Usman Afzali, PhD


Lecturer (Teaching and Admin), Psychology, University of Canterbury

Notes on Grad School Experience


October 08, 2022

Many prospective PhD students ask about my experience, but I don’t usually have an answer from the top of my head: I’ve learned that I can be bad in dealing with surprise questions and scenarios :)
But when I put my thoughts together and reflect on the previous 12 months, this article is what my mind tells me.
Last year this time I was juggling many things:
  • Finishing up my PhD
  • Teaching assistance in two courses
  • Teaching assistant coordination in another course
  • Lecturing in a course
  • Revising and resubmitting a paper
  • Looking for a post PhD job - this takes time and a lot of stress if you are looking for an academic career.
A year later, I’m still juggling: Teaching, publishing, looking for jobs, and applying for research grants.
There are costs to this type of academic life: I sacrificed my social life, I go home late, I work during the weekends.
Don’t get me wrong. I never for a second think that my life is balanced. But trying to get into academia is demanding. It is competitive - although you don’t have a clear competitor. You always need to be growing and getting better. This is what I call your drive - that you really are after it. Put differently, if you don’t like research, it will be extremely hard to push yourself during graduate school. Nothing wrong with having “no research” interests. Each of us have different personalities and aspirations.
You also need to be passionate about what you want to pursue. Without passion about a topic, it will be difficult to keep moving, e.g., working when others are on holidays and keeping writing when others have a social life.
With these comes commitment. You need to be committed to what you want to achieve. It basically overlaps with passion. Planning and having a vision is good, but ask yourself if you really want to add those hours (obviously more than 40) in a week.
And above all, a great academic network is what you need. With a multi-layered local, national, and international network, you’d be surprised how fast you grow and how easy it gets. I know some of us want to keep it to ourselves and in rare times, we want our idea not to be stolen :) 

But as one of my great mentors puts it, “your ideas only grow when you have others’ perspectives”. My experience has been the same. And frankly speaking, most of these academics that you would want to network with, have their own established careers and won’t be stealing your ideas. Ironically, I was cautioned about “my idea being stolen” by someone early in the graduate school. But when sharing ideas and networking only helped me do better, I was surprised as to how misleading some grad school advice can be.
And finally, please note that this has been my subjective experience. It may or may not work for everyone else. I know many would want to have set working hours, take breaks, have holidays, have a social life, etc. That too works and I have seen it working for my colleagues.
End.

P.S. I sometime feel like I could write a book about my study in New Zealand coming from a refugee camp with English as my third language. There is A LOT to say - mostly positive, sometimes negative, and at times, devastating. But let’s leave that for another time.

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