Making a Success of Grad School

by Kieran Healy on September 27, 2005

Let’s say you’ve already read Tim Burke’s “Should I Go to Grad School?” and pushed on past the short answer. (“No.”) Then it’s time to read Fontana Labs’ Twelve-Step Guide to life while you’re there. Your experience of a graduate program will depend in part on each of (1) The field you’re in, (2) The quality of the program, (3) Your own attributes, (4) The strategy you pursue. Once you go down the chute and find yourself in a particular setting, (1) and (2) are exogenous in the short run, and at the beginning you have no real sense of the social structure of the field anyway. So FL’s advice sensibly emphasizes the difference between undergraduate and graduate education and what that should mean for your approach to it. To boil it down to a one-line characterization: in academic environments, expectations are high and monitoring is low (but decisive when it happens). Many grad-student pathologies spring from a failure to deal with this problem.

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a dude somewhere… » Blog Archive » For those of you considering Grad School
09.28.05 at 2:10 pm

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1

eudoxis 09.27.05 at 4:57 pm

Plan to finish before the end of 4 years.

2

JR 09.27.05 at 5:31 pm

Look around you. Who among your fellow students has a strong relationship with a faculty member or members? Who is being mentored and groomed for placement? Are you one of them? Grad school is like poker. If you don’t know who the patsy is, it’s you.

3

Brad DeLong 09.27.05 at 5:46 pm

Figure out the social-network structure of your department. If it’s academic feudalism, swear fealty to somebody. If it’s a democracy of ideas in which you’re judged on your best ones, start telling everybody about your ideas…

4

Barry 09.27.05 at 6:06 pm

A good list of suggestions (having been in a few programs).

5

eponymous 09.27.05 at 7:41 pm

If one is serious about graduate school, here’s my advice:

1. Do your homework BEFORE you apply to graduate school. The legwork spent on finding the right institituion that fits your needs, the better your graduate school experience will be.

2. A collary to #1 (an important consideration on finding the right fit): Know what you want to do for your Master’s thesis (or Ph.D. Dissertation) BEFORE you get into grad school. Or, at the very leat, have a clear idea of what specific area you would like to spend the next 2 (or 10) years investigating. Knowing what you want to study will have an impact on what field/discipline to enter, what insitution to apply to, what methods/methodology you may be employing in your research, which faculty members to seek out to work with/guide you, etc.

3. Before you make your final decision as to the insitution you would like to attend, spend a bit of time learning more about the faculty and departmental politics (if possible). Doesn’t hurt to get some kind of feedback from grad students, as well. May be difficult, but getting some information regarding this is better than none and can definitely help influcen your final decision.

4. Even after you’ve done all the necessary homework and found a discipline, institution, and/or faculty members that meet your needs, and you’ve decided to take the grad school plunge, keep this always in mind – never lose sight of why you decided to go to grad school in the first place. If you’re not willing (or able) to deal with the eventual hassles that will envariably come about by simply being a grad student, then don’t go.

6

harry b 09.27.05 at 8:07 pm

Or just 5) be very lucky indeed.

7

Matt 09.27.05 at 9:18 pm

He mentions having an “outside interest”. Is heavy drinking an outside interest? It doesn’t seem to mix well with the advice of staying fit buy hey, someththing’s gotta give.

8

Scott Eric Kaufman 09.27.05 at 11:14 pm

I heartily concur with all the above advice. “Heavy drinking” is an outside interest; not only that, it’s crucial to establishing the “socialization” skills necessary to survive your graduate school career. (Without alcohol, your firm beliefs will conflict with others’ firm beliefs in ways that’ll remind you of junior high school. So long as you’re all hugging and BFF’ing to the end, you’ll be fine. Good Lord I wish I were being sarcastic.) Anyhow, I must say that if you’re not interested in a career so much as knowledge, there are far worse ways to spend the best years of your life than graduate school. Those I know who elected to embark on the “real world” route are currently underemployed, unhappy and desperate for something meaningful to slam them in the face forthwith. I, on the other hand, have spent the past few years poor…but worrying only about money. That which has slammed in the face has been countered in full force. (Not a glowing endorsement of either lifestyle, I agree…but we live in a hard world, and living a meaningful life is much more difficult than our earlier incarnations ever imagined.)

9

nick s 09.28.05 at 1:19 am

The piece is very much from the American perspective, of course; the situation for postgraduates in Britain is radically different, at least from my experience. (I think it was David Lodge who made the distinction that things get much harder for American students once postgraduate work starts, while the Brits slack off, having worked themselves into the ground just to get there.)

Point number 12 is a universal, though.

10

Max 09.28.05 at 3:36 am

It’s interesting to read this the day after I decide to go back to university. I said I never would, but an MSc in Open Source Systems sounds too much fun to pass up.

Here are some additions for software engineering students (applies for undergraduates and postgraduates):

1. Only do a course that will make you into a shit hot programmer. Any course that gives you a sprinkling of a few languages is not what you need. You need to be excellent in at least one language.

2. Don’t bother with a university that doesn’t have a seperate IT computer pool. Most university computer pools are geared towards people using MS Word and Internet Explorer. You need to be able to rip the computers open, fiddle with all of their settings, mess with the network, etc. You should be able to install the software you need. Don’t bother with anywhere that doesn’t have Linux dedicated machines. It shows the IT department isn’t serious.

3. Keep an academic diary. Know what day of the week it is.

4. Do all of your course reading, read around the course. Read everything before the lecture, not after.

5. Start everything as soon as you get it. Hand everything in 2 weeks early.

6. Use version control.

7. Be suspect of any university who’s “tech” people frown when you talk about version control.

8. Look for a university that has a thriving nerd culture. Chess clubs, SF clubs, mathematics clubs, invited speakers, informal lectures, etc. And make sure the library is full of useful computer manuals, rather than “Idiot’s Guides”.

9. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Like “If I wanted to do…” or “If I wanted to run…”. You’ll be paying a lot of money for your course, make sure it’s worth it. You buy a £3,000 PC, you expect to be able to do some cool stuff. Why should a university course be any different? (Example: I did my degree project and dissertation on statistical spam filters — but pencil necks in the computer pool wouldn’t let me access a POP mailserver just to download my email! Way uncool.)

10. Give it all you’ve got. It’s hard to learn a programming language when you work full time. So work 12 hour days at university. Fill your brain.

11. Start looking for a job your first day at university.

11

Thoreau 09.28.05 at 6:22 am

Fall drunk every night into a Venice canal; writhe in penury on Istanbul backstreets; flip burgers outside Memphis; become a rooftop street mime; never go to grad school.

12

Jeremy Osner 09.28.05 at 7:33 am

Woo-hoo, I just started grad school! (1 month in class now). I will read FL’s advice later on. I am taking bits of max’s advice (for “taking advice” read “doing what is advised, independently of having read it”) — throwing myself into the work, doing the readings in advance, working ahead — and disregarding other bits — I am working full-time and will take 3 years to earn my Master’s (in Computer Science, concentration in network systems), taking one class per term. And I hope some day in the future, to earn a Ph. D. Which would however require not working, so it’s questionable whether I will be able to do it before my daughter is grown.

13

Jeremy Osner 09.28.05 at 7:37 am

(And that is probably a good thing as it will give me a good long time to figure out what I want to do with myself past “be smart and well-educated”.)

14

Jeremy Osner 09.28.05 at 8:10 am

By the way, I’d be interested to hear commentary from other people in my position or similar, which is roughly, Entering grad school in CS after 10 years working as a programmer, still not quite sure what I want to do.

15

Chris 09.28.05 at 8:36 am

Wow, I had my struggles in grad school, but after reading everyone, I’m feeling like I was indeed a lucky person in a great program.

I couldn’t disagree more with eponymous’s directive that one should know one’s dissertation topic before entering grad school. I thought I knew what I wanted to study, but along the way I got exposed to ideas and scholarship that changed my focus, for the better I should add. As long as you have genuine research interests from the start (as opposed to, say, a general love of literature), you needn’t jump the gun too much.

16

Doug 09.28.05 at 8:46 am

thoreau is obviously not going to Make It, as the accepted things to do outside Memphis are tend the barbecue pit, shoot a man at a poker game and pick a bale a day.

Fields obviously vary; my grad experience was at a place where professors considered themselves to have failed if it was possible to do all of the course reading, nevermind in advance. For one course, the first day brought an extensive bibliography (“This is the current state of the field”) and a list of topics that would be discussed in class. The reading assignment was “Go inform yourself.” For another, the bibliography was lacking and the assignment for the first two weeks was “Go make a sketch of the field (history of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, 1456-1791)” with discussion on the current state of play to follow. This by way of reiterating FL’s first point.

17

Steve 09.28.05 at 9:02 am

People who think graduate school is hard, or demanding, or encompassing, are people who have never worked for a living. Graduate school is easy. Graduate school is fun. Graduate school is a break from real life. If you want to experience something hard, get a job. 9 to 5. Or 9 to 7. or 9 to 9. Then go back to graduate school, sit through the seminars three times a week, read your books and papers the rest of the week, and realize 1) how petty it is, and 2) how easy it is.
What is difficult, is if you go to graduate school with the specific intention of going into academia, and the specific goal of getting the most prestigious job in academia you can get. Because then, you can’t learn for the sake of it, read for the sake of it, or maintain your own perspective on the world. Then, graduate school IS socialisation. Because, particularly in non-scientific fields (english, sociology, philosophy, poly sci and psych to a degree), there is really no quantifiable standard for success. Sure, there are a few geniuses out there who stand out, but not everyone is a Wittgenstein. Most of us are reasonably capable but not outstanding thinkers, studying something because we like it. The difference between a professor at Michigan and a professor at Kentucky is just not that great, and just not that measurable in advance when hiring decisions are made (I strongly suspect there’s not much difference between a professor at Harvard and a professor at local colleges, either, but not having direct experience with either, I will leave it at a suspicion). Thus, non-scientific standards become standards of measure-the whole issue of cultural socialisation that comes up here over and over. In other words, graduate school is grossly cultural/political precisely because there is no other standard by which to measure and grade candidates for jobs.
So if you are going to graduate school to land the best academic job you can, you are stuck in a political rate race. If you are going to graduate school to learn a bunch of stuff, enjoy yourself-its easy, its fun, its probably funded by the State, and it beats the hell out of working for a living.

Steve

18

reuben 09.28.05 at 9:10 am

I think it was David Lodge who made the distinction that things get much harder for American students once postgraduate work starts, while the Brits slack off, having worked themselves into the ground just to get there.

Yep. As an American in Britain, I’ve been astounded at how much free time (and sanity) grad students have over here. And it only takes one year to do your masters (or two years part-time) – and it’s relatively cheap!

19

Jacob T. Levy 09.28.05 at 9:12 am

With respect to

Know what you want to do for your Master’s thesis (or Ph.D. Dissertation) BEFORE you get into grad school

my sense is that it’s very useful to always have a plan for a research agenda– on the first day of grad school it’s helpful to be able to say “this is what I want to write my dissertation on”– but that it can be fatal to good work to be rigidly wedded to your plan. Always be looking forward from your current position, but allow your current position to change as you take courses, read new literatures, discover new methodologies, etc. It’s always only, “at this moment this is what I think I’ll want to write my dissertation on.”

The plan helps keep your attention on research and research skills, on professionalization, and on finishing, as well as helping in the grad-school selection process in the first place. But if you already knew enough on the first day of grad school to write your dissertation, we wouldn’t need to have grad school. If you’re not open to getting excited by new things in your first few years there’s a problem.

20

eponymous 09.28.05 at 9:31 am

Chris,

I don’t necessarily disagree with your assessment, but I think not having a good sense of what your general research topic is going to be about before you enter grad school (and especially for Ph.D.) can cause problems down the road. Master’s, I tend to agree with you – one does have (in many cases) a window of opportunity to explore a bit. But not so much for Ph.D. YMMV, depending on the discipline, of course (as well as the department/insitution/faculty you’ve selected).

Note: I went to grad school with no pre-conceived notions about it (nor without doing any kind of background research on finding the right fit for my needs) – I just decided I was going to go, what discipline I would go into and picked a place.

So my advice is based on my own personal experiences – do the opposite of what I did. Had I been better prepared before making the decison to go, I think my experience would have been much smoother (and would have gotten through grad school much faster).

OTOH, I suppose the approach I actually took could be used as advice for those who like adventure (are able to handle the potential roller-coster highs and lows of grad school).

21

eponymous 09.28.05 at 9:44 am

Jacob,

I couldn’t agree more – A plan is important and should be flexible enough to adjust as necessary. But I think discipline is key – a plan shouldn’t be too flexible whereby you end up going in a totally different direction (or get pulled in so many different directions) that you waste valuable time – especially for a Ph.D.

22

Matt 09.28.05 at 9:47 am

Steve,
I think you over state your points, good though they may be. I’ve worked for a living at a variety of jobs. Some have been, in some ways, harder than grad school but many have not. The biggest difference, I think, is that with many jobs there is an end to the day or the week in a way that there isn’t in grad school (or much of academia, if you keep productive.) That is, once the wistle blows (or whatever) you don’t have to think about work until tomorrow. In grad school you rarely have that- there is always another book or article you should read, a paper you should be polishing, a cognate field you should be looking into, and so on. It’s this complete lack of “being done” that I find the most exhausting. So, while it’s certainly not hard like roofing or something is, it’s exhausting in other ways that most jobs are not. Also, as someone who has experienced professors at a very wide range of institutions I can say that while there are virtues of professors at all schools, and you can usually learn something from all of them, and there are of course exceptions, the differences in general between those at the top places and the rest are pretty clear. It’s a matter of degree, of course, but a big enough difference in degree starts to look a lot like a difference in kind.

23

Jprime 09.28.05 at 9:52 am

Sorry, its more than just who you know and fitting in!

Socialization is important, but I’d humbly advise that you look at it as a combination of marketing and politics. To succeed in academia you need “votes”…from reviewers, advisors, job committees, etc. And in order to win those votes, they need to know who you are and why your work is awesome.

Which brings me to the second comment: publish, publish, publish! Publication is the mark of “awesomeness”. It is the coin of the academic realm. Figure out what makes a good publication (how good questions are framed, what good research looks like, good methds), and then go do it. Because the more publications you have, and the better journals in which they are published, the less you have to worry about the socialization, marketing, and politics aspects. Though they *never* are irrelevant.

And if you’re not getting published, then the ‘voters” cannot tell if you can really walk the walk, or you’re just talking the talk (like oh sooooo many grad students like to do).

24

Steve 09.28.05 at 10:21 am

Matt-
No denying what you said. While I said I didn’t suspect that the difference between a Harvard guy and a community college guy is that great, I was being a bit tongue in cheek. After all, there aren’t many Wittgensteins out there, but if there is one, he probably is at Harvard or Yale or one of the other top colleges.
Re: difficulty of work. I’ve never roofed, and I really didn’t mean difficulty in terms of manual labor. I was just referring to the daily grind of going into a cubicle, 8 hours a day, day after day. I am more burdened by the boredom of a ‘normal’ job than I am by the burden of reading stuff that I enjoy reading-even when there is alot to read. Admittedly, I went to graduate school with the intention of learning what I wanted to learn, and not with the intention of getting a prestigious academic job.
I don’t really understand the line of complaint in this post, though. Gradute school is really divided into two groups; those that really want the prestigious academic job, and those that don’t (and you don’t necessarily know which group you are in until you are in graduate school-not before, when you apply). If you are one that wants a prestigious academic job, why are you complaining? That constant pressure to know, to politic, and conform and socialize IS the job-if you don’t like it, you’re not going to like the job you are working for either. But if you are in the second group, who doesn’t want the prestigious academic job, then the socializing crap is irrelevant to your career and irrelevant to your life (does the State Department, or a private computer firm, or a psychology clinic, care about how popular you were with the faculty of State U.?)-so why worry about it?

Incidently, the whole socialisation/culture/networking line of discussion above goes a long way to explaining how academia could be 90% of one political persuasion, doesn’t it?

Steve

25

Matt 09.28.05 at 11:43 am

Steve,

Maybe we don’t disagree that much. I don’t think I was complaining, merely saying that 1) this is hard work, 2) the ‘no end to the day’ aspect of it is one of the major reasons its hard, 3) this can be exhausting. In fact I much would rather have this than working most 9-5 jobs, though. You’re also quite right that there is a big difference in how much this applies to someone who wants to be at the top and the rest.

26

soubzriquet 09.28.05 at 11:46 am

Steve, Just a brief comment on your:

“Incidently, the whole socialisation/culture/networking line of discussion above goes a long way to explaining how academia could be 90% of one political persuasion, doesn’t it”

I’m sure you realise this could only have possible relevance if the demographics of incoming graduate students was significantly different, but as you didn’t mention that rather strong assumption I have.

27

kmason 09.28.05 at 12:05 pm

13. Adviser, adviser, adviser.

Pick one that treats you well (eg., says “take two weeks off”), give you good advise, you want to listen to, and most importantly has a good track record of happy students. A good adviser and you will enjoy it a lot … a bad one, and you’re better off checking yourself into the insane asylum now.

Just a couple of weeks ago a 4th year committed suicide here, and the only thing I couldn’t fathom was why they didn’t take their crappy adviser with them.

28

DT 09.28.05 at 12:34 pm

I’ll second the last response. The single most important decision of your grad school career will be picking your advisor. And not just finding someone who is doing research that you’re interested in. Find one that you are comfortable with, who will actually be around and interested enough to mentor you, who won’t be a prick, who doesn’t just look at his grad students as peons to grind out papers for his CV, etc.

A young professor without tenure is likely to be around the lab a lot more and work directly with you more, which can be valuable. On the other hand, they might put more pressure on you and want you to work more, and also don’t have the same connections.

On the other hand, the more established professors have the connections to help you out later, but may be so busy with outside things that you only see them once a month.

Talk with several professors, and ask them not just about their work, but also about their expectations of grad students. And talk to current grad students of the professors you are interested in working with. Look at their past students–some professors show a pattern of students taking 7+ years to get their doctorate, others get their students out quicker.

29

sd 09.28.05 at 12:44 pm

Well I’m an outside observer to all this – I have an MBA but never tried to do an “academic” PhD. That being said, there is at least one regard in which I think the humanities / social sciences PhD world (and for that matter, law schools) can learn from MBA programs: Don’t accept anyone right out of undergrad.

1) PhD programs in the humanities and social sciences are clogged with kids from liberal arts undergrad programs who are scared shitless of the job market and thus see grad school as a way of delaying adulthood. Forcing everyone to work for 2-3 years between college and grad school would largely take these people out of the applicant pool (they would find that there are indeed things they can do to make a living with an English degree that don’t involve teaching other people who are getting English degrees) – only those with legitimate talent and a real passion for the field would apply.

2) God bless a liberal arts undergarduate education – all that lazy, pensive self exploration is good for the soul – but it sure doesn’t prepare someone to be productive, which is what you need to be to finish grad school in a reasonable amount of time. Spending 2-3 years at a 9-5 (or 9-9) job teaches you how to get shit done.

30

John Emerson 09.28.05 at 1:00 pm

I’ve worked regular jobs since 1975, and I didn’t go to graduate school because the kinds of ingratiation and networking required seemed so inimical. “Hard” is a pretty fuzzy concept. For me, spending four years bonding with faculty would be impossibly hard. One of the nice things about labor jobs is, or used to be before “Japanese management” took over, that you can minimize your personal investment in the job as long as your work is good.

31

agm 09.28.05 at 2:58 pm

steve, please don’t take this personally, but your first comment is total BS, at least from the physics perspective. we are expected to work many more hours than anyone but CEOs for much less pay, irregardless of whether or not we are shooting for academic jobs. and one’s advisor makes a complete difference in how stressful it is. I sometimes hate my advisor for being an absentee, sometimes I’m glad not to have her breathing down my neck. Other people like/displike their situations similarly, such as the people in the local Nobel Laureate’s lab, where they clock in at 8 and out at 5 (the hours when the secretary is around) but are expected to work many more hours than that and fit anything else in (family, food, commute time, even classes and classwork). There simply isn’t a blanket description short of PhD Comics that covers everyone, because he doesn’t include social sciences/humanities grad school.

32

CR 09.29.05 at 1:31 am

Just thought I should mention for the sake of those who are reading this and cringing:

ass-kissing is not necessarily a pre-req for academic success. The top jobs, in my personal experience, go to those who can think and write (I’m talking humanities here), not to the swarmy…

The swarmy (pals of the DGS, advisor haunters) get grad fellowships and awards. The smart get the jobs. When you’re one of 200 that’s applying for a position, it’s going to be the work that gets you over the bar. Not the fact that your advisor likesyou. Almost everyone gets a glowing letter…

I kissed very little ass during grad school and made it through and into a top rate job.

That said, if you’re completely socially dysfunctional, that might be a problem. No one wants that. That’s where the interview comes in (and it does come in… There are a million stories of the person who nets 9 MLA interviews, yielding zero callbacks…)

Try for very, very smart and human. But don’t count yourself out if the idea of frantic “networking” grosses you out. I makes me want to gag, and I did fine.

33

CR 09.29.05 at 1:40 am

One other bit of advice, but it’s a bit harsh. Only applies to the humanities, as far as I know.

Don’t ever pay for a Ph.D. In fact, don’t enter a Ph.D. program unless they’re paying you a stipend to do it. Ph.D.s are not worth taking on massive amounts of debt. They’re worth the hardship of living on less than $20K per annum, but not worth debt.

Not to mention: you’re going to be at an absolutely enormous competitive disadvantage vs. those who have their prefab apartment and ramen noodles paid for. They will write and write while you will work and work.

If you can’t get into a program that gives you a stipend, rework your application and try again next year. Or else don’t do it.

34

steve kyle 09.29.05 at 11:17 am

I always tell students that picking an advisor is at least as important as picking a spouse. My wife is more permanent but my advisor had more control over my life.

35

RS 09.29.05 at 11:50 am

I’d like to second/raise the “BS” call on Steve’s post asserting that Grad School is easier than a “real job”. This claim is utter, utter crap. I worked for 5 years prior to Grad School running my own business. I owned a bookstore that was open from 10-8, 6 days a week. I never had a break. I was the owner/proprietor/manager/janitor… and when I wasn’t open I was scrambling around finding stock, attending book-fairs, scouting, etc. It was absolutely exhausting. I probably worked an 80-hour week on average. Now I am in a fully-funded humanities PhD program that doesn’t even require teaching. But it is much harder than running that bookstore ever was. Why? Because the work is _never done_. There are always more articles, books, conference abstracts, etc. etc. etc. to attend to. To be honest, I find the whole line of thinking that Grad School is a break from “real life” just mind-bogglingly dumb. Its all real. It sounds like Steve is mistaking the boredom of cubicle-life for actual work… Sorry this is so short as I have lots more to say, but, unlike Steve apparently, I just don’t have to time to spend writing long posts claiming that Grad School is easy… All that said, I don’t regret my decision to go to Grad School whatsoever.

36

steve kyle 09.29.05 at 1:16 pm

amen to the comment above by rs that “it is never done” That is why you need an outside interest where it is very clear when it is done. For example, I used to work on cars – very concrete, and you knew you were done because the car would go. Now that I am older and own a house I build things onto it. Again, very concrete and you know when you are done.

It is possible to go insane if you are unable to put an end to grad school. We probably all know people who never ever manage to put that final period on that final sentence. I remember feeling an enormous weight lifted when my dissertation was finally defended and I knew it was over.

37

Colin Danby 09.29.05 at 2:08 pm

Just to second #36: it *is* serious work if you want to move on promptly and get an academic job, because you have to think about writing publishable papers, presenting at conferences, teaching your own courses as soon as they let you, plus you want to really learn the relevant literatures. If you just want to enjoy a slacker grad student life you can probably pass your courses and eke out a dissertation with only moderate effort, but even then living on a grad student stipend may get old after a while. (To amplify #34 above, even if you’re getting a stipend, you’re still foregoing the income and savings you would have working a normal job.)

And let’s not mischievously conflate *all* socialization with conformity and abjection, as #24 does. The work of scholarship is always partly social, via sessions at conferences, comments on papers, collaboration of various kinds, and you have to *learn* how to do this. This means going to every talk in your department that you can, going to defenses, joining dinners with visiting speakers, beginning to make connections with scholars in your area at other institutions, setting up conference panels.

As a grad student you have all the status of a bum, but the opportunity to change that within a few years. The counterpart of Tim Burke’s smart observation that people will no longer pat you on the head for getting an A is that you need to start acting like a scholar with your own program of work and not like a student who jumps through hoops held up by others. Some cynicism is justified. But I can say from experience that the grad students who are most ear-bendingly cynical, and who attribute the success of others to mere politicking, are usually the ones who don’t get this, or who don’t want to make the effort. So to go back to our initial theme, figure out who among the more senior grad students are actually making progress, and ask *them* how they do it.

38

eponymous 09.29.05 at 2:10 pm

All good comments – I will also concur about the advisor. Possibly the most important element in the whole process.

“I remember feeling an enormous weight lifted when my dissertation was finally defended and I knew it was over.”

You know, I’ve heard this from a lot of people, but I myself never felt this. To be sure, there was a sense of relief in finally getting the disseration done and out of the way. But I still retain some residue of that feeling that it’s still not quite done. In fact I seem to always have a reflexive element in my responses when people ask me about it. “Aren’t you glad your finished?” “Yes, but I should have included X and not included Y, not to mention….”

In short, that feeling of “never quite being done” is still with me – and probably will always be with me to some extent.

Note: Amusing anecdote – my former chair mentioned to me in passing that, for a long time after she finished her Ph.D., she kept all the research data she used in writing her dissertation, for (some irrational fear) that someone would come back later and force her to make additional changes!

39

Another Damned Medievalist 09.29.05 at 5:29 pm

I second the adviser bit — I changed subfields to work with mine, who told me to choose carefuly, because general research areas last longer than many marriages.

He was a bit too right on the last part — I’m still an early medievalist!

Also, DO NOT PAY FOR THE PHD. Unless you’re really rich.

Kissing ass shouldn’t be necessary. Being nice and collegial really is.

Get your name out there early if you can — go to conferences, etc. I didn’t do this. Mistake. But also, don’t give too many conference papers if it keeps you from finishing in a timely manner. You can always make up time on the paper circuit — especially if you’ve published.

Know that the job market sucks. Unless you really are a superstar, work on your teaching, too.

Grad school is actually hard. Academic life is hard. It doesn’t stop unless you make it stop — you are starting a life that will likely mean no vacations without reading assignments, no plane trips without books, and eternal homework. Grad school is not as hard as being an employed academic, though — but it may be more stressful.

Be lucky.

Don’t do it unless you really want to spend your life in this line of work. Or unless you can afford it.

And I say all these things after working for real money outside of academe. My job is the hardest I’ve ever had. I love it. I can’t imagine not doing it. But it takes a certain kind of crazy to want to be an academic. Are you crazy in the right way?

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Chris Williams 09.30.05 at 3:36 pm

I felt an enormous weight drop from my arms when I held the thesis at arm’s length, and let it fall to the floor with a satisfying thud.

Someone needs to be going through this thread annotating those bits that apply to UKnians, with our rather different postgraduate structures. But not me – I’m taking three days off to make a bookcase for my son and get away from thinking for a time. See ya.

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