A 15-Point Guide to Graduate School Success

It is a new academic year, which brings a new spate of fresh-faced little matriculating graduate students who have no idea what all-consuming terror is coming for them. Every year the babies come, and every year I see them make the same few entirely reasonable mistakes.

Ok. Granted, many of these innocent little academia babies are actually 31-year-olds with a decade’s worth of experience in their professional industry of choice, but still. Babies. Drooling big-eyed sacks of hope, ripe and ready to waste a ton of time and lose a ton of sleep on shit that does not matter.

I am a jaded slacker half-asser with a PhD and a job, so I have some advice for all them. Including, perhaps, you.

  1. Don’t read everything assigned in class. Skim. Hell, don’t read anything you don’t have to.
  2. Do not expect to come up with a “perfect” thesis/dissertation topic. You will have to settle for something feasible, actionable within a short time frame, and appealing to your adviser. It’s better to satisfice and graduate than linger as a perfectionist.
  3. Do not be a perfectionist in any of your writing or other work. Work a lot, write a lot, and turn in work as soon as possible. Don’t waste days, weeks, months tweaking a draft. Every draft will get some negative feedback, so it’s better to accept that and keep moving.
  4. Accept criticism with skeptical grace. Your adviser doesn’t know everything, but they think they do. And you probably do need to hear at least 50% of the criticism you receive.
  5. Set a regular writing schedule and stick to it. No one else will force you. You cannot thrive by being solely deadline-motivated. You have to make writing a regular process rather than a last-minute, deadline-fueled binge. (To develop this skill, I recommend you read the book How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul Silvia. He really effectively breaks down the distinction between writing as regular work vs writing as a binge.)
  6. Allow time for breaks, social contact, and hobbies. Your mind needs time to unwind and incubate its brilliantly insightful ideas. Your work will be better and you will be less miserable if you pace yourself. Binge working and binge writing will lead to burnout; regular, consistent work with reliable breaks allows you to deliver long-term results.
  7. Half-ass your course work. Grades do not matter in graduate school nearly as much as they did in undergrad, so allot as little time to class as possible. You are here to become an independent worker and thinker, not a passive student, so prioritize accordingly.
  8. Honor commitments related to your assistantship. Even if you do not care for your adviser’s research program, get invested in it. Put in time in, be conscientious, be respectful, and act like it’s a job. Because it is.
  9. Work smart, not hard. A lot of straight-A students make the mistake of equating effort and strain with quality of output, and this simply is not the case. No one in graduate school will be impressed with how late you stayed up studying or how many hours you sunk into editing a paper. All that matters is the observable payoff. Find what corners you can afford to cut, and cut them, so you can sleep/party/play video games/whatever.
  10. Prioritize your goals, but give lip service to your adviser’s goals. Your utmost goal should be meeting your academic requirements as quickly as possible so you can graduate in a timely fashion. Write your thesis, take your exams, make your reading lists, submit shit to your adviser, etc — but never give the appearance of not caring about your adviser’s own work.
  11. Don’t wait for confidence or competence to magically materialize. Listen, ask questions, make educated suggestions, make honest attempts, fuck up, and move forward. Expertise will blossom in the corners of your brain when you aren’t watching for it.
  12. Be your own advocate. Your adviser will not cajole you into working, or make sure to schedule regular meetings with you. Push for the time and support you need. Don’t be afraid to send needy emails.
  13. Do not waste time on “service”. You can piss away years organizing lunches, helping visiting speakers find parking, and sitting in on committees. It will not advance your career and it will delay your graduation. Women are especially likely to get sucked into this kind of work — and it doesn’t pay off. Don’t fall for it.
  14. Instead of doing meaningless grunt-work “service”, network in a meaningful way — by contacting researchers who are interested in the same things as you. Propose projects, write papers together, help faculty finish drafts they’ve had sitting around for months, and so on. Don’t be afraid to ask people if they have something they’re working on that you can contribute to.
  15. Do not be competitive with your peers. Fellow graduate students are often your best source of up-to-date knowledge and technical expertise, and will provide far more vital career connections in the years to come. Your peers know how the school bureaucracy works, are tech savvy, are hungry for success, and are in the same boat as you. Their knowledge and support is invaluable in the present, and their connections will be an advantage in the future. Being a competitive careerist is annoying and isolating.

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Others in this series:

Should you go to graduate school? A list of relevant questions.

Some graduate school survival tips.

Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.

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