Developing a Professional Identity to Navigate the PhD Labyrinth

Rather than looking at your daily PhD existential crisis with dread, embrace it as part of your successful PhD journey.

One of my favorite PhD Comics is when Celia looks at her watch, sees that it is time for her daily five-minute existential crises, and takes a brief break from her computer to tear out her hair in agony over what she is doing with her life. Based on my own experience and conversations with students, I frequently wonder if PhD really stands for “Perpetual Headaches about your Direction.”

In a master’s degree program, there is a clear pathway. Work hard in courses, complete your internship hours, and network to develop the resume, experience, connections, and reference letters needed to get a job offer or into a doctoral program.

Perceived Logic of a Master’s Degree Program





However, in a PhD program, the end goal is less defined. There are more milestones: completing coursework, passing qualifying exams, developing a prospectus, navigating human subjects applications and data use agreements, collecting and analyzing data, and writing and defending a dissertation. Independent research is isolating. Research rarely proceeds as planned. To fund your studies, you might be juggling work as an adjunct instructor or research assistant on projects unrelated to your dissertation. The whole process takes over twice as long as a master’s degree program. It can be difficult to keep the end in sight and know what to prioritize.

Perceived Logic of a Doctoral Degree Program

Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

One strategy to help you navigate the PhD labyrinth is to reflect on your professional identity early and often. Simon Sinek’s “golden circle” (why, how, and what) is a useful framework to challenge your thinking. All PhD students take courses, read articles, conduct analyses, submit conference abstracts, prepare journal manuscripts, and write dissertations (the “what”). But “why” are you doing this and “how” are you doing this in a way that is unique?

Here are some questions to start your brainstorming:

  • Are you drawn to local, national, or global issues? Are you intrigued by one disease area such as cancer, diabetes, or emerging infectious diseases, or are you interested in broader topics such as health equity or the role that politics play in public health?
  • Do you prefer coding complex administrative claims data, assessing the effectiveness or efficiency of specific interventions, or conducting in-person interviews and field observations?
  • What are the three most interesting manuscripts that you read recently and what was so exciting about that research?
  • What is your academic community– which conferences and journals appeal to you the most and why?
  • Did you recently attend a presentation that caught your attention? What was so compelling about the speaker or the topic?
  • Who is your “academic crush”? Why is that scholar’s work or career path so inspirational to you?
  • In what ways do you want to contribute to the field? Do you want to advance scientific knowledge in your area? Do you want to learn about which policies are most effective for driving social change? Do you want to teach and inspire new generations to enter the public sector workforce?

Developing your “why, how, and what” is challenging and does not need to be a solo exercise. In my professional development class for first- and second-year PhD students, students read a sample of faculty biographies and an article on writing research statements. As homework, they drafted paragraphs describing their why, how, and what. During class, they shared their draft statements with their peers and offered feedback on what was particularly interesting about each other’s visions and how presenters could articulate their professional mission statements more clearly. The final part of the assignment was to identify three concrete steps they could take in the next couple years to work towards their goals. Students generated terrific suggestions. These including taking courses to learn specific methodological skills or theories, being strategic in selecting their topics for their candidacy papers, reaching out to faculty, gaining teaching experience, and developing a journal club readings group.  

You do not need to take a class to do this activity. You can simply write these short statements and short-term actions and discuss them with your peers, mentors, and other professional colleagues. Also continue to revisit your why, how, and what, as your vision will evolve throughout your PhD program and into your career. Personally, I do a similar exercise every few years to recenter myself and stay on track with my own goals.

Wrapping up today’s PhD Hack, cultivating a professional “brand” isn’t just for aspiring social media influencers. For students early in their doctoral programs, developing a clear professional identity can help them narrow down dissertation topics, identify specific courses to build specific skills and expertise, select faculty advisors and committee members, and identify other kinds of practical experiences to pursue such as interning at a policy research institute or government agency. Clearly articulating a scholarly identity can help graduating students set themselves apart on the job market. Having an explicit focus can also be useful in the early stages of one’s career, when deciding specific projects to prioritize in a new position.

In short, rather than looking at your daily PhD existential crisis with dread, embrace it as part of your successful PhD journey!

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Author Profile

Erika Martin
Erika Martin, PhD, MPH, is Associate Professor and PhD Director at Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany-SUNY. As an applied health policy researcher, she uses mixed methods to evaluate issues related to the allocation of scarce public health resources, the adoption and impact of public health policies, with a focus on domestic HIV and related syndemics. She also studies ways to improve the sustainability and impact of open data platforms. Articles she’s written have appeared in an array of leading health and public policy journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, Health Affairs, American Journal of Public Health, Public Administration Review, and Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

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