I have come full circle: I began my academic journey as a doctoral student, and now almost 20 years later I am Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at Ryerson University. There is no guidebook on how to be a successful doctoral student, nor one for Associate Dean for that matter. Much of what works in academia is trial and error. But there are some general principles to be learned, and as the first person in my family to graduate with a doctorate, there is wisdom I sometimes wish I could have imparted on my younger self.
I know I did several things right: I studied hard, and was completely devoted to my work and thesis. In addition to my thesis work, I conducted mathematical research not directly related to my thesis, and spoke at every seminar and conference that was available. I completed my doctoral studies in under 4 years and marketed myself on the academic job market. I attended workshops on teaching, and taught courses, both at my home institution of Waterloo, and at nearby Wilfrid Laurier.
There are things I know I could have improved. I could have enjoyed the process more. I could have networked more with students and faculty, and taken a broader swath of courses in different fields of mathematics. I switched supervisors mid-doctorate, and although it was the right decision, I wished I had made a more informed choice of supervisor from the outset.
In the end, we are more than the sum of our parts. All of my successes and failures led to where I am now, so I am grateful for all my experiences. I am happy to now support graduate education in all of its facets at Ryerson, and help make a difference in the experiences of our students.
What advice would I give my younger doctoral candidate self? More generally, to anyone working on a doctorate? Here are some tips.
1) Have confidence in yourself and your abilities.
2) You are your own individual: follow your passion without fear.
3) Sharpen your essential skills like networking, resume building, and interviewing.
4) Keep active. Exercise is a important to your well being, both mentally, physically, and emotionally.
5) Listen and learn from those you want to emulate: if you are looking for a faculty position, talk to assistant professors and learn how they landed their job. If you are destined for non-academic work, then research the job market, and explore internships.
6) Treat your supervisor with respect, and expect the same from them.
7) A doctorate is not typically the greatest thing you will achieve in your career, even though at the time it may feel so. There are many more mountains to climb, and whatever your ultimate profession, you will face challenges and conquer them.
8) Love your work. If you love what you do, then it will not seem like work.
9) Remember to say thank you to your support network: family and friends. With their help, everything will be easier.
10) Things will get better. As you progress in your career, you will publish more, you will teach more, and you will achieve your goals. It is slow climb, but it is immensely worth it.
I found a quote in a book on mathematical logic during my doctorate, and the simple wisdom in it changed my point of view:
For all x, there exists a y, where x is a problem, and y is a solution.
In other words, every problem has a solution…even if it is tough to find or takes years to validate.
As I tell my own graduate students now: you can achieve whatever you want if you work for it. Every problem has a solution, so roll up your sleeves, and go find it!