While pursuing my Ph.D. in 2016, I had the opportunity to choose between two job offers. The first was from SCHOOL, a research center focusing on schools, where I could continue working as an assistant. The second was SURVEY, a survey center that offered me a position as a data analyst. Both were equally desirable and came with similar compensation packages.
I understood that choosing between the two was one of the hardest decisions I had to make. I just never imagined it to change my mindset completely and forever.
Before revealing my decision and detailing the lessons I learned from this experience, I want to present an overview of how hundreds of other social sciences fellows and I sought “funding” or grants for my Ph.D. study or research in 4-5 years.
The truth about “fully-funded scholarship”
Regular readers of my blog posts on studying abroad might notice that it is always a challenging feat to find a fully funded doctoral degree scholarship. And more often than not, such a scholarship differs from a full-ride, where you can study absolutely for free.
Exceptions exist, of course. However, most Ph.D. students I know are contracted to work at most 20 hours per week for the university, a laboratory, or a professor in exchange for tuition waivers, monthly allowances, and health insurance.
There are different types of work for Ph.D. students, but they are collectively called Graduate Assistantships (GA). The doctorate grants in social sciences, especially in my discipline of Education, could be more varied. As a result, we have to apply for a GA position to fund our study. The application process takes place annually in December. Then, applicants shall wait for the results from December to late April next year.
Candidates are considered based on various criteria. However, excellent students often come at the top of the priority list (as all professors want to have them on their teams). Next, come the first and second-year Ph.D. students (as doctorate tuition are usually highest during the first two years and might be lower for the remaining duration if students take fewer classes). The GA application is stressful and competitive enough as it, after all, decides how our life goes that year.
I worked as a GA
I landed a GA position during my first year as a Ph.D. student, supporting a faculty professor in his research projects. In my second year, I was assigned a GA position in a faculty-based research center on schools (SCHOOL), where I mostly handled administrative matters.
I worked more independently at SCHOOL, dealing with a lighter workload but less relevant to my research project. SCHOOL also offered flexible working, so I rarely showed up at the office. I often emailed SCHOOL’s manager to notify him of the tasks I’d completed. Looking back, I feel pretty ashamed that I did not perform at my best, but from my perspective back then, “I do what I am assigned to do, and that’s enough.”
As the first semester of my second year was ending, it hit me that I had to take five classes in my third year when I would no longer be on the priority list for GA. “What if I had no funding for my third year?” This anxiety-inducing thought bothered me day after day. I had constant butterflies in my stomach as those five classes cost thousands of dollars, not to mention the living expenses and health insurance.
I started proactively interacting with my boss more often, emailing him almost weekly to ask, “Does SCHOOL need any help? Please let me know if there is anything I can assist you with.” Most of the time, he replied that nothing was needed yet or that he was busy talking business with his secretary.
This only worsened my anxiety. “Does he not trust me enough to delegate more tasks to me? Does he think I’m no longer valuable at work?” Such negative thoughts made me toss and turn at night.
I felt like an outsider whenever I came to work. My boss and his secretary were busy handling paperwork, printing materials, and engaging in discussions while I was sitting alone, wondering what to do or if I even should do anything. Consequently, I got more worried about my future next year.
A new opportunity with SURVEY
The GA results came out quite late that year. It was already April, and there was still no news. Feeling less sure of my possibility of getting a GA in my faculty, I started looking for other opportunities at my university.
Browsing the university’s Job Opportunities page for a while, I eventually discovered a GA recruitment for a survey center on students (SURVEY). SURVEY’s salary package was similar to SCHOOL’s. The only difference was a stricter working policy where I must be present at the office for 20 hours a week. On the brighter side, this position was contracted for two years, which meant I didn’t have to deal with the stressful annual application process.
If there is anything you should know about me, I can work extremely hard and diligently toward my goal once I know what it is.
I spent two days researching SURVEY thoroughly and perusing the job description before working on my résumé. Before submitting my application, I asked at least two friends to double-check it and took it to the university’s Career Services Center for final review. Then I did my homework for the interview round, practicing answering questions about knowledge/techniques. I also visited the Career Services Center twice for mock interviews.
And that day finally came. SURVEY’s manager called to notify me of the offer. Feeling like a thousand-pound weight was lifted off my chest, I was delighted to accept it.
But just as when I thought my anxiety was over, my faculty informed me that they wanted me to continue working at SCHOOL for another year.
Is life playing games with me?
It might be easy for many to choose one job over another, but never for me.
I was afraid to turn SURVEY’s offer down after promising to work there. Its manager and three other employees trusted me enough to grant me the opportunity, and in doing so, they might have rejected many other applicants. I panicked at the thought that I would let them down.
Working for SURVEY meant having enough funding until graduation without struggling with the annual GA application any longer. Also, I could improve my data-analyzing skills for my graduation research.
Meanwhile, SCHOOL offered time and space flexibility – the exact thing I would need during my third year, considering I have five classes per semester and a plan to return to Vietnam for my research data collection. However, I neither had a clear vision for my position at SCHOOL nor a guarantee that I could work there until graduation.
I was caught in a dilemma!
I remember having only two days to make my final decision. I tried to do everything possible. I wrote my thoughts down, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each. I discussed the matter with my husband and called my mom for advice. I also visited SURVEY’s office to meet its employees and experience its working environment. Still, I had yet to make a decision.
On the day that decision had to be made, I revisited the Career Services Center for professional and objective advice.
During our consultation, the counselor asked me seemingly obvious questions that I, my husband, my mom, and those I talked to failed to consider. “What is your long-term career goal? Which one between SCHOOL and SURVEY can help Chi progress toward that goal?”
His questions hit me with a realization, fueling my mind with a sudden burst of energy and clarity, like an “aha moment,” as Oprah described.
My ultimate career goal is the pursuit of research. At first glance, it was easy to assume that SURVEY served me better as it offered a research position while my role at SCHOOL was more administrative.
However, the opposite was true.
Thanks to time flexibility during a year at SCHOOL, I could implement many of my research plans and have two articles published in a specialized journal. I realized my boss treated me very kindly as he wanted me to focus on my study/research (not that he did not trust me enough to assign more tasks as I had assumed.)
My boss allowed me to finish my assignments when I was at work. He often gave me study materials and let me print them for free. He also presented me with gifts every holiday as an appreciation for my contributions.
Yet, I had constantly wrapped myself in worry, pressuring and comparing myself to others. Anxiety had clouded my judgment so much that I had not realized the good in my job and co-workers.
I stepped out of the Career Services Center with a clearer mind. I texted my husband a famous saying, “I was blind, but now I see.” He knew I had made my decision: SCHOOL.
“Now I See”
This experience turned my perspective on life. I realized that I could and wanted to do many things for SCHOOL that I had previously overlooked due to sticking to a fixed mindset that said, “It’s not my job, and I won’t do it.”
After declining SURVEY’s offer, I came to SCHOOL’s office to meet my boss in person, thanking him for his kind support throughout the year so that I could work flexibly and obtain some achievements.
I also told him I would start working “office hours” two mornings a week. I would show up at the office on these days, and he could delegate tasks to me in person. I also proposed some ideas to optimize and professionalize administrative work at SCHOOL. He was more than happy to hear that.
This experience has taught me several valuable lessons.
1. Care less about what others think of you
When I confessed thatrefusing SURVEY after my acceptance would be a shame, the Career Services counselor responded, "You shouldn’t think that way. Many applicants want the position. If you turn it down early, another can take the job early. SURVEY is a professional organization, so they can easily handle it.”
She was right, indeed. When I called SURVEY’s Manager to turn down the offer, he expressed - politely, gently, and professionally - both his regret at my refusal and his delight as I could find a better fit. Similarly, I had been bothered about what my boss and his secretary thought so much that I plagued myself with untrue assumptions.
2. Do not let stress and anxiety cloud your judgment
Anxiety and stress can result in negative attitudes, and negativity breeds negativity quickly. Therefore, we should look at things objectively, cultivate a positive mindset, and lead meaningful lives for ourselves and others.
3. Be proactive at work
No one likes passive employees with a fixed mindset that “It's not my job!” and unwilling to do more than their duties. Therefore, it’s necessary to proactively look for new tasks at work, enhance your skills and abilities, and lend a helping hand if possible.
4. Regularly re-evaluate a job’s values
We tend to lose sight of a job’s values after sticking to them long. In my case, it was not until I almost stepped away from SCHOOL that I realized its goodness. Thanks to my boss’s support, I could return to Vietnam for three months in my third year to work on my graduation thesis — it was a privilege that no GA in my faculty had enjoyed before. And it was one of the good values that the SCHOOL offered.
5. Have confidence in yourself
The application and interview process with SURVEY was not meaningless. It boosted my confidence. I believe that I can successfully land a job next time as I made it once. This mindset has relieved and liberated me.
At the end of that school year, I continued applying for GA for my final year. It was the first time I felt neither stressed, impatient, nor desperate for a reply. Before the faculty announced it officially, the Professor in Charge informed me privately that he accepted me to work with him the following year.
Why so? I had good academic/research performance, I often showed up at the office, and those working with me spoke highly of me. Yet, none of these would have been possible if I hadn’t believed in myself and what I could contribute.
I by no means want to brag about what I have done (as I have yet to do many things) but to recount the arduous quest for funding among Ph.D. students in Social Sciences and what I’ve learned during this journey. Hopefully, this article fuels you with more inspiration and positive beliefs to live and work more effectively.