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12: PhD graduate school: Your game changer!

Are you among those who are a bit reluctant to attend PhD graduate school events? Yes, their requirements can seem like just another hurdle on your way to the PhD. But graduate schools can help you, your PhD, and your career in so many ways. Curious to find out how? Read on …

When we ask PhD students about their graduate school activities, they often sigh loudly – they seem to perceive grad school’s requirements as a chore and a bore. We also come across PhD students who have just started and, who still have the option to join one graduate school or another, and don’t seem convinced that it is a good idea to do so. And almost always, we have PhD students who simply ask: “What do I get out of it? What are the benefits?”

During our time as PhD students and throughout our academic careers, we became firm supporters of the concept of PhD graduate schools. We greatly benefitted from joining one during our PhDs and it helped us tremendously afterwards. But – like some of you – it took us a while to understand and access those benefits- and to shortcut this process for you, we’d like to share a little personal story with you.

Of course some PhD graduate schools are better than others and offer more resources or better courses. But even if yours is not the most spectacular on the planet, we believe it’s better than none!

So if you are still a bit hesitant, maybe we can change your attitude towards grad school and help you to embrace the great opportunities that come along with it. Below we outline the top 5 benefits and as well as the many small advantages for you!

What is a PhD graduate school?

Particularly in a European context, the term PhD graduate school is used to refer to a structured programme, offered by a university or research institute, which takes cohorts of PhD students through to the PhD degree.

This has to be recognised in contrast to the individual PhD, where a single person pursues a PhD project. A graduate school programme includes course work, and further requirements such as attendance of scientific events and participation in graduate school activities. In the graduate school programme you normally have multiple supervisors (e.g. a supervisory board or supervisory committee) in contrast to the single supervisor, which is common for the individual PhD.

In a North American context and in other English speaking countries, the term graduate school is used in a broader sense to explain all sorts of postgraduate degrees – this includes MAs, MScs as well as PhD programmes that you can take at a university. But in this blog post, we refer to the PhD graduate school as the structured programme leading to a PhD.

Graduate school versus individual PhD

Back in the old days (let’s say 20-30 years ago), in Europe, PhD graduate schools were quite uncommon. If you wanted to do a PhD, you tried to get a supervisor, enrolled at the university, did your research, met from time to time with your supervisor, handed in your dissertation (a monograph) and that was it. The PhD was a research project (your research project) and you and your supervisor were pretty much the only players involved.

The PhD as a research education

From the 1990s onwards the PhD process changed, and it started becoming an actual ‘research education’. This was when graduate programmes and schools started. They were established to give PhD students more structure, more support, and to enhance the quality of the PhD education. And that is exactly what they do to this day

Finally there was an administrative body/ go-between for the individual PhD student and the university, that looked into the well-being and affairs of the PhD students. They also established rules and regulations to govern the PhD process and make it more straight forward. But although graduate schools have gained massively in popularity over the last two decades and are widely spread across scientific disciplines, you still have the opportunity to do a PhD as an individual project at most Universities. However this all depends on your subject area, funding situation, supervisor etc…

Story time! Bärbel’s first graduate school activity

“I wanted to share with you the time my PhD supervisor asked me to attend a one-week graduate school course he had organised somewhere in the Danish countryside. He had managed (although I did not know) to get 8-10 of the best international professors in our field to attend the event and to stay together with a bunch of PhD students and tutor them.

I had just started my PhD, and was super keen to work on my research, and do nothing else. I was also a bit insecure about my topic and I didn’t feel ready to go away and present any of my work in front of an audience. So I said ‘No’. My supervisor asked again – I said ‘No’ again. Well, he slightly turned up the pressure, until I reluctantly agreed to join.

I prepared my presentation (and I prepared like mad in order not to embarrass myself too much) and, guess what? I earned a lot of praise for my innovative PhD topic and for my presentation from those highly-esteemed international professors. I also got some very fair and constructive criticism as well. And not only that, I got to know some of them so well over this single week, that I built the foundations of an international network for many years to come!

That first course was a game changer! From then on I was on the lookout for every useful course that came along with my PhD programme and happily joined in!”

Benefit 1: Participation in PhD courses

One massive bonus of being in a graduate school is that they offer courses to their PhD students. These courses fall into two main categories: courses to deepen or broaden expertise in your specialist areas, and complementary skills courses. Some of the courses might be mandatory, others are optional. That means you normally have some choice as to which courses you would like to attend, and that’s a fantastic opportunity to pick up skills you’re keen to learn. Plus, you often get the chance to travel to fantastic places and spend a few days in good company with other PhD students.

You learn relevant skills:

You are taught by professionals or specialists in a particular field and learn relevant skills quickly – in comparison to you having to learn the stuff yourself, which is way more time consuming and not to the same skills level at all.

You get to know other PhD students:

You meet and get to know PhD students in your own school and beyond. This is a fantastic way to built up an international network of colleagues, that – if you play it smart – will last for many years. The contacts we established in our graduate school days are still part of our network to this very day, and over the years, were a continuous source of opportunities for cooperation.

You get to know the teachers:

The grad school courses are often small, with only 10-20 PhDs attending, and there’s often social events like joint dinners, or excursions, where you stay overnight together. Sometimes real ‘big shots’ are also invited to give a lecture or two. This is your chance (!) to casually approach outstanding scholars in your field and make them aware of the work you do in your PhD. When you look for a post-doc position or professorship later on, these contacts can be immensely helpful.

You travel and see new places:

Courses that are often offered to international PhD student networks are a great chance to get out of your daily PhD treadmill and see and enjoy places you’d never been to before. If it’s a mandatory course, the cost will normally be covered by your programme – that’s pretty cool!

Benefit 2: Graduate school events

Every graduate school organises a range of events for their own PhD students in-house. These include ‘start-up’ days, poster-days or PhD days where every PhD gives a short presentation about their work, as well as social events (like barbecues, family days, excursions, parties, Christmas dinners . . .).

PhD students enjoying graduate school event
Social events in your graduate school – join the fun activities!

You get easy-access to information:

You’ll be informed first-hand by the graduate school coordinators on many issues surrounding your PhD in contrast to you having to figure out the ins-and-outs yourself.

You get used to presenting your work:

With the internal events limited to the audience of your own institute, you have a great chance to gain experience in presenting your research. This will make it a lot easier for you later on to present at international events and in front of a larger audience. If you like more input regarding scientific presentations, read the related related SMART ACADEMICS blog posts.

You socialise:

You get to know and socialise with other PhDs at your institute. You build your support network that can be of great help when you encounter difficulties or are struggling with mental health issues during your PhD. Often stressed and overworked, PhD students are at a higher risk of developing mental health difficulties than the average educated population (Nature 2019, 569, 307). Having a few like-minded PhD buddies and a strong support network helps you share your experiences and takes away the loneliness!

PhD graduate school: You find a playmate for breaks.
Need a playmate or someone to talk to? Find them in your grad school network!

Benefit 3: A supportive framework

With your graduate school you have an institutional framework that structures your PhD. Most graduate schools will give you guidelines or regulations that govern your PhD, and line up all the requirements along the way. The grad schools have an office and often administrative coordinators on top of their scientific leaders. This means there’s always someone you can talk to!

You have reliable guidelines:

The guidelines add a great deal of clarity to the PhD process (because you know what you’re in for) and transparency (because the rules apply to all PhDs). Not only do the regulations apply to you, they also apply to your supervisors. Because of the administrative framework that the graduate schools provide, it is not so easy to bend the rules. You’re going to be held accountable, but so is everyone else involved in the process.

You get credit points:

For the coursework, as well as any other requirements you are awarded credit points. By the end of your PhD, you need to have accumulated a certain amount of credits. Often the course work alone is equivalent to 30 ECTS (European Credit Transfer System, where 1 credits equals 20-30 hours of work). At the end of your PhD you will receive a certificate that testifies to all the skills you have learned and the activities you have participated in. This is a big plus when applying for jobs, because you can evidence statements you make in your CV, or in a job interview.

Benefit 4: Multiple supervisors

It is important to see this feature in contrast to the individual PhD project. There, you would have one single supervisor and that means the entire input you get depends on a single person and their goodwill. Consequentially, the success of your PhD may in the end depend on how that one person collaborates with you or how positively they evaluate your work in the end. One big change that accompanied the establishment of PhD graduate schools was making multiple supervisors the standard. This means the responsibility can be split between one main supervisor and additional co-supervisors. Together they form your TAC (Thesis advisory committee) or PAC (PhD advisory committee). See our blog post “Good PhD supervision: What you can expect?”  for further information on this topic.

You get better quality PhD supervision:

You know the saying ‘two heads are better than one’, and multiple supervisors are also better than one. You’re never dependant on a single person’s opinion. Supervisors see each others’ PhD students and requirements get more streamlined. If you’ve got a problem with one of them, you’ve still others to talk to and ask for help and support – it’s a kind of checks-and balances for your PhD.

You can get specialists on board:

The point of having multiple supervisors is also that you can appoint specialists as co-supervisors to help you with particular aspects of your PhD, let’s say a special technique or method. That is a great way to learn and benefit from the input of highly specialised scholars. Your PhD project will be all the better for it!

You have TAC meetings:

As required by your graduate school regulations, you’ll have to meet 1-4 times a year with all your supervisors for TAC-meetings. They will formally check the quality of your recent research output, and let you know if your progress is sufficient to complete on time. They will also discuss the further steps you should take and the educational programme of your PhD. Having these regular check-ups greatly increases your chance of a timely and successful completion.

Benefit 5: The mixed goodie bag

Ok, this one is not a single benefit, but graduate schools and their coordinators will help you often with the 1000s of little things that PhD-life throws at you. The degree to which this applies to your situation depends on your graduate school coordinators. But those we know often offer help way beyond what is actually written in their job description. So let us just summarise the add-ons here:

You can get help if you:

  • experience difficulties getting enrolled at the university
  • are stuck in administrative quagmires: whether you need a work permit, to prolong your visa, register as a citizen . . . etc.
  • can’t find a place to stay
  • can’t find a kindergarten/school for your kids
  • need to sit an exam/attend a conference/give a presentation and need a babysitter
  • are suffering from mental health issues
  • need further mentoring or career counselling

You get access to additional resources:

With your participation in the graduate school you often get access to a little extra pot of money that you can spend at your own discretion. Whether it’s for a special skills course, a software licence or travelling to a conference of your choice. Not bad!

In conclusion: There are so many benefits . . .

Yes we know, a graduate school cannot solve all your troubles as a PhD student, but it makes the entire PhD process a lot more fun and quite a bit easier. It may mean some additional work for you, but it adds so much value. It’ll make you more professional, and your PhD work so much better! The complementary skills you get taught are often those that PhDs later realise were the most important ones, especially if you pursue a career outside academia.

Embrace the opportunities that you get from your graduate school, and enjoy their events! Actively seek out the courses you benefit most from. Attend the activities that are offered, build your contacts and your network of future colleagues. Trust us, it’s worth it!

Related resources:

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(c) 2019 Tress Academic

photographs by Pascal Swier, Bao Truong, Anna van der Step at Unsplash.com

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