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Making big decisions: autonomy in the life of a PhD student

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1 

Happy January! For many of us, January is a time for goal-setting and new year’s resolutions. Of course, this can’t be done without some reflection on the past year (which I did in my last blog) and on the nature of upcoming tasks.

When I’m not setting big academic goals, you might find me taking a winter hike with my sister!

As a PhD student, I have a newfound autonomy over my education, which has been both a blessing and a curse. For example, I have free rein in choosing my next topic of study. However, I carry more responsibility and must set my own objectives if I am to complete this degree in a timely manner. As such, long-term goal setting is a skill that all PhD students are expected to acquire. Right now, I have two main academic goals that (I hope!) are achievable in the next several months.

  1. Choosing a Dissertation Topic

Even though I have spent the last several months familiarizing myself with the current literature in my area of study, I have yet to formulate a scientific question that I can test empirically (i.e., a dissertation topic). Right now, I am unsure of how large I must make the scope of my chosen topic—but I know that’s a normal experience for a graduate student. The topic must be broad enough to elicit 3-4 years’ worth of research, yet specific enough that 3-4 years’ worth of research will be sufficient to draw meaningful conclusions. It is easy to feel overwhelmed working within these constraints, so it’s important to have a step-by-step plan in place. It is much easier to face these sorts of seemingly insurmountable tasks when you break them down into a series of achievable goals:

  1. For instance, the first step in narrowing down a topic is reading the literature and taking note of the topics I am interested in.
  2. After organizing these topics into a list, I need to do a more specific literature search on each of those areas to see where the gaps in knowledge lie. Only then will I have a better understanding of what is missing from the current literature.
  3. After this, I must decide which areas of research I find the most interesting.
  4. Next, I will present this list of topics to my supervisor.

I am presently in the middle of step #1. I hope to be finished with this first step by the end of January and will keep you updated on my progress throughout the next few months!

  1. Preparing for the Comprehensive Exam

Additionally, I will be writing my comprehensive exam in May or June of this year. The structure of this PhD exam varies across different disciplines, but usually entails both a written and oral component. In the cognitive neuroscience stream of psychology, we are given one month to write four 20-page papers (excluding references, if you were curious), and then we sit a three-hour oral defense centred around those papers. I expect this to be the most cognitively demanding month of my life. This exam is designed to push you to your limit. Preparation for this assessment can be difficult because you are not given your essay topics prior to the exam. Thus, the best way for me to prepare is to continue to review the current literature in my field. Luckily, I am well versed in the literature because I am trying to choose a dissertation topic even as I prep for comps.

As you can probably tell, goal setting will likely be a big theme for me this semester. It is easy to set goals, but the real test is in staying accountable to those goals, especially when they are self-appointed. With great power (i.e., freedom over my research) comes great responsibility! It is thus a good thing that I am a “planner” by nature. As such, I am looking forward to establishing the direction of my research project(s). If you have any big goals you want to tackle this year, I encourage you to try and create a step-by-step plan like mine. Hopefully, it will provide you with the same sense of satisfaction and motivation as it has me!

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