Panelists Share Experience and Insights about Pursuing Ph.D. Studies

Qianfeng Lin & Shu Zeng
April 20, 2017

On April 19, 2017, Columbia School of Social Work (CSSW) Office of Student Services and China Center for Social Policy co-organized a panel of current and new doctoral students in social work and related social sciences to share their knowledge and experiences in pursuing doctoral studies. Panelists included Yixia Cai, HangYi Chen, Yong Gun Lee, Yixuan Wang, Yeqing Yuan, and Yalu Zhang. Professor Qin Gao, director of China Center for Social Policy, served as the moderator. Many CSSW students and alumni, as well as those from other schools and departments of Columbia University, attended the panel discussion. 

Hangyi Chen received her MSM from New York University (NYU) and will begin her doctoral studies in Counseling Psychology at Fordham University this fall. She emphasized the motivation for pursuing a Ph.D. For her, it was strong personal interests in psychology and excellent peer professionals that propelled her into and sustained her through this journey, as the doctoral application process is time-consuming and energy-draining. She advised that having a pool of potential recommenders is important. She also urged potential applicants to be prepared and resilient for rejections and have strong self-commitment. 

Yixia Cai (CSSW ’16) will start her doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a focus on poverty and inequality. She echoed strongly in the importance of motivation and passion. She suggested that one should ask if s/he really wants to be part of the academic world in the long term before deciding to pursue a Ph.D. Being focused and setting clear goals, one also needs to gain related experiences as per the requirements of the doctoral application package. “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and learn more math!” Yixia urged. 

Yeqing Yuan is a doctoral student at NYU Silver School of Social Work. Her research interests include mental health, substance use, and homelessness. After working for three years with the homeless, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. to learn more about effective approaches to serving this population. She suggested that a focused area with a specific topic should help with the doctoral application, but one should also keep an open mind. She admitted that doctoral study is a long, demanding process like digging a tunnel. “Be a human first and enjoy the process,” Yeqing advised. 

Yixuan Wang (CSSW ’14) is a doctoral candidate and adjunct instructor at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service. Her research focuses on the rural-to-urban migrant population in China and comparative social policy between China and the U.S. She suggested applicants to start early in the preparation process, especially in securing recommendation letters. She also emphasized the importance of choosing a program that fits one’s interest and making up one’s mind about the choice as soon as possible. 

Yalu Zhang (CSSW ’14) is a doctoral student at CSSW with a focus on aging and health policies in China and the U.S. To her, work experience is extremely important because her research is deeply rooted in social work practice and services. She suggested applicants to prepare a solid writing sample ahead of time so that sufficient attention can be paid to other items in the packet during the application process. She deeply valued peer and mentor support in the stressful and competitive application process. 

Yong Gun Lee (CSSW ’16) is a doctoral student at CSSW focusing on HIV prevention. He agreed on the importance of mentorship. Before applying, he had long conversations with his mentor and other professors. The best advice he received was to “know yourself, know the field, and know the program.” “Be clear about who you are and what you wish to study,” he suggested, “and do not be afraid to reach out to directors of doctoral programs and ask questions about the programs.” 

During the Q and A, panelists answered many questions from the audience. Several panelists recommended having 2-3 years of post-MSW work experience before applying for Ph.D. programs. Regarding recommendation letters, panelists advised that it is important to find recommenders who are familiar with the applicants and able to comment not only on one’s academic abilities but also other characteristics such as teamwork and leadership skills. All panelists urged applicants to gain more research and publishing experiences. 

Columbia Affiliations
China Center for Social Policy