Never say this to a doctoral student

5 Things to Avoid Saying to a Doctoral Student if You Want to Support Their Work

By Dani Babb, PhD

For most, the decision to pursue a doctoral degree is one of the most important ones in their lives. Students undertake academic pursuits of the highest scholarship and potentially the most life changing. It’s also incredibly time consuming - and will require patience from friends and family. Therefore, encouragement and understanding from those closest to learners is paramount to our confidence and ultimate success.

However, some well-meaning individuals within this personal entourage may inadvertently say the wrong thing to students - who are likely already suffering from confidence issues or doubt regarding the pursuit of their degree.

Here are the Top 5 things to avoid saying to a doctoral student if you want to support their work:

1. “Are you sure you can afford the tuition?”

Unless the doctoral student is independently wealthy, the chances are that he or she will need to borrow money or dig deeply into savings in order to pay for their tuition. They are probably already questioning the soundness of the financial investment they’re making. They don’t need to hear it from anyone else. If someone in your circle is questioning this element of the work, they may be coming from a practical perspective, but ultimately the choice to invest or not is yours. At some point it’s okay to say “I’ve thought this through and I choose to do it.” (I had to say this to my now ex-husband at the time too).

2. “What good will a doctorate do you?”

While we all appreciate practical advice, sometimes it can be too practical. This is a difficult question for a doctoral student to answer, and any answer given may be met with skepticism. Although it usually impacts others, the decision to pursue a doctoral degree is ultimately a personal one. Respect the fact that the student is convinced, even if you may not have the same conviction. There are many reasons we choose to pursue a doctorate and not all of them will make financial sense to everyone in your circle.

3. “It will be hard to not be able to spend as much time with your family.”

This is often the most difficult obstacle to overcome. There is no doubt that quality time with family and friends will be diminished throughout the doctoral journey. There is no way to sugarcoat this, and it’s not necessary to point it out because it’s not as if it has not already been a serious struggle by the student to come to terms with. Instead, focus on the student’s post-graduate life, by saying something like, “After you graduate, your family will be so proud of you!” This is uplifting and encouraging.

4. “You just want to show off to the rest of us.”

Although this may be said in jest, there often is some underlying truth. While we may be genuinely happy for someone close to us who has decided to pursue a doctoral degree, our own inadequacies may surface, especially if we were not able to continue our own education and this has been a sore spot for us. Instead of taking the negative approach, use it as a source of inspiration for yourself. It’s never too late to go back to school.

5. “Your grades in school were not that high, so are you sure you can handle it?”

Many doctoral degree learners were not top performers throughout their education. This should have no bearing on their ability to achieve success at the doctoral level. They are different people now, with families, jobs, and other responsibilities that have taught them to be dedicated to their duties. Even if they did not perform well in school earlier in their lives, help them to believe that this opportunity represents a clean slate.

If you find yourself surrounded by naysayers, it may be time to set some boundaries. More on this soon!

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