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My Ph.D. "to do" list

Posted By Molly Ranahan, SUNY University at Buffalo, Monday, October 17, 2016

I am one of those people who functions best with a “to do” list. I find the process therapeutic: reflect upon the tasks at hand and write each down; designate and order the items on the list based on priority; schedule time to complete each item; and finally, check tasks off as completed. My lists are my secret key to success (and sanity, too). They have helped me over the years to be a fulltime employee and a fulltime student, to take extra classes, to remember birthdays, to meet deadlines, to efficiently run errands. I swear by the power of a “to do” list.

Upon starting my PhD work this fall, I purchased a blank notebook for my lists. I sectioned it off in two parts: one for notes and one for lists. I started using my notebook upon receiving my program information and requirements in the mail. I took it with to orientation, to meetings with faculty and my adviser and to my first day of classes. My first “list” spanned several pages and my “notes” section spilled out into the rest of the book. After trying adopt (or even adapt to) a process of planning and organization, I gave up. I now use my notebook as a coaster.

The process of trying and failing to organize my PhD “to do” list has taught me something very subtle, but important—definitive planning during PhD work (and perhaps, throughout an academic career) is not always possible. The process of scholarship is cannot always be definitively planned for or executed.

This realization was terrifying to me, but thankfully coincided with a discussion of the function of the University in a critical theory course. “Do you think pursuing an education in a university setting is helping you to learn or is it training you to be part of the machine?” he asked, posing a question addressed in our readings that week. If only it were that simple! I would die to have training manual on how to successfully complete my PhD.

Now, of course there are many strategies to follow and certainly goals to complete. I know that I have to complete my course requirements, pass my exams, develop and defend my dissertation proposal, attend conferences, develop teaching skills, and work towards becoming published.  These things will take time—some planning and some faith.

The greater, more difficult questions remain unanswered: What is my research question?  What (really) is my research problem? What theoretical framework is best for my dissertation? What methodology should I consider? Who can/should I ask to be on my committee? What will my contribution really be? Can I accomplish something meaningful?

These are the questions running through my mind before I go to sleep. The answers cannot be found in a department manual or reached by completing a list. These answers will inevitably take time to answer. It will require reading, questioning, revising, trying, failing and moving on.

For this reason, I can confidently say that I am definitely learning in the process of completing my education. It seems to be a critical component of the progression.

The PhD process requires patience, thoughtfulness and flexibility in addition to strategy and procedure. So, I am letting go of my “to do” list mentality and am experiencing is the value of working inductively during the PhD process—starting slowly, listening, making observations and working steadily towards reaching my hypothesis.

Tags:  SUNY University at Buffalo 

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