Jobs For The Girls: PhD Candidate

You loved our inaugral Jobs For The Girls post, where we interviewed the lovely divorce-lawyer-turned-wedding-photographer Lucy Stendall.  This is the series where we get behind what makes women choose the fascinating careers they choose, what drives them, what the job involves, and aims to either inspire you, our readers, to try a different career path or, indeed, satisfy your curtain-twitching tendencies.

Today we hear from Catherine, who is a postgraduate student based in Philadelphia.  Catherine’s PhD covers research areas such as digital libraries, metadata and information behaviour.  Yes.  I know half of you readers just exploded with joy.

I like to think of Catherine as the AOW US Correspondent.  She made the move to the US to go into academia in her mid-twenties, and I knew her story would be fascinating.

I suppose my first question is always…what does someone studying for a PhD do all day?  I know Catherine.  I know she doesn’t just wander around looking learned.  I also know she has an office.  And orders sandwiches from a touchscreen.  It appears studying for a PhD involves more than this.  “I have an office at the university and I try to go there most days as on the whole I find it easier to work there than other places. I have a few long-standing projects/pieces of work: my dissertation research, a couple of other research project with and for my advisor, and a research project I am working on with another PhD candidate. So, there’s a lot of reading and writing. This week I’ve been data collecting for my dissertation so I’ve conducted a couple of interviews with participants. That was great, but when someone talks for an hour, it means you’re going to spend many hours transcribing the recording and then more hours sat a desk rocking back and forth muttering “what does this meeeeeaaaaan?!” I also usually have at least three or four meetings in a given week. In the next academic year I will be teaching a graduate-level class which will be great experience but it will mean a lot of changes to my “typical day”.

I won’t lie.  The thought of studying for a PhD fills me with fear.  The sick kind.  I asked Catherine whether it pushes her outside her comfort zone. “The first time I met the rest of my PhD cohort (eight of us started the program together), I was convinced I was in the wrong place. Everyone seemed to be very proficient in things I wasn’t very proficient at, like Java, and I cursed myself for not picking a more ‘traditional’ Library Science program. Three years later and I still can’t build my advisor the system he wants, but it’s ok because another student can. That student might have no idea about user needs and behaviours, but I do. It took a while for me to be ok at saying “I haven’t got a clue what you guys are talking about”, but I know that I have strengths in areas others don’t and that my contribution is valuable.

I also don’t get tremendously jazzed at the thought of formal presentations. Conference audiences can really vary in size and there’s always a significant portion of your audience who is there to listen to the next speaker in the session and couldn’t care less about what you’re saying. You get a very limited amount of time to summarise what is often months of work, and, if you’re anything like me, you spend hours the night before trying to find pronunciations for all the wickedly tricky names you’ve cited. But as much as I don’t look forward to the presentation itself, I really appreciate the connections that are often made because of it. Also, I really like to give my opinion on stuff.”

In terms of getting qualified for this particular PhD, a background in academia obviously helps, but in Catherine’s case she’s also worked in academic and special libraries.   Catherine has an MA in Library and Information Management, but other students in her program have graduate degrees in areas such as communications, statistics, computer science engineering, politics etc – a whole range of expertise.

Any PhD requires certain administrative requirements for a PhD; for Catherine “it was having good enough transcripts from my BA and MA, scoring highly enough on a standardized graduate exam (Mr K assured himself a mention in my dissertation acknowledgements the night he gave me a refresher course on multiplying fractions) and providing academic and professional references.”  It’s more than that, though. ”The really important thing though, is that a faculty member (preferably either someone on the research committee or someone with a secured line of funding) sees you as someone they would like to work with. Most faculty members respond well to contact from prospective students and it never hurts to get inside tips on the admission process.”

(May I just point out, Mr K may have supplied the maths tutoring the night before Catherine’s grad exam, but I provided the Fanta Icy Lemon which provided the endurance needed for such a rigorous process).

What makes someone good at studying for a PhD?  What are the qualities you need, other than dogged persistence?  Catherine thinks “time and project management skills are important…these are the two I’m making a conscious effort to work on, at least until I’m important enough to warrant a secretary or a Moleskine diary. You also need a thick skin (some people will think your work is trivial and sometimes papers will be rejected) and a lot of patience (faculty will suggest you do one thing one week and the exact opposite thing the next week). You need to recognize that although tasks can be completed, your ‘work’ is never done. You need to learn not to kill people who ask when you’ll be finished.”

In my humble opinion, if Catherine finds the former a challenge, then she has the following in spades: “In my area of study, critical thinking skills are important and it’s also helpful to be able to write cohesively and persuasively (if this post is neither of those things, it’s because it’s really late here, ok?!). There’s a lot of stuff going on during a PhD – research, writing, teaching, intern opportunities, service requirements etc- and it’s a good idea to develop a long-term plan early on, to know what you should be doing to get the end result you want.”

I remember the year Catherine made the desicion to move.  We were in London and it wasn’t an easy decision.  She had a life in the UK, and family and friends here.  I wanted to know really, in hindsight, what motivated her to move to the US and such a pivotal point in her life, and does she ever regret moving?   Apparently this question made her laugh - imagining “a Hollywood movie where I’m packing my belongings into my car and my lover is pleading, “don’t go, we belong together, we have a life here…”

There are fundamental differences in the nature of PhD programs in the US which suited her better. “PhD courses in the US are longer, on the whole, than in the UK, because they usually begin with a period of required classes and coursework. For me this was great; it gave me the opportunity to test the waters of a few different research ideas before I settled on my dissertation topic and has allowed me to work on a bunch of different projects and with a number of different faculty.

It was also really, really, really important that I was funded to do this PhD and at least, when I was applying, US universities were much more likely to offer this than UK institution (All the fulltime students in my department are funded either through teaching or research assistantships or external grant money).”

And the crucual bit, folks…(and I don’t know if all our postgrad readers will agree…“I really can’t stress this enough – I don’t think you should ever do a PhD unless somebody else is paying for it (or you are insanely rich).” 

Speaking of money, this is interesting.  Apparently in order to get the great deal of your PhD paid for, and a stipend to live off, PhD candidates are contracted to “work” for 20 hours a week for a faculty member. This is on top of any classes they take for the first year or two and in addition to their own research and any side projects they may be doing.

Since I’ve known her, Catherine has always been fascinated by America, but the American mentality, by American politics, lifestyle and culture.  “I recognised this as a great opportunity to live abroad, in a place that was comfortingly familiar but also excitingly different. I actually started off on a big tangent here about how America is actually a pretty amazing place, but it was getting quite-off topic so perhaps Anna will let me pen an ode to my adopted home some other time?”

(That’s a yes)

“However, suffice to say, I don’t regret moving here and I am continually touched by how perfect strangers make me feel so welcome. [Side note: Americans really do love the UK and they love asking questions. They also seem to genuinely care that you’re having a good time in their country and they love the way you pronounce stuff, including, actually, the word ‘stuff’]“

But what about family and friends?  Catherine is fortunate that she always had the support of hers  back home. “Though sad that I was leaving (my mum, especially), they have always been full of encouragement. My grandma does seem worried that I’m here under duress though and always reminds me that I can come home. The one thing I do wish is that I had more people come out and visit me here [so, AOW US East Coast trip, yes?]“

My big issue with gonig back into academia would be the motivation issue.  I work better when someone is above me, expecting big things, pushing me to do better, do more, work harder.  When you are studying, a large part of the work that you do is by yourself.  How do you stay motivated?  Is it hard to keep pushing yourself?  In short, yes, it’s a challenge:   ”By my nature I am a procrastinator so I like to work to deadlines, either real or self imposed. I like to schedule progress meetings or tell people I’ll send them update emails on a certain date so that I actually have to get something done. It’s not always easy though and there are certainly things that I can look at and say ‘that should have been done sooner’ or “I could have done that if I had managed my time better”.” 

It can be hard to keep pushing, but I also know that this is a means to an end. The PhD program is not the thing; the thing is the PhD and the job that (hopefully) will come at the end. To get there I need to work; I need publications and teaching experience. I need a PhD that didn’t take me a decade to write.”

One thing that fascinates me about jobs is the compromises that people have to make.   “I can’t work on every project that interests me. This is especially true as I near the end of the program and have to focus on my dissertation. Sometimes I have to let good projects pass me by; sometimes I have to politely decline invitations from faculty to work with them. A lot of work is also collaborative (with faculty and other students) and though I do love working with others, I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to the writing-up part. I like my style of writing but I can’t put a red-pen through everything, especially when I’m not the lead author.”

But in contrast, the rewards are significant.  “It’s always exciting when you get the ‘congratulations, your paper had been accepted email’. Being published in journals and in conference proceedings is a real buzz and it certainly helps the CV. At the last presentation I gave, people were queued up at the end to ask questions and the Associate Dean of my department was there to see that (she even took pictures!). It’s really gratifying when you get that level of interest from the wider research community, especially because in your own department it’s not unusual to be the only one who is super-interested in your field of study. Also, getting to travel to Australia was a pretty sweet deal.”

Holding a koala, which she got to do because she presented at a conference in Australia!

Thank you Catherine.  This is why you’re my Leo.


Categories: Jobs For The Girls, Money and Career
19 interesting thoughts on this


  1. Posted May 17, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for publishing this! When I was doing my PhD people would continually ask what I actually did all day – here’s the answer (although I favoured working at home in pjs rather too often…). It’s not just pacing around with a thinking face on!!

    Seems like there are lots of differences between the US and UK systems though – at least from what I experienced. For a start I didn’t do a masters beforehand, and the course is only three years with no hours contracted to ‘work’ for a member of faculty (I have no idea how Catherine fits that in too!!), but I did do a lot of teaching. Totally agree that I would never, ever have undertaken it if I didn’t have funding – and a means of earning extra money as the studentship was pretty pitiful.

    Nearly 18 months on and I still haven’t been able to open my thesis again for a look, but perhaps it might soon be time…

    Best of luck with your studies Catherine – sounds like you are more than up to the job!! xx

    • Posted May 17, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      I wish I worked better in my PJs! I just find it all too tempting to spend the whole day watching Roseanne returns.

    • Rebecca
      Posted May 17, 2012 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      Between by PhD and by viva (end of PhD oral exam) I hid my thesis under the very heavy sofa, I really never wanted to look at it again. It now (3 years later after a successful viva) sits proudly on my bookshelf, but I don’t look at it very often for fear of spotting a typo or something else that would annoy me a ridiculously large amount.

      After I finished my PhD I went to work in the private sector, but I have just headed back to academia – I think the pull of it has just overcome the stressful memories of PhD life!

  2. Posted May 17, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    Um, can I hear more about ordering sandwiches from a screen please?
    *feels out of depth by all the academic stuff and wants to lower tone*

    I’m actually quite jealous of someone who feels that committed to a particular subject they commit this much of themselves to it. I kind of want to do a Waynes World style ‘I’m not worthy’.

    • Posted May 17, 2012 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      I was recently asked what the best things were about living in the US and my immediate response was to reel of a list of things like ‘the shops are open till 10pm!, there’s so many delicious food trucks, free refills on drinks!’. I think they were a little disappointed in my answers, but really (and bizarrely, I suppose) it’s the little things like that that give me the ‘holy crap, I AM living in America!’ moments that are really important in motivating me.

  3. Zan
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Is that a West Wing reference I spy at the end of that post?? If so, I SO wish I had a Leo. and a Josh. And also a CJ (just to have around cos she’s so cool!).


    Great post, I have friends who have done PhD’s and I’ve always thought you have to be pretty hardcore and dedicated to get through one. I’ve toyed with the idea of doing one in the past but always wondered whether i could really be that self-disiplined?

    Hope it all goes well for you Catherine, sounds like you’re having a great time! And being published is always fab – I only have 1 paper to my name and I still manage to drop it into conversation occasionally! ;)

    • Posted May 17, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      I worry that I may have come off as piously over-disciplined. I tried to tread a line between being realistic and feeling ok if my advisor somehow stumbled over this post (in which case: Hi, just going to start work now!)

      It is very much a West Wing reference. Anna K always gets to play Bartlett but that’s ok; we all know the president doesn’t decide policy.

      • Zan
        Posted May 17, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        Not at all pious :)

        I have spent a while now trying to perfect the ‘Bartlett jacket putting-on’ manoveure. Not sure I should admit that in public, but it looks so cool when he does it….

      • Posted May 17, 2012 at 11:16 am | Permalink

        That’s true, the chief of staff makes all the important decisions, I just get to make rousing speeches, and do the “jacket swing”

  4. Steff
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Fabulous post (though the techy in me wants to know more about the actual subject!), makes me want to go back to uni, or hop on a plane and go somewhere new…

    Well done you for being so self-disciplined Catherine, by the sounds of things you’re going far! :) xx

  5. Posted May 17, 2012 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Steff!

    My dissertation looks at the application of facets (refinement options) in library catalogs. Another ‘fun’ research project is looking how people use pinterest ( which may or may not have been conceived as a way to turn a distraction into something positive!)

  6. Posted May 17, 2012 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    I love this series. I’ve always wanted to do a PhD, and I still want to, but in my subject a PhD pretty much equates to having to carry out laboratory research and my masters is demonstrating to me that I’m really not a fan of that. Maybe one day!

    Sounds like you’re having an excellent experience, and it’s an amazing thing to do, especially going and doing it abroad

    K x

  7. Posted May 17, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Harrah for the PhD!

    I have to say funding for a PhD in the US is much different to that in the UK (e.g I don’t have to work for anybody but myself but choose to teach on top) – but otherwise it is nice for someone to put on paper that we don’t just sit in PJs and drink tea all day, despite what my family & friends think :)

    It may not make me happy all of the time, but right now I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

    L x

  8. LottieS
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Catherine, I’ve moved to the US too. It’s always surprised me that a lot of people assume the culture is similar to home, but whilst we (pretty much….) speak the same language, I find the cultural differences run deep! Perhaps that’s also because of the states we live in….? Texas has a fierce Texan pride.

    I love all the things you mention too….. Especially the fantastic service in shops and restaurants, I will miss that when we return home. I must admit, I used to scoff at things like ‘drive-thru pharmacies’ imagining they were only for people too lazy to exit their cars. Now, I can see that it ‘s totally acceptable so you don’t have to get out of your car into blistering heat!

    When (if) we return home our accents will never be commented on and we’ll be left feeling rather ordinary!!!

    What is your stance on the part time PHD?


  9. Posted May 17, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    I think part-time PhDs are tough (especially in the US where you often need to take a year or two of classes) but definitely worth it for those who have the motivation. It seems that the most successful part-time students on my course have good support from their employer. This can include financial assistance for tuition and also some flexibility in work hours. It can be harder for part-tuners to cultivate relationships with faculty because they aren’t on campus too often; there’s a but of extra effort required in making sure people know who you are, what you’re working on and why they should want to work with you.

    Though going part-time wasn’t something I considered, I’ve seen it work for quite a few people and I think there’s generally a ton of respect for people who take that route.

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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