Progress as a Doctoral Student

One of the challenges of an academic career is the lack of immediate feedback. The knowledge work we are training for–publishing research papers, teaching students–requires long periods of effort with little concrete feedback. Outside of coursework, a doctoral program is similar. And, even then, progress in completing courses is only a small part of progress toward becoming an academic.

I found a helpful article on this subject at the Phd Resources page of AISWorld last week. The article by Prof. Varun Grover first appeared in Decision Line and is entitled “How Am I Doing? Checklist for Doctoral Students at Various Stages of Their Program.”

I like that he includes both a conceptual framework as well as a specific checklist.

“In my observations, students go through four stages, roughly reflecting the four years of typical doctoral study: Exploration, Engagement, Consolidation, and Entry.” (p. 24)

Did you just trying to figure out what stage you’re at, even before hearing the definitions? Maybe the definitions will help. 🙂

“The Stage of Exploration epitomizes first-year students. Despite the plethora of voluminous research many students do when searching for the right program, it doesn’t really hit them until they are actually in the program. Here’s when they realize that doctoral study is different–really different–from, say, a professional master’s program.” (p. 24)

Oh, yeah, doctoral studies are very different! [Hmmm… there’s a topic for another post.] Next stage:

“The Stage of Engagement is further up the value-added axis. This is exploration with a purpose.” (p. 25)

It’s a short article, so he doesn’t have much space to talk about the challenge of transitioning between stages. Narrowing your focus, committing to specific topics, projects, and collaborators can be a tough transition (it’s like learning to say, “no”!?). On to stage 3:

“The Stage of Consolidation is when ideas crystallize. Students in this stage are engaged tighter. They are committed. The institution is committed–irreversibly if the students pass their comprehensive examinations. By now, students should have a very good sense of their field and its structure, and the ability to position research within that structure.” (p. 25)

Whew! That’s a lot to accomplish. Then what happens?

Finally, the Stage of Entry is the final thrust before the student formally enters the profession as a peer. This could be a particularly challenging stage as the student has one foot in the home institution and another foot trying to move outside it.

Yes, welll, there’s probably a lot of other reasons why it’s a particularly challenging stage, too. Still, that’s as good a conceptual framework of a doctoral student goes through as I’ve seen anywhere.

What do you think? Does it track with what you’ve experienced thus far? How does it match up with the most successful students in your dept?

Equally valuable is his lengthy checklist for progress in each stage (p. 25-26). Definitely check it out.

I had some minor quibbles in how it compares to expectations of progress (my own and my school’s) at my program. I’m at a research-oriented business school and am expected to seek placement at an equally research-intensive position. Most students take more than 4 years to graduate, so his timeline is ambitious in that regard. On the other hand, many students begin participating in conferences and reviewing activities earlier than he suggests. But, those are relatively minor issues.

How does his checklist compare to your school’s expectations? Does your program provide any written expectations for year-by-year accomplishments? Or, do you to just figure it out? It’s only been in the last year or so that my program made a written checklist of sorts, is there any sort of trend in that direction?


7 Responses

  1. This tracks pretty much exactly with my experience, save for 1 difference – and I think you hit on it with the last paragraph. The school’s expectations is that my 4 years would follow exactly like that, but now I am in a fifth year. What happened? Once you hit the consolidation year you start becoming valuable and you want to apply yourself in a rewarding manner. So you work on some conference and journal papers, you get distracted, and the dissertation proposal doesn’t get done. Then your timeline gets pushed back, etc., etc.

    I’m not saying it’s bad to branch out, but it does make it hard to graduate in 4 years flat.

    The phrase “given enough rope to hang yourself” comes to mind…

  2. I have been though the first three stages and trying to find my footing in the last stage now. Every stage that I went through seemed to be the most difficult one at that time. Through every single one of those stages, I told myself “If I only survive this one, rest everything would be so much easier.” Well, at least I am getting slightly wiser (or so I hope :)) and not assuming that this stage that I am in right now is the most challenging one even though it seems so at the moment.

    Also about checklists, they all should be taken with dollops of salt (and my school doesn’t have them so I may not be the best judge of them). Every person needs their own mental checklist thats tailored to their own school/program and priorities. And checklists need to be flexible because despite their helpfulness, they can also be constraining.

    Whew! those are my two cents..

  3. I feel like there should be a stage between Consolidation and Entry, where you’re kind of on your own without structure (well beyond comps), but too far from Entry to think about making that transition. And ours is supposedly a 5-year program, but most of the students ahead of me have taken 6. In addition, I’ve heard from at least 3 faculty members in our department that 5 years isn’t long enough, and they should formally change it to 6.

    We don’t really have a checklist, but we do have major milestones that we have to complete by specific dates in order to receive funding and remain in the program (e.g. passing comps by Sept of the 3rd year, successfully defending your proposal by June 1st of your 4th year, etc.).

    So do you think there are similar stages that we will go through when we become a professor? 🙂

  4. Tanu –

    Dollops of salt? There’s your problem, you’re wasting time trying to get salt to dollop.

    I had a look at the checklists and I agree you should be wary of them. Not that they aren’t great, but I just don’t seem to have accomplished much according to the checklist. I can’t handle the cognitive dissonance! It must be poor checklists, because I am a fantastic Ph.D. student! (um, is that really a boasting point?)


  5. Caryn — Welcome! Great to see you.

    I agree. I’m feeling something like that, starting a 4th year knowing I’m going to take 5. I think Grover is writing for a difference audience (almost by definition; I’ve never seen a copy of Decision Line in my dept. :)), one with different research and publication expectations.

    >> So do you think there are similar stages that we will go through when we become a professor?

    Good question… there’s probably something similar for new profs but maybe not as pronounced.

    My wife’s doctoral dissertation was in counselor education. She looked at a bunch of theories of adult development. From what I understand of that field, educational experience is far more likely than occupational experience to promote cognitive development. In some fields, the work even tends to move people backward on some development scales!

    Esp. for research-oriented positions (not heavy, heavy teaching work that may be more routine in nature) there some kind of stages. To some degree you might say that the tenure model is built on that premise.

  6. In the for what’s it worth department… here’s a link to where our version of a “checklist” is. [Scroll down to “Recommended Program”]

    As I said in the post, it was only recently that the department responded to student requests for a more explicit statement of expectations. Even though the four year timeframe is aggressive I found it helpful to at least have a target down on paper as a starting point for discussions on why/when it makes sense to deviate from it.

  7. Varun Grover is my advisor, so perhaps I can add a bit of insight on how our students compare to the checklist. The Clemson PhD program in MIS is relatively young. The first cohort, who began the program four years ago, is on the job market this year. Of the five students in the cohort, only two are actually pursuing a job. The remaining three plan on sticking around for a fifth year. The two that are on the market have done reasonably well. Both have a hit in Decision Sciences, and they have a few B journal hits and a few major conference presentations (e.g. ICIS, DSI).

    I am only in my second year of the program. I have noticed that many people work on a PhD for 5-6 years. However, I plan on finishing in 4 years. I believe that if you jump in the gate and work hard, you can finish in 4 years with a respectable research portfolio. For example, a colleague and I presented a paper just a few months ago at the Academy meeting in Atlanta. As Steve mentioned before, conferences are a great outlet for your work and an excellent venue to network with other professionals in the field.

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