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Advice for Ph.D. Students

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Beverly A. Cigler
November 24, 2019

The School of Public Affairs (SPA) at Penn State Harrisburg celebrated the 30th anniversary of its Ph.D. in Public Administration program during fall semester 2019. I participated on a panel of current and retired faculty and graduates who are now faculty members elsewhere. We commented on four topics:

  1. An assessment of the current state of public administration and public policy.
  2. The current state of graduate education in our fields and where we see this state moving in the future.
  3. An assessment of the SPA’s Ph.D. program and suggestions for the future.
  4. Advice for the program’s current Ph.D. students.

This essay offers the comments I made on the last topic—advice for current Ph.D. students. Positive feedback was made during and after the session so I’d like to share the thoughts in bullet form.

  • Traits for success in achieving the Ph.D., based on my experiences chairing 14 dissertations and serving on other Ph.D. committees include; intellectual curiosity; self-drive; self-reflection; self-discipline; perseverance; time management skills; asking questions; originality; creativity; grasping the big picture; outstanding writing and other communication skills; the ability to superskim and competence in Evernote, Dropbox, Mendeley, Wunderlist, and/or other referencing aids.
  • Develop a healthy work/life balance to achieve a sound mind in a healthy body.
  • Understand that the most important decision you will make in life doesn’t relate to picking a research topic; instead, it involves who will be your spouse or life partner.
  • Read, read, read, because it’s the last time in your life with so much time (believe it or not).
  • Read widely outside your very specific interests as nearly everything crosses boundaries and requires agile thinking and response.
  • Read literature reviews, gray literature, textbooks that provide broad overviews of topics areas. Also read journal guidelines for authors that help you become a better writer.
  • Find a mentor—probably two, because one might leave the university.
  • Welcome and cultivate peer support.
  • Networking is important so give presentations at every opportunity.
  • Know the professional associations in your field and join what’s appropriate for you.
  • Understand the difference between criticism and a critique.
  • Collaborate, especially with other disciplines (political science, sociology, economics, planning engineering, etc.).
  • The biggest problem with a dissertation is not selecting an important research question.
  • Grades are much less important than a focus on the creation of new knowledge through research.
  • The dissertation is a beginning; your impact should be over a lifetime. The best dissertation is a completed dissertation.
  • Write every day. Present research in many venues, understanding that the best paper might be a finished paper.
  • If you have something to offer, attempt to publish. It’s likely that 10% of those publishing get 90% of the citations, so try to major journals.
  • If you want to be a professor, be a generalist with a specialty or two as you will likely teach core courses, not just your major interests.
  • You can’t get enough theory.
  • Practice often is ahead of good theory so don’t stay in the, “Ivory tower.”

Author: Bev Cigler, a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, was the 2015 recipient of NASPAA’s Leslie A. Whittington Award for Excellence in Teaching.

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One Response to Advice for Ph.D. Students

  1. Burden Lundgren Reply

    November 25, 2019 at 9:51 pm

    The list of traits for PhD students seems overwhelming, but I really liked two of the suggestions. If fact, I’ve already used them. I was overwhelmed by the idea of starting my dissertation. It had to be perfect, right? Wrong. I was able to get started when I realized that the dissertation was a training exercise. Not only would it not be the best piece I ever would write, it shouldn’t be. The second idea that got the dissertation written was what I named the shark theory. Just as a shark must keep swimming to live, I “swam” every day – meaning I wrote every day. Waiting for large blocks of writing time was an exercise in futility. Progress came a page at a time – sometimes a sentence at a time – and it got done.

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