The Secret Life of a Penn PhD Student

Author: Elise Betz

I have had the privilege and horror of getting an intimate look inside the life of a Penn PhD student. It is nothing like the leisurely, fun life of a Penn undergrad. There is no Spring Fling, Hey Day or happy hours at Smoke’s.  It consumes you pretty much 24 hours a day for 4, 5, 6, sometimes even 7 years. From my perspective, this is how I have interpreted the experience:  Penn does an excellent job of wooing you into the program because our PhD students are the best and brightest in the world and we are competing with some pretty serious schools.

The students come to Penn to work closely with a faculty member who is world-class in their field.  It’s all sunshine and roses until classes begin, then the reality hits – it’s just not possible to read eleven scholarly books every week or write a research proposal in one semester. The class, entitled “Research Methods,” can bring even the most scholarly scholars to tears. More tears and several classes later, it’s time for the Qualifying Exams. These tests determine whether you can continue in the program or get dropped to go back to the real world in shame. Three full days of writing on topics that you can only try to predict.

This preparation period is when you go “underground” and hunker down with towers of books, articles, charts, notes, videos, gallons of coffee and a variety of sweet and savory snacks. There is a table in the library that is yours – because you are there 14 hours a day.

The PhD students will tell you that the day they begin Qualifying Exams, is the smartest day of their life – they will never be that smart again.   Then there is the dissertation – PhD insiders call it a “journal article on steroids.”Days are spent trolling coffee shops for peaceful places and productive nooks. Oh, and by the way, Penn PhD students are teaching classes too.  I am astounded and amazed by the self-discipline of these brilliant creatures.

PhD students are told there is an easy time management formula you can follow, which varies somewhat by institution and discipline, but proves fairly accurate across the board. It typically looks something like this: you should be spending 75% of your time and effort on research, 50% on teaching, and 40% on classes. The bad news, of course, is that the math doesn’t add up. That becomes the biggest problem – time.

I am in awe of the Penn Ph D students. They are creative, driven, and fun. They are also the future leaders of academia.  I will end with what I have learned NOT to ask PhD students:

  1. How’s the dissertation going?
  2. When do you plan to get real job?
  3. Of what practical importance is your research?
  4. Have you published yet?
  5. So, does this mean you won’t be a “real” doctor?
  6. When do you finish?

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2 Comments

Filed under Academics, Elise B.

2 responses to “The Secret Life of a Penn PhD Student

  1. JM

    As a former Penn undergrad and a current PhD candidate at an equally rigorous research university, I am happy to report there is nothing about that experience that sounds any different than my own. PhD programs are rough everywhere. Enjoy the experience of living in an urban center with public transportation, cheap food on every corner, and being surrounded by a thriving urban community (even if you don’t always have the time to enjoy it). You’ve got it good. Trust me.

  2. Elise

    Thanks for the feedback. We do love it here–lots of great places to eat, lovely campus, awesome resources…Wouldn’t change it for anything! Best of luck to you in your PhD program and come back to visit Penn soon!

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