What Doctoral Programs Entail
I have heard it said before that those with PhD's tend to spend their time with others who have PhD's because they are the only ones who can relate to the experiences they have had to go through. The longer I spend in my doctoral program, the more I feel that statement is true. Being in a doctoral program takes a lot of energy, and it involves mastering many different roles. Those considering going into a PhD program may have some ideas of what it requires, but there is no way to ever be fully prepared. Here, I want to discuss the different roles required of doctoral students (at least in clinical psychology) so that those considering entering such a program can have a better understand of how to prepare themselves.
As a doctoral student, the first and most obvious role is that of being a student. However, being a doctoral student is not the same as you've come to expect from undergrad. Doctoral-level classes tend to be much more involved and require in-depth assignments. Papers are longer and require more research, topics are much more specific, readings are more frequent and extensive, and classes are focused more on having discussions than being lectures (though the latter depends on the topic of the class and the preferred style of the professor). Depending on the program, there are also times which are much more course-intensive (generally in the beginning of the program), meaning you may spend two days a week going from classroom to classroom, with at least one other day of the week (usually a weekend day) being devoted specifically to school work.
This role arguably ends as you advance through the program, though really there's just a shift away from classes and eventually you're expected to keep yourself up-to-date on information. So the role of "student," in its most basic sense, tends to last throughout your career. You're even expected to attend colloquia throughout your time as a doctoral student, and throughout your career. Continuing Education credits are needed for continued licensure in many states as well, so you're always a student in some capacity.
The next major role is that of a researcher. One of the main differences between a PhD program and programs for other degrees (e.g., PsyD) is the heavy focus on research skills and experience. If you get a PhD, you're generally expected to do some research as part of your career (as opposed to PsyD or MSW degrees, which are more clinically focused). In general, doctoral programs have you work a set number of hours in at least one lab, often two to three. In these labs, because you are at a more advanced level, you're also expected to have a more involved, management-focused role. You may be tasked with doing analyses, coordinating data collections, coordinating research assistants, collaborating with colleagues at other institutions, and so forth.
In addition to the hours dedicated to the labs of faculty, you also need to be doing your own research. For the master's degree portion of the program, you work on a thesis. Once you're a doctoral candidate, you work on a much more extensive dissertation. You're also expected to be continuously producing posters and manuscripts, attending conferences, and so forth. These are often on your own time, and you need to find ways to be able to work on them.
Next is the role as a TA or teacher. At least in my program, we have a set number of hours per week dedicated to TA work. This can involve a number of different tasks, such as grading, running a weekly lab, occasionally guest lecturing, and so forth. After being done as a TA (once they're more advanced into the program), many choose to teach classes. This involves coming up with lesson plans and assignments, handling student concerns and needs, grading assignments (if you don't have a TA), and constantly making adjustments based on student feedback.
This is another role that arguably ends for some, but really you're expected to be a teacher/mentor informally throughout your career. And there are the obvious cases of those who go into academia and continue to teach as part of their career.
Along with the more formal requirements of doctoral programs, there are also informal expectations. One such expectation is that students will be involved within their department in some way. Participating in department/program meetings, helping to organize events and colloquia, etc. are all examples of how students are expected to contribute. Again, these contributions are on your own time, so you need to find ways to do them while still completing all of your other work.
Professional Organization Participator
While in a doctoral program (or any graduate program), it's expected that you will be involved to some extent in outside professional organizations. In the case of psychology, that generally means being a member of APA Divisions. It's encouraged that you get involved on student boards and begin to establish relationships with others who are on similar career trajectories, so there is a networking component as well. You're also expected to attend conferences of these organizations, as I mentioned in the research section.
Of course, as a doctoral student in clinical psychology you're also expected to have clients of various sorts. You may do outpatient therapy, specialized therapy, psychological assessments, and any other type of therapy you can think of depending on the practica you have throughout your time as a doctoral student. Workload varies for this area, but in general you're expected to devote a good amount of time to ensuring proper care and timely turn around on documents such as notes and reports.
Throughout a doctoral program, you are pretty much always working on applications for something. Conferences, practica, internship, etc. are always requiring your attention. Once you start clinical work, you generally spend 6 months getting used to your current role and site, then the next 6 months identifying and applying for your next role and site. Then there are internships, post-docs, jobs...just because you're done applying for graduate programs doesn't mean you're done applying.
On top of all of these requirements, you also need to try to find time for self care and your social life. Of everything, these two areas tend to suffer the most while in a doctoral program because there is no mandate or expectation for them, like there is for the other areas.
Each of the roles is very manageable by themselves. Unfortunately, all of these roles tend to overlap for much of your time in a program. Workload is incredibly high in clinical psychology programs, and it can be difficult to keep track of everything. I may very well be missing some roles in this post simply because my mind is busy trying to keep track of everything for the roles I did discuss.
So how do you prepare yourself for a doctoral program? Be aware that you'll never be fully prepared. Be aware that your social life and friendships will go through changes and need to adjust. Work on establishing routines and structure in your life that you can offload some of the burden onto. Identify and master different tools that can further help you offload some of the burden of remembering and organizing (e.g., todo lists are crucial). Work on establishing good habits (e.g., fast email reply times and inbox zero) while you have the time.
If you follow my posts, you'll see me discuss a lot about different tools and tips, such as using reference managers, and I've posted some tips elsewhere such as how to use a todo list and how to manage emails. There are also links to software tools that I recommend on my resources page. Finally, you can look forward to many future posts here on the topic.
Have questions about the roles of a doctoral student? Are you a doctoral student, and you feel like I missed a role? Let me know in the comments!