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Between the end of summer and the onset of fall, a brief season known as “back to school” occurs. For many people this is a resumption of what they were doing before the summer, and yet for many others the “back” part entails a return to a world that they have been away from for some time. Starting graduate school is simultaneously a return to school and a very new experience, it’s the type of thing that one has been prepared for and also the type of thing for which nothing can really prepare you. Nevertheless, in seeking to assist those who find themselves beginning the trials and travails of graduate school, here is some advice based on far too much experience in graduate programs. Though what follows will likely be of most applicability to those in the humanities and social sciences, this advice should not be only applicable to those in such fields.
May these observations be helpful to you!
Recognize that this is going to be a challenge
Graduate school is difficult. This is pretty obvious. And yet, many graduate students react with shock and sorrow when they have their first moment of realizing just how difficult it can be. Oftentimes it seems as if people go into graduate school aware of the fact that it’s challenging, but believing on some level that it won’t be difficult for them. Surely, you are intelligent enough to understand all of this material, organized enough to maintain a careful work/life balance, and talented enough to churn out brilliant papers without needing a third cup of coffee – and you may really be all of those things, but graduate school is still going to be difficult. It is important to go in having already acknowledged and accepted this, that way when you find yourself miserably trudging through the mire you won’t feel surprised, and when you feel like you’re barely keeping up you won’t feel like this means you are some kind of failure. To be clear, you do not want to allow this to give rise to some sort of masochistic relationship with graduate school wherein you don sackcloth, whip yourself, and expect to suffer. You should not be suffering, you should not be devoting every waking hour to school, but you should be prepared for a challenge.
It’s okay to not know everything (really)
Inevitably a moment will come when a professor or another graduate student mentions a name, a particular theory, a term, a historical event, or a book – that you have never heard of before. It’s quite likely that whatever it is will be mentioned quite quickly, or in passing, and the speaker will simply continue as if they expect everyone else to know what they’re talking about. There is always a chance that the professor will catch themselves and explain (or they’ll stop the pontificating graduate student and ask them to explain), but there really will be some moments when it will feel like everyone but you knows something. If you don’t know who/what/where/when they’re talking about, don’t worry. But when this occurs you should make a note to yourself to look it up so that you’re better prepared for the future. In some cases you’ll quickly realize that whatever was mentioned is of little importance to your own work, in some cases you’ll realize that this really is quite important for you, and in still other cases you’ll realize that being able to casually drop some of these five dollar words is simply how you signal that you’re part of this field. Nobody is going to expect that you know everything in your first semester; however, people are going to expect you to be proactive in learning the things that you don’t know.
Befriend the staff
Here is a good piece of general advice for life: don’t be a jerk. Here is another good piece of general advice for life: don’t be a jerk to the staff. As a graduate student you’ll find yourself interacting with other graduate students, with professors, with visiting scholars – and with lots of other people who are every bit as deserving of your time, and respect as the people with (or pursuing) fancy degrees. There is no excuse not to be friendly and polite to your department’s office staff, to the people who clean your department, to the people who deliver the mail, to the security guards, to the IT staff. These people have names, and you should learn them. These people have lives, and you should ask about them. You are going to see many of these people more frequently than you are actually going to see your advisor – and these people are as important to your department as the professors with named chairs. In many ways they are more important. Don’t be a jerk.
Pet the dogs
If a professor in your department brings in their dog (or dogs) one day – you should go pet the dog(s). If there’s some kind of event at the library, and there are dogs at it – you should go pet the dogs. If someone is strolling through campus, and they’re walking a dog, you should ask if you can pet their dog. And if you have a dog of your own, you should consider bringing it to campus so that other people can pet it. You’ll be happy that you did. (Note – this doesn’t apply to you if you don’t like/are allergic to/are afraid of dogs).
Don’t be “that guy”
When it comes to graduate school, one of the characters who is a constant target for mockery and derision is the graduate student who dominates the discussion in every seminar, and routinely mentions impressive thinkers (who aren’t being read in the seminar) while casually bringing up complex theories. Generally, this graduate student is a straight white male, though this role can really be assumed by anyone. You do not want to be this person. Part of being a student in a graduate seminar involves paying attention to your own participation in that seminar – you should be talking and contributing to the discussion, but you should bring enough self-awareness with you to ensure that you aren’t dominating the discussion. Similarly, that you’re in a graduate seminar in the first place suggests that there are certain topics/thinkers/theories that you find particularly interesting, and while you may be eager to have the opportunity to finally explain “why [your favorite theorist] was right about everything and why everyone should read them” you should try not to deliver a two hour speech on this topic during every class. If you have a tendency to talk a lot in class, you need to recognize this, and you need to commit to making sure that you aren’t talking too much, that you aren’t talking over your fellow students, and that you aren’t becoming “that guy.” Nobody is going to come out and tell you that you’re being “that guy,” but if every time you start to talk your peers sigh and roll their eyes – you probably need to change your behavior.
Put your name on your stuff
Did you put your lunch in the communal fridge? Did you bring in your own stapler? Did you buy a copy of this book instead of borrowing it from the library? Did you bring in your own mug? Did you print out these articles? If the answer to any of those questions is “yes,” than you should also have put your name on those things. This is not to suggest that theft is going to be a problem in your department (though it may well be), but things can easily get mixed up and you want to be able to tell which things belong to you. Sometimes microwaveable burritos get eaten by mistake when someone thinks that it must have been theirs (they buy the same brand), sometimes books accidentally get picked up from common room tables (when someone else bought the same edition). Put your name on your stuff. In the best case scenario you’ll never need to have done this, and in the worst case scenario you’ll be glad that you have done it.
Your fellow graduate students aren’t your competitors
It is easy to see your fellow graduate students as your foes, and some departments (unfortunately) are really set up in a way that makes you feel like you’re all competing with each other. There can be a battle for funding, for professors’ time, for library books, for office space, for fridge space, for TA assignments, for printer toner, for grants, and so forth. Furthermore, it is not unheard of for people to feel that they have a nemesis in their department with whom they are locked in an epic battle which shall one day be resolved with broadswords beneath a thunderous sky. But, to the best of your ability, try not to think of your fellow graduate students as competitors, think of them as colleagues. This will help keep a convivial atmosphere in the department, and will make the experience more pleasant and less stressful for everyone (including you). Granted, this can be difficult in some departments (when money is tight in a department, graduate students may really find themselves having to compete over it). Nevertheless, you’ll get more out of the experience by helping your fellow graduates than by trying to defeat them. Colleagues share information, colleagues read over each other’s applications, colleagues give legitimately useful advice, colleagues sometimes have their own secret stashes of snacks, colleagues have teaching tips – those are the types of relationships you want to cultivate with your fellow graduate students, not ones where you’re constantly attacking each other.
When you go out with fellow graduate students, only allow yourselves to “talk shop” for the first hour
Graduate school can consume your life if you aren’t careful, and even when you are careful. The things you’re working on, and departmental politics, can easily become the only things that you talk about – especially when you’re hanging out with other people from your department. Therefore, when you go out with people from your department, try to limit your shop talk to the first hour. After that, talk about something else. Yes, you’ll wind up talking about school for more than the first hour, but it’s worth trying to talk about other things. Really.
Make friends with people who aren’t in graduate school
Graduate students tend to spend a lot of time hanging out with other graduate students, in particular with the other graduate students in their own departments (and even more specifically with those who are in their own cohort). You should certainly befriend the other graduate students in your department (you’ll be spending lots of time with them [don’t forget to also select a nemesis]), but you should endeavor to make some friends who aren’t in graduate school. Though it can often be a wonderful place, graduate school can also be something of a bubble, and it can be wise to make some friends who don’t fill their days with reading theory and their nights with writing papers. Another reason why this is highly advisable is that your fellow graduate students will come and go. When it comes to dissertation years, your fellow students will vanish to go do research elsewhere (and you might do the same), and many of the more advanced students in your department will leave each year after they finish the program. This can be challenging from a friendship perspective as it means that the person who you got drinks with every Monday for two years, might suddenly wind up going to Prague. Having a mix of graduate and non-graduate friends will hopefully give you a more stable group of friends. As for how you make friends who aren’t in graduate school (tough question), consider volunteering, getting involved in local activism, joining a non-school book club, or pursue the questing beast.
Look beyond your campus
It’s very easy to zero in on your campus, on your department, on your library. This makes sense, after all. And you certainly want to familiarize yourself with the resources that are close at hand (many a graduate student is woefully unaware of what is available to them at their own campus library). However, take a step back and look at the other resources in your city. What other libraries are there? What museums are there? What foundations are there? All of those can be excellent places to do research (without requiring you to travel a great distance), and many of them may have funding they can award. But you should also look at what other universities are nearby. While you certainly want to be working with the professors in your own department, it may well be that there are phenomenal scholars working on similar topics to you at nearby schools. In particular, you should keep your eyes out for other nearby schools that don’t have graduate programs, as this may mean that there are professors at those schools who would be interested in working with you (and who aren’t already super busy working with their own graduate students).
Make a book budget
Here is a joke: what do you call a book hoarder who wants to rationalize their book buying habit? A graduate student! (pause for laughter). Graduate school is a great time to accumulate a lot of books. In course work you’ll be required to read many books, as you prep for your exams you’ll be required to read many books, as you work on your dissertation you’ll need to read many books. Of course, you can obtain these books from the library, but many a graduate student has wound up accumulating many a book. This can easily get out of hand, and many a graduate student has almost spent their rent money on books (I admit nothing!). Most graduate students find themselves living on a rather tight/fixed budget, make sure there’s a line in that budget for books, and then stick to it.
If you’re single, don’t date people in your department
Look, just don’t do it. Yes, there are certainly times where this has worked out wonderfully for people, but it usually doesn’t. You can ask your friends in your department if they have single friends who aren’t in your department. But when it comes to dating other graduate students in your department, just say no.
Recognize that you have a “tell”
In graduate school you’ll probably spend a fair amount of time in seminars with many of the same people. As time goes on you’ll start to notice some amusing things about how people participate in class discussions: you’ll have a peer who gets annoyed any time that someone uses the word “neoliberalism,” you’ll have a peer who brings everything back to Haraway, and you’ll start noticing the tactics that your peers use to talk around a book/article when they haven’t actually done the reading. Most people wind up subtly giving themselves away, be mindful of the fact that you will also have these tells.
Do compare yourself to others, but don’t let it bog you down
You will be told over and over again, not to compare yourself to others. And, in fairness, this is probably advice that you’ve been given many times before and not exclusively in the context of graduate school. Of course, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been told not to compare yourself to others, you’re probably going to do it anyways. So do it right. Keep an eye on what your fellow graduate students are doing as a way of figuring out what things you should probably be doing. That someone in your cohort has recently published a book review in a journal should not fill you with envy, but it should make you think that maybe you want to try doing something similar. That a member of your department is running from city to city to present papers at conferences, should make you look into what conferences you might want to present at. That someone in your cohort has just won a prestigious grant, should remind you that you can and probably should be applying to those things as well. Yes, you might feel some pangs of envy, and yes, sometimes your fellow graduate students will be infuriating braggarts (if one of them is really like this, you might want to select them as your nemesis), but being aware of what your fellow graduate students are doing can help orient you to the types of things you should be doing. While there may be some folks in your department who are outliers in these respects, keeping an eye on this stuff can also be important for figuring out the unspoken expectations in your department – if everyone but you is presenting at conferences, you probably want to be aware of that.
Recognize that nobody (nobody!) feels like they belong
Many a graduate student has had a moment in a seminar when they find themselves listening to a fellow graduate student expound on a topic (effortlessly dropping names and theories) which has made them feel as though they are an impostor. This is a horrible feeling, and it is a real blow to your self-confidence. Yet it is essential to remember: everyone feels this way. Really. Everyone. Granted, people feel like they’re impostors for a variety of different reasons. Some feel like they’re too young, while others feel like they’re too old, some feel like they aren’t as well read as their peers, some feel like nobody takes their research seriously, some feel like they can’t speak in front of groups, some feel like they didn’t go to a prestigious enough institution for undergrad, some feel like they’re surrounded by rich kids, this list could go on and on. Indeed, if you asked every current or former graduate student what it was that made them feel like an impostor you’d get as many different answers as you’d get responses. There will be a moment (or moments) where you feel like an impostor, but remember: everyone has those moments. And bear in mind that the person in your seminar who is holding court and making sure to fit Foucault into every sentence, is probably holding court and leaning on Foucault to help cover up just how insecure they’re feeling.
The free food in the common room won’t last
When someone knocks on your office door and tells you “there are bagels in the common room,” or when you receive an e-mail saying “leftovers from a staff meeting are in the kitchen” – go at once. If you’re hungry, that is. Free food is the friend of every graduate student, and leftover bagels tend not to last long. Hungrier graduate students than you have made the mistake of saying “let me finish this chapter, I’ll go grab a bagel in fifteen minutes” only to find that no free food remains. Many a graduate student maintains a collection of containers at their desk so that they can box up leftovers when they’re available, there is absolutely no shame in doing this.
Allow yourself to be excited
Most of the time, people don’t accidentally wind up in graduate school. There are simply too many hurdles you have to get over in order to get there. In other words, if you’re in graduate school you researched schools and programs, you took annoying entrance exams, you sent e-mails asking for information, you wrote statements of intent, you worked on a writing sample, you carefully tweaked your CV, you went on interviews, you secured recommendations, you sat anxiously while awaiting acceptances and rejections.
It took a lot of time and effort for you to get into graduate school. Now that you’re starting, you should allow yourself to be excited about it.
Maybe a little bit terrified too…but, mainly excited.
More Advice (some of it legitimate):