Advice to Future PhDs from 2 Unusual Graduating PhDs (Updated)

The Blog is the New CV & Twitter the New Business Card

Next week I will be attending my official graduation from The Fletcher School to receive my PhD diploma. It is—in a word—surreal. I’ve been working on my PhD for almost as long as I’ve known my good friend and colleague Chris Albon, which is to say, a long time. Chris is also a newly minted political science PhD and recently joined the FrontlineSMS team as the director of their Governance Project. Needless to say, our paths have crossed on many occasions over the years and we’ve had many long conversations about the scholar-practitioner path that we’ve taken. With graduation just a few days away, we thought we’d write-up this joint post to share our pearls of wisdom with future PhDs.

First: blog, blog, blog! The blog is the new CV. If you don’t exist dynamically online, then you’re not indexable on the web. And if you’re not indexable, then you’re not searchable or discoverable. You don’t exist! Blog-ergo-sum, simple as that. Chris and I have been blogging for years and this has enabled us to further our knowledge and credibility, not to mention our network of contacts. The blog allows you to build your own independent brand, not your advisor’s and not your program’s. This is critical. We’ve received consulting gigs and keynote invitations based on blog posts that we’ve published over the years. Do not underestimate the power of blogging for your professional (and yes, academic) career. In many ways, blogging is about getting credit for your ideas and to signal to others what you know and what your interests are.

Second: get on Twitter! Malcolm Gladwell is wrong: social media can build strong-tie bonds. Heck, social media is how I originally met Chris. If the blog is the new CV, then consider your Twitter account the new business card. Use Twitter to meet everyone, everywhere. Let people know you’ll be in London for a conference and don’t underestimate the synergies and serendipity that is the twittersphere. Chris currently follows around 1,200 people on Twitter, and he estimates that over the years he has met around half of them in person. That is a lot of contacts and, frankly, potential employers. Moreover, like blogging, tweeting enables you to connect to others and stay abreast of interesting new developments. Once upon a time, people used to email you interesting articles, conferences, etc. I personally got on Twitter several years ago when I realized that said emails were no longer making it to my inbox. This information was now being shared via Twitter instead. Like the blog, Twitter allows you to create and manage your own personal brand.

Third: decide whether you want an academic career, a professional career, or both. The path you chose will require you to take different turns to excel and get ahead. Chris and I chose the combined scholar-practitioner route, which we personally find the most rewarding, flexible and exciting path. If this route appeals to you, then be sure to use the research papers you write for your coursework as an excuse to interview individuals and organizations that you may want to work with in the future. This allows you to learn more about the organizations themselves and to actively network during your studies. Moreover, your resulting papers will be stronger and more interesting, not to mention policy-relevant. This means both your professional contacts who your interview and your professors will gain from your research. Indeed, being in graduate schools gives you more time to think and explore issues in depth—a luxury that many practitioners simply do not have. You get to delve into the literature and fuse those insights with those gained from your interviews and hands-on research. The result is a solid and unique research paper, both academically and policy-wise.

Fourth: Consult on projects outside of academia and be sure to pro-actively identify and attend interesting conferences. And yes, do so even if it means skipping a few classes and getting a lower grade. But do let your professor know why you may be absent. In my case, profs were always supportive of external engagement. In your consulting projects, be strategic and explore how you can combine deliverables with required research papers in your coursework. This will yield both stronger consulting deliverables and research papers. Be sure to blog about your consulting projects and the conference panels that you find most interesting. Going to conferences will set you apart and these events are often important fora for new ideas that have not yet made it to the peer-reviewed literature or even blogs.

Fifth: Teach, whether formally or informally, whether in person or online. The process of creating the ultimate syllabus on the topic you’re most interested in is highly informative and educational. Think about taking an independent study course to do this. Having teaching experience will also set you apart and be good fodder for blogging as well. Like conferences, teaching a course exposes you to others who you wouldn’t otherwise connect with and can thus be an excellent  source for new ideas and insights.

Sixth: Selecting a dissertation topic is probably one of the most important steps in the PhD process. We can’t stress enough how important it is to select a topic that you yourself are personally excited about. The topic you select should be one that you are most likely to remain passionate about for years to come. I actually changed dissertation topics after taking my comprehensive exams. And while this may have set me back a year, I have absolutely no regrets given how excited and I’ve been regarding the topic I wrote about. If you’re taking the scholar-practitioner route, then the topic should be one that figures in the media from time-to-time (preferably on a regular basis). Why? Because that ensures you’re working on something that’s relevant and of interest to wider community than just fellow academics. Plus, if you’re doing a PhD on a topic that is of interest to the media, this increases your chances of getting visibility, especially if you’re also blogging. This can be rewarding and a great way to remain excited about your topic. Indeed, be sure to use your blog to flesh out the concepts you’re exploring for your dissertation, especially vis-a-vis the literature review. This is a very productive way to get feedback.

Seventh: The right dissertation committee can make all the difference to the PhD experience. And “right” here can mean different things. Do you want strong hands-on support from your committee or your Chair in particular? Or are you someone who works best with minimal “interruption” from said committee? Obviously, you’ll want to select each committee member carefully. Avoid at all costs any faculty members with attitude problems and those who feel like they have something to prove. What you’re looking for is a real mentor, particularly for the Chair of your committee, and someone who not only approaches the PhD process as a partnership but who will also be your ally long after your PhD. In building your committee, think about diversity. If you’re taking the scholar-practitioner route, be sure to have a good mix of strong academics and policy folks. In other words, be strategic and deliberate. In our opinion, the best committee allows you to do your own thing. The worst shoehorn you into following their career path.

So there you go, some (hopefully) straightforward advice from Chris Albon and yours truly. Best of luck on your career path if you do go for a PhD!

Update: See this excellent article on Mashable: “Four Reasons Why Recruiters Should Stop Accepting Traditional Resumes” and switch to social media! Also, check out this important piece: “The Social Media Recruitment Survival Guide.” Another worthwhile article: “Why You Should Blog to Get Your Next Job.”

57 responses to “Advice to Future PhDs from 2 Unusual Graduating PhDs (Updated)

  1. Thanks. I definitely appreciate this advice. Gonna save it on my iPhone and post it on my office wall :-))

    Thanks again

  2. This is a truly helpful post. I’m planning to start a PhD in the next few years and follow the combined scholar-practitioner path, but I’ve found that most advice out there on PhD programs and career paths neglects the rising importance of social media and is overly focused on the academic, theoretical side of things at the expense of real-world policymaking.

  3. This is great advice! Appreciate you addressing the unique challenge for those considering the scholar-practitioner route as it is a topic seldom talked about (I never saw any reference to it in the numerous How-to PhD books & articles). Thanks so much!

  4. Dear Patrick,
    Amazing post, thank you! Although still in Master’s, I am also trying to follow the practitioner-scholar path but this is very uncommon here in Germany and therefor kind’a unpopular.
    You show how one can go in a non-linear, inspiring way, combining practicioner’s and academic knowledge. So true, what Lesley wrote.

    I am always wondering how you manage your day…doing scientific work, work as a practitioner and filtering and checking twitter and posting things in your blog…do you actually sleep?! What about a post with some advices re time-management? 🙂

    • Hi Svend, many thanks for your kind words! As for time management, good question! Chris and I took different paths in this respect (from a big picture perspective). While I’ve been working full time since my comprehensive exams in 2007, Chris chose to focus on his PhD and get involved in journalism from time to time. He ended up writing his dissertation in something crazy like 3-4 months, while I dragged it out for years–although the bulk was written up over the course of about 9 months. I personally found it challenging to balance both dissertation and work 50/50; it was more like 20% dissertation and 80% work distractions. That is why the pre-doc really helped, and also having a good mentor during this time who kept me moving forward, which is important. As for day-to-day time management, yes, I do sleep 🙂 and am increasingly trying to take weekends off, as they were intended! 😉 Oh, one strategy that has worked well for me is to schedule meetings and conference calls all on just 1 day a week so that I can actually get work done during the other 4. But I do continue to struggle with time management and distractions, so any advice you have would definitely be much appreciated!

  5. Hi Patrick,
    many thanks for the quick reply. wow, writing a dissertation in 3 to 4 months is truly @&#§$ crazy 🙂 Regarding all the things you’ve done in the last years I can imagine that work distractions took a lot of time in your case 😉
    Taking weekends off and scheduling certain issues on a certain time in the week sounds good. Will try that. I do that with checking emails just twice a the morning and evening. That keeps me away from getting distracted.
    Some parts of the book “7 habits of highly effective people” from Stephen Covey inspired me to change some things. The title sounds a littlebit strange. But it has a very nice chapter about time management in it.
    In the end, I think 3 things are important: discipline but don’t forget to enjoy life and to do things that I am really passionate about in all parts of life. Then, discipline is obsolete.
    However, balancing these parts is an Art (for me) and looking on the life of others who are performing these Art, in the working or private context, is a motivation.

    In this sense, thanks again 🙂

  6. Amazing post. Thank you! 🙂

  7. I agree. It was rather crazy. 🙂

  8. Sharon Hudson-Dean, Public Affairs Counselor, US Embassy Harare

    Great blog — thank you. We are sharing it widely with colleagues at US Embassies throughout Africa and Zimbabwean students studying in the U.S. Have you ever been a speaker for the State Department? I think you’d be a hit in Zim. Education is really important here and technology is just starting to take off, especially on mobile phones.

  9. Thanx a lot for such wise words of wisdom, really appreciated.

  10. Really useful advice, thanks guys! Good luck with your post-doctorate paths.

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  13. robertcolombo

    congratulations, Mabrouk! Patrick ,you deserve it! people like you make the difference!

    I see myself in the mirror in may ways…That’s why i quit and didn’t finish my PhD and at the Thesis proposal phases (All but Doctorate, Diplome d’Etudes Avancés, …)

    in 2007 I realized that basically some professors don’t care about your research. they care about some qualifications they get to have Phd candidates around to get more founding… So I keep my research for me and we will see in the future…So beware of the most important point not listed on the post.

    Be yourself!!!

    Not getting PhD before 30 is not the end of the world (you will not be Captain Kirk or fly the Enterprise in any case), However, maybe you’ll earn it in the future when you are ready and full of experience! That’s a good plan!

  14. This a a really interesting and helpful post. I came over from Dan Drezner’s FP blog.

    I think that a lot of your points can be applied to scholars at any level. I finished my undergraduate degree last year and decided to work for a while before my Masters. In South Africa it is customary for many students to do their Masters straight after their undergrad.

    I think working has been the right decision. I am making contacts in my interest areas. These will be useful when it comes to completing my Masters.

    • Hi Kate, thanks for your comments. Yes, I agree, this can be applied to scholars at multiple levels. I completely agree that working in between your BA/MA is a good idea, it will open doors. Keep up the good work!

  15. yes, a great post.i am one of those who are considering furthering my education and this post has just affirmed that I have not been wasting my time on Facebook and twitter. Lovely to know that I am on track with trends. It would be awesome if you could come to Zimbabwe and share on being a scholar-practitioner although I am a practitioner-scholar. lol. Do follow up with Sharon Hudson-Dean, I for one know several people who would love to attend a session where you will be sharing.

  16. hey could I ask how the consulting stuff came about? i am about to enter a phd in poli sci and want to interact with the policy (esp. ambassadorial) community, but don’t really know how to find those opportunities.

    • Hi Jacob, for consulting gigs, they mostly come about as a result of finding a niche area of expertise and networking actively in this area. In my case, I focused on the field of conflict early warning, read everything there was in this field, and tried to meet as many of the experts as well. They got to know me as a result, and, knowing I was doing a graduate degree and looking for opportunities, this sometimes resulted in mini projects or unpaid internships, and consulting projects as well. Hope this helps!

  17. Thanks Patrick. I have a question ( perhaps I am getting greedy asking for more advice!) I just completed my masters and have started consulting a bit, I am thinking about perhaps doing a PHd – how long should I wait and get more experience and what can a Phd afford me (professionally) that I don’t yet have. I studied Conflict Resolution/ Peacebuilding at Brandeis and working in Strategic Communications for Peace: the topic of my Masters Thesis.

    • Hi Monica, I’m not sure if there’s an ideal time between MA and PhD. Just know that it does get harder to get back into grad school over time (because of all kinds of other distractions in life). So it depends, but my suggestion (not knowing all the details), would be to head back to grad school earlier rather than later but to continue consulting at the same time. As for what a PhD can provide, depends what you’re looking for and what you want to get out of the program. Important to do your very best to get full funding & grants, etc so that you minimize getting into debt. For me, doing the PhD provided lots of credibility in the consulting world, i.e., having that strong institutional affiliation certainly opened doors. The new job I’m getting at the Qatar Foundation was only an option thanks to the PhD. Hope this helps!

      • Thanks, this actually does help alot. I have been told that a Phd is for those who want to have their head in the books and not for practitioners, but I think these are changing times where both are important to develop new practice based theories. I like your way of looking at this, thanks for your time – and yes it helps : )

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  19. #1 — blogging — for example is just flatly not true for political science generally. I’m a tenured prof myself, but keep an eye on the new PhD market. Of the people on the market this year who were hot enough commodities that their names came to my attention, the majority did not blog and had nothing on the web beyond a basic website with cv, links to their academic papers, maybe syllabi for their courses. That sort of presence is useful and important, but it’s still the academic publiations on the cv that matter. I see very little evidence that the field gives much value to blogs, however, either directly in evaluating candidates, or indirectly (i.e., if people who blog get advantages that lead to them getting better publications).

    I can actually see more use for Twitter, in that networking within a small group of political scientists provides far more bang for the buck than broadcasting a blog to the world, and maybe the “hey people, I’ll be in London next month” could lead to some connections that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

    Please be aware that the rest of their advice is decent for those who want to be practicioners, but not for those who want traditional academic careers. Media attention to your topic, consulting experience, etc are not what counts there.

  20. Hey Pat and Chris – this is the new wave of post graduation! As crisis that struck our world these days have become global – a network of global solutions becomes imminent – Scholars need extend their networks to give a broader solution – and the bridge as been the “social media”. With love from Nigeria – Congratulations 🙂

  21. Came in via Dan Drezner’s blog. I do have some criticisms of your list – they’re posted in the comments of his blog – but I love your enthusiasm and am thrilled things have worked out for you.

    Blogging is vastly underestimated and appreciated, and I really should look around your blog. I wonder if you have something up about the many graduate students who don’t blog, who bury themselves in the books and arcana? I remember being mocked for blogging just as people were writing me, thanking me for introducing them to Maimonides or Xenophon.

  22. I am truly inspired by this wonderful peace!You guys have no idea how your blogs are helping a lot of people like myself!Wish to meet you in person

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  25. This is very interesting and helpful. I am starting my PhD in September 2013, I will certainly follow your advice. It’s wonderful and timely. Thanks a million times.

  26. Thanks Patrick for the wise words, particularly on the 3 options of academia, practice or both. Your submissions lend great credence to the synergy of academia and practice, particularly now as I study my PhD and also work at my job, and some colleagues in either field criticise me for “leading a double life”! You just helped me to appreciate this collaborative lifestyle even better. Many thanks.

  27. True words thanks for sharing guys and congratulations. Having a doctorate even when on full time studies here (Nigeria) can be worse than a horror movie….

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  32. Good advice for more than just the PhD world! Am sharing with my fire service colleagues here in Montgomery County, MD.

  33. your article was very informative. Its a step by step guide indeed. However, it would be more informative if you could stress how to publicise your blog too. Why should anyone read it or even access it when you have no credentials? It actually is a Catch 22 situation. You need a blog to gain credibility but you need credibility to have people read your blogs too.
    Would love to hear your thoughts on this aspect.

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  36. Hi Patrick & Chris,
    Great article! Thanks for writing this. I plan to repost on my blog. In 2011, I too did a 4m disstn write up bc I wanted just to be done. The following yrs I was unsure of my career path, albeit I worked as an academic advisor and started my family. After answering many questions from aspiring grad students, I realized I had a knowledge well on prepping for grad school, and last year started I’m sure you are both well into your careers at this point. And, do either of you still write/reflect on your grad school experience? If you have further thoughts to share it’s be great to chat. Thanks!

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