Next week I will meet with our new Baylor History graduate students for orientation. I am pretty certain that no one will be late. I am also pretty certain that no one will fall asleep. This will be one of their first official graduate meetings, afterall, and they will want to make a good impression.
But what about three weeks from now? Two months? Deadlines will be mounting; readings will seem impossible; and emotions will be running high. New challenges will manifest weekly: how to respond when reading assignments are overwhelming? what to do when you are unprepared for seminar? what to do when someone disagrees with you during seminar, perhaps even pointing out a major flaw in your argument? what to do when you receive critical feedback from peers, seminar professors, or even your adviser?
I can tell you what begins to happen. The desire to make a good impression, to act with respect and decorum (including in emails), becomes more difficult as the ordinary pressures of graduate school mount. Remembering that each seminar professor is a potential letter of recommendation and/or dissertation committee member becomes more difficult to do in the stress of receiving critical comments. Remembering that the administrative assistant is your golden ticket to a smoother graduate experience becomes easy to forget in the stress of a paycheck mix-up.
I can’t predict every stressful situation you will encounter in graduate school, but you will respond better if you follow these basic guidelines.
1. Treat graduate school like a job. The work has to be done; class has to be attended; readings must be finished. Just like in a real job, you can get fired from graduate school (asked to leave the program). So be a responsible employee.
2. Always go to seminar. Only absolute emergencies and/or serious sickness should keep you from class. If you are running fever and have spots on your body (or other similar serious symptoms–you get my drift….)–go to the doctor and let your professor know in advance. Otherwise, just go to class.
3. Always always let your professor know in advance if you have to miss class (which you should almost never do). Always make sure your reading assignments, written assignments, presentations, etc. are covered. If you are responsible for a seminar presentation but become seriously ill the morning of, you still should have completed that presentation and be able to send what you have to your professor. There is very little excuse for late work in graduate school.
4. Treat your seminar professor with respect. You should always use their title, unless they have specifically told you otherwise. You should always respond to their emails (even if they don’t respond promptly to yours). If you feel as if they are treating you unfairly, you should go talk to them privately. Don’t accuse them of unfair treatment in the middle of seminar. These are the people who will help you get publications, grants, and jobs. You want to be on good terms with them, regardless of whether or not you like them.
5. Treat the graduate administrative assistant with respect. This is the person who will help you figure our your pay schedule, register for classes, deal with university bureaucracy, etc. You need them, and their job is difficult. Be gracious, be kind, be thankful. Always use appropriate titles in your emails; always say thank you to someone who has helped you; always read over your emails before you send them to make sure they are not emotionally charged.
7. Remember you are in a shared space. The graduate lounge is not your personal study. Be respectful of your colleagues.
8. Graduate school is hard. It should be. You will be stressed. Figure out better stress relief than yelling in seminar, shooting off emotional emails, irritating your colleagues, and/or bad mouthing professors that criticize your work.
9. Always ask for recommendations at least 2 months to 6 weeks in advance. Writing a good recommendation is hard work. Give recommenders enough time to do it well; give them reminders (they will appreciate it); and always give them the information they need to write the recommendation (they should never have to search for your c.v., for emails, for submission information).
10. Respond to emails and communicate often. I stressed in my previous post how important this is. Your graduate experience will go much more smoothly if you develop good communication skills.
11. Be proactive and take responsibility. Yes, we don’t expect you to know everything. But we do expect you to take responsibility for learning it. Yes, we could give you all of the grant and funding opportunities that you could ever want to apply for, but then you would never learn how to find such opportunities yourself. Yes, we could always give you extensions on assignments, but then you would never learn how to meet deadlines. If you are going to succeed in academia, you have to figure out how to do it yourself. Professors are willing to help you figure it out, but we can’t do it for you.
12. Get used to disappointment (to quote one of my childhood movies). No graduate experience is perfect. Just like no academic job is perfect. There will be difficult people; there will be inconveniences; there will be setbacks; there will be high stress moments. But this is life in academia. Heck, it is life in general. Your life will be so much better if you figure out how to deal earlier rather than later.
The good news about graduate school is there are people willing to help you and there are colleagues experiencing the same difficulties as you. Learn from each other and ask for help when you need it. Above all, be proactive, be gracious, be kind. Just doing these few things will make a world of difference.