Advice to Those Starting Graduate School

(geared—due to a friend’s request for such advice—to those starting a PhD in the humanities at an elite program in the US)

Always keep a sense of proportion and perspective, and keep alive your contacts with the world outside academia. Few problems you will encounter are unique to academia or uniquely bad within academia, and have much more to do with negotiating the working world/adult life generally, especially in our present blah blah neoliberal precarious gig economy which affects most of us under 40. Limit your engagement with academic social media and the social life of your department if you find that stuff only dials up your anxiety.

Take advantage of one of the really special things about academia—the opportunity for flexible working—but make it work for you. There will be times in the course of graduate school when your timetable is not your own and you won’t be able to impose limits on your work, but make sure you’re only working 24 hours/day when it is absolutely necessary. If you need to work 9-5 in order to impose boundaries around your work life, then great. But if you work better at other times, that’s great too. You do NOT have to work 40 hours a week, or any other set amount. Intellectual work happens at different paces for different people. You might find it more helpful to make to-do lists/set goals, and stop when you’ve finished them.

Some actors—university administrators, maybe your advisor or other professors—will try to treat you as if the category “student” means you’re not really an adult. But always act like the professional adult you want to be treated as, and insist on that treatment if it isn’t automatically given you. You have the right to dignity and respect, as do others—don’t defer to someone else simply because they are professionally senior to you, but be polite and professional if you disagree. Act like the dream colleague you want to have when you’re in your dream post-PhD job, including with your grad-student peers. While you may well become good friends with many of your peers, you aren’t obliged to hang out with (or even like) your whole cohort. You are obliged to be civil—unless someone has done something so egregious as not to merit your civility, in which case you shouldn’t give it them. (This will happen at some point—you may want to think in advance about where your boundaries are.) Like any office, the department will have a rumor mill. If you’re a budding academic politician you may wish to use its powers for good—but otherwise remember that if, for example, you date a classmate, everyone else will soon find out.

When you’re teaching, you are a staff member of the university. Dress professionally (within whatever remit makes you feel comfortable according to cultural norms/gender identity/whatever—I am continually surprised by how flexible these norms seem to be now, even for women). Don’t sleep with your students. Do join the union and insist that the university recognize you as the worker that you are.

Always remember that you have agency and power and independence. Disagree with your advisor if you want to take your dissertation in a different direction from what she prefers, or if you have aspirations for your post-PhD life that he hasn’t considered. Disagree with your cohort-mates if they’re causing drama about something that doesn’t merit it. Never lose sight of the job market, but I don’t mean freak out about it. Constantly ask yourself where you’d like to be in 10 or 20 years, and while recognizing that absolutely nothing is guaranteed or absolutely within your control, do your best to stack the odds to make that vision possible. If you want an academic job, it is your responsibility to seek out as many sources of information as you can, attend every professional development workshop your department puts on, stack up your publications and your teaching experience and your progress on your diss and your network of contacts. No one else is going to hand all that to you. If you don’t want an academic job, great—and your PhD journey and the scholarship you will produce along the way is just as valid and valuable as anyone else’s. But do what you need to do to gain a realistic picture of how to enter the sector that interests you when you graduate. Have back-up plans. You have the right to make whatever tradeoffs you need to make, and no one cares if you disappoint your advisor by not following the path she has imagined for you—but don’t expect you can both land a tenure-track job and keep your family in your current city where your non-academic partner is employed (or whatever).

There are limits to what it is reasonable to feel entitled to. If you are fully funded at a top program at a private US university, always remember that you are the most privileged of all possible grad students, and that if you don’t have dependents you are making a comfortable middle-class wage; and think about how you can help those both within your profession and outside it who are less fortunate than you.

You will encounter many people trying to peddle their crack system for note-taking or memorizing or organizing information or archive workflow. I can tell you about my generals study strategy or my archives system, but these sorts of things are highly individualized and through trial and error you will find the system that works for you. Coursework seems important when you start the PhD, but a year after generals you’ll have forgotten all about it. Remember that you spend most of your time as a grad student researching and writing your dissertation and teaching. Anything you find stressful or annoying about coursework will soon pass.

In conclusion, I really cannot emphasize enough perspective, autonomy, self-confidence, agency, dignity, and dialing down the drama whenever possible!

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