Tips for Success in Your Nursing PhD Program


paper boats with one in the lead.

Staying ahead of the game in your PhD program takes careful planning -- but it also means giving yourself a break.

Need tips for succeeding in your nursing PhD program? Here’s some advice from a successful graduate of the University at Buffalo School of Nursing, Junxin Li, PhD '14, RN, now a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

1. Maximize the mentor-mentee relationship by understanding the dichotomy of expectations.

  • Set up regular meetings with your mentor as an opportunity to gather feedback and keep on task.
  • PhD student expect mentor to be available, offer advice, direction, guidance and support.
  • Mentors expect PhD students to be independent, motivated, organized and seek and advice when needed.
  • Both mentors and mentees should keep communication lines open.
  • Remember, you are responsible for you own successes and failures. This is your PhD — your faculty mentors already have their PhD.

2. Prepare early for publications and funding success.

  • Collaborate with peers, faculty and post-doctoral fellows.

3. Cultivate effective time management skills.

  • Everyone has their own system for organizing. You must decide what works best for you and apply it to every aspect of your life.  
  • Keep a weekly calendar and to do list in whatever format you prefer.
  • Set up deadlines for completion of all academic work and stick to it.
  • Have a back-up plan for urgent situations — such as  child care, family emergencies, or  transportation issues — so that you do not stress if something interferes or takes precedent over what has been planned for that time.

4. Attend conferences to broaden your perspective.

  • You will not be a student forever -- begin to initiate contacts for your life after PhD completion.

5. Set aside time for your family and friends -- and for yourself!

  • Try to be present in the moment and focused on what you are doing during your down time. 
  • Give yourself permission to relax and have fun. 
    • Set aside all the work, deadlines and looming tasks to refresh and regroup. 
    • Go back to your work time feeling revitalized and ready to tackle the next project.

If you are an international student, you may face some additional challenges. For example, if English is not your first language you may have to work at mastering verbal and writing skills in order to complete coursework and write your dissertation. Other challenges may arise such as cultural differences in classroom dynamics and social issues. Students should be aware of resources available within the university to assist with these issues.

Here are tips for international students pursuing a PhD in nursing, courtesy of current PhD student Misol Kwon.

Careful planning and focusing on goals, along with building a supportive network are the keys to success. Remember to reward yourself along the way by having a life outside of your PhD studies and giving yourself permission to live it!