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Ask a Researcher: Advice for New PhD Students

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Today's Ask a Researcher comes from a student starting a PhD program in the fall, who asked for some tips about starting out:


I am starting my PhD in August at the University of Georgia in Learning, Design, and Technology and this article really encouraged me about what was ahead. I specifically liked when you mentioned how you researched emerging technologies, taught classes, worked with schools, etc. This will also be the basis for what I wish to accomplish while getting my PhD as well. I was wondering if you could share with me some of your experiences in grad school and what tips you have for someone just starting out. I also have a previous background in Computer Science and am interested in consulting and being a professor. I would like to specialize in the use of ubiquitous computing (i.e wearable computer, Kinetic), BYOD, and low tech solutions in the classroom. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time.

Here are ten things to think about as you get going:

1) Decide how important it is to be in academia

You need to decide early on if you want to keep an academic option open. If you do, you need to devote yourself more or less entirely to academic publishing. If you either a) don't want to be an academic or b) are willing to take the risk that you are the rare genius who can get an academic job without full devotion to publishing, then you have more options in your time. If you really want to end up being a professor, particularly at a research university, you need to recognize that your research doctorate is an apprenticeship to that field.

2) If it's important to be in academia, focus entirely on academic publishing

It's very difficult to get a faculty job without an almost exclusive focus on academic publishing. Your need to design your working life so that it contributes to academic conversations, and you need to be focused on producing publishable research. For the most part, you need to publish in scholarly journals, though depending upon your field there are certain conferences where the proceedings are published and basically count as publications. You should arrange to do just enough teaching to demonstrate that you are competent (though not so much that it detracts from your research), and you should probably stay away from consulting, which is really just time spent away from research and publishing.

3) Choose your thesis project early

When you finish is largely a function of when you actually start the research that will become your dissertation. Start early, finish early. Ideally you didn't start your program without a sense of the kinds of questions that you wanted to answer. You need to be on the prowl for professors or projects that will let you tackle a sizeable research project early on.

4) Take as many methods classes as possible early on

Learning content in a field is relatively easy. Just read all the papers, form a discussion group, and so forth. Learning methods is much harder to do on your own, especially the quantitative methods (not that the qualitative methods are less rigorous, just that you can learn them in more easily in less structured ways). Therefore, devote most of your coursework to methods. Start these immediately. Fall semester, year 1.

5) Learn to code

So many more opportunities are going to be available to education researchers (and edtech researchers especially) who can code and hack. Head to the CS department and learn to program. Do it with the undergrads if you need to start there. The hard part of quantiative research usually isn't the statistical analysis, it's getting the data in the first place. In the ed tech field (and increasingly across education research) coding is how you get the data and get it clean. (Coding in SAS or STATA doesn't count here, I'm talking python, javascript, ruby, etc.). Plus if you don't really end up liking ed research, at least you have a trade.

6) Focus classwork on your thesis project

If you combine the above three suggestions, then you get to this one. Find your project early, take methods courses (including programming), and use those courses to get started on your research project. Most professors are more than happy to allow you to modify assignments and so forth so that you are basically just using class to make progress on your own stuff. If you want to finish in a timely fashion, this is a great way to make progress on research during the coursework phase.

7) Build community within a field

Very quickly, you are going to need the sponsorship of other scholars to advance in your field. Find your community as soon as possible, and start building your network. You'll need a combination of young scholars and mentors to work with you on panels, to review papers, to write recommendations, to partner on research projects, and so forth. In Ed Tech, this is somewhat difficult, as the field is fairly diffuse. The Learning Scientists are a pretty tight bunch, the games people are tight, and there are some human computer interaction folks that seem to pull together. The Digital Learning and Media people are also good folks and good to get in with. The Open Educational Resources people have a nice community. Ultimately, you need to find a home among a group of people reading the same journals, attending the same conferences, and supporting your growth as a scholar.

8) Study what educators are actually doing

This is probably not actually a strategically good piece of advice. But there are way too many researchers studying hothouse environments and cutting edge sorts of things, and not nearly enough people studying the actual implementation of technology in learning situations by educators with no special resources or reports. The reason why all of our fancy games, simulations, pedagogical models, and so forth very rarely move into the mainstream is because we know much too little about how the mainstream actually works or the conditions under which most educators use technology. Take something like Moodle. Moodle is probably used, at some level, in tens of thousands of schools across the country by at least one teacher. There is almost no literature whatsoever telling us how Learning Management Systems (including It's Learning, Edmodo, Haiku, etc.) are being used by educators is ordinary classroom settings.

9) Make your work as open as possible

Blog. Put all your data on a wiki. Publish everything you write in your coursework as a working paper on SSRN. Tweet at conferences. Publish your dissertation under a CC license. Make everything you do as accessible as possible to the world. (This doesn't mean that you should publish preliminary findings as fact, and you should still be careful about sharing anything that you are not certain about, but you should be sharing your tentative thinking, properly qualified, in a variety of ways.)

10) Have fun

When I started my graduate program I thought "I'm going to go to school for a semester. If I like it, I'll stay. If I don't I'll quit." I thought the same thing every semester until I finished. The point is not to get a degree. The point is to fulfill whatever mission you have on this earth. If the PhD helps with the mission, stick with it. If it doesn't, leave. If it turns into a terrible grind, change what you are doing. Life is to short to not enjoy this 5-7 year section of your life.

To everyone starting research programs this Fall, you have my very best wishes for the journey ahead!

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

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