This week marks the end of my first year as a PhD student! First academic year, at least — summer courses and a continued half-time assistantship await me in just a week’s time. But, still, three years from about right now, I hope to be graduating. Time has a weird way of dragging and flying by at the same time.
As at the end of last semester, I thought I’d share a few more things I learned.
- The MSU Dairy Store has really, really good ice cream. I know that sounds like a weird thing to lead with, but I think it will be key to my survival over the next three years.
- Courses are investments. Every course you take — especially as a graduate student — will dominate a significant amount of your time and attention during a semester. And unless you’re on the 10-year-PhD plan (don’t be that student), you can only take so many courses during your graduate career. Because graduate school is a place for specialization, there are a huge number of courses available that delve into a huge number of niches. You can’t take them all. Course need to be chosen carefully and thoughtfully, and with advice from lots of people.
- Course instructors matter. One of my areas of research interest is understanding the role of the teacher in tech-infused teaching and learning. I know a thing or two about how important teachers are to the learning process. Give that, you would think that I would have realized much sooner how much impact an instructor has on a course. But it wasn’t until this year that I realized the importance of considering the instructor when making course choices. Advice about graduate school often includes talk about finding a good intellectual and personality match when choosing an advisor. Relationships with course instructors are much shorter in duration, but it’s still worth considering that fit when you have options about when and with whom to take a course.
- Conducting good interviews takes a special kind of listening. I did 18 interviews this year — something I’m rather proud of, as the idea of conducting interviews really freaked my socially-anxious self out. They all had their rough patches and awkward moments, but I did feel like I got better at it over time. Before this year, I imagined that the key to a good interview is asking the right question. That is true in a sense, but what makes it really challenging is that the “right question” is different for every person. The key isn’t having really well-thought-out questions beforehand (although, of course, it’s important to have that, too). The key is to listen closely during interviews and use follow-up questions to help participants elaborate on the things that are most interesting or confusing. There’s no way to know all the “right questions” ahead of time.
- The best research is conducted by people who care about what they are studying. This seems like a cliche, I know. But this semester I’ve come to realize that I underestimated how much that matters. Skilled and ethical researchers can, of course, complete a valid and sound study on anything. I’m not denying that. But without real interest in the research — without understanding exactly what problem the research is trying to solve or what issue it is addressing — researchers won’t dig as deep as they would otherwise. It’s genuine interest in a topic that serves as the impetus to really push on a problem, question and press on the findings, and use results to make meaningful decisions about what to do next. That is why my biggest and most important goal in my time here is to complete a practicum and dissertation project that really matter to me. It seems like it should be simple enough to do so, but I’m finding it more challenging than I anticipated. It’s so easy to grab at the low-hanging fruit or to choose the things that other people suggest. And sometimes those things can be worthwhile. But sometimes they end up just filling my time instead of really piquing my interest. Figuring out what matters to me is really hard and tiring work — but so, so important.
Thanks so much to all of you who have read any or all of my posts this year. This blog has been a really important tool for me to organize my thinking and try out new ideas. I’m taking next week off, but I do plan to keep writing this summer, even if it is at a bit of a slower cadence than every week.