Dr. Paige S. Warren

(Ph.D. Integrative Biology, 2000)
Michael J. Ryan, Supervisor
Research Scientist, Virginia Tech

Paige Warren1. What tips or advice do you have for students writing their dissertation?

Writing was the psychologically the hardest part of completing my PhD. One thing that helped was to have a group of colleagues/friends who were willing to read drafts.

I also needed hard deadlines in order to progress. For my third chapter, I made a plan to present it at a national meeting. This gave me a hard deadline, and it forced me to organize my thoughts into major points. That presentation structure became the outline for the dissertation chapter and for a manuscript that was accepted with minor revisions. I've continued to use this technique for forcing myself to turn ideas into manuscripts for publication.

2. Are there certain ways of thinking, habits or attitudes that are more productive than others?

This probably varies from person to person. During periods when I was having a difficult time writing, I made myself do it for at least 1 hour per day. Usually, the hour turned into several hours once I got going. I also had to work hard to focus on completing one piece at a time. It was easy sometimes to get distracted and overwhelmed by the large number of tasks that lay ahead. If I made small goals and crossed each off a list, this was less intimidating.

3. How can doctoral students best work with faculty, pick a supervisor, navigate the differences that arise among committee members?

This is also highly variable, but each student should try to determine in advance what sort of advisor he or she feel they will work best with and then ask other students lots of questions about any potential supervisor.

As for differences among committee members, I highly recommend meeting one-on-one with key committee members before meetings. Never assume that committee members remember what you talked about at your last meeting, and make sure that you cultivate an advocate in at least one other person aside from your advisor. I've seen many other students feeling stuck in bad situations (either with advisors or committee members) because he/she either could not or would not reach out to other mentors.

4. How can students put the dissertation in perspective--to keep from making it impossible to write?

Aside from the techniques I mentioned above, I would emphasize the importance of writing all through graduate school. I found my first paper very intimidating, and it took far too long to complete. It would have been much better for me to have faced that hurdle earlier in my career.

5. What did you learn about the process now that you are done?

It feels very good to finish, and it gave me a degree of confidence that I did not expect.

6. Do you have advice for students about the PhD--whether it is for them, how they can maximize their education?

Think carefully about what you want before embarking upon a PhD. If it will not advance both your personal or professional goals, there is little point in doing it. There are so few sources of positive feedback throughout the process of working on a PhD that you have to be strongly motivated to finish.