September 27, 2005

For Those About To Grad School, We Salute You

Fontana Labs has excellent advice for beginning grad students, in philosophy at least. The comments are also worth checking out. I'm reproducing it below the jump with the naughty bits excised.

His point 1 is the main one, but I also found 4 to be completely invaluable. Don't think of yourself as an eremite devoted to the secluded order of your discipline. Have some fun. If it means you take a year longer, it may also mean you don't have a nervous breakdown.

I'd also add that you may not have to worry that much about the faculty--but remember that they're people too, and people who may wind up having a lot of power over you. And dealing with people is difficult. But most of them probably want to be reasonably friendly. (Junior faculty especially, who may be new in town and closer to your age than their colleagues'.) Just don't do anything you wouldn't do to a normal person. And if you get on someone's bad side, make sure they're not on your committee and the damage can be limited (not everyone has to write you a letter).

8 and 9 too. Going to lunch with visiting speakers should be fun, and networking really means getting to conferences--that can be the hard part, but just go to your professional meetings--and making friends. You don't even have to tell them how smart you are. Ask them about the talk they just gave; that helped me get this job.

And 12 is important. Enjoy yourself. It should be fun most of the time, and you should be doing something you're interested in.

And, like the woman says, stay off the Internet.

Fontana's tips:

1. The most important thing: recognize that graduate school is not at all college+1. It's a job-training program designed to qualify you for a very specialized line of work. You're a professional now. Act accordingly.
2. As a corollary of (1), keep in mind that your relationship with your faculty is completely different from an undergraduate's. In some ways this is good: you're halfway a colleague. In some ways this is bad: you're completely dependent on them. Getting abused, harassed, or mistreated? Any of the official lines of complaint might well result in a lukewarm letter of recommendation, which pretty much kills your chance at a job. Never make the mistake of thinking that you're one of them.
3. [censored]
4. Partly because your work is all-consuming, and partly because of the strange relationship mentioned in (2), you need to have some kind of outlet outside of your academic life. This will cushion you when, inevitably, the professional life hits the skids. If you can, make nonacademic friends. Keep up at least one hobby from the old days. You need to blow off some steam once in a while.
5. Keep fit. I'm completely serious about this.
6. Listen to your peers. At the start of my program, I got invaluable advice from older, wiser heads. Keep your ears open to learn the ins and outs, the standards, the expectations, and so on. No need to reinvent the wheel.
7. In any department there are stand-up, heart-of-gold people who are on your side. There are also complete [jerks] who don't give a [darn] about you and would never lift a finger to save your career. Find out who's who, and don't take their word for it. You know the really hip prof, the one who really would rather be black? He'll talk all urban, but he drove someone from the program last year when the student got a little overfamiliar and replied in kind. Bite your tongue and bide your time, [not black person].
8. Do your fair share. From time to time, there will be annoying obligations. Go to the parties. Attend the receptions. Take the visiting speaker to lunch. You're building a little goodwill, and it can really help to be seen as a team player if things get rough. Being a good citizen is a good thing.
9. Network like mad. Meet people and impress them with your cleverness.
10. Don't waste time whining about the market-- you could be working with that energy. [yeah, right--MW] My advice: every six to twelve months, surface for air. Go meta about your career choice. If you're not enjoying graduate school, if the work isn't moving you, if it's not paying off as you'd hoped, consider dropping out. If you decide to continue, don't think about it until six months later.
11. There's no shame in dropping out, either. Smarter people than you are flourishing in nonacademic careers [censored--I disagree with the second part anyway. If you've got a "Dr." it's an accomplishment, and you should be proud, no matter what else happens. But it doesn't make you better than other people].
12. Enjoy it. You'll probably never be around such smart, interesting, and completely [um, eccentric] people ever again. It's good times.

Posted by Matt Weiner at September 27, 2005 10:43 PM

Wow, good timing, thanks! But do you really think staying off the internet is important?

Posted by: Shieva at October 2, 2005 03:45 PM

Shieva, the first thing I would say is that you shouldn't be taking any advice from me about this. You seemed to be doing better at most of these things as an undergrad than I ever was in grad school (or maybe now).

The "stay off the internet" thing was a bit of a joke, considering where we are. But time management is important, and that interweb thingy can be a time sink. Time management remains a big problem after grad school too. For instance, you'll notice that it's taken me five days to respond to you. I'm five days behind on my procrastination. Oy.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at October 7, 2005 10:02 AM