PhD Survival Strategies 101

Looking back, it’s easy to wonder how I survived my PhD journey. Survival is the key word. Working on your doctorate is not like a hobby that’s relaxing and fun. It’s not like a calling or purpose in your life, something that you just have to do. And it’s certainly not a task that you do on a whim or a dare.

When you decide to get a doctorate, it’s one of those things in life that requires what? All of the above? Out of curiosity, I went online to survey other survival strategies for the dissertation process…

 Take a course

You can find a number of courses to learn survival skills for your doctorate:

  • Australian National University offers a 10-week course that explores students’ intellectual and emotional journeys. The syllabus includes a history of the doctorate, reasons for failure and success, frustration, boredom, fear, curiosity, and love. I’ll add to this list: analysis paralysis, stress, moments of insanity, and trust.
  • The Erasmus Graduate School of Social Sciences and the Humanities offers a four day intensive course at the start of the doctoral program. The course introduces students to the Dutch PhD system, evaluation and supervision, project management, networking, work-life balance, communication, and motivation.
  • Walden University my Alma mater, had a series of classes to engage students in the dissertation process. For example I had a research forum each term (a status check on your progress), courses that gave you time to think outside the box, and Knowledge Area Models to explore theories, develop scholarly writing, research, and analysis.

Before you start…

Hindsight is always 20/20 – it’s easy to know the right thing after something happened.  Hopefully we learn from our mistakes. Here are some suggestions before you start your doctoral program:

  • Find ways to stay motivated and excited about your topic. Yes, easier said than done. Try writing a blog about your topic and talk about new research in our area. Give a presentation or webinar about your topic and practice public speaking.
  • Finish your doctorate as quickly as possible. Quickly is the relative word – again, easier said than done. Life gets in the way, you lose interest, you step away for military duty. Taking a break is fine, but getting back in the game is the tough part.
  • Yes, you are (or will be) the expert. Even if you pick an obscure topic (a restoration process from the middle ages that is still used today), you are still the expert. Think about that going into your program – it will help your confidence and motivation.
  • Read, write, think, network. Work hard to develop these skills because they will serve you well. The dissertation is a combination of these skills and remember that no one will do the work for you. Practice, practice, practice.

In the real world

This list is from essays written by doctoral students.

  • Learn to communicate and understand your advisor. Be clear about what your advisor expects from you and what you can deliver. Talk to each other and be sure you’re on the same page.
  • Time and self management go hand in hand. Use ‘to do’ lists, calendars and mind mapping to organize your projects.  Manage your self and limit calls and interruptions. Set your own work pace.
  • Interdisciplinary work combines solutions from different fields to solve problems. It forces us to think outside the silo and helps to solve those big problems in the world: sustainability, food systems, poverty and environmental issues.

Personal favorites

As I finished my online survey, it hit me that maybe these strategies apply to people who went from undergraduate straight into graduate school.

People who have been out of school for a while, work, raise families and squeeze in time for school have different strategies. So here’s my list of favorites:

  • Learn to persevere. When you feel like you want to quit, step back and evaluate why you started this task in the first place. Be honest with yourself. Remember that you’re learning a great deal about endurance and perseverance as you write the dissertation.
  • Feel the love and the hate. Yes, I felt the love and the hate for my dissertation. Many times these feelings clashed – like when your brain is frozen as you claw through the cobwebs in your mind. Take as step back, regroup, and remember why you chose this journey.
  • Follow your dream. Only you can make that choice. I discovered that I wanted my doctorate for reasons that surprised me: I love puzzles and intellectual challenges, I wanted to know, and I love to write. And I struggled with doubt, fear, terror, and the imposter syndrome. But I followed my dream to the end of the rainbow.


Dr. Bessie

How To Survive Your PhD
Walden University
Graduate School Advice Series: 10 Things You Should Know Before Starting A PhD
How To Survive Your PhD: Essays from KlimaCampus Graduate Students

Yesterday is but today's memory, and tomorrow is today's dream.
~~~Khalil Gibran~~~

Author: Dr. Bessie DiDomenica

Food Policy Researcher • Resilient Agriculture Advocate • Public Speaker • Public Policy Wonk • Writer • Teacher • Social Entrepreneur • Associate Editor

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