My Ph.D Cohort
All Ph.D programs, or at least all Ph.D programs designed for working people, should be cohort-based. I’m a pretty diligent and motivated student (when I can stay away from the funny pictures of celebrities on Tumblr), and I like to think I’m decent at my coursework. However, I can think of two occasions in the past year where I might have dropped out, or at least slowed my pace, had I not had a cohort-mate to vent with, and had I not known that my departure would leave a hole in a group of friends I had come to care for very much. In this post I’ll share what I think are the benefits of the cohort, and suggest ways that students and faculty can prevent or address common issues that keep cohorts from working as smoothly as they might.
Benefits of the cohort
Built-in support system
If you haven’t gotten the memo yet, doctoral work is stressful. Having not ever tried grad school while not working full-time (I also worked 40 hours a week during my MLIS due to those pesky light bills) , I can only assume that juggling a Ph.D with a day job is even more intense. To make matters worse, when you start a Ph.D your free time largely vanishes. Most doc students cut their socializing to the bare essentials. I’m getting out a bit more now that I’ve gotten my bearings. However, for the first year I really only hung out with my husband, a few very close friends, and my family. That meant my cohort became a very important aspect of my social life. They also “get it”. While I have the most amazingly supportive husband who is interested in and supportive of my work, and has even taken over laundry and dishes for the duration (!), he isn’t undergoing the lived experience. Ditto my work colleagues and other friends. The cohort understands.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses—for instance, I’m good with social theory, but was happy to escape Calc 1 with a C. I helped my friends earlier in the program during our theory heavy courses, and now that we’re hitting the quant research sequence, they’ll probably wind up nursing me through all these icky numbers in the stats classes. Plus, sometimes you’ve got more going on at certain times than others, and group members are there to pick up the slack. (this can also be a drawback, which I’ll discuss in a sec)
Get out of your comfort zone
Being an academic librarian, my closest colleagues are librarians. Oh, I have good relationships with a lot of faculty, but I really don’t know much about life in the administrative/staff realms, except to the extent it touches our lives directly. My cohort, on the other hand, encompasses people from community colleges, regional universities, a flagship branch and a private liberal arts school. In addition, our job descriptions include just about every possible administrative department or experience level, and a few faculty members to boot. Hearing each others’ perspectives have given us all a greater understanding of the bigger picture, and we’ve already identified many ways we can help each other succeed.
That said, it’s not all sunshine and roses—I have an awesome cohort, but cohorts can be toxic just as easily as any other group. Here are some common issues that come up, and how to deal with them.
Like any group, Drama can evolve in a cohort. There is only one cure for Drama, and that is maturity mixed with a common goal. You may think one or more of your cohort partners are insane or infuriating, but when the rubber hits the road, you need to be prepared to set that aside and work together. Also…don’t date anyone in your cohort till you’re ABD. Fortunately that’s not an issue in our group, but I’ve heard tales that this often leads to Bad Things.
Seeing the faculty as the enemy
Especially in this age of accountability, in most cases your professors genuinely want you to succeed and will help you to the best of their ability. That’s not to say they’ll make it easy on you. Understand they’re working in your best interests, and take things in the spirit they’re intended. Also, by the point you enter Ph.D work, it should be obvious that Professors are People Too. They have failings, frailties, are overworked, and just plain screw up sometimes. While you should expect a quality education, also understand that by the time you reach Ph.D, you will be interacting with professors on a more-or-less equal level. Lower your expectations of them at the same time you raise your own expectations of yourself.
Lazy study mates
Fortunately, this is another one I have only heard about, not experienced. However, there is a surprising amount of group work in a doctorate, and one weak link can cause a lot of damage. While everyone can and does have a bad semester where others pick up their slack, there comes a point where you must be ruthless in the service of your education as well as the greater good of your cohort. Speak to them privately, quietly refuse to be on their teams, or simply have a chat with their advisor or your instructors. Once is ok, twice is coincidence. But as soon as laziness becomes a pattern, you have to find a way to nip it in the bud.
So, those are my tips! Hope you enjoyed. This is looking like it’s going to be a great summer, and I’ll be back “soon” as class and research project events warrant. I’m working on an IRB right now for a project that I will (hopefully!) get a chance to present at ACRL 2013, so I hope to share that experience in a forthcoming post.