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Someone clever once said, “A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your step as you walk the tightrope of life." My name is Paula, and I am in my second year of a PhD in Management at NEOMA Business School (Paris, Reims), while residing (and working full-time) in the US. Some days, it feels as if I’m getting some of it right, and others, not even close.
While there are a myriad challenges with being a working professional, mother of a young child, and simultaneously attending a graduate school almost 4,500 miles away, the experience and the learning opportunities have truly been beyond compare.
My undergraduate and master’s degrees were both completed in the US, but I chose this school and program in France because it afforded me a level of international perspective from both students and professors that I felt was unparalleled. My cohort of peers comes from 18 countries, and I am the only American; my instructors hail from all points, fluent in multiple languages and with extensive teaching and research experience in many countries. For me, this is exhilarating on so many levels, and exactly what I wanted for my doctoral experience. In addition to the research skills that are prerequisite for my career, my doctoral training in management feels appropriately global.
This is a wonderful time to be in graduate school: so much is possibly digitally now, that you could envision living in one place and going to school and conducting your doctoral research in another. It’s not always easy, but both graduate institutions and instructors that leverage connectivity as a part of their DNA is becoming more commonplace.
I am ever amazed – and grateful for – what I can do from my laptop (and with tools like ProQuest, which allow remote access to the articles and papers that I need when I’m not in country to access the library). They certainly widen the tightrope, or perhaps provide a net.
While everyone’s experience and circumstances are unique, I offer a few things I’ve learned in my journey in the hopes they might be helpful.
- Search for the doctoral program that’s exactly right for you – it’s out there. Mine is inherently flexible, and I am doubly blessed with an advisor whose research and thinking I not only admire, but who supports me and provides many poles for my tightrope. I am also fortunate to have an unbelievably supportive family – my husband and daughter – cheer me on, from below.
- Be hyper-organized, because all the elements of your PhD journey – and there are many, many of them - must be managed with care. It is your responsibility to learn and become expert in your material and in your methods. This takes time, and organization. One instructor early on recommended keeping a PhD notebook and writing in it every day; I think this habit enables good organization, incubation and progression towards your goal. Perhaps one day we’ll say, "Siri, who wrote that iconic research piece again in 2007 on dynamic capabilities…"
- Take the opportunity to learn from every professor or researcher that you meet along with way, even if it’s technically not “your area” – there is something that can be learned, and tucked away, for future research or reference. In my experience, you are generally surrounded by extremely bright and inquisitive scientists who are working on incredibly interesting things: your research will only be amplified by understanding what they are doing
- Focus on your writing (and your speaking), as key skills in conveying your ideas concisely and elegantly: convincing reviewers, editors and other constituencies within the academic ecosystem is dependent on this! Develop your own voice, but study with great care those writers – and speakers - you most admire. Write, and speak, at every opportunity – these are skills that only develop with practice and over time.
- Develop a thoughtful plan for managing your stress and your workload… you’ve got to offset long hours of work sometimes hunched over your computer with activities that nourish your heart, soul and body. Do simple things – take care of your eyesight, your wrists; stand often while you write. For me, an elliptical under my desk and my dogs keep me sane and offset being sedentary during heightened writing periods! Above all, a sense of humor about setbacks, rejections, and almost anything is critical..
- Finally, remember to use your poles to withstand headwinds when walking your high wire and remember – slow, steady, course-correct, and keep crossing the divide. My first research project was too ambitious, and I couldn’t get the level of interest I needed from managers. I felt I had “wasted” 6 months in trying to launch a study of this magnitude, and had failed in soliciting the necessary levels of participation. I did not fail, and I did not fall, off my wire – I had actually learned an extraordinary amount through that exercise, and then pivoted and adapted my design. I walked on, after regaining my balance.
In turn, I wish every doctoral student out there good provenance and steady progress on their studies, in their research and their chosen careers. With the right poles, good balance, and – most importantly, a sense of humor - you WILL make it to the other side of the big tent!