Wired Pursuits

In pursuit of a PhD: Year 1 – lessons learned.

Posted on: June 20, 2010

Just finished my first year as a PhD student at Penn State. Being a student is quite a different lifestyle than running a business. In some ways more hectic, but in many less so because I can focus mostly on my studies. So with one year down (and at least 2 to go) here are some lessons learned for anyone trying to jump back in to academia:

  • Re-train your brain. Academic literature is quite “thick.” It’s full of multi-syllabic words (I really believe that some are totally made up). Anyway, it took about 3 months to switch gears in terms of being able to quickly read and comprehend academic literature. Reading a lot before I came was key to being able to dive in once classes started and not have to reread the same sentence 3 times.
  • Understand the structure of academic papers. Learning how to quickly pull out the salient points of a research article is a very helpful skill especially when you have 100’s of pages to read each week, are writing lit reviews, or are looking for articles to support your current research projects. Abstracts, lit review sections, and discussions can be scanned first to see if the paper is relevant. If so, then go back and read the details.
  • Write it down or you’ll forget it. OK, no age jokes. But seriously, once you turn on your brain again, you’ll have a million thoughts and ideas related to your field of research. Keep a notebook or electronic file of ideas and write them down as you have them. When you’re writing papers or looking for inspiration for research topics, going back and re-reading your thoughts is not only helpful in completing assignments, but it is also a reminder of what you’re really interested in.
  • Don’t forget why you’re here. At times I feel like a moth in a light bulb factory – I’m attracted to everything. Every topic seems amazing. You can easily get distracted. Take the first year to explore different things, but towards the end of the year, start honing in on what you need to do to accomplish your end-goal (and what you’re really interested in as mentioned above).
  • Talk to everyone. As a CEO I hesitated to ask other’s advice and learn from those who had “been there, done that.” Taking the time to talk to both students and faculty is a great way to open up the possibilities for potential research and learning opportunities. You’ll never know if the person sitting next to you in class is a wiz at quantitative analysis if you don’t strike up a conversation.
  • Age can be an asset. Having years of experience in corporate America has been a great asset. If you think about school like it’s one great big client project, you’ll be more organized and less stressed.
  • Beer, summer, and friends are still hard to resist. Passing a bar on a warm sunny day with a ton of people sitting outside and drinking beer is tempting no matter what age you are.  Sometimes you just have to give in and join in.
  • There will be days you’ll wonder if you made a mistake. When you make a huge lifestyle change, some days you’ll wake up in the middle of the night and think, “What have I done?” In talking with others who’ve made lifestyle changes later in life, it’s helpful to hear that this is to be expected. Just take 2 deep breaths and let it pass (or go get a beer).
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