6-Step Guide to Making Your Portfolio a Success, Minus the Stress

By Eliza Bourque Dandridge
Ph.D. Candidate in French and Francophone Studies


On February 7, Versatile Humanists at Duke featured several student presenters at a lunchtime conversation on PhD portfolios in lieu of preliminary exams. Eliza Bourque Dandridge, a Ph.D. candidate in French and Francophone Studies, shared some tips from her experience creating a portfolio. We found her advice so useful that we asked her to share it with other humanities Ph.D. students via the VH@Duke blog.


Eliza Bourque Dandridge (right) discusses her portfolio experience at the VH@Duke event on February 7.

Several Duke departments require a portfolio instead of a prelim, or a dossier of your work and ideas in place of a (long, hard, generally awful) written comprehensive exam. This is good news. The portfolio captures your master’s work here at Duke. It shows how far you’ve come—in your research, in your thinking, in your writing, and in your teaching. And it can be a satisfyingly tactile degree milestone, if you turn your dossier into a book of sorts (I had mine bound for under $10).

Requirements vary across departments, but most portfolios showcase research papers and essays, syllabi, statements on who you are as a researcher and an instructor, field lists or bibliographies, your CV, often a digital component or two, and maybe your prospectus, which releases you to begin doctoral research.

But does the thought of compiling those documents stress you out? It doesn’t have to. With proper pacing and early preparation, you can make the portfolio process a great success—and maybe even have fun pulling it all together. The skills you develop for the portfolio will also put you in good stead for the research, writing, and job applications that follow.

Here are six steps for maximizing your portfolio experience, based on what I learned as I pulled together my own.

1. Plan it out.

Narrow your focus. Many of us enter grad school as intellectual omnivores, or at least find many—too many—fields and people and books really interesting. As you sign up for classes, think about the subjects, fields, themes, authors, and time periods that attract you the most. Your job at this stage is to synthesize what you learn and to recognize what draws you in—and what clearly doesn’t.

Delimit. In writing. Keep a file, research log, or journal to record your thoughts and ideas and to note what you read and for whom or what class (Zotero is great for this, plus it organizes everything you’ve ever read into a hierarchical and searchable database, which you’ll need for the dissertation). Reread what you’ve written from time to time to see if patterns emerge in your reactions to certain material. By the end of your first semester, as you’re choosing final paper topics, pursue similar themes or threads to solidify your knowledge of particular fields or subfields.

Give your future life a quick think. Will you go after a tenure-track job? Will you become a public historian? Do you wish to pursue a joint degree? Thinking about career paths now may impact what your portfolio will need to show. You can also plan early for a few nice-to-haves—a blog, an op-ed, a curated exhibit that may require an internship, etc.—that can make you more competitive for specific jobs later.

2. Set your fields.

Look for synergies. In any given semester, how often do the courses offered actually correspond to your specific areas of interest? Perhaps not that often, but you can still select courses strategically to serve an overarching research plan. Pursue courses inside or outside of your department (with permission) with intersecting bibliographies, time periods, or engagements. No matter how alien the course topic may seem, see if you find yourself gravitating towards similar question sets, methodologies, or theories. If so, narrowing down your fields of interest for the portfolio may feel natural and cumulative. If not, revisit your papers and see what angles and conclusions tend to emerge. Your historical, literary, or theoretical horizons may be in your work already, just waiting for you to see them.

3. Choose advisors.

Remember: This is your researchnot theirs. Many grad students are shocked to learn that potential advisors will not come to them, asking to help. And most advisors will not make decisions for you, nor should you want them to. You alone have to live with your chosen research subject for a decade or more, so make sure it’s a good fit for you.

Knock on doors. On the flip side, you can’t propose marriage if you don’t know what you want. Many professors are happy to help when approached, but you can’t expect them to sign on if your interests are still too broad and shallow—or if their own work doesn’t in some way intersect with yours. Do your own reading and research, and then do the (at times extensive) legwork to assemble an appropriate team.

4. Write your field lists.

Take the first stab yourself. You will most likely set your portfolio fields with your advisors. They may not, however, actually hand you nice, tidy lists of the 30 or so books you’ll need to read for each of your three or four fields. The more reading and list drafting you do on your own, the more you learn about your research area, and the more confidently you’ll proceed through the portfolio process.

Find the classics. At some point in your first year, you’ll need to understand the contours of an established field or discipline—and quickly. But how? As you read, follow footnotes to find the superstar authors and the classic works. Do subject searches on the library website. See if certain books have high cite counts on scholar.google.com. Look for recent releases and read book reviews and forums on them; the reviewers themselves may be leaders in the field. Maintain and revise field lists as you go, and present them to your advisors for redlining and amendment only once you yourself have a handle on the literature.

5. Assemble your portfolio.

Synthesize that mess. Despite two or so years of planning and prep, your completed portfolio may seem like an eclectic collection of those few papers and projects that actually worked. Include a research statement that puts them—and you—in a single context. You’ll most likely be surprised that your odds and ends do, actually, reveal a certain outlook, and that they do fit together in unexpected and creative ways. Writing a portfolio overview at this stage, like writing a book introduction last, lets you weight certain discoveries or arguments more than others, tell a story, and chart a chronology. And years later, when you’re slogging through your dissertation, you may find yourself returning to this document as a sort of doctoral research ground zero.

6. Own it.

Write into the void. Position yourself in the portfolio narrative as a Ph.D. candidate, not a master’s candidate. You may not yet know what your dissertation research will focus on. Write as if you do know. This is the start of your career writing boldly into the void. On grant and fellowship applications, you’ll confidently signal contributions you have yet to produce. In the prospectus, you’ll write concretely about research and writing plans that may shift over time or never materialize. You’ll shamelessly propose conference talks that you have yet to write. On academic job applications, you’ll pitch courses you’ve never taught before and claim future publications you can only hope will happen.

Take heart in your academic training, and revisit your portfolio if you forget what you’re capable of, and what you’ve achieved. The more you talk and write about your research—in the portfolio, in the prospectus, in grant applications, at conferences—the more you actually shape it. And the better prepared you are before you start writing your dissertation, the happier you’ll be on the other side of it. Or so I’ve heard.


Eliza Bourque Dandridge is currently completing a Ph.D. in French and Francophone Studies in the Department of Romance Studies at Duke. Her research focuses on French-language comics during the final decades of the French empire.