Nearing the end of graduate school, I spent a lot of time waiting to hear back from my committee. Sure, I suffered panic attacks hoping that it would soon be over, but it also allowed me the opportunity to be incredibly introspective.
During my time in grad school, Ive had some brilliant successes and miserable failures. And not to be cliché, although I dont regret anything, I would definitely do a number of things differently knowing what I know now.
Here are ten of my biggest lessons Ive learned while in grad school.
- Dont become bitter. To be fair, I actually received this piece of advice in my first week of grad school. For whatever reason, I frantically scheduled meetings with anyone who would talk to me: faculty, lecturers, academic advisors, advanced grad students. I spoke with a graduate student who was in his last year. He told me that I should do my best to remain well adjusted with no bitter feelings toward the program, faculty, or other students. I remember being flippant about the advice, and brushed it off. Lets say that I wish I took this a tad bit more seriously.
- You miss 100% of the shots you dont take. Graduate students are riddled with numerous insecurities, especially in the first few years of the program. The first two years are a cruel hazing process where youre constantly being told youre not good enough. Its easy to stop putting yourself out there, especially once youre done with coursework and are left to your own devices. But in the road to your doctorate, youre judged on much more than your dissertation. This includes conference presentations, publications, volunteering for service, etc. Apply to everything, talk to people, and put yourself out there.
- Build your CV starting NOW. There is no shame in the fact that most people have a blank CV upon entering grad school. But, the minute youre in graduate school, its time to start putting lines on your CV. It may seem a little early to do so, but a few lines may lead to a serious opportunity down the road. Dont wait until your third or fourth year to think about your CV. Look for departmental awards, on-campus conferences, RAships, and university funding opportunities.
- The job market is frightening, but preparation is key. I think my anxiety about the job market started even before I enrolled in grad school. Before enrolling, I was fully aware that an academic job wasnt a sure thing. I remember attending a practice job talk in my first year and hearing about the interview process, thinking that there was no way I could put myself through that. That being said, my single greatest asset on the market was the extensive preparation and planning I began five years before. Yes, tenure track positions are hard to come by. But grad school is a marathon. If you have the foresight to adequately train, the job market isnt that bad.
- Find really good friends, but keep others as acquaintances. Without a doubt, you need a really good network of support in order to survive grad school. This was a common piece of advice I received early on. However, what people dont tell you is that a lot of grad students become trapped in the land of eternal happy hour. You didnt come to grad school for a social life, even if you didnt have one before. Friends are awesome, but not everyone is your friend. Grad students look for opportunities to procrastinate and misery loves company. That being said, you shouldnt drop off the face of the earth once youve found your inner circle of friends. There are benefits to staying plugged into your department.
- Save your money. When it comes to funding, inevitably, you will get screwed. It might be that you were mistakenly promised funding, a more promising student took your TAship, or that you simply made a mistake in anticipating how much money you needed to get through the term. Im probably more frugal than I need to be, but my savings saved me from having to take out loans in two separate instances. It is possible to get through grad school without taking loans. You just need to work and save your money.
- Talk to your professors. Youre spending a lot of money to get access to brilliant minds. Dont pass up this opportunity. A huge component of the dissertation is essentially an exercise in keeping in continual contact with your committee. In defending my masters thesis, I heavily relied on assumptions and incorrect expectations. It took six months to approve my field paper from the time I turned in a first draft. (The department later amended the rules to require that this process only take a month, at most.) If you establish great relationships with your professors early on, youll benefit from it in multiple ways. Ultimately, the largest benefit is that itll grease the wheels for when you begin work on your dissertation. I learned my lesson early on and made sure not to make similar mistakes in defending my dissertation.
- Get organized. Youll quickly find that youre going to be responsible for mentally cataloguing a great deal of information. Technology has allowed us to go from index cards to thumb drives to cloud sharing. Pick one way to organize this information and stick with it. For my comprehensive exam, I saved book summaries and course notes on a thumb drive. Its tedious to go back and review, but it saves a lot of time in re-reading material. Now, I wish I could go back and better organize this material in order to better benefit from it now. It would be sweet to have prepared literature reviews in major subfields ready to go.
- Have a goal. I came to grad school without really thinking about the end result. In hindsight, I am extremely lucky in how everything fell into place. I remember having a conversation with a good friend of mine at the end of my third year. I was unsure of whether or not I was cut out for academia. And it was only after that conversation that I fully committed to an academic job. I probably wasted the most time in my third year because I was unsure if I wanted to be there in the first place. Grad school takes a long time and it was fairly common to have a lingering sense of hopelessness without committing to a goal. Once I committed to an academic job, I became much more productive. Establish short-term, long-term, and career goals for yourself. Itll do wonders.
- Confidence means the world. Again, in the first two years, youll feel like you made a horrible mistake. Youll constantly question whether or not youre cut out for academia. But, this will also be accompanied by momentary lapses of clarity where youll be at peace with your decision. Its okay to leave; grad school is not for everyone. But, if you stay, make sure to have confidence in that decision. If you can convey confidence in your writing and your perspective, youll be fine.