Why “just focus on your thesis” is not entirely good advice
Which doctoral student has not yet heard the infamous sentence “You just focus on your PhD”? Of course, this advice is given in all sorts of contexts and I can’t talk through them all here, but I will discuss one reason why it is good advice and two why it’s not good advice. It’s not particularly Christmas-y, but then again, this is a PhD life blog and not a Christmas blog 😉
Pro: ‘Extras’ only count once you have the PhD
Extras are great and important (see point below). That peer-reviewed paper, being the head of the student committee, that stay abroad, a fellowship at a prestigious institution. All these things are assets on your CV, no doubt. But they only really count once you have that PhD. You won’t get a post-doc because of your nice CV unless the PhD is done.
So while these extras are priceless once you have that thing in hand, they are practically worthless if you don’t get the PhD done. So the advice “Just focus on your PhD” is valid in a way, especially when you’re at a point where you already have so many ‘extras’ (which are also all around the same ‘value’) that new ones really won’t upgrade your CV any further. This is the point where the degree is the only thing standing in the way of applying to the next higher positions.
But there are (considerable) negative sides to his (usually well-meant) advice as well: For example, when you don’t already have those extras hiring committes nowadays want to see beside the PhD, then it’s not good advice. (For more info, read: Karen Kelsky’s The Professor is In.)
Contra 1: Nowadays, you need extras as well, so you can’t completely neglect them to really focus on the thesis
In The Professor is In (great book, reviews to follow! such as the 7 top takeaways), Karen Kelsky writes in her chapter The Myths Grad Students Believe (23-28):
[Ph.D. students] rest all their hopes in the completed dissertation as a magical talisman of scholarly success, unaware that is is scarcely more than a union card – the bare minimum proof of eligibility […]. Certainly, they are encouraged in this by faculty advisors, who, when confronted with the anxious reports from the job hunt, offer the easy evasion “just focus on your dissertation”, as far preferable (for both advisors and advisees) to a hard conversation about an academy in crisis, on the one hand, or flaws in a student’s record, on the other. (Kelsky 2015, 23)
When reading Kelsky’s more-than-useful guide, it becomes quite obvious that the “just focus on the dissertation” advice, many times, is a lazy excuse. Sometimes it is well-meant advice because, after all, this strategy used to be really good and worked 30 years ago. So your advisor might not even have it in for you when they repeat this advice. But it is still bad advice for the job market now.
You need to add some other high-value items to your record which result in additonal quality lines on your CV. Kelsky’s tip is that you should try to add one (quality!) line to your CV per month. However, mind that not all lines are worth the same, so don’t only go for easy-to-get items. Rather go for easy-to-get items only if you really can’t help it one month. Otherwise, plan ahead which item you add to your CV every month. People will know which ones were not really great achievements. (A book review doesn’t count as a quality item, in case you were wondering.) Respect some basic rules while doing that, mainly well-known truths such as: Peer-reviewed papers should always be preferred to conference proceedings and excessive conferencing. But, of course, nobody’s expecting you to deliver a peer-reviewed paper per month, so you’re allowed to “fill up” with some of the above. Just remember to fill your time-planning glass with the big rocks first, then add the pepples around them.
Contra 2: It’s demotivating to not have goals ahead
Now for the first time in my life, I have no perspective. When I was in school, I worked for graduation as a “middle term” goal, but I always had going to university in mind as a long term goal. When I arrived at university, I worked towards a degree but I also always knew that I wanted to do a doctorate afterwards. So my long-term goal was the doctorate. But now, I have no real long-term goal. And I find it devastating. That’s the main reason why for me, recurring repetitions of “Just focus on your thesis” are hurtful and counterproductive. I don’t want to blindly focus on a writing text which might or might not give me a perspective for the future, in the future. I need a perspective now.
Dear advisors, well-meaning friends and loved ones,
the next time you think about saying “Just focus on the PhD” or similar sentences, do us all a favour and don’t. Just shut the fuck up. Thanks.
If you’re an advisor, think about what Karen Kelsky preaches: Your job is to prepare your advisees for the (current!) job market (not the job market from 30 years ago). And repeating “just focus on the PhD” just isn’t enough. If that’s all you do, you’re not doing your job.
So that’s it for now.
Karen Kelsky, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job, NY 2015. Do get that book, its value is priceless!