Nine Tips for (Starting) Graduate School

So, you are beginning a graduate program. Congratulations! You have decided, against many detractions, that this is the place for you. I did the same several years ago and I have not regretted it. As I begin my final year of graduate school, I am increasingly grateful for the mentorship I have received from colleagues, friends, and my committee. Below I have compiled some of the best tips and tools for navigating graduate studies that mightbe useful to those beginning their journey. The graduate school experience can be challenging, but it can be rewarding. I hope you’ll find these ideas increase the latter and assuage the former.

1. Know Thyself

While it was and is important to make the most of my PhD program, I also treat it like a job. This means I schedule time to work and then I work during that time. When I was in course work, I took all my classes on 2-3 days because I knew it would be hard for me to read and write after having sat in seminar. Instead, I used that time to socialize, pursue personal projects, attend department or university programs that were of interest, and take care of “Things to be Done that are not Graduate School Related.” I course-loaded on, say, Mondays and Wednesdays, and did course preparation on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If I was teaching, I would try to do something similar—all courses on MW, teaching preparation on Tuesdays and Thursdays, course preparation on Fridays and Saturdays. I also routinely take a whole day off. The day off is flexible—I insert it into the part of the week that I need it the most. I also do not want to work into all hours of the night, because it’s not terribly productive for my brain. So I work from 10-6, or something along those lines (with breaks!), depending on natural light. In the winter, I work earlier to make the most of daylight, because Seasonal Affective Disorder is part of my life. If you are better at working in short bursts, or can do seminar/teaching preparation on days that you have seminar/teaching, know that, and schedule around it. In short, figure out what best suits your brain and your work patterns, and build around that. I think it’s mostly futile to attempt whole-sale changes in your entire work-life. If you don’t start thinking or feeling until two in the afternoon, there is no point in pretending that a morning work shift will suit your reading or writing needs. Designate a schedule that is reasonable and abide by it, tweaking when necessary.

2. Develop a System

Everyday, literally, everyday, I wish someone had told me about Zotero sooner. When I think of all the notes I have taken, scattered about like so much apocalyptic aftermath in my office, I nearly weep in frustration. Imagine if, instead, all my files were neatly stored and sorted in a program like Zotero, Endnote, Scrivener, or Evernote. You will save your future self a lot of headache and time if you develop a system of information storage in the early days. The learning curve in graduate school is incredibly high. There is no way you will remember everything you read, thought, or discovered. So, it’s imperative that you choose a note-taking system that best suits your process, and that you can and will reuse over the years. At this juncture in my life, I use Scrivener to keep track of my notes, Zotero to handle my bibliography, and Word for document drafting and finishing. I could use Zotero for notes on texts, but I find its interface for that particular function unappealing, so I am less likely to return to it. I could use Scrivener for document drafting, but it doesn’t interface well with Zotero and I like to make my citations as I go along. I also like to retain dated drafts, so I find Word functional for that purpose. Any option I choose must be digital because I am unlikely to revisit handwritten notes. This is not necessarily true for other folks. I have a friend who takes copious and careful notes by hand, and categorizes notebooks by course, topic area, or dissertation chapter. It works for him. I have another friend who processes aurally and thereby records herself talking through certain ideas. Whatever system works for you is great. But it only “works” if you use it regularly and it aids you in your research, your projects, or your goals. Do not fall under the mistaken impression that you will retain information magically or that it will be easier to take care of later. You will not and it will not.

3. Shop Around

If you are in a PhD program, you will eventually need 3-5 people, depending on your program, to serve as the committee for your dissertation. Though it sounds terrifying, you can start making those connections very early in your program. I have had the incredible good fortune to have worked with my committee since my first term and I cannot imagine graduate school without their steadying and brilliant presence. Take classes with different faculty members; if you enjoy their presence as a discussion leader, visit their office hours to see how they fare one on one. If you like them, continue building a relationship with that person. You have a perfect reason if you are in their course. If you can’t take a course with someone, but think your work aligns with theirs, see if you can TA or GSI for one of their undergraduate courses. If neither of these are options, try to attend department or university functions, workshops, etc, where you might meet advisors, mentors, and potential committee members. You might also be able to work as a researcher for someone; many faculty members have research budgets that cover graduate student labor and some institutions offer faculty-graduate student mentor programs and stipends. Perhaps one of your old or current advisors or professors knows who might suit you. Ask them for recommendations, and then ask them if you can mention their names when you reach out to the prospective contact. You might even ask them to reach out on your behalf, though I have always preferred to introduce myself, especially if I know that I can mention a mutual colleague early in the email. In the event that courses, teaching, research, or contacts in common are not viable options, email the person you are interested in anyway, introduce yourself, and ask if you can meet to talk about overlap in your projects or to ask for their suggestions on reading materials or research sites. Be pleasant and prepared during the meeting, and follow up after. You are laying the groundwork to continue connecting with this person and building a relationship that will likely be mutually beneficial in the future. Graduate school is hard. Finding the right people makes it, if not easier, more pleasant. Bonus: the email strategy is not a bad idea for conference networking.

4. On Interacting with Faculty

It is important to understand that although professors are human and humane, they are not your primary care giver, significant other, or friend. They may become more than a professional relation in the future, but when you are beginning graduate school, you should keep in mind that they are first and foremost, guides on the path to your goals in the program. For me, this has meant, that while I can be chummy with my committee and the faculty I meet and interact with, I am only so after we have established a professional relationship and they have indicated to me, through questions, engagement, or other measures, that we can also be chummy. I have found faculty and other professionals in my department to be more open to less formal relationships when I foreground our business relationship. This is not because I’m all about the job—far from it. It is because their time is valuable and I want to respect their schedules and their needs, just as I expect them to respect mine. The single best piece of advice I have ever received from fellow graduate students on faculty-student relations was this: for every meeting you make, make an agenda. Why are you meeting with person X? What questions do you need answered? What is the goal of your time together? Knowing what you want out of a meeting, and communicating that, hugely aids in both getting what you want and instilling faith in your meeting partner. They know that you value you their time and input and they know that meetings with you are not an awkward, stilted conversation in which they could have been doing something more productive. After your meeting, follow up with a quick summary email of what happened, any future plans you made with that person, and a thank you for their time and help.

5. On Interacting with Colleagues

Though it may be hard to believe, especially as job opportunities in higher education diminish, the students in your cohort and in your year are not your competition. Your topic interests and future plans will likely diverge from theirs greatly over the years, and your performance as a graduate student, especially in later years, will not be judged based on if you won an argument in year one seminar. It is more healthy, and helpful, if you understand that these students are your collaborators and future colleagues. You will see one another at conferences, you will be asked to visit one another’s campuses, you will be asked about them by mutual colleagues, you will need to recommend their names and their work to your students, you will be in one another’s orbits for a long time to come. With that in mind, consider maintaining a professional relationship with these folks, even if you dislike them or do not want to be friends. As many reality TV contestants argue, you are not here to make friends. You are here to get a degree. It’s in your best interests to maintain a certain level of collegiality with everyone in your department, especially if your differences are rooted in fairly shallow matters.

However, collegiality can cover all manner of sins. In the case that a person is racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, ableist, or any other myriad of deeply troubling things, you are completely within your right to disengage from this person entirely or to pursue disciplinary action if necessary. Moreover, you do not have to educate him/her. You do not have to allow them space in your world. I wish I could say that this comes at no cost, but that’s not true. Often, the burden of incompetence, lack of collegiality, and “unprofessionalism” is carried unfairly by minorities, women, queers, people of color, and those who combine any number of those categories. I have accepted that those people with whom I’ve damaged or severed connections may indeed affect my future as an academic. And I should be clear that those people include not only members of my cohort, but high ranking faculty within my department. I do not like it and I worry about its impact on my future, but it is the choice (if one can regard responding to aggressions as a “choice”) that aligned best with my politics. And I will continue to work toward a university that does not punish a feminist, queer of color, and intersectional ethos. Any decision you make will have repercussions. The best you can do is give one another a good faith reading, and if that good faith is betrayed, understand that your next actions, whatever they may be, will be understood as your “choices” and their consequences, whatever they may be, yours as well.

6. Conferences Are Awesome

If your financial situation allows it, attending conferences is both beneficial and delightful. Go to the major conferences in your field, go to smaller ones that align more narrowly with your interests. But as I hope has become clear in this list, you attend to them, as to all things, with intention. I find I attend conferences for a number of reasons. First, I enjoy keeping abreast of my field, and am often inspired by the work of others within it. Second, I enjoy the opportunity to present my work and solicit feedback from audiences varying in breadth and familiarity with my topics. Third, I use these spaces to network, to increase my contacts, and to increase my visibility. Since I have chosen to pursue a career in academia, this third function is not optional, though if you are considering a different path, it may not be as important to your development and sustained presence as a scholar. Conferences are a lovely way to shake up the monotony of academic life, and remind you that there are other people, and other visions outside your institution. Spend time looking for your intellectual community outside your university, and if and when you locate that community, prepare to nourish it through your presence and your participation. If you do not locate it, you might ask yourself: how can I create this space? It doesn’t have to be huge. Maybe you reach out to like-minded folks at your university and start a reading or writing group. Maybe you create a listserv of folks working in your specialization. Maybe you organize a symposium. Any number of small steps can be taken to build what the conference environment offers at its best: a group of very keen individuals working toward a shared vision of the future. A community, even an intellectual one, is not an organic organism. It takes time and effort and real live bodies doing real live work. You shape the spaces you participate in, even as a graduate student, and your presence and participation can profoundly impact the future of the academy, even if, as some radical scholars suggest, that future is the dissolution of the academy as you know it. If that’s what you’re here for, it will not magically appear in your world, you must work for it.

7. Be a Human

When I began my PhD program, I knew that I did not want it to be a repetition of my MA, which while successful in many regards, consumed me wholly. It has been crucial for me to understand that the PhD is not a murky preface to my life. My life is happening right now; it is simultaneous with my degree and my degree does not subsume it. Instead, the reverse is true. Being a graduate student is part of my life. My life is not graduate school. Toward this end, I have regulated graduate school, as I discussed above, to my job. It accounts for portions of my day and my week. Sometimes I must travel for it, and that travel alters my schedule but does not undermine that I am traveling for work. My obligations to the world do not begin or end at the archive or the conference or my computer desk. To actualize this vision, I take time off work for leisure and when I am not well. I schedule my work to accommodate my familial commitments. I engage in acts of living that can sometimes fall by the wayside when we are mired in our intellectual labor: I cook, I workout, I pursue hobbies and other projects, I watch television and read for pleasure, I have friends over for dinner. While I have friends within my academic circles, I also have maintained and cultivated friendships that are not reliant on the shared language of the academy. These people, who would fall asleep at the table if I went on and on about school, keep me grounded in a life that is not only about my job. Whatever “living” is to you, you must continue to do it. Sometimes it is helpful to choose something completely outside the scope of your academic obligations to pursue concomitantly with your degree. A place or an effort to which you attend that does not further or feel remotely related to your academic program. For me this has taken various forms: ceramics classes; canning projects; creative writing; hiking; learning to swim; TV clubs (like book clubs but watching instead of reading!). Sometimes such pursuits are heralded under the rubric of self care, and that certainly holds here. Care for yourself holistically, as a complete human, not only a student or academic.

8. Fail early, fail often

It is OK to fail. You will miss deadlines, you will turn in ill-prepared papers, you will forget to read something or fail to read it at all. You will not write everything, you will not read everything. You will say something lacking insight in a place where people can hear you. You will say something that you will obsess over later. It’s OK. Everyone is doing it, and everyone is so involved with their failures, they might barely notice yours. And in the event that they do, that your “failure” is deeper or larger or more important than you thought it would be, that too is OK. You now know something about yourself and your work and you can direct energy toward righting it for yourself first, and for the audience who may or may not be concerned. You should not take failure as an end result, but rather a place of contemplation and labor. What happened? Why did it happen? Do I want it to happen again? What circumstances affected both my behavior and the outcome? What can I do differently? Here’s a wildly embarrassing story: one time, as a fourth year student, I told a prominent black scholar in my field that he was “articulate.” I was and continue to be mortified. What utter and abject failure for a person who considers her politics radical. As I tried to make sense of the moment, I realized, not surprisingly or for the first time, that racism was and is an incredibly insidious form of violence, even in the hallowed halls of the academy, even in the brain of a queer woman of color, subject to many of its varieties. The solution then, is to embrace my failure without defending it. To embrace that I failed, and that I must do more and do better as a person and scholar if I am to succeed at making the university the place I want it to become. I was wrong and I will continue working to make right. It will be impossible not to be wrong. What you do with that moment is the significant thing. Do not get so hung up on your failures that you give yourself no room to fail again, to change, to succeed.

9. Know Thyself Remix

The template for failure applies to many things, including the journey of the graduate student at large. You can check in with yourself persistently to see how you’re doing—if you are failing productively, if you are succeeding in ways that matter to you, if you are happy, if you are whole, if you are doing the work you find meaningful. If your answers to these questions are always no, if graduate school is making it impossible to say yes, you owe it to yourself to revisit yourself. To ask: what do I want? What are my intentions for my life and my work? Can graduate school serve them? If it can, what changes must I make to start saying yes? If it cannot, what changes must I make? You are here. Do you want to be? Is being here the best way you know to serve your life’s work? For me, that answer continues to be yes. I try to remember and revisit my yes when I struggle with the previous items on this list. Your answer might not be yes, which it is why it’s even more imperative to ask and answer the questions above repeatedly. You can do everything on this list, and if the answers are still no, your success is fiction. I urge you to consider your precious energy and put it toward the things that matter to you. If graduate school is a job that serves your life work, then hopefully this list provides some ways to go about it.

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