• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online

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Things I’ve Learned Along the Way

Reflecting back on the good, the bad, and the unknowable of graduate school.

April 10, 2018
 
 

Alexandra (AJ) Gold is a Ph.D. Candidate in English at Boston University. Follow her on Twitter or check out her website.

I’m that graduate student now — you know, the one whose name you’ve heard in passing or that adorns an office in the building. The one you know exists, but you can’t be 100% certain. I’m now that spectral graduate student who, five years ago, I couldn’t imagine becoming.

Well into my PhD program — this is where I am: tangentially involved in departmental goings-on and consumed by my dissertation, job hunt, and other responsibilities. Once out of coursework, the slow creep into departmental oblivion and isolation — part de facto, part self-imposed — seemed to happen all at once. I blinked and here I am: sitting at home, writing, and (more often than I’d care to admit) talking to my dog.

Being an advanced doctoral student isn’t all bad, though. I’ve enjoyed delving into my specific interests throughout my comprehensive exams and dissertation. I’ve had the privilege of designing and teaching my own courses. And, though sometimes lonely, I’m grateful for the ability to work from home. Perhaps the best thing about being in this position, however, is that I’ve learned a lot of things along the way: tips, tricks, and — dare I call them  “grad hacks” — that have made navigating academic life a little bit easier.

This post is dedicated to those things: the random “hacks” that don’t fall into a particular category or revolve around one facet of academic life. The things I wish I knew, the things I learned the hard way, and the things everyone should be doing.

Things I Wish I Knew

Your favorite class may be outside your field

Admittedly, I’m not always open-minded about exploring beyond my field. But when I started coursework, I didn’t have much choice: not only did my program have certain requirements,but due to sabbaticals, bad luck with timing, and other factors, my department’s class offerings didn’t really align with my interests. There were downsides to this, of course, but overall it was a great opportunity to broaden my horizons. In fact, my absolute favorite class was on money and marriage in the 19th century American novel — a dreaded topic for this poetry-minded gal — and was one I may not have taken if not for my course requirements (and, ok, the flashy title). While the class didn’t necessarily change my course of study, it challenged my thinking, and I got to see firsthand how a smartly constructed syllabus and a passionate teacher might engage students across a variety of fields and interests. More than the material itself, this knowledge proved invaluable when I had to start teaching myself. I can look back at virtually every single course I took and point to something that contributed to my development as a scholar or teacher.

Your dissertation is a stepping stone

In the months before I started my dissertation, I thought about leaving the program. The anxiety and trepidation surrounding such a large project nearly got the better of me. It’s true that I’m prone to anxiety, but it’s also true that the dissertation is an anxiety-producing endeavor, largely because we approach it the wrong way. As I wrote in November, we tend to see the dissertation as an all-consuming task that will define our nascent academic careers. I think this is misguided. The dissertation is both a last step and a first step: a culmination of years of hard work, certainly, but also an early foray into writing a cohesive manuscript — a kind of trial run for future book projects. It’s also something that changes quite a bit as you go: my first chapter does not at all reflect my prospectus, and I completely rewrote my third chapter after the first draft. You must allow room for these changes and discoveries.

By approaching my dissertation as a means of exploration, I came out of the writing process with a clear vision for how I wanted to evolve and refine it into a first book. The dissertation became less an end-all, be-all and more a crucial stepping stone for future research. Reframing the dissertation in these terms was critical to my ability to draft it in full; rather than getting hung up on what it “should be” or making it perfect, I thought about it as another step in a process that’s just beginning. I should note, too, that my advisor played a pivotal role in helping me reframe the task early on, which made all the difference. In her words (and I paraphrase): “your dissertation is not a book, get it done.”

Things I Learned the Hard Way

Sometimes you need to go it alone

In graduate school, as in life, everyone has an opinion, and everyone has developed their own way of doing things. Consequently, graduate students can be inundated with a lot of mixed messages and conflicting advice, both small and large: make this correction; leave the paragraph as is; there are no jobs in the humanities; anything less than tenure-track is failure. There is — to put it in terms many of us know all too well — always a “Reviewer 1” and a “Reviewer 2”. What I’ve learned, however, is that sometimes the best course of action is to follow your intuition or make an educated guess, put your head down, and go your own way.

There have been many times in my graduate career when I’ve had to choose to do what I wanted, regardless of what others around me were (or were not) doing, saying, and/or advising. Sometimes those decisions seemed risky or reckless, but usually they paid off. If they didn’t, they still felt authentic and worth standing by. There is undoubtedly something to be said for collaborating and soliciting different opinions. Still, I firmly believe that there can be “too many cooks in the kitchen.” I think a fundamental part of graduate school is honing your own methods and instincts. While you should certainly draw on whatever resources you can, you have to develop (and sometimes fake) confidence in your ability to make decisions. Blindly following others’ advice or simply copying what others around you have done will only get you so far. You have to learn to trust yourself.

You will feel misunderstood

Being a graduate student is weird: you’re not a college student, but you’re not a professor. You’re not employed in the same ways as other professionals your age, but you have an equally taxing, if less common, set of responsibilities. Supportive though they may be, family and friends can’t always grasp the particular stresses that attend graduate school, like the demands of balancing research and teaching or the precarity of the job market.  Sometimes people are even downright patronizing or disparaging. I can’t tell you how often people have (dismissively) asked “what I’m going to do with my degree” as though they couldn’t imagine any possibilities. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me that they “miss reading for fun,” as if that’s what I do. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been reminded “how nice it must be to summers off,” which could not be further from the truth. Feeling misunderstood has been one of the worst parts of my graduate school experience, and while I’m not equipped to offer substantial advice in this regard, I can remind you that you are not alone: our work is no more or less valuable or worthwhile than that of others. The most important thing you can do is seek out a group of peers who can understand and commiserate with you.

Things You Should Be Doing

You must get out of your graduate school bubble

I’m hardly the first and won’t be the last to extol the virtues of cultivating interests beyond your research/teaching/lab, but I cannot emphasize enough how important this is, especially early on in your program when it usually feels most impossible. I hate the word “self-care,” because it’s been co-opted in such a commercial way, but the general concept has merit. From the beginning of my graduate career, I’ve pursued outside interests: I love to run and found a great community called November Project (free fitness, 40+ locations!) soon after I moved to Boston. Sometimes in the early years of my program, it was the only thing that kept me going. Even so, allowing myself time for activities beyond school commitments is something I struggle with. It takes effort! If you can’t give yourself permission to do these things, find someone or something to force you out of your own little world. Volunteer or get involved in local activism. Take a yoga class, or a cooking class, or a creative writing class. Join a club, bake, read a book just because you want to, or go out with friends. It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you “burst the bubble” every now and then.

You should reach out to and thank your professors/mentors

This seems rather obvious, but it’s easy to forget: you don’t have to wait to write your dissertation acknowledgments to thank your professors or mentors. This is not about brown-nosing; I don’t make a habit of thanking everyone all the time. But if a professor I’ve had in class did something I really admired pedagogically, for instance, or if someone outside of my department wrote something that really inspired, motivated, or excited me — I’ve tried to make it a point to reach out and tell them. A quick note or comment can go a long way. I was inspired to start this practice after receiving notes from students I’d taught. Hearing from them was truly touching and rewarding, even if all the person said was “I thought about our class when I saw this article.” It meant that something I had done or said had stuck. The point in advocating for this practice is not to be obsequious or to grovel, but to show genuine interest and appreciation for the person/their ideas/their actions, etc. DO NOT do this if you are only looking to get something out of the exchange and don’t be disingenuous — it will show. Graduate school can be hard — don’t forget to thank the people who make it a little more bearable and meaningful.

[Image from Flickr user Tuncay and used under Creative Common License.]

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