Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How to Survive in (Academic) Graduate School:

All of this advice is in no particular order. And these are just tips, not a failsafe recipe for success. But I think they're fairly legitimate pieces of advice and if you want you can add other tips in the comments section.

A. Do what works for you and don't take advice (including mine). Seriously. People tell me to sleep. I concentrate better when I'm tired. If I'm too wide awake I want to jump up every ten minutes and bake a pie or go for a bike ride or something. The hours from 2-3 in the morning might be my sweet spot. I know for a fact that I read better during daylight and write better when it's dark. Others might say the opposite. Anyway, I come up with my ideas when well rested or caffeinated and then I write when I'm tired. I had to ignore other people's advice to figure out that's what works best for me. Don't worry, I revise that tired writing later. 

B. Do not go to an academic graduate program unless you're honestly ready. You know what you want to do with your life and why you want to study ___. If you are just treading water after your undergrad or avoiding a bad job market, please stay home. I don't want you messing up my program with your half-baked juvenile crap. Grow up. Travel the world. Do whatever you need to decide what you'd like to spend the rest of your working life on. DO NOT FORGET: graduate school isn't the magic door to huge bucks and massive success (unless you're in Harvard Law or something, but I'm talking about academic graduate programs, not professional programs).

C. Invest in noise-cancelling headphones. Seriously. I cannot believe I was more than halfway through my PhD (and I did a separate MA at another school) before I realized the magic insulating and focusing properties of a good pair of headphones. Plus they're better for your ears (they don't hurt or lead to ear infections if you wear them too long). The music sounds better. In fact I use them as a barrier against the world even when I don't have music on, I wear them if I'm in a coffee shop or often at home, if I'm in work mode. It cues people into the fact that I'm focused elsewhere and not interested in a conversation. And even without playing music, it still reduces how much of the noise around me I'm hearing.

D. Do you want to be successful in a good program? You will not be spending many Friday nights in clubs. You will not be going to many parties. You will not be running off to Vegas with your BFF (the first time I ever used that acronym and probably the last) for a long weekend. You will be studying. Your socializing should contribute to your studying through allowing you to blow off steam, network, bounce ideas off someone, actually force you to find time for a good meal, etc. But you're a grad student, so just get used to the fact that you don't have as much free time as your non-grad student friends. And if they've never been in graduate school they might not understand that. Be gentle but firm. Do not spend a lot of time griping about it, though. No one likes listening to a whiner. Either we're grad students and we understand or they are not and they just don't understand, but they still don't like listening to you whine.

E. Sitting in a chair all day writing and reading is bad for your body. Our bodies were built for running away from saber tooth tigers and looking far towards the horizon and hauling a deer carcass back to the camp/cave/cabin. Figure out what you're going to do about it, or you may not recognize your body when you finish your degree. At the moment I'm rocking out to "Copy & Paste" and clenching my butt cheeks so that I bounce up and down on my chair. BoA would approve. I do a lot of other exercise type stuff depending on where I am and what's going on (in the field, fortunately, a lot of my research is better than an exercise program). But seriously, I've still gained weight. Seven months before my Ph.D. started I was 58 kilos (I was also on the top of a mountain pass in Tibet but that's another story). Today I'm 62 (and that's thanks to my fieldwork, I'd actually gone up to 64!).

F. Think ahead.
Recommendation letters: You will need someone to write them sooner than you think after entering the program, even just keeping your funding often requires a faculty recommendation. They might say it's a formality, but you can't turn in an empty sheet of paper. Choose the classes in your first term with the requirement that at least one tenured faculty member of the type that writes letters (ie. not with the "star" faculty member who jet-sets around the world and has his secretary deal with most details of his life) is going to get to know you. Two would be better.
And since you'll always need letters keep a good relationship with several people you can ask for letters. Figure out in advance how many letters you'll need in a certain period and ask ONCE for all the letters. It's just as easy to ask for 5 letters as for one letter, but it's really hard to ask five times for five letters. Supply the form they need, your resume, the abstract for the ___ you're seeking funding for even if you haven't written the entire proposal yet. If you have a hint that they want to fund people who work on X, tell your professor that and ask him/her to mention your work is related to X. I started giving my three letter writers (my chair, another professor from my department who knows my work well and the professor who knows my fieldwork region the best) charts personalized to them of what I was applying for with deadlines, the way they'd be submitting (online, in a sealed letter to me, in letter sent to B address) and other details like the emphasis in the recommendation (the X). In this way I managed to keep them up-to-date, keep all the info together and not irritate them with my shotgun approach to funding (my advisor was asked for 18 letters for my fieldwork year, although as you can see below he didn't end up having to write all of them). Of course they'll need reminders, too.
Funding your research: Figure out what fieldwork grants or research grants you're going to apply for in order to do your dissertation when you're in your first year. Think about what you need to get those grants. Write down their deadlines. The deadlines will vary by a month or two from year to year, if that. Usually the due dates one year are within a week of the date the next year. Add more grants to your list if more come across your radar, or new programs open up. When I was in the summer of the year before my fieldwork would start (as in 12 mths before fieldwork) I already knew everything I'd apply for. I continued to methodologically apply until I got back good results. If I hadn't gotten those results I'd have still been applying for another 4 or 5 grants. Some of them were only for 2,500 bucks, but grad students can't be choosers.
The Job Search: I don't want to jinx myself, but I'm being as pro-active as I can.
The Readings: If you want to teach in the future and you're going to assign readings to your students (not just use a textbook), hold onto all this stuff you've been assigned. Keep files on your computer of PDFs in folders for related subjects (I definitely advise the PDFs). Keep all the bibliographic info with the papers. It's so annoying to have to find it again later. Make a filing system for the physical copies.

GIt is very important to have a healthy ego about your own intellectual ability and your possibility of contributing to your chosen field. I'm not saying that you don't need to be realistic, you do, but if you spend –all—your time second guessing yourself you will 1. Make it hard for people around you to take you seriously and that includes your advisors. Some of those advisors do not actually read anything you read, they write your letters of recommendation based on their belief that you can finish the project/fieldwork/research/program successfully, and most of that belief it based on if you seem to believe in yourself when you talk to them about your projects or when you speak up in class.  2. Slow down your own progress through the program. Do you want to finish in a reasonable period of time? Then make up your freaking mind and just go for it. Stop hedging around.

H.  Multi-task. I know this should go without saying, but it's amazing how many people don't. There are a lot of things you have to do that aren't related to your research that can be effectively multi-tasked. Talk to your friend on the phone and clean your apartment. Set your computer to back-up all your files while you take a long bath. Watch that TV show you can't give up online (at the time of your choosing) while doing aerobic exercise. Memorize vocabulary words while you ride your bike or stretch. Everything you multi-task that can really be multi-tasked (like talking on the phone and washing the dishes) means you get to sleep a few minutes earlier tonight.

I. Work on more than one project at once. When you run into a roadblock with one (when your ideas just aren't flowing) set it aside and work on something else. Don't sit there and get frustrated. It's just a waste of time.

J. Know realistically how much time you need for writing and revising papers. Then add 25% more time onto your estimate. Start so that you should be finished at least two days before the deadline. Because deadlines don't make you more productive, that's a freaking myth born of desperation. When you go back and re-read the papers you "pulled out of your a--- a few hours before the deadline" guess what—they suck. You could have done so much better. And someone else in your cohort did write a better paper. And next time there is some funding decision to be made in your department, that professor might say that your classmate is better than you are.

K. Give back to your community. I know if you're not aiming for a certain type of job your resume won't be improved (much) by a post in student governance (and your advisor may warn you it'll make it harder for you to finish); but your community needs your input. When you get to know them you'll be surprised how amazing the students in departments you never brush shoulders with are. I think the type of student who finds time to give back despite a huge workload (and potentially a family) is a cut above the rest. Of course there are lots of off campus options, too. But campus governance is an awesome way to network with people outside your field and share information/get the perspective of people who won't be applying for the same jobs after graduation.

L. If you have someone in your program with young children (like not in school yet), esp. a woman who has recently given birth, try to give a little extra support. These graduate students-slash-parents are superheroes, but they're also in an incredibly hard position. If you're going to be compassionate to anyone in your program—be compassionate to them. They have less time for everything so if you discover something that might be useful for them (an obscure scholarship for parents, a half-price sale every Monday afternoon at the bakery near family housing, a source for the paper they're working on) let them know. 

M. Start getting your bibliographic references in one of the reference programs right away and keep doing so. You'll thank yourself later.

N. This didn't happen to me, but some of my friends got guilt-tripped into thousands of hours of work, such as translating, for their advisors. You gain something from being helpful. And you might need some money. But at a certain point you're in graduate school to get your degree not to be a professor's under-paid labor pool. Learn when to say no. Say no before he/she offers the next project. As you turn in a project, tell him/her that you've decided not to take on any more _______ until you finish _______. Letting them know not to come to you next time will make it easier to turn down the offer when they come to you anyway.

O. Don't get pigeon-holed. Don't allow yourself to be only a translating slave, only a TA, only a this or that. Develop your various skills, get various types of experience.

P. Sometimes take undergrad classes. It's okay. Just go take that class in taiji (tai-chi), or the foundational history of East Asia course. Take it Pass Fail. Audit it. Just go learn something without the stress of a huge research paper attached to it. Undergrads get offered some really awesome courses by some really amazing professors. 

Like I said at the beginning, this is in no particular order. And really I should be writing Chapter 4, not writing this. So please add what I forgot in the comments!

Happy Studying!   


Anonymous said...
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Elise said...

Any recommendations for noise-canceling headphones?

CedarBough said...

Mine are a brand called SHURE. They're pretty awesome! I just went to a place with a bunch and listened to the sound quality and bought one, took it home, didn't like it, did a tiny bit of online research, went back and bought these-- so I may not be the best person to ask. But until I got an ear infection last fall I didn't have good headphones and I really regret that now. They're amazing.