Setting a Syllabus for the Post-Exam Semesters

By Nina Cook: Graduate school is hard – but it helps to have a plan.

Rice University

So…you’ve passed your exams. You’ve advanced from a Ph.D. Student to a Ph.D. Candidate. You’ve finished your coursework, you’ve designed a project, you’ve submitted your proposal– you’re now your own boss. You have the control. You have the power. And it’s terrifying.

The process of moving from an advisor’s student to an advisor’s colleague is one of the things that this whirlwind experience we call graduate school is meant to teach us. One of the steps in this transition is the “graduation” from student to candidate. I find that my peers seem to struggle with this transition and the lack of structure that attends it. I know that I did. There is no longer a clear course syllabus that sets out expectations for the semester. Instead, there is just a vague expectation that you will make “satisfactory progress towards your degree.” 

Of course, each committee is different. Your committee may have a different degree of involvement in the dissertating process than mine. I won’t claim that the strategies I’ve used to manage my time and wrangle my committee will work for everyone, but I do want to share the tips and tricks I’ve used over the years to maintain a positive relationship with my advisors and committee members, to clearly define and set expectations, and to manage my time and workload over the course of the semester. 

I am a fifth-year PhD Candidate in the English Department, and my committee has adopted a largely hands-off approach to my writing process. I’ve found this approach (at various stages) to be both freeing and paralyzing. It’s great to have the freedom to write when, where, and how I choose. It’s paralyzing to feel that I’m throwing my precious writing into a boundless abyss where no one will read it or respond to it. In this blog post, I identify key strategies for maintaining open lines of communication with your committee and for setting expectations – both for yourself and for committee members. I also identify seven cardinal sins you should never commit as a PhD Candidate. I hope that this post encourages you to revel in the control and power you have over your post-exams schedule, instead of succumbing to paralysis due to the lack of structure. 

So, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. The shift from student to candidate can be difficult, and this is largely due to the lack of structure this advancement entails. I’ve found that an effective way to combat this lack of structure is to provide yourself (and your committee) with a syllabus for each semester. Instead of relevant readings and assignments, as we’re used to seeing on our syllabi during coursework, this syllabus has deadlines for you to send your committee members chunks of writing as well as potential dates for meetings to discuss this writing over the course of the semester. These goals and meeting times need not be set in stone, but they should be specific.

I tend to send an email to my committee members at the beginning of each semester (usually within the first two weeks). In this email, I tell them what I did over my break, provide them with well wishes for their own time off, and then I request a meeting to set goals and expectations for the upcoming year. You can use to find a time that works for everyone. 

This initial meeting is all about setting a schedule. I recommend planning for 2-3 meetings with your committee per semester. You should set a general timeframe (one meeting near the middle of the semester, one a couple of weeks before the end of the semester). Individual days aren’t important at this stage, it’s just important that you have a general timeline in mind. Then, you should choose specific days to send your committee a chunk of writing. For me, this is typically about two weeks before the general timeframe of the meeting. So, if we are planning to meet mid-March, then I would plan to send them a chunk of writing by March 1. These dates are for you – and they should be relatively stable. I find that committing to sending my committee members some writing by a specific deadline helps to keep me accountable and keep me writing, while telling them that I expect feedback on this writing at a meeting mid-semester and end-of-semester makes my expectations for them and their mentorship clear as well. I have found that my committee is receptive to this kind of scheduling, particularly because I am the one initiating the meetings and managing our timeline. After this initial meeting, you should have a rough “syllabus” for the semester with relevant assignment deadlines and scheduled consultations. If this is all you do to manage your interactions with your committee, I can guarantee that it will improve your time to degree. But if you want to take things a step farther, then here are seven cardinal sins to avoid:

  1. Thou shalt not ghost thy committee. So many graduate students think that if they just don’t contact their committee, then they will not have to have those difficult conversations about their writing. But eventually, you will have to talk about the dissertation to graduate. Do yourself a favor and talk about it now when you still have time to revise.
  2. Thou shalt respect thy advisors’ time. You are busy – so is your committee. Yes, advising you is a part of their job, but it is certainly not the only thing they must do. In your communication with your committee, be sure to thank them for their time and advice. They are doing you a great service, and this deserves to be recognized.
  3. Thou shalt not sign up for more than one service commitment per year. You’re a professional now, and you need to focus on your own work. Don’t get bogged down by service to the University or your Department. Make sure you are focusing on the goal: graduation. 
  4. Thou shalt send out that essay for publication. It can be daunting, sending something out and having it rejected. Rejection is a part of life. Get over it. Your article will be better because of the readers’ reports you receive – and who knows, it may be accepted. Send out things often and early. You need those CV line items.
  5. Thou shalt not attend graduate student conferences any longer. Granted, these conferences are great fun and are excellent practice. But again, you’re a professional now. Use regional and national conferences as opportunities to network with professors and professionals in your field. Don’t attend too many – make sure you are strategic in your presentations.
  6. Thou shalt apply to external funding. I know it’s a lot of work, but this is so useful and will really set your CV apart from your peers. Apply to lots of things, for a little or a lot of funding. Make sure you ask your advisor for a letter of recommendation early – I’d say at least a month in advance. Be organized. Think ahead. You’ve got this.
  7. Thou shalt not fail to meet your own deadlines. You set the syllabus for the semester, and if you can’t keep up, how can you expect others to stay on track. Honor your commitments, both to yourself and your committee. And take this syllabus seriously. Afterall, this is your future. 

I hope that these tips and tricks for managing your time are effective and that the “shalt and shalt nots” prove useful as well. Graduate school is hard – but it helps to have a plan. So set up your syllabus and start checking things off your list.