Yet Another Guide to Moderate 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 topic. You will have to settle for something feasible, actionable within a short time frame, and appealing to your adviser.
  3. Do not be a perfectionist. Work a lot, write a lot, and turn in work as soon as possible. Don’t waste days, weeks, months tweaking.
  4. Accept criticism with skeptical grace. Your adviser doesn’t know everything, but he/she thinks he/she does. And you probably do need to hear at least 50% of the criticism you receive.
  5. Set a regular work schedule and stick to it. No one else will force you.
  6. Allow time for breaks, social contact, and hobbies. Your mind needs time to unwind and incubate. Your work will be better and you will be less miserable.
  7. Half-ass your course work. Grades do not matter in graduate school as long as you pass, so allot as little time to class as possible.
  8. Treat your assistantship duties dead fucking seriously. Even if you do not care for your adviser’s research program, get invested in it. Put in time, be conscientious, be respectful, and act like it’s a job.
  9. Prioritize your academic goals. Your utmost goal should be meeting your academic requirements as quickly as possible. Write your thesis, take your exams, make your reading lists, submit shit to your adviser, etc — do it early and often.
  10. Don’t wait for confidence or competence to magically materialize. Listen, ask questions, make educated suggestions, make honest attempts, and move forward. Expertise will blossom in the back of your brain when you aren’t watching for it.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. Network in a meaningful way — by contacting researchers who are interested in the same things as you. Propose projects, write papers together, and so on.
  14. Don’t be a rude dick. Faculty are insanely busy teaching an increasing number of undergrad classes, attending bullshit meetings, forming admissions decisions, attending conferences, conducting research, writing papers, and advising countless other graduate students. Make sure you have a huge buffer of time for every request, and be patient.
  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. Being a competitive careerist is super socially isolating anyway.

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

Some graduate school survival tips.

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