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Starting a PhD Program? Wait, what is a PhD Program?

July 28, 2017

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Letter to a newly admitted PhD student


After going through the long and grueling process of gathering transcripts and diplomas, writing dozens of statements of purpose, and gathering recommendation letters, after the agonizing wait for admission decisions, you have finally received one (or several!) offers to join a PhD program in business. Congratulations! This is in itself a significant achievement: being now in my third year of the marketing PhD program at INSEAD, I still vividly remember how happy I was when I received the admission decision.


It is, however, only the beginning of a demanding and transformative journey. When Paulo offered me to write this invited piece on his blog, I started to reflect on the things I have learned over the past two years, on how this newfound knowledge has changed me, and on how I would share this experience with newly minted PhD students. You will find in this post a collection of those thoughts: not all of them will be applicable to your situation and personality, but I want to believe that at least some will help you navigate the complex and fascinating first two years of a graduate program.


The Times, They Are A Changin’

One of the first thing that you need to realize is how different a PhD program is from what you had experienced before. What the higher education system has asked of you so far was to prove that you were able to understand and memorize complex theories and methods, and your presence in a competitive PhD program is a proof of this ability of yours. However, your previous academic achievements are irrelevant in this new environment: first, because all the other students (and professors) have demonstrated similar academic prowess. Second, because the goal posts have moved: from now on, you will not be judged on your ability to ingurgitate existing knowledge, but on your ability to push the existing boundaries of knowledge. Although this statement sounds straightforward when explicitly stated, many students (including myself) do not realize at first its numerous implications.


The main reason is that the graduate school environment will look deceptively familiar to you: you will have classes to attend, readings to do and summarize, assignments to complete, tests to take at the end of the semester/period, and grades to evaluate your performance. Beyond the veil however, everything is different from what you were used to. First, classes do not fulfill the same roles: while the ones you had before were aimed at exposing you to new knowledge, the classes in graduate school are meant to equip you with tools to conduct high-quality research. Second, the readings are not meant to be summarized and memorized, but to be understood and contextualized: they are parts of the great puzzle of academic knowledge, and only through their intricate knowledge will you be able to identify potential gaps that remains to be filled by research. Third, the assignments are merely an opportunity for you to practice using the tools that will be the bread and butter of your academic life: writing skills, statistical techniques, data management software, research methods. Finally, the tests and grades are somewhat irrelevant: at most, tests should be seen as a commitment mechanism to help you study, and poor grades should be used as a diagnostic that you are not doing things as you should. This is a radical change in perspective, and you should not let yourself be caught off guard.


You Know Nothing (And That’s OK)

Another feature of the graduate school environment is how much freedom you will have over what you will learn: most graduate programs have a “common core” of classes that you will have to take (statistics, research methods, psychological/sociological/economic foundations of management science, etc…), but beyond that, you will be in charge of selecting what you will learn and how. Today is a wonderful time to be given such freedom: the sources of knowledge are virtually limitless, and you will have the opportunity to attend classes taught by professors of your department, read textbooks and manuals, take classes online, attend conferences and symposiums… However, such breadth of learning opportunities can be paralyzing, all the more that you will be constantly remembered that your time is limited (and precious), and that you should focus on learning materials and techniques which will prove relevant to your topic of investigation.


Unfortunately, this advice will prove to be a little use to you in the first months of the program, as you will find yourself confused about your research interests. Even though the statements of purpose you submitted in the application process presumably gave you a first opportunity to reflect on what you find interesting, it is unlikely that you will stick to this exact topic. Indeed, you will experience upon joining the program a torrent of knowledge, which will generate a flurry of new ideas, which will in turn leave you extremely puzzled about which direction you want to push your academic life in. This is perfectly normal (and I would argue the healthy sign of an open mind), but this state of confusion can be somewhat disconcerting, prevent you from deciding on a stream of knowledge to investigate, and ultimately hinder your research progress.

The best advice I have received to escape this state of confusion is to meticulously keep track of all your ideas: all too often, a common thread will start to emerge, or some ideas will end up looking more interesting than others. What you should do next is approach the professors in your department who are working on these topics, and give them a 5-minutes rundown of your ideas: not only will this help you figure out which ideas are actually worth pursuing (which will in turn help you select materials and techniques that you should learn), but more importantly it will help you discover who your potential advisor will be.


The lesson I have learned from my first months is how paradoxical the PhD journey can be. Although it is an extremely personal experience, which will require you to learn a lot about yourself and take your progress in your own hands, you will soon come to the humbling realization that you cannot do everything on your own, and that you know very little. You will also come to learn that no matter how intimidating professors with hundreds of line on their resume can be, they have all been in your place once, and they more often than not remember how important proper guidance is to a student. As a consequence, you should never be afraid of asking for their advice and supervision: it will not always work, and you will sometimes face a rebuttal or even a rejection. But if you are serious and honest about your intellectual growth, you deserve to find a like-minded professor who will be able to answer your questions and guide your early steps in research, and you will only be able to find this person by speaking up, going out of your own bubble, and reaching out to others. All students are going through periods of doubt, and no one should judge you for expressing them out loud or asking for support. The process of knowledge creation is a collective adventure, and it definitely takes a department to turn a curious student into a successful professor.


Meet the Boogeyman

I will conclude this post by a few words on the end of your first two years in the program. Not all schools work in the same way, but the end of the second year is generally a milestone which will (hopefully) mark your transition from being a PhD student to being a PhD candidate. At INSEAD, the following three conditions must be met for a student to be accepted as a candidate:

  • Having completed the course requirements (passing grades in all classes, thereby earning the required number of credits)

  • Having submitted a second year paper of satisfactory quality

  • Having passed the comprehensive exams (also called “comps” or “quals”)

The course requirements and second year paper requirement are generally not major roadblocks: as long as you take enough time to figure out your ideas in your first year, and interact with your future advisor on a regular basis, you will be on track for those requirements.

The comprehensive exam, on the other hand, is more intimidating: you will have to show in a series of exams that you have learned and mastered all the topics that you have covered in two years of classes. The format varies from one school to another, but at INSEAD the marketing comprehensive exams are divided in three day-long exams: the breadth day (on which you answer broad questions about foundational papers in marketing), the depth day (on which you are tested on your in-depth knowledge of papers and concepts relevant to your future dissertation topic) and the review day (on which you have to review a paper within your area of specialization).

There are no golden rules to pass the comprehensive exams, but I found the following strategies to be helpful in relieving the pressure and helping you tackle this exam with a cool head:

  • Start your preparation in your first year. Keep in mind that you will not have the time to re-read all the papers and re-learn all the concepts before your comprehensive exams. For this reason, you should always keep some trace of the papers and concepts when you are first exposed to them. For each session’s readings, I made sure to write three to four lines per paper, summarizing the contribution and the key experimental methods. All I had to do before comps was to revisit those notes, write them on my preferred learning material (flash cards) and memorize them.

  • Select classes in line with your area of specialization. You are supposed to become an expert in your field, and you cannot afford not to know foundational papers. The way I went about this was designing a reading class with my advisor: I assembled a list of what I deemed to be the most important papers in my field, and we refined this list together. I then read them, and wrote detailed summaries for each paper, which I used to prepare the depth day.

  • Get feedback on your writing style, and improve it. Deep knowledge and creative research questions only go so far if you are not able to articulate them in writing. In particular, non-native English speakers will strongly benefit from getting some pointers on how to improve their written English, and this will make a significant difference in how well their answers will be judged during the comprehensive exams.

  • Take care of yourself: the time before comprehensive exams is very stressful, but from what I have gathered from senior students it is a walk in the park compared to the job market period. For this reason, you should use this opportunity to learn how to work hard without losing your mind. For instance, it is always better to get a real break and go back to your notes with a fresh mind after a relaxing week-end than to burn yourself out by staying at the office all night. Productivity matters, but don’t forget the bigger picture: you will not get much work done if you are unhappy or under constant stress.

If you made it to the end of this post: thank you for reading my prose, and I hope that you will have learned a few things on how to be happy and successful in your new life. If you have any comment, question, or suggestion on how to improve this piece, or if you just want to say hello, you can write me an email at

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