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Find your champions
First, be sure to enter the book giveaway for your chance to win a copy of A Field Guide to Grad School! More details below (at the end of the post). Now, onto the good stuff!
On the surface, this week’s recommendation may seem simple—build out a network of champions at different career stages and in different areas of your life. Yet, in practice, doing this can be rather difficult and often requires some trial and error (in my experience). Some of these relationships develop organically (e.g., through shared interests, frequent contact) and others are more deliberate (e.g., explicitly asking someone for guidance).
I consider champions to be mentors who are eager to guide and advocate for you. In my experience, it’s unusual that any one person can provide the full range of support needed to successfully navigate the PhD (and beyond). So who are these champions? They can truly be anyone, but let me share a some who were (are) important to me as I navigated the PhD.
Disclaimer. This list is not exhaustive and doesn’t include everyone to whom I feel indebted nor consider a champion. Additionally, I haven’t included my postdoc champions (like my advisor Dr. Nick Epley).
Undergraduate and post-bacc research mentors. While navigating the PhD application process (and beyond), I leaned heavily on my primary undergraduate research mentor (a PhD student) and one of my post-bacc research mentors for guidance. My undergraduate research mentor, Dr. Nadya Modyanova (then a graduate student), introduced me the PhD experience itself and helped me get involved in opportunities I didn’t even know were there (e.g., internal research symposia). I knew so little and she helped broaden my understanding of what was possible for someone like me. Then, as a post-bacc researcher, I assumed a lab manager position under Dr. Justine Cassell. From her, I learned how to be savvier about the application process, craft a clear personal statement, and own my ideas (and see them as valid). I remain in contact with both of these phenomenal women to this day and see them as lifelong champions—mentors I can turn to at any point in my career for sage advice, quick pep talks, and compassion.
Senior graduate students and postdocs. As a PhD student, I sought counsel from more senior graduate students and postdocs, especially those in my advisor’s lab. Senior graduate students are wonderful resources for learning about opportunities available both at your home institution and elsewhere and postdocs are able to provide invaluable perspective on the PhD process as a whole. While at Michigan, I was fortunate to share a lab with Drs. Maria Arredondo, Selin Gülgöz, and Steven Roberts (then graduate students) and Dr. Craig Smith (then a postdoc). From inviting me to lunch before my first term to sharing dissertation documents, I could count on my lab mates to make sure I had what I needed to succeed. In this way, they modeled (and continue to model) how to be thoughtful colleagues, including celebrating wins and collectively lamenting rejections. As a postdoc, I still turn to them for advice and encouragement.
Faculty advisors. This type of champion might seem like the most obvious and perhaps it should be, but not all advisors are great champions. In my case, though, I had (have) a wonderful PhD advisor, Dr. Susan Gelman. As I was nearing graduation, she made it very clear that she was my mentor for life and she has truly kept her word! Now, as I navigate the academic job market, she is available for any and all questions and conversations. Critically, when I ask for feedback or for her to facilitate a connection, she is always on board. I wish everyone could have a Dr. Gelman, but I recognize this isn’t reality. So, this is why I urge students to identify folks in their network who are eager to mentor and advocate for them (and, importantly, make connections to other potential champions).
Other faculty. PhD students regularly interact with several different faculty in different capacities—from courses to service work and, of course, teaching. Here, I’ll focus on my teaching champions, Drs. Margaret Evans and Jennifer Myers. As a PhD student at Michigan, I was required to TA for five terms—I spent four of these terms with Drs. Evans and Myers and this was no coincidence. From them, I learned how to thoughtfully curate courses centering students’ needs. I also learned how to be an empathetic instructor and embrace the bidirectional nature of learning (from instructor to student and from student to instructor). As a PhD student, I knew I could turn to both Drs. Evans and Myers for feedback on my in-class performance and could count on them to advocate on my behalf for teaching opportunities and awards.
Administrators and staff. Administrators are truly the backbone of every department. These are the folks who often make sure students have the resources (financial and otherwise) they need to make their research, coursework, and life more generally happen. At Michigan, I was fortunate to have Linda Anderson, Conni Harrigan, Adrienn Hunt, Tim Keeler, and Brian Wallace on my side as I navigated reimbursements, teaching stuff, course stuff (e.g., my program paying for courses in another college within the university), and just everyday challenges. They also offered much-needed moral support and were first in line to cheer me on when I experienced success (I still remember when they helped me scan my postdoc offer materials ASAP because I couldn’t believe I landed my dream position!).
Family and friends. Perhaps this goes without saying, but some of our best champions are those who are already closest to us. They may not always understand what we study (just as we don’t fully understand their work), but they’re there to listen, cook us a good meal, and even help with laundry when it piles up. I will never take for granted that I completed my PhD just an hour away from home (at the same time, I understand this arrangement won’t work for everyone!). And, I am grateful to have navigated this journey with my pup, Henry. It may seem silly to consider a dog (or any pet for that matter) one’s champion, but when I was at my worst, Henry treated me (and still does) like I was the best thing in the world.
How these champions came to be. In many cases, the champions I included above chose to invest in me before I realized it. That is, they encouraged me to take on additional responsibilities, develop skills, and take advantage of new opportunities before I understand how their recommendations were helping me. However, as I became more sure of myself, I started to reach out to potential champions—at first, with small requests (e.g., some of their time to discuss shared interests) and then with more explicit requests (e.g., please sit on my dissertation committee). In most cases, my champions have remained with me. In some cases, however, the relationship ran its course or didn’t really work out—and that’s totally fine! Not every relationship is forever and not every mentor-mentee match is going to work.
Some homework: Consider the following: 1) Who are your current champions and in what ways do they guide and advocate for you? 2) Who else would you like to be a champion for you? In what ways could this person (these people) guide and advocate for you? 3) When did you last check in with your current champion(s)? If it has been awhile, make a plan to check in with them. 4) What is your plan for connecting with new potential champions?
Have questions about reaching out to (potential) champions? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SCHOLAR PROFILE #6: DR. TYLER HEIN
The purpose of these profiles is to highlight and connect you to scholars at different career stages doing interesting and important research and service work.
This week, we get to learn about Dr. Tyler Hein, who is an Evaluation Scientist with the Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, Department of Veterans Affairs.
Now, let’s learn about Dr. Hein’s academic journey.
What are your research interests?
Broadly speaking, I’m interested in mental health and violence prevention program evaluation. My current work is focused on evaluating how well mental health and suicide prevention programs in the Department of Veterans Affairs are working and identifying opportunities for enhancement. I have a particular interest in studying the role of social factors and social determinants of health in healthcare utilization and outcomes.
Where did you earn your PhD and with whom did you work?
I earned my PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of Michigan. I primarily worked with Dr. Christopher Monk and Dr. Luke Hyde, but I was fortunate to have the opportunity to also work with several other great professors across departments, such as Public Health.
Why did you choose your PhD institution and advisor(s)?
I chose the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan for several reasons. I was very excited about the work that I would be doing with Drs. Monk and Hyde, helping to develop and execute a neuroimaging follow-up study of a longitudinal study of economically diverse families. The Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan is world-renowned, and my undergraduate research mentor strongly encouraged me to choose it. I also appreciated the support that came with choosing a well-resourced institution: 5 years of guaranteed funding, great healthcare benefits, and grants to attend conferences. Finally, the cost of living in Michigan is lower than other areas I was considering for graduate school (e.g., DC).
Please share more about your academic journey.
My childhood dream had been to become a Psychiatrist, so I went into college at the University of Pittsburgh as a pre-med Neuroscience major. I was told I needed research hours to be competitive for medical school, so I started looking for labs to volunteer in my second year of college. A faculty member kindly referred me to a paid summer research fellowship program in the Psychiatry department, where undergraduate students would work in a lab half the week helping with research and then shadowing mental health clinicians the other half of the week. While participating in this fellowship, I found myself becoming frustrated with the care being provided to some mental health consumers, while finding research to be incredibly fulfilling. My undergraduate research mentor, who studies neural underpinnings of early childhood emotional and cognitive development, was incredibly supportive of me and my interest in pursuing a PhD. During my last year of college, I applied to 5 PhD programs, 3 in Developmental Psychology and 2 in Neuroscience.
How did you navigate the PhD application process?
Honestly, I winged it, and I do not recommend it! I identified researchers whose work I found interesting, either through reading papers in the fields I was interested in or by going through faculty pages, and reached out to introduce myself and ask whether they would be accepting students. I did make sure to ask my recommendation letter writers for letters far in advance. I received feedback on my personal statement from the writing center on campus and one of my recommendation writers. In retrospect, I wish I had connected with current students during my application process and had sought more feedback on my statements.
What is one bit of advice you'd like to give new (first-year) PhD students?
Do what you can to take care of your physical and mental health! My first year, I felt like I had so much work to do between research and my coursework that I seriously neglected my health. Once I made that more of a priority, I found that the quality of my work improved.
Many thanks to Dr. Hein for sharing more about her academic journey!
In this section, I highlight resources you may find helpful as you navigate the PhD application process as well as the PhD itself. This week, I’m sharing two resources—one geared toward students applying to PhD programs in psychology and the other geared toward students applying to social science and humanities programs more broadly.
So You’re Applying for a PhD in Psychology: Loosely organized tips from one subjective source. More broadly, these tips might only be useful in certain contexts, for certain people, or they might not be useful at all. It simply reflects my [Dr. Zaki’s] experience, but I hope it can be useful as you embark on this process. Applying to grad school can be scary, but it can also be fun and meaningful, and connect you to a world of thoughtful, generous people.
Dr. Jamil Zaki authored this wonderful document, walking students through the long application (and interview) process. And I second his recommendation to join Academic Twitter! It can be a wonderful place to connect with folks at similar career stages, learn about new research, and find answers to pressing questions. You can find me @tweetsbymidge!
How to Write a Personal Statement for Graduate School: Every year people send me [Dr. Ewing] their personal statements to apply for doctoral programs and every year I [Dr. Ewing] give the same advice. Trying to make this advice more public so that more people can find it helpful.
Although brief, the advice shared by Dr. Eve L. Ewing in this post is super informative. I highly recommend following her proposed structure so that you can clearly demonstrate your interests, skills, and ability to contribute to any department.
How to reach me: You are always welcome to email me (email@example.com) or find me on Twitter @tweetsbymidge.
Let’s give away some books: Readers located in the United States and Canada are eligible to enter the book giveaway to receive a copy of A Field Guide to Grad School by Dr. Jessica Calarco. To do so, complete this survey and note that you only have to complete it once to be entered in all subsequent giveaways! I do hope to expand the reach of the giveaway; however, at the moment, the shipping costs are too great to scale. If you’d like to talk about ways your institution could secure an electronic (or hard) copy, please let me know (sign up for a 1-on-1 meeting below!).
1-on-1 sessions: Interested in some additional mentorship? Sign up for 1-on-1 sessions to discuss your questions regarding the social science PhD application process and/or completing a social science PhD more generally! Sign-ups will happen via Calendly and you can check periodically for updated openings. Sign up here!
Until next time!