Starting Graduate School Well–Some Advice

Starting Graduate School Well–Some Advice July 27, 2016

I swam with dolphins last week.  It wasn’t planned–they just appeared, a mom and her calf, swimming on our beach early in the morning. The water was clear as glass. It was so clear and so smooth , in fact, that the large dark shadows of their bodies below the surface appeared almost as visible as their fins gliding through the waves.

Itdolphin was several days into our vacation, so my kids had become accustomed to the beach. My daughter was so comfortable she was swimming a little too fearlessly for a 6-year old, while my son was only surfacing occasionally as he continued his quest to pull better seashells than his cousin from the undulating ocean floor.

The appearance of dolphins disrupted this familiar world. For a few minutes, we saw the ocean as the alien world it is–full of beautiful creatures that can be both unsettling and unsafe. My daughter stopped swimming, staring and pointing until she at last stood still simply to watch, her little hand finding mine. My son stood closer to the shore, the waves lapping his toes, and asked, “Mom, are you sure those are dolphins?”

For most students returning to graduate school, I would venture that they too experience this unsettling juxtaposition of familiar with strange. Four years of undergraduate work make the college environment inviting and safe–maybe not as stress free as the ebb and flow of ocean waves, but known and understandable. Yet the first week of graduate school often shatters this comfortable familiarity. New graduate students soon realize that as similar as the landscape may look, they are no longer in Kansas.

Of course, some of this is inevitable. It is hard to earn advanced degrees. Like the sudden appearance of large sea creatures, graduate school is always going to be somewhat of a shock. But I do have some advice to make the transition a little better.dolphin close

  1. Establish good communication skills from the beginning. I cannot stress how important this is. Students who do not communicate well with faculty, with administrative personnel, or even with their advisers are setting themselves up for a very difficult road. Poor communication skills–such as not checking email or required course websites daily, not replying to emails promptly, nor initiating face-to-face meetings with advisers and seminar professors–suggests a lack or responsibility and commitment to the program. It creates frustration for faculty and can create serious problems for students. Communicating regularly with advisers and seminar professors can help establish good relationships which (eventually) can lead to positive letters of recommendation and even professional opportunities. Poor communication skills can lead to the opposite. I recommend being proactive about communication (don’t sit around waiting for others to contact you), being prompt in replying (especially to your adviser!), and being respectful in your responses (you definitely don’t want to alienate your graduate administrator through careless emails).
  2. Establish yourself as a reliable and gracious seminar student. Seriously. Turn your work in on time. Don’t dominate conversations, but also participate regularly in discussions. Read your homework. Turn your work in on time. Oh? Did I just say that? You should hear it again. The academic world is about deadlines. If you are incapable of meeting deadlines in graduate school, how are you going to be with a tenure clock ticking over your head? Turn your work in on time–it is good practice for later and it makes your seminar professor happy with you (remember–you need those professors for letters of recommendation). Be respectful with how you treat your professors and colleagues. Academia is just as much about relationships (working within a department community) as it is about scholarship and teaching. Learn know how to treat others with respect, even when you disagree.
  3. Cultivate your speed reading and reading comprehension skills. The amount of readings will overwhelm you (and, no, don’t suggest in your first seminar to your first professor that they reduce readings….). Sometimes (often?) you may not be able to read it all. But you are still responsible for it. Learn how to understand the argument of a book or article without having to read every word. Take notes while you read so that you don’t have to re-read before class. I would create a system so that you approach each reading with a plan: what is the argument? what is the evidence? how does it contribute to larger conversations? what are the strengths? weaknesses? what is most useful for your own research?. These notes can also serve as talking points in class. Find a friend to talk to briefly about the readings before class–this is especially useful if you are shy about speaking up in class. You have to learn how to join conversations. Talking about readings before class will help; bringing talking notes to class will help; forcing yourself to contribute at least once or twice during each seminar will help. It really does get easier. P.S. taking notes (creating an annotation) of each book and article you read will give you a leg up on your comprehensive exam readings (and you really do want to get those lists started as soon as possible…).
  4. Plan ahead. You may have shot through undergraduate years by cramming and writing papers the night before. It will not work in graduate school. Repeat. It will not work in graduate school. I spent all of last week working on a chapter. I wrote 4,343 words in 5 days. It is a rough draft. I am a professional; I am a slow writer. Chances are you are a slow writer too. A 6000-8000 word polished research paper that makes some sort of meaningful contribution is not going to appear in a week or two of writing. It will take you the whole semester. So start planning papers early in the semester (meet with your professor); find primary sources early; start working on the paper at least 6 weeks before the deadline. I actually recommend outlining a plan for the semester at the beginning (after you receive your seminar schedules). I also recommend meeting with your professors early to discuss paper topics.
  5. Choose an adviser and a thesis topic as soon as you are able. The earlier you start working on your dissertation, the sooner you will finish the dissertation. The sooner you choose a topic, the sooner you can start writing seminar papers that contribute to your topic and become part of your dissertation. By the time I became ABD, I already had two dissertation chapters written as seminar papers. Starting off your dissertation with 15,000-20,000 words already written is a great psychological boost.
  6. Finally, ask for help. You are in graduate school because you are learning the ropes of academia. You don’t know everything yet. So ask for help. Yes, you do have to apply problem solving skills on your own, but this is a process. I have watched my husband teach both of my children to ride bikes. Neither of them started riding on their own; they started off with my husband holding the bike steady and pushing. You have to learn to do it yourself, but you aren’t expected to know how from the very beginning.

Graduate school is hard. It is scary and uncomfortable. But, just like swimming with dolphins, it can also be a wonderful experience. I hope it is for you.



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