Four Steps to Navigating the Doctoral Process

By: Kaleb L. Briscoe, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Imagine being a doctoral student stressed about classes, cumulative exams, presentations, and publication writing. Doctoral education can be rigorous and with the constant desire to perform, present and publish, doctoral students can be overrun by anxiety. While pursuing a doctoral degree is often compared to running a marathon, it is equally rewarding. Finding resources to help you thrive is key. While all doctoral students want to get through the process, learning “how” can be difficult. Below are four steps to help navigate the doctoral process.

Use your resources:

There is an array of resources available for doctoral students. Students should begin by becoming familiar with your campus and department. While gaining a doctoral degree, remember that faculty, administrators, and practitioners have also been through this process and may be your best resource. Ask them about existing opportunities on campus, find the list of relevant journals and scholarships and connect with organizations that can provide information regarding the doctoral experience, travel awards, and other available benefits.

Creating and maintaining meaningful relationships is a vital part of this process. Be sure to create connections with the staff on campus. The professionals in the writing center and library can assist with writing, software, offer references addressing your research interests, and provide tutoring and writing appointments. While internal opportunities are an excellent way to connect with your current institution, be sure to find external opportunities as well. Start by joining a couple of professional development associations and build coalitions with others about scholarships and fellowships that may be available. Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), American Educational Research Association (AERA), National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA), American College Personnel Association (ACPA), are a few of the organizations that have graduate communities that assist doctoral students with getting acclimated and building community. Be sure to check out their websites, especially the ASHE Grad website for more information and ways to get involved. Professional organizations also offer doctoral students travel scholarships, fellowships, dissertation awards, and opportunities to present research in poster sessions and roundtables.

Find a good mentor or two:

After completing a doctoral program, new graduates have various professional aspirations. Many will pursue professorships, while others want leadership roles in administration. Wherever the doctoral process leads, one of the most critical components for success is a good mentor. Finding a mentor is like searching for a job, it takes work. Find someone who has similar research interests or someone who you admire. If a Vice President position is a goal, connect with the VP in your area of interest. Another pathway to securing a mentor is signing up for mentoring programs within related professional associations. Once you have found a potential mentor, find a mutually beneficial relationship that works for both parties. Be sure to set clear expectations, be flexible and amenable to schedule changes. While finding a mentor is key, finding multiple mentors is how you refine your professional development. Having more than one mentor provides different perspectives and information. For example, one mentor may be focused on professional aspirations, while another could assist with strategy and approaches for unusual situations. Conducting research in a topic area may present potential mentors so connect with a mentor regarding a desired project. Overall, find someone that you can learn and grow from.


Higher Education is competitive and is all about who you know and who knows you. So get out and meet people! Every opportunity you get, whether it is an on-campus meeting, a professional conference, a reception, take every opportunity to connect with someone new. Don’t be afraid to just dive in and introduce yourself! If you feel uncomfortable with walking up to people, find a wingman, or ask someone to introduce you. Some doctoral students struggle to approach faculty and practitioners. This is perfectly normal, however, networking is a large part of our business, so here are a few strategies to overcome this obstacle.

One approach is talking with your peers. Share with them that you want to connect with specific people and ask if they are willing to help. Another option is attending your university’s events. Symposiums, brown bags lunch series, and leadership conferences are great opportunities to meet fellow faculty and staff outside of your department and assistantship. Try to attend at least two institutional events a semester. The most crucial part of networking is follow-up. While it is great connecting with someone new and exchanging contact information, be sure to follow-up with them via email, phone, or even social media.  An example is after attending a conference; look up your new connections on LinkedIn. It is important that you make it easy to be remembered and add them to your professional network. There is a method to the madness of networking, and with a little effort, future supervisors, presentation collaborators or colleagues may be just a click away.

Collaborate with others:

Collaboration is another essential piece to the doctoral process. One of the best ways to find opportunities to collaborate is with your adviser. Working on research projects with your adviser is an essential part of this journey. This is a great way to learn the research process and begin building your reputation. Being on a research team will lead to conference presentations and publications. Find opportunities to collaborate with other doctoral students within your department or at other universities. At ASHE, students connect with graduate representatives and attend other graduate focused events. These conferences can lead to partnerships around research projects, sharing resources, and discovering other opportunities. Have your CV available to share with each other. Be prepared to discuss placement strategies, conference proposals and scholarship applications. Even though doctoral programs are competitive, upon completion, we will be colleagues and should help each other throughout this doctoral journey.

Pursing a doctoral education can be the most stressful years of your life, however, even after being pulled in different directions, you still can survive and thrive in your program. The four steps listed are a few tools to assist you throughout your program. While each experience is different and requires different resources to thrive, using these strategies can help strengthen your chances of success within your program.

Kaleb L. Briscoe is a Ph.D. student in the Educational Leadership and Higher Education program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). She serves as a Graduate Research Assistant for the Department of Educational Administration. Prior to pursing her Ph.D., Kaleb served as the Associate Director of Student Life at the University of Houston-Victoria.

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