Students Talk About Meeting Challenges

Below are a series of short vignettes offered by UT doctoral candidates. Describing how they met a challenge or overcame an obstacle, these students offer important advice. Some of the students asked that their names and departmental affiliations be left anonymous.

Jason Pine (Anthropology), "Be Flexible"

Initially, I was very programmatic and organized with my writing. I produced a detailed outline of my dissertation and discussed it with committee members before beginning it. During the writing of my first chapter (which was chapter 4 of the dissertation, according to my outline), I realized I was bending the boundaries of my outline too far.

After much debate, I decided to remain flexible and revise my outline. The lesson learned was not to be too programmatic.

Humanities Doctoral Student, "Have Humility and Faith"

Finishing a dissertation does not take intelligence (most Ph.D. students can come up with ideas and brainstorm which is where raw intelligence emerges). Finishing requires, I think, (at least) two other traits which might be viewed as alternative intelligences: humility and faith.

Humility helps one understand that a dissertation is just that - a dissertation - that it is the beginning (not the end or culmination) of one's career, and that it has limits. LIMITS, I believe, is what a graduate student who is having trouble finishing is struggling against. Paradoxically, however, one must have great faith that one's work "means" something, even in the face of the deafening silence of the blank screen or the long, unstructured days! One must have a strong sense of "vision" and "purpose" that can sustain one even when there is a lack of external affirmation. If one has deep-seated doubts about the value and impact of one's work, then, I believe, one will have trouble finishing.

Tracie Harrison (Nursing), "Know Your Limits"

My advice would be to think carefully before committing to extra work; know your limits and the salience of the task then respond accordingly.

The hardest thing for me to do is say no to a request when I would like to contribute. When fellow students, staff, or faculty ask me to do things I always see the benefit of doing the request. The problem is there is a limited amount of time. I cannot do everything. (That is hard to admit.) In the end it is better to say no upfront then to say I am unable to fulfill my commitments. This is why I recommend that each doctoral student carefully examine his or her abilities, which are confined to time limits, weigh the importance of the request, and respond based upon that knowledge. Others will respect your decisions and you will sleep easier.

Caroline Rankin (Communication Studies), "Keep Trying"

I have many strengths as a graduate student, but writing is, unfortunately, not one of them. I have great ideas, and I can think abstractly. I'm a visual learner and can easily skip steps in complicated math problems. But I've never been that great at writing. And, as anyone who even vaguely familiar with graduate school can attest: your life will be a lot easier if you can write well. Ideas will come across more clearly, and your thoughts will flow logically from one to the next. Those of you who already have this gift naturally, thank whomever you need to thank and move on with your lives. If, however, you struggle with your writing, read on.

And keep trying. If you are a learning creature, you can learn some of the basics of good writing. I took grammar courses through our university's writing center. I took a course from the graduate school, learning the parts of an argument, and came to realize that I can't necessarily skips steps in writing the way I can with math (who knew how important warrants are!?!). I turned to my peers in my department to review my work. But most of all, I've learned what I need to do to succeed with my own writing. I have to allow extra time for the many (many) drafts I go through, and I have to concentrate on one thing at a time when I write and edit (first, ideas; then, explanations; next, transitions; finally, grammar). Keep trying different tactics, resources, and avenues until you finally find something that solves whatever obstacle you're working on.

Howard H. Donnell (Government), "Persistence and Cultural Sensitivity Pay Off"

In the social sciences, some researchers gather primary data through interviews with key individuals, especially in relation to politics or public policy. For students, gaining access especially to higher-level officials can be difficult due to a variety of factors. The challenge is even greater when conducting such interviews in another country and language. I found considerable difficulty in scheduling interviews with officials in Mexico while I was there on my Fulbright fellowship. In time I gained skill in working with their secretaries (as they are still called there) to arrange a meeting. Hence the lesson is that persistence, as well as cultural sensitivity, pays off. Nevertheless, I had to learn to just accept that I would not be able to speak with every contact I sought, or for as long as I wished, or without interruptions.

Paul Arthur Navratil (Computer Science), "Find a Topic that Grabs You--and Just Do It"

I came into the Ph.D. program intent on continuing research I had begun as an undergrad at UT. I had majored in Plan II (Philosophy) and Computer Science, so I felt confident that I would find my dissertation research in Artificial Intelligence. Little did I know that four years and two topic changes later, I am about to submit my dissertation proposal in something completely different!

When I joined the graduate school, I immediately began to work with the same professor I worked with as an undergraduate. He was happy to have me on board, but he suggested I also look around the department to make sure I was making the right choice. I was so sure that I was correct, I didn't take the advice. I dove right in.

I liked the idea of the research I was doing, and I was really excited about the big picture, I got lost in thinking about the details. I failed to find a starting point at which to attack the larger question. It was hard to get motivated. This feeling was the warning light! My undergraduate training, and my undergraduate hubris, got in the way. I spent my time thinking about the --right way -- to do the research, rather than just doing it! My inertia became terminal. But again, I was so sure that this was the right spot for me that I continued to cast myself against the rocks. This lasted for a year and a half.

My professor did me a giant favor: he cut me loose. Midway through my third semester, he gently but firmly told me that my current progress was unacceptable. He felt that I had a Ph.D. inside me, but perhaps not in this particular area. He suggested that I take the remainder of the semester to evaluate my interests, interview the professors in those areas, and make a fresh start.

While those words were tough to hear, I knew that he was right. He pierced through the daze I was in and I finally took his advice. I thought back to my undergraduate work to other topic areas that interested me. I realized that I was quite interested in Systems research, but I had always dismissed it because I "knew" I was going to be in Artificial Intelligence. Now I took the opportunity. I talked with every professor in the department with research that looked even remotely interesting. Now I really appreciated being at UT: we have a large department, and we have excellent professors across the range of the discipline! I had a great selection from which to choose.

I eventually narrowed my selection down to two distinct areas, and I started working with each professor. Everything was above board, each knew I was still making up my mind, but I now realized that the only way I would know exactly which one was right for me was to try each out for a while.

I finally made my choice: Compilers, the programs that make other programs. I began work on adding semantic optimizations for OpenGL, a graphics library used commercially to produce scenes for engineering and entertainment. I was more productive in six months than I had been in the previous two years. I had never worked with graphics before, and that side of the research excited me. The department recently hired a new professor in graphics, and because of my newfound interest in the field, I took the first class he taught. Now I really got interested. I was taken in with one of the papers I presented, and I worked with my current professor and the new professor to find a way to make extending the paper into a research project. A year later, I'm writing up my first paper on that research and I'm preparing my dissertation proposal on extensions in that area.

I came into grad school dead set on continuing my work from undergrad, but I am now preparing to write my dissertation in an area I had no experience in prior to grad school! But I now realize what my first professor meant when he told me, "You need to find a topic that grabs you, that you can spend 60+ hours per week on. Something that you think about all the time." Now that I have, I know what he was talking about. It's that intangible something that you feel when you are in the right place.

Mark Pocock (Economics), "Talk to Faculty"

Talk with faculty early on (even the first day if you have some ideas). I have found many benefits from "bouncing" my ideas off of faculty members.

First, talk to a lot of them. Some of them may say that the idea is not very important, and others may say, "this is amazing." Each may likely have a different take on your idea. These visits with faculty, done early on in the graduate process, will help you find faculty for your committee, and develop your image in the department. You will also get valuable feedback about the merit of your idea in the context of current work in the field.

Jessica Hester (Theatre), "Have Dedicated Time"

Few of us are lucky enough to work full time on our dissertations, making time and focus a little harder to come by. Without the consistent forum for my ideas and the set deadlines that formal classes provide, I wander from page to page, chapter to chapter, wondering if I'm really getting anywhere. Add to that the lack of social stimulation that can happen during writing, and the dissertation begins to feel disconnected from "real" life. This disconnect is emphasized further by my job and family responsibilities, which feel much more immediate and urgent than writing. So, my husband and I have negotiated a plan: I get twenty minutes of uninterrupted time (i.e. no kids) EVERY day. Some days I'll be able to put in much more time, but if I commit to a little bit of dissertation work daily, my writing is always in the front of my brain.