Doctoral Students

You are already a knowledgeable person. You have your bachelor’s and your master’s degrees behind you, and there is one more degree to go before you are definitively no longer a student. In fact, most people who know you already think of you as an academic, and many of your colleagues already think of you as a peer. It’s important to understand that you were selected for the doctoral position and this wasn’t done lightly. While you of course still have much to learn, you already know what learning is, and what knowing is, and there is much you already know. You’ve made up your mind about a great many things in the past, and you’re going to change your mind about a great many of them before you graduate. You’ll become a better conversationalist in your research area and you’ll become a better writer. But you are already good at these things, better than most. Like any other student, at any other level, you must keep in mind that you are building on this strength. You are extending abilities you already have. You are not filling in a void.

You’re an intellectual. Your core competences are your ability to make up your mind, to speak your mind, and to write it down. You want to develop them further in a disciplined way, getting a little better every day. For many years, I’ve been teaching scholars something I call Writing Process Reengineering, which you’re welcome to try yourself. I’m also happy to help you set up a routine of your own. Either way, think of your academic year as four eight-week periods: 6 hours per day, 5 days per week, 32 weeks, 160 days, 720 hours per year. The other 20 weeks aren’t all fun and games, of course. But you should give yourself a loser discipline for a few weeks on a regular basis. What’s important is that, at the end of each of those 160 days, you practice making up your mind about something. Write down a sentence you think is true and mean it. And, at the beginning of the next, write a good, clean, coherent paragraph that supports, elaborates or defends it. By this means you’re building your strength as a writer and as a thinker. It’s lonely work at times, but it’s important work. Learn to enjoy it.

But don’t let it be all you do. Scholarship is an ongoing conversation; research is always shaped by a discourse. You have to learn how to participate in it. You’ll be talking to your fellow doctoral students, to your supervisors, and your colleagues in the department. And you’ll be meeting people at conferences and seminars. Notice that you’re becoming better and better at talking to particular kinds of people about particular kinds of things. You’re understanding the questions, you’re getting the jokes, and you’re respecting the boundaries of good taste. You’re becoming part of the community, finding your place in it. What Virginia Woolf meant when she talked about “the loneliness that is the truth of things” may be perfectly correct in a novelist’s world, but scholarship is about a truth that can be shared with others in conversation. In fact, you’re in the business of exposing ideas to criticism, your own ideas and those of others. You are going to have to get a great many things wrong before you get them right and the only way to do this is to have an inquiring mind, a sense of humor, and a thick skin. The trick is to find out who your peers are and talk to them. Often.