Grad School Survival

An academic friend’s son is about to start graduate school, and so my friend and I got to talking about what we wish grad students would know and do to make it through grad school, to move onto a successful career in academia. Were I inclined to nag my friend’s son (which I’m not, because he seems too smart and pleasant to be nagged), here’s what I’d tell him:

  1. Enjoy yourself in grad school: sleep late when you can, take naps, eat good food and enjoy great conversations with smart people…
  2. …but don’t laze around. It is too easy to fall into a system of where you take incompletes, put off nailing your dissertation topic, and so on, because you know that graduating means having to really grow up and take on the hardships of true academia. But putting off this growing-up can become suddenly stressful when you find yourself years behind other people, marked by the faculty as something less than a serious candidate, or (worst of all), dealing  with the soul-crushing shock of having your dissertation thesis scooped out from under you by someone who was just more focused.
  3. Ask faculty members to show you their c.v.’s. As them to show you older versions of their c.v.’s, too, so you can get a clear sense of how their careers emerged. This allows you to get a good sense of what an academic career in your field can and should look like. You also will learn more about your professors, and that will allow you to turn to them for things you otherwise might not think to. You’ll also get to see different styles of c.v.’s, and that can be helpful as you develop your own for grants and job applications.
  4. Create a fantasy c.v. for yourself, so that you have a clear sense of what you have to do to get where you want to go. Put in the publications you would love to have to your name in 5 years, the grants you’d like to have, the talks you’d like to give. Don’t be silly by inserting things like Nobel Prizes, but do be reasonably ambitious for yourself. Now look to see what you have to do when to achieve this c.v. Note when you have to get paper proposals submitted for conference; note deadlines for grant applications; note how long it takes to get a paper published in this or that journal. This will help you take charge of your c.v., and not just live in the hopes it shapes up as you would like. (Personally, I think every director of graduate studies should do this exercise one-on-one with every graduate student.)
  5. Remember, your dissertation is not about you, it is about your career. You must pick a topic that is marketable in the field(s) in which you plan to market yourself. Some incredibly obscure topic might delight you, but unless you are independently wealthy or planning to live in a cardboard box for the rest of your life, leave that topic alone until after you get tenure. Choose a dissertation topic that will make people want to come to your conference presentations and your job talks. Choose one that will make journal editors want to publish the articles based on your dissertation. Of course, you should also choose one that gives you the passion it takes to get through the dissertation process! (Thanks to Colin Allen for reminding me of that last point.)
  6. The “meritocracy” that functions in academia is not the sort that considers each new work without consideration for what else the worker has done. Thus you need to be aware of what sociologist of science Robert Merton called “the Matthew effect”: the rich get richer in academia. This means that, the more accolades (awards, publications, etc.) you have to your name, the easier it becomes to get more, because people reward stars and up-and-coming stars. Take advantage of this by investing in your reputation early. Find a way to be put up for awards; try to get grants, even if they are little travel grants, that you can then list; pay your own way to conferences if you have to, so that you have conference presentations to your name. Don’t make the foolish mistake of thinking you should only accumulate what happens to fall in your lap. Work to make yourself impressive early and often. It will pay dividends.
  7. Related to that, don’t expect a purist meritocracy in academia. You won’t find it. Like every human field, academia rewards people partly on whether they are pleasant to be with, whether they are dressed in a respectful manner, whether they are related to someone rich and/or powerful. (Academia sometimes rewards the opposite of the social norm–e.g., people who are fashionable are sometimes suspect–but it still has a strong system of social norms.) The best way to deal with this is to be a decent person and to do good work.
  8. Avoid major debt. Accumulating major debt in graduate school will hamper your career, because you will find yourself having to attend to the debt rather than your career. Plenty of companies will offer you credit cards and student loans. Live on ramen and share a house of five if it means avoiding major debt.
  9. When you suffer some travesty of graduate school–when your advisor gives someone else your teaching slot because he assumed your engagement meant you didn’t need the assistantship, or you walk in unannounced to your major professor’s office only to find her on the floor with your lab partner–tell yourself: it will make a good story later. Try hard not to collapse and act as if your life is over. Grad school is full of travesties. If you’re good at what you do and have reasonable resilience, it will be OK.
  10. Find people who will help you improve your writing. Being a good writer will help your career no matter what your field. Don’t be wounded by criticism of your writing. Be grateful, and fix the problems with your writing now. (If you really hate writing–I mean really, really hate it–think about whether this is the right career for you.)
  11. Never, never, never do anything that might result in a charge of plagiarism. Be obsessive about keeping track of who said what. When in doubt, cite it, even if it was a personal communication.
  12. Expect to have some of your ideas and work stolen both by jerks and by the nicest mentors who have absolutely no recollection that you gave them the idea they now think of as their own. This is another reason why you can’t laze around. Get your ideas published asap. (Ultimately no one gives a crap if you said something really interesting or important at the bar but you didn’t publish it.)
  13. Funny thing: for a lot of us, the more brainy we get, the more our bodies seem to act up. Feel a lump? Feeling sick? Seeing spots? Sure, get it checked out, but also be aware that graduate students (and academics in general) have a high rate of psychosomatic complaints and hypochondria. I don’t have data on this other than all the phone calls I take from friends who want to ask my internist husband about this or that thing that happened to pop up just as they have a book/grant/article/dissertation due. Try to realize you may just have the standard academic dis-ease, and keep working. I find that exercise and joking about it helps. (When my husband asks me how I’m feeling each morning, I often reply that my undiagnosed brain tumor has obviously metastasized to my ankle, and so I can’t write that day.)
  14. Finally, if you wake up every day hating what you’re doing, get out of it now. Don’t become one of those tragic people who finds herself or himself years into an academic life struggling every day to make a career of something s/he hates. Academia is a lifestyle choice. If you hate that life in graduate school, you’re probably going to hate it long term.