A long time ago, I was asked to write a guest blog giving advice to my fellow graduate students at Purdue University. You can read the original in all its youthful splendor (or naiveté) here. In that guest blog post, which had the god-awful title of “Keys to the Graduate Kingdom”, I told my fellow graduate students to: (1) be willing to change; (2) be determined in their lives but patient while waiting for results; (3) become great actors (fake it ‘till you make it); (4) have people to turn to; and, (5) have filters—don’t just spew whatever nonsense comes to mind. I still stand by some of that advice, but it was given in situ; I was at that moment also a graduate student. Now, I’ve been out of graduate school for two years; during which, I have been a core member of the full-time faculty at a Sino-American joint venture university. So, as I was walking my dog this morning, I began to wonder, what advice would I give to graduate students today? What advice do I give to my graduate students from the Silver School?
Relish the Time Available to You
I can remember sitting in my initial advisor’s (Dwight Atkinson) cramped, windowless office in Heavilon Hall just needing him to sign off on a form that would allow me to take an additional .25 time position. I needed the extra pay to decrease potential reliance on student loans and to pay off a few credit card bills. He was cautious, worried that I would lose myself and that my academic performance would suffer. His final piece of advice was to make sure that I kept up with reading because there’s no place like graduate school to get up-to-date on the readings in your field and to stay up-to-date. At the time, I laughed it off. Of course, I would keep up with my readings! I loved reading and would always keep up with it, even after I took a full-time job.
Graduate students, let me tell you now, relish the amount of time that you have available during graduate school to read, read closely, and read widely! As a junior faculty member, I can tell you right now the first thing that becomes difficult to keep up with is an aggressive reading schedule. You might think, Oh, I’ll read during my commute. You’ll try to, but when you’ve taught three sections and had to use all your patience not to throttle a senior faculty member when they say something stupid about the L2 students at your university…You will not be reading on your commute home. You’ll be texting your spouse about how you want to be a stay at home dad. You’ll be looking at alt-ac jobs and dreaming of escape. You’ll be losing yourself belting out pop hits along with the radio. You won’t be reading.
You’ll think to yourself, I’ll read one article or chapter every day. That’ll keep me up to date. No, it won’t. In graduate school, you read so much. I can remember reading between 5-8 articles a day on the weekends, and a good 3-6 during the weekdays. One a day will not keep you up-to-date with the literature in your field. I have a backlog of about 20 readings that I still want to get through to be caught up in one of my sub-areas. And, as soon as I picked up my iPad to start reading, I realized that my conference is next week and I should really be preparing for that…
TL;DR: Enjoy the structured time in graduate school to read a lot and to develop strategies for staying up to date after you take a full-time gig.
Learn to Network
While I’ve always been passably social, I’ve never been overly good at networking. I’m still not. I’ve been in China for two years, and my professional network is still laughably small. Part of this is because while I was in graduate school, I just expected my professors to introduce me to people when we traveled together. Don’t do this. Learn to network on your own. Find out how to “casually” bump into people at conferences without sounding like some sort of love-struck fan, or self-indulgent creep. Don’t introduce yourself to your academic hero with a ten-minute dissection of their work and twenty-minute presentation on your own. Rather, be a human being. Sure, have an elevator summary of your work ready. But, just talk…make a human connection. Or, better yet, just listen at first. But, learn how to network.
You are a Young Professional
I know that student is still part of your official title, but in any other field, a highly trained 27-year old would be seen as a young professional. You are too. Keep that in mind. Act like one, and eventually, others will treat you like one. If, however, you decide to act as a listless student, you will only ever be treated like a junior professional. Act like a young professional and take ownership over your professional development. Know when to listen to your advisors and know that sometimes they won’t know what’s best for you. They haven’t lived your life up to this point. They can only advise, not make the decisions for you. But, know this, if you do go against your advisor’s guidance, have a well thought out rationale for your and link it very precisely to your desired professional development. And, again, in all things act like the young professional that you are.
Engage in Self-care
You might have outrageous demands on your time, but (spoiler alert) it doesn’t change once you graduate. You’ll still have others making insane demands on your time. It’s better to learn effective self-care while you’re in the relatively protected environment of graduate school as opposed to out in the I-need-this-paycheck real world. I’ve seen both graduate students and junior scholars run themselves ragged and burn out completely. It’s not a pretty picture. It’s not good for your career, and it’s certainly not healthy. Make time for yourself—to go to the gym, to watch trashy TV, to date, to do nothing. Also while you’re doing this grad-school thing, learn to laugh at yourself. It’ll make things much easier if you have a good sense of humor during all of this, too.
Finally, have fun with it. Graduate school is one hell of an adventure. There are days that I miss it terribly. Never miss the shite pay, but miss the people and the classes and the atmosphere.