Grad Traps! (Guest Post by Daniel Silvermint)

[September 3, 2016: This was originally posted on August 21, 2014. Reposting by request from a reader.]

Grad students of philosophy! And other relevant parties! Behold! Daniel Silvermint, assistant professor of philosophy and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Connecticut, has developed a list of unhelpful thoughts that might occur to you every once in a while. He calls them “grad traps,” and the idea is that if you are able to recognize them, you can better avoid the trouble they bring. He explains what he’s up to, below, and asks for your comments on and additions to the list. Take it away, Daniel.

I’m helping out at my department’s orientation for new grads this Saturday, and I wanted to distribute a list of Grad Traps, or ways in which we burden ourselves early in our careers with thoughts and habits that make work and life harder.  The examples are all drawn from my own (only slightly exaggerated) experiences, and I hope that sharing them publicly can help students avoid similar mistakes.  I’m guided by two convictions here.  One, I can’t be the only one that had thoughts like these, right?  Second, success in graduate school is often as much psychological as it is intellectual, and effective mentoring engages with the person, not just their project.  When such traps go unacknowledged, grads have an incentive to hide and conceal their struggles, for fear of being considered not as good as others.  But if these kinds of traps are both common and avoidable, then an environment that openly acknowledges them is worth having.

Of course, there’s nothing essential about my own experiences.  That’s why I’m posting a draft of the list here – to encourage discussion and solicit additions.  Do you see yourself in any of these traps?  What are the traps I missed?  What do you wish you had been able to share?  What did you share, and did it help?

Grad Traps! Lessons drawn from the graduate career of one Daniel Silvermint

  1. “I’m smart. I aced undergrad with barely any effort, aside from some last minute scrambles.  Grad School is like undergrad, but more advanced.  So surely the same work habits will suffice here.”
  2. “The best way to get started on a big pile of work is to obsess about just how much there is to do and how little time I have to do it all in. Of course, another option is to break everything down into small, manageable tasks that I can then cross off a to-do list, but my way is better.”
  3. “I couldn’t bring myself to work the last couple days, and now I feel behind, which makes me really stressed, which makes it even harder to work, which makes me feel even more behind, which makes me too paralyzed to work, which makes me feel even more behind, and, yep, there went another month.”
  4. “Oh no! It’s time for a meeting with my advisor, and I’ve been too stressed to work.  I should beg for an extension.  Whew, they gave me another week.  The relief is so palpable, I’m going to relax for a little bit.  Wait, dang, now the delayed meeting is only a few days away!  Time for an insane, last minute scramble!  Yay, I survived the meeting!  But now I’m burned out.  Having accomplished my goal of surviving the meeting, I’ll take a week off.  Oh no!  It’s time for a meeting…”
  5. “My advisor gave me a compliment. I’m the Master of the Universe!  My advisor frowned at one point.  I’m a total failure and I will never be good at this.  My advisor replied to an email with a single sentence.  They must be mad at me!  My advisor didn’t reply to my latest email.  They must be getting ready to drop me as a student.  Wait, they smiled at me in the hallway!  Everything is great again!”
  6. “You know what will help? Feeling miserable or frustrated about how much further along I’d be if only this or that had happened differently.  Beating myself up will get me out of this rut.”
  7. “The best time to hide from faculty is when I’m stuck on a paper or otherwise struggling.”
  8. “I’m burned out but I can’t justify taking time off because of how much work there is to do, so I’ll just veg on the internet all day and feel neither productive nor rejuvenated.”
  9. “My entire life has to be about this, or else I’m a bad grad. If I take breaks, have hobbies, and enjoy friends and family, I will fail.”
  10. “Another grad in my program seems really impressive. Since I’m completely new to this, I’m an excellent judge of what makes someone a good philosopher, and apparently I’m not it.”
  11. “I’m the idiot whose application was accidentally put on the acceptance pile due to secretarial error. And talking to others about what I’m going through will just reveal that.”
  12. “After all, the rest of my cohort says everything is going well for them, so clearly I’m the only one who feels this way.”
  13. “Hang on, I’m just as behind as someone else in the program. That means I’m not behind!”
  14. “I don’t want to ask a question during seminar or a colloquium, because it might be a dumb question. Hey, somebody else just asked my question, and it was well received!  I will learn nothing from this and similar episodes.  For years.”
  15. “I can’t write anything until I’ve read absolutely everything, because there’s nothing worse than the embarrassment of being told I missed an author I should have known about.”
  16. “Maybe I should spend today polishing the opening paragraph of this paper yet again, instead of starting that new section I haven’t written yet. It all counts as working.”
  17. “Any thought I have belongs in the main body of this paper. If I delete something, that will make my paper clearer, and possibly even give me two papers instead of one.”
  18. “But before I get to writing down every idea I’ve ever had, I should spend dozens of pages discussing any author that might be even loosely related, because I need to prove that I know the literature. Papers are actually midterms in disguise.  Oh, and any comment a faculty member makes gets addressed in its own, brand new paragraph.”
  19. “Revising a paper means tinkering with small, inconsequential aspects of it until I have a draft no better than the last one, but possibly longer, clunkier, and with more tangents than the last one. I’m making progress!”
  20. “No matter where I am, I’m probably n+1 drafts away from finishing this paper. I mean, if I sent it to a journal now, I might get comments that would tell me what I actually need to do to finish it, and why would I want that?  Actually, they’ll probably just tell me I missed an author I should have known about.    I should go read some more.”
  21. “I can only write if I have long blocks of open time. Luckily, summer is only four months away, so I’ll catch up on my writing then.  Oh, and volunteer to teach a summer class for the experience, of course.”
  22. “If I want to be a successful grad, I have to say yes to every opportunity that comes my way. After all, opportunities don’t have costs.”
  23. “I need to write, but answering emails, preparing very detailed lesson plans for this course I’m TAing, and other crises with immediate deadlines obviously take priority. Writing has a nebulous deadline, so that’s the task I can put off.  Hey, wait, how is it December/ May/ the end of August already?!  It’s almost as if all those other tasks always take exactly as much time as I’m willing to devote to them…”
  24. “Speaking of which, I want to be a good teacher! That means being 100% available to my students, agreeing to appointments if they don’t feel like coming to office hours, dropping everything to answer their emails whenever they arrive (even if they’re asking me something that’s on the syllabus), and spending days replying to grade complaints until they finally agree that the grade was fair.”
  25. “Oh no! I have some of these thoughts, too!  I’m doomed for sure, just like this Daniel fellow probably was…”

A few caveats about the above list.  First, while it’s written in a cheeky tone, the point is not to mock individuals who fall into these traps.  The humor is meant to destigmatize a potentially shared experience.  Second, I’m addressing ways in which grads burden themselves.  Entirely absent from the list are interpersonal and institutional burdens.  Marginalization, microaggressions, and matters of climate are also factors for many grads.  While I was partly inspired to create this list by Kate Norlock’s recent post on the Feminist Philosophers blog, such issues require their own discussion, and my department already has an orientation time slot devoted to discussing them.  Third, given that I’m talking about self-imposed burdens, it should go without saying that this list isn’t about where I went to graduate school, or the people that I had the good fortune to work with while there.  Even so, I want to be clear that I received incredible support, for which I’m still and always grateful.

Environments are shaped by what we choose to discuss and how we choose to discuss it.  I’m excited about having an open and respectful discussion in the comments below.  That said, if you prefer to contribute anonymously or privately, you can email me at [email protected]

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