From the Archives: The Keys to the Graduate Kingdom

Please note, this blog post was originally published on my colleague’s blog Aphrael’s Travails on 27 December 2011. I still stand by some of this advice, but this is being republished as a counterpoint to yesterday’s blog post.

Hello, my name is Joshua Paiz, a doctoral student in second language studies at Purdue University. Before starting on my Ph.D. at Purdue, I was an undergraduate and then graduate student at the University of Toledo (UT) in Toledo, Ohio—located a mere fifty miles from my hometown of Sandusky, Ohio (home to Cedar Point Amusement Park: America’s Roller Coast). So, moving to West Lafayette, Indiana has been…interesting. Needless to say, it’s grown on me. I’ve gone from trying very hard to cling to my identity as a UT Rocket to beginning to accept my new identity as a graduate scholar-in-training and as a Purdue Boilermaker. During that transition—as with my transition from retail management to graduate studies at my MA institution—there have been a few keys that have helped to open the door to effective and, at times, exciting graduate studies. Since Beril asked me to write something for her, I will humbly share those keys with you in the following paragraphs/pages/screens—what have you.

Willingness to Change

Since I find myself in the midst of a transition, and perhaps you do too, I’ll make the first key a “willingness to change.” I find that this key is of some importance given that we—as graduate students or first year faculty—find ourselves needing to revamp our professional, and sometimes our personal, identities. And, that change can be a difficult one if we’ve built up a particular identity for ourselves at our previous institution. To highlight this allow me to give you a bit more of my personal history.

I completed my MA at UT in May of 2011. Before completing my MA I had worked very, very hard to prove that UT had made the right choice in selecting me for their program and that they had made a sound investment when they awarded me a TAship. To that end, I overdid it. I bit off more than I could chew to prove that it could be done; to prove that I could do it. During my first months at UT, I pitched my first research idea to one of my advisors and got a project green lit; during my second year at UT, I took on a extra part-time teaching job at an Intensive English Program; and during my final semester, I was teaching 16 hours a week; taking a full-time course load; and working on two research projects—one of them my MA Thesis—all while presenting at every conference that would take me. I did all of this to prove to people—perhaps myself most of all—that I could do it; that I deserved to be part of the graduate community. By the time I left UT in July of 2011, I had built up a particular identity. To my advisors, I was a driven individual that rarely stopped working (I used to sleep in my office on really busy nights, and I don’t advise that you do that. Once you start doing that, you’ve gone too far). To my colleagues I was the energetic overachiever.

However, when I came to Purdue it felt like the slate had been wiped clean, and not in a good way. It felt like all that hard work had been enough to get me in the door, but now that I was here I had to re-prove myself and that I deserved to belong. At first I was very, very hesitant about this. I didn’t want to have to show people that I could do it all over again. In my mind, I was thinking, “Haven’t I already proven that I’m capable?” It made for a rough couple of weeks when I first started. My resistance made me less willing to take the same kinds of chances that I had taken while I was trying to establish myself at UT. One night that all changed. I don’t know why it changed, perhaps it was when I got back my first graded assignment from a rather…thorough professor and I realized that while I had proven myself at UT, Purdue was a new school with new professors who don’t know me. When my resistance to change—my resistance to having to reinvent my academic identity began to fade—I found myself considerably more willing to “put myself out there,” to try new things, and to share my research ideas with others. It’s led to me being presented with some unique and exciting opportunities. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a UT Rocket, but now I’m also a Purdue Boilermaker and it’s been a godsend being able to reinvent parts of my identity and to reinitialize others. I haven’t asked any of my professors here if they’re happy with their “purchase” so I don’t know if they see me the way that the UT professors saw me…but I do know that my identity as an overachiever has followed me. But, hey, there’s nothing wrong with pushing yourself a little (or a lot). And, remember, embrace the change! It will take you to some exciting places.

Determination & Patience

I consider this to be the most important key(s), but since I want to end on a humorous note, I won’t make this one last. Instead, I’ll make it the second key. Besides, the second spot is overlooked far too often.

To survive in any graduate program you’re going to need both patience and determination. While they are, in my eyes, very closely related, it is vital to keep in mind what distinguishes them from each other. Patience is a willingness to wait, to ride things out. Determination, on the other hand, is a firmness of will. Patience will get you to the end of your assigned readings; it will help you with that problematic student—or heaven forbid peer or faculty member. Determination will help you finish that huge term paper; it will keep you sending out journal submissions even after getting a slew of rejection letters. With patience, we can learn a great deal; with determination, we can overcome just about any obstacle put in our path.

During my first semester at Purdue, I got to take a class with a man that I hold in very high esteem. I was “pumped” to get to learn from him. He’s also insanely thorough when he assesses students’ written work. Before hand, I had seen myself as a pretty strong writer. After I got back my first graded assignment, I began to question that. There was so much ink on every page. When I got home that night, I tossed the paper on my desk and then stared at the degrees and certificates on my wall. I began to wonder if I was in the right place. A week later, I met with my professor to discuss the paper. The meeting was a long one—about two hours—and a fruitful one. It lasted well into the night. Or, was it early morning? But, because I was patient and listened, I came to understand the weaknesses in my writing. But, I learned something far more important. My writing would become an integral part of my professional identity if I continued in academia, and this professor was more than happy to take the time to comment thoroughly on my papers. Not only that, he was more than willing to walk through my paper with me to help me grow. He is, frankly, the kind of professor that helps to take a program to the next level.

Determination comes into play so often during a graduate program. I’m convinced that one must be determined to survive in a Ph.D. program—or a good Master’s program. If you don’t have a strong will you may not make it. This is clearest when you’re working on your MA Thesis or your Doctoral Dissertation. I can remember one night during my MA rather vividly. I had just finished a second draft of one of my thesis chapters and had finally gotten reviews back from my chair and my readers. I had collected all of the comments into a single file and had reviewed them. While all of the comments were helpful in creating a stronger document, there were so many—and they all seemed rather critical—that I quickly became rather disheartened.

Now, at UT my office was in the third floor loft, we had a large open area in the center of the building where one could look all the way down to the ground floor.  It was late—about 1 am—and I was the only person in the building. I remember walking to the opening and looking down at the ground level. I was so upset that I took the staple out of the print off of my first chapter and tossed the papers over the edge. It was—refreshing—in a way to watch the papers fall like snow down from the third floor. Don’t get me wrong, I now had to go down stairs and clean up the mess I had made, but I felt a lot better. After that, I went home and made a pot of coffee, and then I sat down at my computer and made the changes that my readers had asked for. What I’m getting at here is that you have to be determined to make it through a graduate program. Also, there will be times when your “iron will” wavers. So, do what you need to do to blow off some steam (assuming it’s legal of course) and then get back to work and make the magic happen. Let’s face it. We grad students are a magical bunch—and patience and determination are key ingredients in our potions.

Great Acting Ability

As a graduate student, you may find yourself teaching at some point, and you should do your best to be presenting at conferences. Both of these events—teaching and presenting—can be particularly trying if you consider yourself to be a “shy” person. Despite being a young scholar, I have done plenty of each and I have helped my peers with these activities as well. One thing that I hear rather often is that they’re too scared or too nervous. The only thing that I can say to that is fake it until you can make it. What I mean by that is if you don’t think you’re going to be a good teacher or a good academic presenter, you should fictionalize yourself into that role until it becomes part of who you are. In other words, you should pretend.

Before becoming a graduate student and instructor, I had spent years in leadership roles at various retail and entertainment companies. Being in the spotlight had become second nature to me. However, I can assure you that the first time that I stepped into the classroom as a teacher—both at UT and at Purdue—I was absolutely horrified. Now, at Purdue I’ve come in with plenty of teaching experience so, I’ve been able to fall back on that. But at UT, I had nothing. So, I faked it. I acted like I thought a teacher should act. And, you know what, it worked. My students bought it. And so did my audience the first time that I presented at a larger regional conference. Both that first semester teaching and that first conference presentation went brilliantly. Now, I can’t get enough of it. I love teaching and I love presenting!

So, if you find your boots shaking at the thought of teaching your first class or at the mention of academic presenting…remember this: FAKE IT! You’ll do fine.

People to Turn to

I can safely say that you will need people that are close to you that you can turn to as you make your way through a graduate program. There will be plenty of frustrating moments during your graduate career and you’ll need to vent. You may find that your peers are great to talk to about some things, but not about everything. So, whether it’s a close friend, a partner, or a pen-pal make sure that you have people you can turn to. It will keep you sane; it will keep you stable; it will see you through to the end.

Now, if you’re moving somewhere new and you know no-one—much like me when I came to Purdue—find a kindred spirit in that orientation meeting and form a bond with them. Become orientation buddies and then become fast friends that can rely on each other. And, no matter how busy things get, find time to be with those people in more relaxed settings—whether that means going for a jog or going out to lunch at one of the scores of Mediterranean restaurants around campus…make the time. You’ll need each other a lot over the next two to seven years. Also, don’t forget about the laws of reciprocity. Be sure that you’re there for others too. Don’t become the person that always vents and never listens.


The final key deals with having tact in what you say and do. You’re on the road to becoming a professional. As Wagner and Lave say, you’re moving from legitimate peripheral participation to a position as a “central” participant in a community of practice. It’s very important that you watch what you say. To highlight this, I’ll share a more humorous anecdote from my early MA days.

It was during the first month of my MA studies, I was sitting in on a workshop that dealt with picking a good Ph.D. program. The workshop was being chaired by one of UT’s comp/rhet professors and one of their lit. professors. The lit professor was having everyone say who they were, what their area of study was, and why they had chosen their field of study. When it was my turn I said, “Howdy, I’m Josh Paiz and I’m studying English as a Second Language. I chose ESL because I figured it was more applicable than studying literature.” Whooops! The literature professor’s eyes became laser spewing slits and she replied with cool venom. “You know, Josh, Doctoral Studies aren’t for everyone.”

That was certainly an open mouth and insert foot moment. It was a minor offense, and one we laugh about now. But, it just goes to show that you need to think before you speak…have filters in place at all times. It can make life a whole lot easier.

Closing Comments

While there are no guides to being a successful graduate student that will work for everyone, these are things that have helped to get me where I am today, that have helped me to make it through the tough times. I humbly hope that you’ll find them useful. Despite how difficult and challenging being a grad student will be, I promise that you will find it to be one of the most rewarding and exciting times ever. It will blow your undergrad days out of the water. Best of luck with your studies.

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