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If you are considering going to graduate school, you are probably wondering which degree to get. The choice should not be too difficult once you understand the differences among the two types: doctorate and masters. Graduate school is a lot of work and can be very competitive. Many students who floated through undergraduate work are surprised to find that graduate school requires a much larger commitment. Students who are taking a full course load as well as teaching or working other jobs often find themselves overwhelmed. The difference between college and graduate school lies in the ability of the student to focus on their field and areas of most interest.

When considering the advantages of each, remember that both will give you in-depth training in a specialized field and the usefulness of each degree depends on your academic and career interests/goals. However, the higher the degree, the longer it takes to earn and the more specialized the focus becomes. For that reason, here are some things to consider.

What is a Doctoral Degree?

The most common doctorate, and main focus of this post, is the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). Obtaining a Ph.D. degree means you have exclusive specialty in your field of choice. Bear in mind that one of the very important aspects of getting a Ph.D. consists in the ideal of creating knowledge. Ph.D. work requires original research that contributes new information. In order to earn your Ph.D., you will be required to pass comprehensive exams and a dissertation. What many students don’t know is that they can apply for a Ph.D. program directly after completing a bachelor’s degree, although some schools do require a master’s degree before entering a Ph.D. program.

Purpose and Uses of a Doctorate

In terms of possibilities, there are things a doctorate degree can do that a Master’s simply cannot. For those who want to become professors, a Ph.D.is practically mandatory as a doctorate demonstrates a person’s competence in research and knowledge of the subject of choice. Even for those few who can find teaching positions with only a master’s degree, most schools want to see progress toward a Ph.D. and an increase in publications.

Other reasons that exist to get a Ph.D. include the desire to be called “Doctor,” or the romantic notion of earning a Ph.D. from a prestigious institution, but these reasons will not be enough motivation for you to stick it out through the end if the program- especially if your professional goals do not require the degree.

How Long Does it Take to Earn a Ph.D.?

A Ph.D. usually requires at least five to six years and many people take seven to nine years (although it really highly depends on the field, the student’s research topic, and the student’s skills towards writing their dissertation).

What is a Master’s Degree?

Master’s degrees tend to be a more career-oriented program and requires less time (and money) than a doctoral degree, while also setting you apart from the Bachelor degree crowd. The master’s degree also produces specialization within a field, but are more flexible than doctoral degrees, and have a wide range of professional and academic applications. There are three types of masters programs: research, professional, and terminal.

Purposes and Uses of a Master’s Degree

The variety and uses of master’s degrees are vast and prepare students for a range of pursuits through specialized study. Research master’s enhance a student’s research skills and prepare them for a Ph.D. program, while professional and terminal masters teach students skills they will need as practitioners in their respective fields.

Research masters degrees are typically for academic and applied research disciplines that are a stepping stone to a doctorate degree. Examples of the research master’s degree include Master of Arts in History, or Master of Science in Biology. If you are considering a research masters, discuss your options and career goals with professors, advisors, or professionals in your field of interest.

Professional masters degrees prepare a person to do professional work by introducing practical skills and frameworks for understanding in their field of interest. Professional masters degrees may also qualify a person to practice in their field, for example: social work, architecture, or teaching.

Masters degrees that are the highest academic degree in their field are called terminal masters. As mentioned before, while some master’s may serve as a step towards a doctorate, master’s such as a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing or a Masters in Library Science are as high as you can go for academic accreditation.

How Long Does it Take to Earn a Master’s Degree?

A master’s degree is the first level of graduate study after you finish a bachelor’s degree and usually requires 1-3 years to complete.

Which is higher?

On the academic path, a master’s might come before a Ph.D., but the Ph.D. is a higher and more prestigious award. Students do not always have to follow the path, but typically the Bachelor’s degree is a “first” degree, the masters “second,” and a doctorate is terminal.

Which Costs More?

Either way school costs money (tuition, fees, books, etc.), however, there is also a significant loss of money if you are not working through assistantships or part time employment. With that in mind, because a Ph.D. takes longer to complete, it requires more money than a master’s. The up side to this is that a Ph.D. will most likely yield a higher salary upon completion.

Keep in mind…

As quoted by fellow blogger Ryan Krone, please keep in mind that “if you intend on financing graduate school using student loans, take into consideration the 4-5 years of time it takes to complete the PhD compared to the masters and be aware of the debt burden that will place on you after you finish your doctorate.  University positions may not pay well enough for you to pay back your student loans, forcing you to take a private sector position in order to make ends meet. 

Most people when they first start this process don’t understand how much debt they’ll acquire at the end of the day and they don’t realize how onerous that debt burden will be once graduation day comes till they get hit with the bill.

If want to pursue a doctorate be sure to do one of two things:

1)      plan for a high paying job come graduation, or

2)      seek other financial assistance such as grants, scholarships, stipends, or fellowships to supplement loans” (see my How to Find Free Money series for more information).

Salary Differences

After looking at the different commitments the two degree programs requires, consider the average salaries for master’s and Ph.D. graduates. Below is a 2014 income chart from the United States Census Bureau about employee earnings based on occupation and education levels attained.



As you can see, overall, the average earnings of doctorate holders are higher than other degree holders within the same industries or field. However, the earning gap between Master’s and Ph.D. holders varies on different majors or fields of study. For example, in psychology occupations, a Ph.D. holder earns 33% more than that of a master’s. While in some other fields, such as engineering, there is only a difference of 7 percent. So if you are looking for ways to improve your career and earning higher wages, obtaining a MBA degree, for example, may be worthwhile financially as graduates of M.A.’s receive similar earnings as those with doctorates.

Weighing your Options

Still not sure what to do? To summarize, Master's tend to be more career-oriented while Ph.D.’s are more research-oriented. A doctorate may be worth it if you truly love your field, and want the benefits associated with the doctoral degree. But, if you are simply looking to change fields or gain a promotion, then a Master’s is probably a better choice.

However, it is worth noting that you may be able to get more financial aid for a Ph.D. Since doctorates take longer to achieve, schools recognize that those trying to get a Ph.D. need more financial assistance than those pursuing a Master’s. So during the application process, keep these two things in mind: First, if you think you may want a Ph.D., apply to the doctoral program as there is no penalty for changing your mind later and deciding to leave with a Master’s degree-this only increases you chances of getting financial aid. Second, Ph.D. programs are more competitive, and applying to it might decrease your chances of acceptance versus a Master’s program.


Remember, when going to graduate school, be prepared for a different experience from your undergraduate years. When you enroll in a graduate degree program, it's best to be and stay motivated by professional and academic goals. Read about other things to consider when deciding to go to graduate school here and here.


How many times have you sat and tried to focus on a project or assignment, only to find your mind wandering? Despite your best efforts, you just can't concentrate. We've all been in this familiar, frustrating situation. Many students complain about their lack of ability to focus and concentrate as their minds race from one thing to another as their thoughts run all over the place. The trick is to use the right strategies to help improve your concentration skills and apply them to your studies. Don’t panic or be overly discouraged, almost everyone has the ability to concentrate.

We’ve all had days where we can’t seem to focus. For some of us, those days are more common than we’d like, but you don’t have to go to extremes. Here are some easy tips to help increase your productivity:

Getting Started

Environment is everything. Dedicate a space for completing work and other assignments; whether it’s the library, your room, or a friend’s home, it is essential to have a place that will enhance your concentration, not impede it. Keep this study area a distraction free zone- this means no TV, video games, or phones anywhere near this space. Consider stocking this space with all of the things you will need to complete your tasks, so that you don’t break your concentration by getting up to retrieve supplies. Some other tips include:

  • Calming music
  • Draw up a study timetable in correlation with energy levels at different times of the day
  • Divide your work into sections

Having a million things to do can create a major focus problem for anyone. If you’re overwhelmed by the amount of projects and assignments, extracurricular activities, and social obligations you have, it can be difficult to clear your head long enough to concentrate on any one task. This is why prioritizing is imperative. Determine the most important responsibilities and forget the rest. The less you have to do, the more you’ll be able to focus on the things that matter.

Set Goals for Each Study Session

We all know that studying can sometimes feel boring and pointless, making concentration seem impossible. While you may not be able to elevate the entertainment factor of the subject being studied, you can change your perception of the task itself. When you set goals, achieving each little step makes maintaining your focus not seem so difficult after all.

Write goals down in order of priority. Try to keep your goals specific and measurable. Break down large goals into smaller, more manageable tasks that can be achieved in an appropriate amount of time. Creating to do lists is a great way of keeping track of your progress- and don’t forget the satisfaction of crossing items off!

Time manage your goals by setting achievable deadlines. Commit a set time each week to focus your attention, concentration, and energy on what you need to get done. Try to only work on one goal at a time and plan regular breaks.

Take Breaks and Naps

Taking breaks to relax and clear your head can make your studying and work time more efficient and effective. Research has shown that people remember best when they study for shorter periods as opposed to studying for longer periods. A 2008 University of Illinois study found that a person’s attention span drops after long periods of concentration, decreasing our focus and hindering performance. But even brief diversions from the task could significantly increase your ability to focus for prolonged periods of time.

Spreading out your studying with breaks not only helps your brain better remember, but it can improve your concentration and motivation. So, plan to study for about 30-45 minute increments, then take a 5-10 minute break.

Even a brief nap can boost learning, memory, and concentration. A 2010 Harvard Health study found that dreaming can reactivate and reorganize recently learned material, which could help improve memory and boost performance.

Build in Variety

Approach your material in different ways. This increases your learning and concentration by using different brain pathways. For example, read a textbook section, then review your lecture notes on the same concept and write a summary to test your understanding. Some other tips to keep things interesting while working on your assignments are:

·         Change the subject or study strategy every few hours

·         Use your study break for exercise. This changes the pace and helps to get rid of extra adrenaline.

·         Alternate reading with more active learning exercises, such as:

o   Putting what you learned into your own words

o   Comparing what you are learning and linking new facts with what you already know

o   Color code flashcards or grids

Just say Stop

Every time you begin to have wandering thoughts, tell yourself to stop and consciously bring your focus back to your studies. At first, you will have to do this several times, but with practice you'll be able to concentrate for longer periods.

Although some distractions are inevitable, there are steps you can take to reduce your chance of an interruption. For example, don’t look or use your phone, or check your email while working except when taking a break. Allowing yourself to be distracted by these things will only eat up your time and negatively affect your academic performance. Practice self-discipline and eliminate all potential distractions.

If you find it hard to focus your attention, try taking a break or switching to a different subject or study strategy.

Food to Boost Focus and Memory

Food has a huge impact on your brain functions. For instance, did you know that eating a lot of sugary foods actually impedes your ability to concentrate? We’ve always known that what we eat affects our bodies, but scientists are also beginning to learn more about how what we eat affects our brains. Here are some foods to consider snacking on during those late nights and early mornings:

·         Avocados are green powerhouses packed with monosaturated fats that keep blood sugar levels steady and your skin glowing.

·         Beets’ natural nitrates and antioxidants boost blood flow to the brain, helping with mental performance.

·         Blueberries contain high levels of gallic acid which protect our brains from degeneration and stress.

·         Broccoli is one of the best brain foods out there. With high levels of vitamin K and choline, it will help keep your memory sharp.

·         Walnuts also have high levels of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that improve mental alertness and cognitive functioning.



What do you do to keep concentration? Share your tips in the comments below!


The best kind of financial aid is money you don't have to pay back, such as scholarships, fellowships, and grants. Grants for graduate students can be the difference between earning an advanced degree and ending at the bachelor’s level. But while scholarships are often merit-based, grants are more likely to be need-based. There are many grants available if you know where to look. The following includes a basic overview of the types of grants available.

Career Specific

There has been an increase in career-specific grants, funding given to students focusing on a specific career goal. If you are undecided, or open to any major, consider pursuing a profession in high-demand fields. These high-demand areas of study include foreign language, special education, math, and science. If your career objectives include a specialized role, or advanced position, you might find grant funding that specifically supports your goals.

·         For example, the TEACH Grant is a non-need based grant awarded to students completing a master’s degree in specific education disciplines.


Another good source for funding is college-specific grants. Your search for funding should include schools that specialize in the field you are interested in. Many colleges have grant funds set up by specific departments or by the alumni, which can be used towards opportunities that will give you valuable experience and enhance your professional credentials—such as internships, academic research, and other career advancement activities.

Opportunities are widespread and highly individualized by the universities that offer them, so it is up to you to uncover what opportunities your school gives graduate students. Financial aid professionals and program administrators can also provide valuable insight into available aid. Here are a few examples from well-known colleges:

·         Graduate School Diversity Enhancement Grants are offered by North Carolina State University, to bring varied backgrounds and points of view into the school’s academic community. Minority applicants must enroll full-time and maintain a minimum 3.0 GPA. Master’s degree candidates are eligible for up to 4 semesters of support, while doctoral students may receive as many as 6 semesters of aid under this grant program.

·         Portland State Office of Graduate Studies administers a range of grants and awards that benefit various sectors of the student body, including degree candidates who are physically disabled and those pursuing careers in public service.


Federal grants are distributed by the government and are for students with high financial need. Eligibility for grants is determined by your Free Application for Studenb2ap3_thumbnail_free-money-part-4b.jpgt Aid (FAFSA). Federal grants are primarily for undergraduates, although first-time graduate students can be considered for certain programs. A couple government-sponsored programs do offer grant money to graduate students, including:

·         Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) – To stimulate the declining amount of interest in teaching degrees, this program provides thousands of dollars yearly to individuals pursuing careers in the high-demand teaching field. However, recipients must meet the following three conditions:

1.       Teach in a highly needed field (such as special needs/gifted education, science/math/technology/engineering (STEM), and English second language (ESL))

2.       Teach at a school that serves low-income students

3.       Complete at least four academic years as a teacher, within eight years of graduating

·      Fulbright Grants are sponsored by the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural affairs. This post baccalaureate funding promotes the international exchange of ideas by financing study abroad projects.

·      The National Science Foundation issues grants and partners with other programs to promote post baccalaureate education and research in scientific fields.

·   Ronald E. McNair Post baccalaureate Achievement Program Through a grant competition, funds are awarded to institutions of higher education to prepare eligible participants for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities. Participants are from disadvantaged backgrounds and have demonstrated strong academic potential. The goal of this program is to increase the attainment of Ph.D. degrees from students from underrepresented groups of society.


Each individual state funds graduate student grants in a unique way, so it is important to get the details from your state’s board of higher education. If you want to apply to graduate school, you need to investigate your state’s grant programs. There are many need-based and even specialized grants offered by a range of states. Not every program and application is the same. Thus, you will need to look around to see what your home state has to offer. To qualify for this type of aid, remember that you will need to be a legal resident of the state for a set amount of time.

Some state grants are issued by government agencies, while others come from state organizations.  For example:

·         California State University System issues over $80 million in graduate grants to low-income students each year. Some 20,000 students within the system benefit from this generous state grant program, which waives tuition for the neediest students – those with Expected Family Contributions that are less than $800.

·         Montana Academy of Sciences funds small grants for students engaged in scientific research at approved Montana colleges.  Grants like these won’t pay your whole tuition bill, but provide supplementary funding to ease your expense load.


There are numerous specific grants available today at graduate students’ disposal. Like scholarships, you can probably find a grant for any and all unusual characteristics you can think of. Think about what makes you stand out, and look beyond the resume when seeking out grants you may be eligible for. You don’t need a stellar GPA or impressive standardized test scores to land a grant. When looking for graduate school grants, you should always consider your interests, hobbies, and demographics such as your religion, ethnicity, background, and sexuality:

Minorities and other groups benefit from graduate school grants that are designed specifically to promote their causes. You can find grants available for African American, Native American, Asian- American, and Hispanic populations (among others) because these groups have struggled to send their children to school. Many non-profits afford funding to such groups to help them get an edge on the competition. Look for resources that speak to your heritage, like the ones listed on the Open Education Database website.

Women are aided by grants that strive to increase graduate school enrollment among female students. If you are looking for graduate school grants, keep in mind that there will be general funding opportunities and there will also be those directed towards degree programs where women have been underrepresented; for example, science or mathematics.

The military is another source of college funding, which rewards soldiers and their families for service to their country. There are funds for students who are a member of one of the branches of military. People in active and inactive duty may be able to apply for grants from the military itself or from organizations around the world. Additionally, there are funds for children and spouses of people currently serving. Be sure to inquire with the military section of you or your loved one so that you can explore funding opportunities.

Some families have never had members attend college. So, first-generation college students receive aid from organizations as well. If you are the first from your family to go to college, be sure to investigate this resource. Your school’s financial aid office is well-versed on the grants, scholarships, and loans they offer.


A good way to start your search for educational funding is to get in touch with the local chapter of the Student Assistance Commission, or the financial aid office at your school. Both venues will have a lot of information on what’s available from both federal and private sectors. Don’t be timid about asking, you never know what kind of financial assistance you can get.


Though you want to be sure that you fit a grant’s characteristics, you should be willing to try for just about any graduate school grant you see. Take the time to be thorough when it comes to graduate school grants. You want to show the organization granting funds that you truly deserve this money. Grants really can make attending school a possibility. Take this hunt seriously so that you can find as many grants as possible.


 Assistantships are another way of funding your graduate education and are available at many schools with graduate programs. Unlike scholarships, assistantships are more like a work-study program. Graduate assistantships are additional educational opportunities for graduate students while pursuing their graduate education. With assistantships, graduate students are offered free or reduced tuition in exchange for leading discussions in undergraduate classes, proctoring exams and grading, or assisting professors with important research.


As mentioned in my previous posts (part 1 and part 2 of my Free Money series), scholarships and fellowships are not the only ways of getting free money toward your higher education, my post today is going to cover all you need to know about assistantships.


Assistantships are available on a limited basis in most graduate programs at universities and colleges throughout the nation. These positions provide funds for many masters and doctoral students. Each department or program has its own requirements and expectations so prospective students should be sure to do their research before applying to such a position.

Assistantships are a form of financial aid given by the college or university to graduate students who engage in teaching and/or research and provide students with training and valuable professional experience in higher education work environments. It is important to note that assistantship duties should not interfere unduly with academic studies, but rather should contribute to students' intellectual growth and degree goals. If you fell as if expectations of your assistantship are interfering with or conflicting with your studies, speak with your advisor or a department faculty member about your options.

Please keep in mind when reading the types of graduate appointments below that these opportunities usually require a letter of recommendation from at least one professor or other faculty member.

Graduate Assistant

A graduate assistant (GA) is an appointment in which a graduate student s given financial support, either with tuition remission and/or a stipend, for work in a teaching unit or academic unit that enhances his or her educational pursuits at their institution. The GA provides academic and administrative program support for units such as counseling and testing services, health and wellness services, and other student services offices.

Teaching Assistant

Teaching assistants assist faculty with instructional responsibilities or serve as the principal instructor of one or more courses. Duties may include meeting with students; administering tests or exams; grading homework or exams; teaching recitation, laboratory, or discussion sessions; and teaching lecture courses. On average, a teaching assistant is required to work around twenty hours per week. Teaching assistants' duties will vary depending on the school and discipline, but you can expect to be responsible for assisting professors with instructional responsibilities like teaching a section of a course or lead class discussions. Graduate teaching assistants should not be confused with teaching fellows, who are graduate students who serve as the main instructor for the course.

Research Assistant

A graduate research assistant (RA) is an academic appointment focused on thesis or other degree-related research. Research assistants have a great deal of responsibility. Research is critical to academic careers and they are trusted with faculty members’ research. The research project for a graduate research assistant directly supports the student’s thesis or dissertation because of the considerable amount of time devoted to the thesis or dissertation research.

Research assistants work in laboratories and other settings to assist faculty on research projects. Duties vary by discipline and program, but generally include data collection, entry, and analysis; attending conferences to present results; and training and supervising less experienced research personnel.  Duties of research assistants vary by discipline and lab but include all tasks needed to pursue research in a given area, such as:

·         data collection, entry, and analysis


·         reviewing the literature and other library work


·         writing reports


·         copying, filing, and collating


·         organizing and/or cleaning the lab or office

Please keep in mind that some students may find some of these items menial but these are the tasks that are required to run a lab and conduct research. Most RAs do a little bit of everything.

Pre-Professional Graduate Assistant

Pre-professional Graduate Assistants are appointed to positions in which their duties are directly related to their fields of study and in which they gain experience, practice, or guidance directly related to their career preparation. Pre-Professional Graduate Assistants are appointed to non-TA/non-RA assistantship positions, in which they primarily gain experience, practice, or guidance that is significantly connected to their fields of study and career preparation.

Graduate Technical Assistant

A graduate technical assistant (GTA) directs and manages the daily operation of computing laboratories which includes: developing lab rules, ensuring labs are properly staffed, as well as create and maintain lab schedules. Another major responsibility of a GTA is that often the professor will allow them to individually conduct interviews and hire lab assistants.

Duties and Evaluation of a Graduate Assistant

Before the beginning of each semester, the teaching or academic unit should produce a Duties and Evaluation Plan (DEP) for each GA. This document usually includes:

·         Precise research or instructional duties that the GA is to perform each week

·         An estimate of how many hours per week should be needed to complete the assigned duties


·         A method of assessment by the supervising professor or faculty member for the assigned duties

The DEP should be signed by the GA and the supervising professor or administrator before the semester. It is also highly recommended the Department Chair or the graduate program director also agrees with the assigned duties and signs the DEP.

The DEP helps the department determine whether GAs perform their assigned duties to a satisfactory level and if they should continue that position. In rare cases, a DEP may need to be modified mid-semester because of unforeseen circumstances, such as cancelation of a class or additional funding for a laboratory. It is expected in these cases that the GA be assessed for their work up to that point on the old DEP and assessed on their work for the remainder of the semester with the new DEP.

One of the most common sources of funding is the graduate assistantship. Students should contact their department or graduate program to learn more about assistantship opportunities like the ones listed above. Be sure to check your institution’s website for other opportunities.


Getting into graduate school is already a challenge on its own, and funding the program one admitted is even harder. Graduate studies involve not just tuition, books and other miscellaneous fees. If you are seriously planning to enter a graduate program, you have to consider how you can pay for your living expenses, as well. As mentioned in my previous post (part 1 of my Free Money series), scholarships are only one way of getting free money towards your higher education, my post today is going to cover all you need to know about fellowships.



A fellowship is a type of financial aid that is awarded to a graduate student to support them in their full-time course of study without associated teaching or assistantship responsibilities. Fellowships are generally merit-based awards to support a student who is going to school full time. National fellowships are highly competitive, with most applicants in the top 10-15% of the class. Fellowships also often look for a record of leadership, public service, research experience, and meaningful participation in extracurricular activities.

Fellowships provide graduate students with learning opportunities that can help them with their careers post-graduation and earn money at the same time. Whether they are participating in research, entering a training program related to their field, or doing work in their community, fellowships can provide money for tuition, housing, and other expenses. In addition, depending on the specific fellowship program, students may be able to receive health care coverage and assistance with student loans.

Institutional Fellowships

Institutional fellowship funding is awarded to the student by the university, and typically includes full tuition and stipend support, although the stipend levels vary depending on a student’s division and the prestige of the award.


A research fellow is an academic research position at a university, either permanent or temporary depending on the institution. A research fellow may act either as an independent investigator or under the supervision of a faculty member in the same field. In contrast to a research assistant, to be a research fellow normally requires a doctoral degree or equivalent work experience. Research fellows often undertake postdoctoral research or have some mild teaching responsibilities.

Fellows are expected to become experts in their field, so institutions are willing to help these students focus full time on their research in hopes that one day they will contribute to research, teaching, and innovations in that field. Examples of such opportunities include:

·         National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program

The University of Texas at Austin offers graduate students The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. These are five-year graduate fellowships for graduate students in the fields of science and engineering, and about 1,000 of these awards are given nationwide.


·         Tom Slick Graduate Research Fellowship

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M University offers graduate students the Tom Slick Graduate Research Fellowship Program, providing financial support for the research training of graduate students focused on the agriculture of Southwest Texas.


·         Baker and Emery Fellowships

Brown University’s Harvey A. Baker Fellowships are awarded annually to students of the graduating class undertaking graduate study at any university in the U.S. or abroad. The Anne Crosby Emery Alumnae Fellowships are awarded annually to women in the graduating class undertaking graduate study at any university in the U.S. or abroad. These Fellowships aim to stimulate the intellectual advancement of graduating students.


A teaching fellow (sometimes referred to as graduate student instructor) is an advanced graduate student at a university whose role involves teaching undergraduate classes as the primary instructor in their field of study or specialty. Teaching fellows differ from teaching assistants in that they are responsible for all aspects of the course, including lecture, whereas teaching assistants help the instructor by performing supplementary course-related tasks such as grading and holding a discussion section or laboratory. However, many graduate students who have served as teaching assistants become teaching fellows later on in their academic study.

Because teaching fellows hold greater responsibilities and have a larger time commitment, teaching fellows generally receive higher stipends. Examples of such opportunities include:

·         Brown/Wheaton Faculty Fellows Program

The Brown/Wheaton Faculty Fellows Program is a collaborative program between Brown University and Wheaton College that annually offers graduate students the opportunity to experience faculty life, allowing winning fellows to teach a course for one semester at the college.

·         Graduate Teaching Fellows Program

Each year Vanderbilt hires several Graduate Teaching Fellows (GTFs) as part of the university’s efforts to mentor and train graduate students for future faculty careers.  The GTF Program recipients design and facilitate workshops for graduate students at Vanderbilt and assist senior staff in various projects.

·         Teaching Fellow Program

Yale University’s Teaching Fellow Program (TFP) allows graduate students learn to become effective teachers under faculty guidance. Such learning is integral to the preparation of graduate students for professional lives of teaching and scholarship. TFP recipients are urged to participate in the programs offered by Yale’s Center for Teaching and Learning, designed to prepare graduates for a variety of classroom environments.

Departmental Opportunities

There are numerous merit-based fellowships that are awarded to graduate students, including fellowships designed to enhance diversity on campus. Fellowship awards for incoming graduate students are made by the graduate program to which they are applying. Departmental fellowships are usually open to students from a particular discipline and the funding decisions are made at the departmental faculty level. Therefore, the submission deadlines, notification dates, and award packages vary by department and fellowship. Students should direct their questions about these opportunities to their faculty mentors in their specific program for information about that program’s opportunities and application procedures.

Portable Fellowships

Many institutions encourage graduate students to seek financial support from external sources. Attempts to do so will be viewed favorably by the graduate option admission committees and the academic options/advisers. Portable fellowships are funded by organizations outside your academic institution.


Federal fellowships are funded by federal agencies if you're attending a graduate program in an area that directly benefits an agency. They are portable because the funding isn't connected with any particular school, but travels with you. Such fellowships are awarded based on need, merit, or both. Examples of such opportunities include:

•     National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship

This is a competitive, portable fellowship provided by the Department of Defense that is awarded to students who intend to pursue graduate study in: Aeronautical Engineering; Biosciences; Chemical Engineering; Chemistry; Civil Engineering; Cognitive, Neural, and Behavioral Sciences; Computer and Computational Sciences; Electrical Engineering; Geosciences; Materials Science and Engineering; Mathematics; Mechanical Engineering; Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering; Oceanography; or Physics.

·         Public Health Lab & Newborn Screening Fellowships

·There are two Public Health Lab and Newborn Screening Fellowship programs offered by the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL). The Public Health Laboratory Fellowship is a program the APHL is working in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to design a “competency-based public health laboratory fellowship that supports various disciplines critical to workforce needs.” The Newborn Screening Laboratory Fellowship is a two year training program offered to a doctorate-level student to conduct newborn screening and/or genetics research.

·         The David L. Boren Graduate Fellowship

·The National Security Education Program supports the study of under-represented languages and other areas considered critical to U.S. national security. The David L. Boren Graduate Fellowship is provides graduate students support for overseas study of language and culture. This national merit-based program requires recipients to work for the federal government for at least a year following graduation and has awarded approximately 3,500 Boren Scholarships since its implementation in 1994.


Independent fellowships are similar to federal fellowships, except that it is provided by a private foundation instead of the government. Because this is such a highly funded market, compiling a comprehensive list is impossible. Examples of popular opportunities include:

•             Microsoft Research PhD Fellowship

The Microsoft Research Fellowship is a two-year program that provides 100% financial support for PhD students nominated by their university’s department to help them to focus on their research in Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, or Mathematics.

·         The National Research Council (NRC) Graduate Research Awards

The National Research Council conducts annual Research Associateship Programs through the administration of programs offering graduate, postdoctoral, and senior level research opportunities with sponsoring federal laboratories and other research organizations to promote excellence in scientific and technological research.

·         International Dissertation Research Fellowship

The Mellon International Dissertation Research Fellowship (IDRF) offers up to a year’s support to 80 graduate students in humanities and social sciences enrolled in a United States’ PhD program and conducting dissertation research on non-US topics. The IDRF is awarded to promote a range of approaches and research designs that stretch beyond single-site or single-country research. Applicants are encouraged to focus on comparative work at the regional, national, and international levels and comparison of cases across time.

Popular Websites

For students who are unfamiliar with fellowships, or how to search for them, it can be difficult to determine what is out there and available. Below is a list of popular website that offer fellowship opportunities to graduate students:

STEM Opportunities

The mission of the Institute for Broadening Participation (IBP) is to increase diversity in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workforce; connecting underrepresented students with STEM funding and research opportunities. IBP’s search engine allows graduate students to search for over 300 STEM programs, matching them based on best-fit qualifications.


GradSchools.com is promoted as one of the leading online resources for graduate school. Thousands of students use this site to search for the best fit programs nationwide for their educational needs and interests.


The California Institute of Technology prides itself on expanding human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. Aside from offering numerous institutional fellowships to graduate students, Caltech encourages students to seek financial support from external sources by compiling an extensive list of governmental and private funding opportunities from around the country.

University of Southern California

The University of Southern California (USC) is ranked first in the nation among all universities of the same size in its computer science research program, and has the largest science, engineering and health graduate programs of all private research universities. To help students fund these programs, USC offers a 43 paged list of federal programs and fellowships on the university’s research website. Please keep in mind that this list is from June 2012, so some program requirements may have changed or been discontinued.



Here is the thing that no one really mentions when you are thinking about committing yourself to three years of research. Stress. I can’t remember anyone mentioning it to me when I first enquired about possible projects or during my first week of reading. Or maybe they did and I just ignored it. I can’t really remember. It all seems like such a blur but I do remember feeling stressed during the process. There was physical and emotional stress that I had go through, not just at the end when I was writing up the last few pieces of the thesis but throughout the whole thing.


But you know who gets the PhD? That big holy grail? The one who perseveres through all the times that things got rough and it ended in tears. Dealing with stress is one thing that you must overcome to finish the project and graduate. People probably won’t tell you about it at the beginning of your project but you will probably experience one or more of the following:


1.     Feeling inadequate;


2.     Unable to work hard enough;


3.     Inability to focus;


4.     Having no control;


5.     Feeling like you aren’t getting anywhere;


6.     Feeling like you can’t even cope with the easy things;


7.     Fear of failure;


8.     Imposter syndrome;


9.     Mental exhaustion; and


10.  Physical exhaustion.


The craziest thing about a PhD is that these feelings are ‘normal’. They are part of the PhD process and the constant feeling of swimming in a sea of nothing. The important thing is how we handle it. People handle it in different ways as the reason to begin, persevere and complete a PhD is subjective. However, it doesn’t mean that you should ignore these signs, particularly if the stress is becoming overwhelming as depression and anxiety is serious. Make sure you keep maintaining relationships with your friends and family so that you can discuss your concerns and feelings. Other students can be helpful here too as they are probably experiencing the same things with their own projects. You just have to remember that these feelings are temporary.


There are many ways to combat stress during the marathon that is the PhD project though. I spent a lot of time after hours playing with pets, spending time with family and friends and creating crafty things like knitting and sewing. Yoga was one of my favourite weekly pastimes and it helped to slow my mind down during the craziness of my thought process. A PhD involves a whole lot of thinking so allowing the mind to stop and relax each day is beneficial for running the marathon.


There were also ways of making myself feel like I was accomplishing something each day and week. I set myself goals each day so that I felt like I was getting somewhere and by the end of the week some sort of progress had been made that I could literally see. This type of organisation began after I had decided what my project questions were during the first six months. I knew my own limitations and with the guidance of my supervisor I set out to tackle one chapter at a time beginning with the literature review. I spent the first six months writing it and then I had one chapter at least in draft form that I could see and feel like I had accomplished something. The writing of this chapter helped to map out the rest of the thesis so then I felt less stressed about where it was going.


Another thing that helped was getting training in all the programs I needed to use including EndNote and asking for help if I needed it. The hardest thing to do is learning a new program whilst being on a time budget. I got help with R for statistics as this was the major stress for me. Coding is hard when you’ve never done it before and can result in a lot of hair pulling and crying at the end of the day. In order to reduce the stress here I attended a course and asked for help from my supervisor and other students. It’s really all about making networks that can help you when you’re stuck, whether it be with the technical side of things or emotionally.


I also made sure I took time to smell the roses. I scheduled breaks to visit my family and get away from my project by working in blocks. I spent two months or so putting in the hard yards or doing field work in a physically draining site and then went away to visit my family or on a holiday. This always kept me motivated and gave me a reward system that really works.


There are many things that can be done to reduce stress during the PhD process and these newly acquired skills can then be applied to work after the PhD. These skills are valuable for life.



You’ve finally earned your Bachelor’s degree and have made it into graduate school. Whether you already have massive student loans from undergrad or you managed to graduate unscathed, you don’t want to add to your tremendous piles of debt or create a new pile. My new series will help you discover four ways to find free money and keep your head above water.


While less common than undergraduate scholarships, scholarships for graduate students are available. Luckily, a number of scholarship providers are willing to help graduate students continue their education by providing some extra funding.

College-Based Funding

Some universities aid their alumni through tuition discounts on graduate programs and additional certification and training. You may be surprised by what your alma mater can offer you, so explore all of your options.

First, speak with your academic and/or faculty advisor about department-specific opportunities. Ask them where to look, what the university or department requirements are, what kind of scholarships are being offered, and their deadlines.

Second, check your graduate department’s website to look at the scholarship opportunities posted and explore the requirements and deadlines for each one.

Career Specific

There are numerous scholarships available to those pursuing a particular field. When money hunting, be sure you’re not only looking to your college or university department for funding opportunities, especially if you’re entering a high demand or expanding field. Expanding career fields include healthcare (physicians, pharmacists), security and technology (IT, engineering), and education (teachers, professors).

Popular subject-specific fields for scholarship funding include business, history, mathematics, science, engineering, and language studies. By focusing in more general scholarships, such as social science, communications, library science, and physical and life sciences, more specialized opportunities will ultimately lead to more specific programs for students pursuing graduate-level studies in their field.

To find these career-specific scholarships, start with a general web search among reputable search engines, or ask your academic and/or faculty advisor for suggestions.

Unique Scholarships

With so many different academic-focused scholarships available, many students apply for chances to win unique scholarships, as there is often less competition. Some of these awards have such specific criteria, or are so unknown, that relatively few students ever apply, increasing your chances of getting the funding.  

To find these career-specific scholarships, start with a general web search among reputable sites or check the students/careers section of large company websites to see if you qualify for their learning or leadership programs. Another option is to browse your favorite websites or hobby forums to see if they offer funding opportunities.

Popular Websites

For students who are unfamiliar with scholarships, or how to search for them, it can be difficult to determine which scholarships out there are available. Below is a list of popular websites that post countless scholarships from around the internet for graduate students to browse all in one area (and remember to check your institution’s website for their college-based opportunities):


FastWeb is one of the premier online resources when paying for school. Offering scholarship opportunities for every type of graduate student just a click away. All you need to do is register for a free FastWeb account and complete your online profile. The questions asked are used to match students to scholarships listed in their database.


Peterson's provides some of the best material online to aid students with graduate school funding. With Peterson's, you are getting the best and most up-to-date information on relevant financial opportunities by allowing users to narrow down search results based on subject, residency, deadline, and more.


GoGRAD provides an easy online platform where all types of graduate students can search for school funding. With user-friendly search tools, graduate students are given the opportunity to vet all their options by searching through databases by subject and demographic information.



Scholarships.com is a free scholarship search website that helps both undergraduate and graduate students locate and apply for scholarship opportunities. By registering for free, users are able to save search results and revisit scholarships at a later time to apply. Like FastWeb, the questions asked are used to match students to scholarships listed in their database.



As of April 2015, “the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute found that nationwide first-year-college students’ sense of emotional well-being is at its lowest since 1985.” (FIU News).

 The class load alone may seem like more than a full-time workweek. And between studying, writing papers and social growth, there seems little time to keep a proper college life balance. However, with technology advancement comes a more supportive and accessible community than ever before.

 There are new tools being created each year that will help any college student keep up with their hectic schedules. The following list breaks down 20 of the best sources into four categories.



Mint – It’s not always easy to maintain a small college budget. Try the Mint app for iOS and Android to securely connect your bank account and view visual analytics as Mint automatically organizes your purchases.

RescueTime - It can be hard in a digital world to remain productive while at your computer. We all have our short attention spans. Use RescueTime to find your ideal work balance. The tool monitors computer usage and offers a detailed report for analyzing.

Unstuck – Unstuck is a useful life coach for any college student. Tell the digital coach what’s ailing you and let it guide you in the right direction. The platform is built on insightful questions and provides emotional support as well as academic intelligence.

SlugBooks- Students can save time and money by using SlugBooks to find their textbooks. The site allows users to buy, rent or even sell textbooks. The prices are reasonable and it may even be a place to acquire extra funds.

F.Lux - Long periods of time spent stimulating your vision can highly affect sleep patterns. And college life happens at any hour. With f.lux your computer screen brightness automatically adjusts to the time of day, giving your eyes a necessary break.



Prezi – This presentation-building tool helps students create better visual displays of information. It offers unique presentation features beyond typical slides and will help students better engage their audience.

NinjaEssays.comThis online writing service is affordable and composed of highly qualified professionals. Students can receive proofreading, editing and structure guidance as well as enter free writing contests, view a free writing guide and a blog full of inspiration.

Help.Plagtracker – You never want to submit work that is not yours. Don’t take any chances and use Plagtracker to verify that your assignments are 100% unique. Students can also find and fix grammar mistakes and basic writing errors.

Admission Essays – For prospective college students this free essay source can be extremely helpful. Review samples of successful essays and obtain guidance for writing your own personal statements.

Google Docs – Google docs is one of the most comprehensive and common ways to save and share your information. Students can create and save spreadsheets, documents and notes and may even submit work to professors or easily share data with others.



Research Methods Knowledge Base – This online textbook focuses on all subjects typically included in research method courses and communicates in an informal and casual style. The comprehensive source covers sampling, design, measurements and more.

Crash Course (by John Green) – This YouTube channel created by the author of “The Fault In Our Stars” produces 10-15 minutes educational videos. The videos are whacky, fun and a refreshing addition to break up your study monotony.

Google Scholar – This Google feature is a search engine for researching academics and students. The customization tools cater to your needs by providing search options in patents and citations, as well as access to metrics and setting alerts.

StudyBlue – This study platform includes flashcards, study guides, quizzes and more. If you purchase the full version you will have access to over 125 million decks of flashcards to aid you in any basic subject.

iTunes U- iTunes U is a free library and essential tool for any college student. Users can access lectures, videos, books and other study material via any mobile device or computer. And now teachers are able to upload test questions and to chat with students.



Focus At Will - This online service uses music to help any student meet their writing and study deadlines. The site will play music in a particular order that will extend the focus time from an average 20 minutes to about 100 minutes.

FocusBooster – This online time management platform tracks user time spent on the computer. Using the pomodoro technique (short concentrated periods of study time, followed by quick breaks) students can better access their potential and maintain focus.

WolframAlphra – This resource is like accessing an entire collection of encyclopedias with one click. The source covers statistics, math, and measurements as well as linguistics, chemistry and more.

Flashcard Machine - Instead of handwriting and purchasing flashcards, create digital ones with Flashcard Machine. This free service saves time and money and allows students to create web-based study cards that may be shared with anyone.

Wunderlist – This list-making and organizational software integrates with all devices and is an efficient tool for all college students. Organize and share your to-do lists and assignments for the week, and add alerts to be sure you never miss a due date.


When college life seems overwhelming remember to breathe. These do not have to be the most stressful years of your life. They can be the most educational, inspiring and fun years. It’s all up to you.

Motivate yourself to try any of the tools listed. Each may drastically enhance your college experience while helping to relieve stress. And each can change the track of your academic career for the better.

Change can be difficult to adjust to perfectly. However, it often leads to new experiences and greater things. Integrate technology into your college life the right way, and watch as the weight on your shoulders is lifted.



What strategies can a doctoral student employ to maneuver the trials and tribulations of a dissertation committee?

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Advice for starting a PhD can come from a variety of sources including other candidates, administrators, supervisors, family, friends and the internet. It’s hard to know which advice to follow and what will make the biggest difference in the long run. Before you make that three to your year commitment, consider the following first.

1.       Research the universities or organisations where you could complete a PhD

Generally, there is much less support to guide you in selecting where to complete a PhD compared to an undergraduate degree.

When I had decided to complete a PhD, I had to contact potential supervisors and research places where I could apply. My list also included the prerequisites for acceptance as I hadn’t received a first class honours but instead a second class division 1 that was 1% off a first class. That ruled out a lot of places that required a first class grade. The university I attended didn’t send out information on what to do next after graduation from honours so I had to seek out the information myself by asking a lot of questions and what I had to do next to get accepted.

My advice, no matter what grade you received for honours, is to seek out information on the next steps for acceptance. If you feel this is your dream and you want to pursue it, find out as much information as possible on your chosen institution in terms of how to get accepted.

2.       PhD research is not a continuation of an honours program

Although you may choose research that is similar to your honours research, a PhD is multiple layers of this one small project. Most students don’t understand this idea until they have begun a PhD project. The goal is not to follow your supervisor’s objectives but to develop original and significant research in your chosen field. You will be required to make your own decisions and develop your own set of critical thinking skills. You may even disagree with the ideas of your supervisor at times and this is the project that will help you develop as a scientist.

3.       Make sure there is a break between undergraduate and a PhD

After the rush of an honours year, many people start thinking about what lies ahead. Some students think that the next possible process is starting a PhD because they want to do independent research or that their supervisor suggested it. A break between honours and a PhD is necessary to determine what research you want to do, where you want to do it and if research is really what you want to spend the rest of your life doing. You need to gain perspective.

It can also provide you with some experience and experimentation with other job prospects. You can use your break to test the waters for a variety of job prospects that you could do without a PhD and think about whether this is really what you want to spend the next four years completing. It can also help you to decide on a research topic that will get funding and provides you with all the aims and skills you desire from completing a PhD.

4.       Develop time management and organisational skills

A PhD project requires excellent time management and organisational skills as well as the ability to write daily, weekly and yearly goals. The best advice here is to get a full time job in the break you have between your honours years and the start of your project. That way, you will already have the ability to organise your time effectively within your workplace and around it for other things that need to be completed outside of work, particularly if you have a 9-5 job. This experience greatly improved my own set of organisational skills during my PhD as I worked in a law office during my break and gained valuable skills for organisation, document management and delegation. These skills greatly improved my ability to save and organise files, prioritise tasks and get in a working routine in balance with a social and family life. All of these skills are required for adequate project management, dedication and motivation during the process that is a PhD.

5.       Flexibility has already been mention but I’ll say it again YOU NEED TO BE FLEXIBLE

The main point of the PhD process is that you are incredibly flexible. You will need to fit in grant proposal writing when grants come up, write scientific papers, attend conferences, mark assignments, demonstrate practical classes, spend time with family and friends and do all the normal things that people do during the day such as washing your clothes. Things can and do pop up unexpectantly like anything in life but they seem to be more stressful during the process that is a PhD just because you have so many things going on at once.

It is hard to take advice from other students on this topic as well because each project is different and your workload may be different due to the things you are investigating and the opportunities that arise.


There are many things that you need to consider before embarking on the PhD process. It is a life experience that will change you for the better and you will learn a lot but it must be a decision based on the right reasons, not merely because you don’t know what your next step is. Make sure you get some life experience before you start because this will benefit you in the long run and in my experience, definitely helps you with project management of a research project that you are making a big commitment to.

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You’ve heard this statement many times before: “the dissertation is the most important project you’ve ever worked on.” That may sound like a cliché, but it’s absolutely true. You managed to surpass many obstacles during the research and writing stage. You probably consulted at least one online guide that taught you how to write your dissertation project step by step. Now, you’re finally near the final point of the journey. Before you can present the dissertation project and earn the degree you deserve, you have to go through one last challenge: the editing and proofreading stage.

That may seem like an easy challenge. You already covered the hard part; now you only need to read the content and fix some minor flaws, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Many MA and PhD candidates are overwhelmed by the editing stage. They have spent months and years working on these projects, and now they have to be ruthless when editing their own work.

When you’re too attached to the content you wrote, it’s not easy to admit it’s deeply flawed. That’s why you need to approach it from a researcher’s point of view. The following tips and tricks will help you do that. Some of the editing and proofreading steps we suggest will sound obvious, but it’s surprising how many candidates neglect them. That’s why it’s important to approach the process as a true beginner.  

The Ultimate Step-By-Step Guide to Editing a Dissertation

  1. The first step is to take a break

Your first instinct after finishing the PhD thesis might be: “I’m finally done! I should immediately proofread this and submit it as soon as possible.” Not so fast! Remember: you are too attached to this content to view it from an unbiased point of view.

You can allow yourself to take a break of at least few days (give yourself a week if that’s possible). Get occupied with your hobby, get some air, and try not to open the document, unless you get really good ideas for improvements throughout this period.

After that short time of inactivity, you can get back to the paper with a fresh set of eyes. You’ll be surprised to discover the new approach. Suddenly, you can read the content as if someone else wrote it. You’ll easily notice flaws that were not there before. Finally, you can start with the editing stage.

  1. Edit first, proofread later

There is an important difference between editing and proofreading:

  • During the editing stage, you are making improvements in the logical flow, expression, language use, and overall quality of your writing. Before you can start the editing process, you need to read the document at least two times, and take notes of the improvements you can make. Then, you can start removing unnecessary sentences and paragraphs, adding more information where necessary, and enhancing the overall readability of the dissertation.

  • Proofreading is also a very important aspect of the dissertation completion process, but it’s simpler than editing. Once you’re done improving the meaning and style of the content through the editing stage, you can proceed with the correction of any grammatical, punctuation, spelling, and other language mistakes.

Why do you need to get through the editing stage before you can proceed with proofreading? It would be pointless to make improvements in grammar, spelling, and punctuation if you have to get rid of some parts of the content and add more information later on. That’s why you should first focus on the essence before proceeding with the form.

  1. You can’t take the human element out of the editing process

Many PhD candidates make a serious mistake: they trust their word processor’s spelling and grammar feature too much. When they want to make sure their content is flawless, they use automated tools like Grammarly or Hemingway Editor to identify spelling and grammar errors. No one can deny that these tools are effective in recognizing basic flaws, but you cannot rely on them without any doubts. They can never replace an actual editor.

  1. Format the references

If you were smart enough, you took care of the references during the writing stage. If you forgot to keep track of the information you used from different sources, you would have troubles remembering where you got the ideas. Let’s assume you were smart and you took notes of the references during the writing stage. If not, you’ll have to go through all resources all over again to figure out which of them you used in the dissertation.

Whatever the case is, don’t forget to format the references in accordance with the citation style you’re using. Every comma and capital letter makes a difference! Follow the guidelines of the specific citation standard if you want to end up with a clean, flawless dissertation project.

  1. Get a second opinion

Do you have a friend or colleague you can trust? If you do; then ask them to read your work and share their opinion. You might get useful tips on how to improve its readability and quality. If you can’t rely on anyone, then you can hire a professional editing service to go through your work for final improvements. Some online services allow you to collaborate with the editors, so you’ll work together with the expert to achieve flawless results.

Finally, your mentor will also read your dissertation and share few remarks. Once you take care of those final steps, your dissertation project will be ready for submission.

Final Tips and Tricks for Editing Your Dissertation

As you can see, the editing and proofreading steps are pretty simple. Still, they require your full commitment! Don’t assume that you’ll briefly go through this stage. It will take a considerable period of time. The dissertation is a very complex project, so you’ll probably get new ideas and you’ll make serious improvements as you read and correct the content over and over again. Still, it’s important to recognize the limit.

Some PhD candidates get so overwhelmed by the editing process that they cannot stop making corrections. The trick is to view your dissertation as a project that leaves space for growth. You won’t stop researching the topic once you submit and present the dissertation. Set a deadline for the editing stage and make sure to respect it.

The most important thing to keep in mind is to stay objective while editing and proofreading your own work. When your mentor, friend, or editor has some criticism, you should seriously consider their advice.    

Are you ready to face the challenge? Take a break after the writing stage, and start editing as diligently as possible!


Choosing a PhD research topic is one of the most important decisions you can make when starting a doctorate. This is the topic you will be engulfed in for at least three years. It is the one thing that you need to be interested in to guide you through the days that are rough, when you want to quit and just can’t take it anymore. It is the topic that you really want to answer some questions about and to make a contribution to the scientific field. It has to be motivated by curiosity and it will become the reason you wake up in the morning.

There may also be additional reasons for choosing a particular topic. There may be a passion for research to gain knowledge and develop understanding. Or to be intellectually challenged and guided by a world expert in your field. For most people, a variety of reasons are present. Some candidates have already been involved in a research project that can be easily turned into a PhD project or a project is being offered with a topic already created with funding provided and the benefit of collaborating with a wide range of organisations and experts.

The biggest difficulty, whatever the starting point, is to make sure that the topic will continue to motivate during the next three or four years. In reality, at some point you will question whether you chose the right topic. This is part of the process. The PhD process is a roller coaster of emotions and there are days when you will hate it despite the love of the topic you had initially. Although it is important that the topic chosen has been selected based on interest rather than just the interest of a supervisor or just to get a PhD, there are a variety of issues that will impact on the completion of the thesis.

Besides the interest required in the topic, the topic must be viable as a PhD project. Most candidates start their candidature with over ambitious projects and find it hard to choose their specific research question. The overall topic must be turned into a manageable research question. The job of a supervisor is to help the candidate to direct their topic into ‘bite size pieces’. But how do you turn your interest into a specific question that can be answered and tested in real life?

You need to remember that a PhD requires flexibility, patience and humility. It is a fluid process as the research question can change during the course of your project, depending on what is found, how successful the data collection is and how the project is progressing. Even if the funding body has set the research question, the methods used to gather the data can be changed. The topic has to be kept at a manageable level, understanding that it is a process to gather knowledge on something that little is known about. It allows for growth and intellectual challenge. There will also be many obstacles during the project which requires flexibility. Perhaps the method you chose to collect the data is simply not feasible or too expensive, the apparatus you were counting on using cannot be accessed in time or you can’t contact those that manage its use. You may have wanted to compare three sites but could only access two or the weather has destroyed a site and you can’t access it. Being flexible in these cases requires intellectual strength.

Your topic can change based on what you find and how much time is available. This is normal. I remember having definite ideas on what I wanted to pursue in the first six months of the project. By the second year, I had to choose another two questions to pursue based on what I had found and that could be accomplished in the last two years. Luckily, these were questions that could be easily answered within the time frame and were beneficial to the research topic as a whole. Being a scientist in training provides you with the understanding that you are not an expert yet and that being a scientist allows you to create questions and generate answers.


This is the fun part of the whole process. You get to develop your questions and collect data to answer them. But you need to make sure you know when to change questions or select other avenues of collecting data if your project is not going to plan. You are in control of the process and at the end of the day, your progress is based on how well you can manage the project. It’s all about being flexible.

Tagged in: beginning choice PhD topic

Choosing a committee can be a daunting task for a doctoral student.  We’ve already covered two strategies that can help you through this process. 

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Whether you’re thinking of applying to grad programs or you’re in the thick of internship applications, being aware of these seven points can save you some heartache when applying for an internship or practicum.

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So you’re ready to pick your committee members; there are a few things to keep in mind first—after all, it is a 3–6 year process. It is essential that doctoral students take the time to reflect on who they will choose to guide and mentor them through the doctoral process and to eventually determine whether they have earned the degree. It should be said that I come from a social science background, so my perspective is tailored to my particular field, but the strategies I discuss in this series of posts can really be applied to any academic background. There is a lot to talk about so let’s start with the first two guidelines.

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