Five Things I Learned in My First Semester as a PhD Student

Hello, everybody.

Tomorrow is the last day of my first semester as a PhD student. I survived! And I’m really happy that I’ve managed to post a blog entry every week. I hope to keep doing so next semester and throughout my graduate school career.

To close out the semester, before taking a couple of weeks off for the holidays, I thought I’d share a list of some of the things I’ve learned this semester. Not the ed psych or the perspectives on math ed or the research methods, but things I’ve learned about myself and about being a thoughtful and productive scholar.

Here goes.

1. Reading academic articles is not only about making sure you understand what they say, but also understanding what you think about them. I’ve explored the difference between content and practices in relation to mathematics education for a long while, but the distinction has become clearer to me in graduate school. Graduate study not really about content at all. The content is just a useful mechanism for learning how to think. Learning to clearly articulate what you think about the work of others is a major component to becoming a better academic writer.

2. Sometimes the key to making connections among articles is reading them with a lens the author did not necessarily intend. Academic work does not build on itself in a linear way, but rather in a widely sprawling way. Synthesizing studies that were all approached in the same way often does not lead to anything interesting. Making a unique contribution to the field can happen through empirical work, but also through making connections between seemingly different pieces by viewing them each through the same lens.

3. Citation management software is an academic’s best friend. If you’re in grad school and not using it, start. It will change your life. I spent 12 years reading academic articles that I promptly forgot about because I didn’t catalog them. In just one semester, I’ve built up a library that I regularly draw upon rather than starting from scratch in each new pursuit. That’s all thanks to my citation software.

4. One of the best pieces of advice I got before beginning graduate school was that I needed to treat it like a job. That means getting up at a regular time and getting myself to campus during working hours. This habit has not stopped the work from bleeding into my evenings and weekends, of course. But overall it has made the lifestyle manageable.

5. There are a variety of dimensions along which researchers arrange themselves. Positivist or interpretivist? Behaviorist, cognitivist, or socio-culturist? Theorist or practitioner? Choosing an area of research focus is much more intimately connected to developing a personal and professional identity than I ever could have imagined. Because of that, I’m having commitment phobia. It is going to take me a while to convince myself I’ve found the area where I want to stake my claim.


Thanks for taking the journey with me this semester. Happy holidays, and see you in January.

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