty and
staff provide a graduate student orientation in hopes of
answering many questions before they become issues later
on. They do not expect to debate the rules and traditions
of the department.
Some of us are use to debating with our parents, friends,
or colleagues to win them over to our way of thinking.
While some individuals can appreciate and support this
type of interaction, understand that others do not. You
are expected to “adhere to” not change, the
strict deadlines, rules and regulations of graduate school
even if you do not agree with them. Spending an exorbitant
amount of time trying to understand the “hoops” and “hurdles” is
time that can be better spent jumping over them. Your task
from the first day of graduate school is to figure out
how many “hoops" and "hurdles” there
are and start jumping. The sooner you learn this unwritten
rule the better.
Don’t underestimate or undervalue the role of the
administrative staff in your department. These professionals
like your advisor and committee members can either hinder
or propel your educational progress.
They are responsible for managing students’ records,
paperwork and information. They provide timely information
on all department deadlines, rules, regulations and eligibility
requirements with respect to course requirements, course
scheduling, qualifying/preliminary exams, funding opportunities,
and the necessary signatures. They can or cannot remind
you of upcoming deadlines. It is in your best interest
to manage these relationships in a positive way.
For example, when my advisor was leaving for a year long
absence, I made sure that I checked with the graduate secretary
to see if there were any documents that needed his signature
before he left. Be sure to find creative ways to say thank
you to the administrative staff for all that they do.
| 8. Securing Funding For Historically Disadvantaged
And Underrepresented Groups
I was financially able to attend
graduate school because a senior researcher at my institution
had a $5 million NIH research grant. More importantly,
he was willing as the principal investigator to apply
for a NIH
Research Supplement For Underrepresented Minorities to
support me for six years. The addition of a minority student
to his project did not cost him any funds from the original
grant. Instead he gained additional funds. These additional
funds were part of monies set aside by funding institutions
such as NIH to support researchers who are members of underrepresented
minority groups. Supplements are also available for the
following groups: persons with disabilities, persons seeking
research careers or re-entering research, and minorities
According to the website Research
the best first step to obtaining independent research
funding often is to receive training and supervision
from an experienced senior researcher. They suggest that
NIH Research Supplements for Underrepresented Minorities
offer an excellent opportunity to receive grant funds
to work on an existing NIH grant with a senior researcher
in a particular area of interest. In other words, if
you are looking to obtain research funding and have no
idea where to start, start with the above website and
a faculty member who has a federal grant.
| 9. Visibility and the Competition for Scarce Resources
Unlike the undergraduate experience,
graduate school involves competition for scarce resources
such as: (a) research funds; (b) office space; (c) fellowships;
(d) co-authorships; (e) time with faculty members; and
(f) information. Lack of information and visibility are
two of the key issues that put many students at a disadvantage.
When the faculty are making decisions about these scarce
resources they need to know who you are. If you have
not been on campus and have not participated in any department
events your name will not be familiar to the people
who are parceling out these resources. To stay informed
about these decisions and to put your name at the top of
the list, visibility is necessary to be considered an active
member of the department’s academic community.
| 10. By Any Means Necessary, Be Prepared To Fully Participate In Your Class Discussions
In graduate school expect your
workload to be substantially more than any one person
could complete. The reading requirements can be sometimes
overwhelming and burdensome. In addition to the required
readings, in the syllabus you might find supplemental (recommended)
readings as well. Don’t waste time complaining
to the professor who assigned the reading; he/she fully
expects you to come to class prepared to discuss the
readings. Find creative ways to cover the reading materials
for the course.
For example, in graduate school I was able to familiarize
myself with all the readings by forming and
participating in a class study group. We would divide
the readings amongst ourselves and provide a summary
for each reading. The summary included the abstract,
the research question, the methodology, limitations,
and the findings. Using this method allowed all of us
to participate in the class discussion. In class it is
always better to make any contribution on something than
not to participate at all. Sometimes class participation
involves making a preemptive strike; raise your hand
and volunteer an answer on something that you are prepared
for before you are called upon to answer a question you
don't know the correct answer to.
Email Question of the Month:
About the Author: As a single mother, professor
Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D., completed three masters' degrees
and a PhD. Her motto is a Good Thesis/Dissertation is a Done
Thesis/Dissertation. She is the creator of a new innovative interactive
resource tool on CD--TADA! Thesis and Accomplished. To learn
more and sign up for her FREE tips and teleclasses, contact us at
Privacy is our policy. TADA™ Finishline does not
give out or sell our subscribers' names or e-mail addresses.