As Graduate Students Prepare For The New Academic Year


[Note: this is a repost from August, 2017.]

It was suggested to me that as the new school year approaches, it would be helpful to revisit a few posts from the past. The first set of these takes us traveling back in time to posts providing advice for graduate students.

One is “Profs: What Would You Tell Your Grad Students, But Can’t?” in which professors share their thoughts about things graduate students should know which might be awkward to say to them.

Another is “Grad Students: What Do You Wish You Knew?,” in which I asked graduate students who are no longer brand new what they wish they had known when they started their programs—about being a graduate student, about studying philosophy, about departmental life, about the profession at large.

 

Both threads have a good number of comments.

Lastly, there is this popular guest post—“Grad Traps!“—by Daniel Silvermint (University of Connecticut), in which he discusses the “ways in which we burden ourselves early in our careers with thoughts and habits that make work and life harder.”

Additional suggestions welcome.

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gstudent
gstudent
4 years ago

Grad school was the first time in my life I made consistent money, and I wish there had been some guidance about what I could do with that money. For example, I didn’t realize how little money a month you actually need to start an IRA (or for that matter: wait until you get reimbursed for a conference and use that money to open one). I got the same “welcome to University’s benefits eligible pool” financial info that anyone new gets, but it was geared toward people making a lot more than I was, and so, at the time, it felt like kind of a slap in the face. I’d also have appreciated a head’s up about my university’s fees.

I’m not going to pretend that a lot of this isn’t rather unique to my situation (for example, I had a full scholarship all four years of undergrad so I wasn’t really aware of the ways universities charge money other than tuition and room and board), and I think financial education is primarily a personal and familial undertaking. But I know a lot of people my age feel more helpless than we are when it comes to money, and most of the university resources available for learning about it aren’t aimed at people in our situation. Some guidance from faculty or the graduate college or someone would have been really helpful.Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  gstudent
4 years ago

Money management isn’t just a problem for sheltered, full-scholarship Millennials. As someone who has had a full-time non-service-sector job since he was 19, I still had no idea what I ought to do with my money, until I was well into my 30’s. Even in my late 20’s, when I started to really care what happened to it, it was still difficult to find good advice — or even advice that wasn’t also trying to sell me gold, or stock-options, or a specific mutual fund.

As an advocate of a strong free market, it is tempting to lay the fault at the feet of a primary/secondary school system that provides absolutely zero guidance to budding citizens, on how to be a rational actor in a free market (all of which is true), but I can’t help but wonder if half of the fault doesn’t also belong to a consumer that is telling the system in no uncertain terms that it does not want that kind help.Report

Neil Mehta
Neil Mehta
4 years ago

I’ll mention my writing guide for professional philosophers:

http://www.profneilmehta.com/resources.html

It is effectively a list of things that I wish I had known about writing (and related topics) in graduate school.Report

Michael Mirer
4 years ago

Greg Gautheir’s comment about consumer signaling is verifiably false, as evidenced by the lucrative industry of self-help books, financial advice shows, and the existence of financial advisors. The market has proven quite responsive to this need, often in ways that are predatory and destructive (pyramid schemes, payday loans, “recession proof” gold, etc.). To blame this lack of accessible and accurate information on consumers is at the very least silly, but also illustrative of the limits of free market ideologies.Report

Kent
Kent
4 years ago

I appreciate the desire to be helpful to new graduate students, but did anyone else find the comment threads for the posts listed above, particularly the first two, to be extremely negative, and not particularly guidance-oriented? They (mostly) read more like bitter venting, which I understand is sometimes necessary and understandable, but not necessarily the best source of advice.Report

Current Grad Student
Current Grad Student
Reply to  Kent
4 years ago

I went through those two and one other thread last night and there is some useful material there. I do wonder though whether I, as a new grad student a number of years ago, would have been able to discern the good advice from the bad.

The tone of the threads is also a useful warning: for any given new grad student this fall, there is a good chance they will end up similarly bitter a few years from now.Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
Reply to  Kent
4 years ago

What I am astounded by is how (from what I can tell) terrible of advice I get from current professors. There is a professor and departmental aspiration for you that either might not be realistic or might not be one that you share. I’m sorry if I don’t end up being the next Wallace, Scanlon, or Korsgaard (though I don’t rule it out!), but also don’t give me job market advice on the supposition that I will be.

Also, I think it is instructive to look at the sibling post about what Grad Students would tell Professors. It’s riddled with current professors harkening back to their grad student days giving their professors (sometimes of decades past) input. I understand that this can be therapeutic, but it is also an example of how many professors think the experience of today’s grad students is the same as when they were grad students.Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Reply to  Grad Student4
3 years ago

Without naming names, here’s an anecdotal example of terrible advice.

I knew someone who graduated from another program. A second tier book press offered to publish their dissertation. They ask their advisor about it, who says, “Meh, I would never publish with them. I’m a rockstar and we rockstars only publish with X, Y, Z. If you publish with them, you tell the world you aren’t a rockstar.” The students passes. End of year: no interviews, no job. The second-tier press probably would have gotten them a good job, if not a job at Stanford.Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Jason Brennan
3 years ago

I’d like to second Jason’s point here. My experience is that this general sort of advice (advising people to pass up good opportunities because they are not the best possible opportunities) is both fairly common and deeply mistaken. The people giving this advice tend (at least in my experience) to be “rockstars” at top programs who seem assume people on hiring committees think the same way do. In reality, people on hiring committees at different institutions can have very different priorities and evaluate things differently. I’ve also known more than a few people who have passed up opportunities only to regret it later because they never received better ones. So if you receive this kind of advice, my counter-advice is to ignore it and take whatever the best opportunities are that you receive.Report

Kate
Kate
4 years ago

1. Start a new word document and compile your favorite positive feedback from professors and others who have said lovely things about you and your work. Read it whenever you feel like you aren’t good enough.

2. If you are going on the job market, secure letter writers by August 1 so you have lots of time to get them your job market materials. Finish your job market materials by September 1 (or earlier) so your letter writers have time to read and, hopefully, offer feedback. You won’t have time to do much writing when you’re applying for jobs, so make sure you write enough of your dissertation before the fall of job market year to defend in the spring.

3. Related to 2, plan far, far in advance. Set yourself deadlines for everything, and hold yourself accountable to those deadlines (even if no one else cares when you hand things in or finish a draft). If you do this, it’s very possible not to have to work evenings and weekends even in the very stressful period leading up to your defense. (I did this and it worked.)

4. Exhaust all funding opportunities at your graduate institution before you graduate, and take advantage of your student health plan. Explore options for massages and counseling to manage stress.

5. Practice presenting papers in front of a mirror, to your pets, and to your family members (if they will at least sit and pretend to listen). Take a video of yourself practicing to find and work on weird things you do like twitch your leg, or say “um” too many times. Graduate students spend a lot of time writing, and can go for days without saying many words out loud. Get comfortable speaking out loud.

6. Ask questions at department talks and conferences. If you can’t think of anything amazing to say, ask a question for clarification or encourage the speaker to “say more” about something you found interesting. This is related to 5.

6. When you give a talk, ask a friend to write down comments and questions from the Q & A so that you can use them to revise. Otherwise, you will likely forget many of those helpful comments and questions.

7. Follow up with interesting people you meet at conferences. You might send a quick email to a speaker whose talk you really enjoyed and say a few nice things about their paper, or send a note to someone you had lunch with to say you enjoyed chatting with them and hope to see them at a future APA. Build valuable connections early.

I’d like to end with something inspirational, but have nothing. I hope this was at least somewhat helpful!Report

gstudent
gstudent
Reply to  Kate
4 years ago

I thought this was great advice!Report

Matt
Reply to  Kate
3 years ago

I generally like all of this, but want to add the slight modification that it’s okay to be flexible on each of these things in ways that works best for you. Here’s a small example:
” Practice presenting papers in front of a mirror”

When I tried this, I noticed, for the first time, that my mouth opens in a slightly crooked way. It’s not a big deal, but it was really distracting to me and made me have a harder time practicing. So, I have had better luck practicing in front of friends or family members. (It is sometimes hard to get good feedback from them, though.) Of course, the mirror might work much better for some people than their friends would. The point is just to experiment and find what works well for you for the particular issue, rather than think you -must- use a particular tool or method, if it doesn’t seem well suited to you.Report

Alun
Alun
4 years ago

All of the responses I have seen have come from current and former graduate students in the US. As someone who will very likely be studying in the UK and not the US (if I do decide to go for it), can anyone shed some light on their experiences of graduate study on the other side of the Atlantic?
In particular, is the consensus similarly bleak about what it’s like day-to-day (in terms of culture – I guess the way you spend your time and the associated ups and downs will be the same), and about departmental politics? I’m not massively concerned about placement and am appreciative of advice given by several on the thread to secure a bit of work experience here and there throughout the programme.

Thanks in advance for any responses!Report

Transatlantic
Transatlantic
Reply to  Alun
3 years ago

As a UK-based grad student who has had a fair amount of contact with those based in the US, I think that I’m in a decent position to answer here, albeit anecdotally.

My sense is that students in the UK, as compared to students at top US programs, are significantly less inundated by a constant discussion of “the profession” writ large, especially in the gossip-column sense that feels more common in the US. The result is, I think, a less competitive, more collegial atmosphere. The job market in particular is not such an omnipresent feature of discussion as it seems to be in the US, and so people are more likely to see their fellow PhD students not as competitors but as colleagues. This is all very much to the good.

The downside of this is that, because the job market is a less prominent feature of grad student life, you have to be proactive in asking for help from faculty and getting the ball rolling on your own so that you actually can compete for jobs when it is time to do so. No one is going to extensively coach you through the job market unless you ask for it, and no one will be too bothered if you go and do something else outside academia. So it’s really on you. Probably this has something to do with the putative fact that it’s simply harder to get a job coming out of the UK, although some departments, including mine, do ok.

Again, this is just one person’s perception, so take it with the appropriate grain of salt.Report

M
M
4 years ago

Curious grad here. I’ve been looking at other grad and recent grad CVs, when available online, and I’m wondering about what the disciplinary norms are around identifying an a subject area as an AOC. When I’ve asked some profs, they seem to all give different answers.Report

Jonathan Weisberg
Jonathan Weisberg
Reply to  M
3 years ago

Here’s the guideline I’ve encountered most often. An AOS is any area where you do original research, or can at least supervise dissertations. An AOC is any area you are competent to teach at the undergrad level.

There’s still room for interpretation. (Does “the” undergrad level include all years? All institutions?) But it’s the closest thing to a common standard I’m aware of.Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
3 years ago

A professor at Arizona used to say something like this to new grad students:

“Ask yourself: What’s the minimum/worst job in philosophy you’d be happy with. (For me, it was that I would be happy if I had a 3-3 load at [name redacted to avoid offending people there]. The reason you need to ask is because you need to learn what your chances are of getting that kind of job, and you need to learn about what it’s like to have other jobs and whether you’d really be happy or unhappy with them. If in all seriousness you would only be happy with a job at Yale or Princeton, you should quit now.”

It seems anecdotally that many grad students become unhappy when on the market not just because the market is rough, but because their idea of what a good job is is the jobs their grad profs had. Most have no chance of getting jobs like that. So they need to either learn to be happy with the more common types of jobs, or quit now before wasting five years chasing rainbows.Report

Shane Wilkins
Shane Wilkins
Reply to  Jason Brennan
3 years ago

I like Jason Brennan’s advice. I’d suggest new grad students take it a step even farther. Identify some of those “schools you’d settle to teach at” and find out what the publication records and pedigrees of the people they’ve hired in the last four or five years look like. I know when I started grad school I had no ambition of being a rock star. I wanted to get a job at a college a lot like the one I had done my undergrad at; and indeed I went to do a PhD at the same place one of my undergrad profs had done her’s, so I thought I was on basically the right track. That was in 2007, right before the market died.

Needless to say, the folks getting hired at those same places now are considerably more competitive candidates than they were back in the day. Don’t think it can’t get worse.Report

Tim O'Keefe
3 years ago

1. Grad school can be enriching and great in lots of ways, but for most people it’s also high-stress. Tt is very common for people to start to suffer from depression, anxiety disorders, or just generally to feel overwhelmed.
If this starts to happen to you, first of all, don’t beat yourself up over it, or think that it shows that there is something especially wrong with you. It doesn’t: this is something that happens to human beings. Second, don’t isolate yourself, and don’t put your head down and try to work through your problems yourself. Let people know, so that they they can work with you to help you through the rough patches. That might involve getting extensions on some papers, or it might involve going to counseling, or lots of other things. But in my experience, people entering graduate school have the intellectual talent to get through, and most commonly it’s personal, psychological, or other medical issues that derail people. And if a person delays reaching out, because they’re afraid it will make them look bad, the usual effect is to make it harder to fix problem later that have become more serious.

2. More generally, if you have a question about University or departmental policies, please ask it rather than trying to guess. As DGS (which I am at my department), it’s a lot easier to answer questions than to clean up messes.

3. Get involved in the intellectual community in your department, especially your fellow graduate students. You’re surrounded by a bunch of people who are united by one factor: they care enough about philosophy that they’re willing to go to graduate school to study it. That’s pretty awesome (IMHO).

As much as you can, try to view your fellow students as a group of folks who are all in this together, who support one another and help one another out. Interact with them in ways to help make that true. Unfortunately, not all graduate programs are like it–it’s easy for things to devolve into nasty back-biting and people trying to assert intellectual dominance over others. But it doesn’t have to be that way.Report

ThinkAhead
ThinkAhead
3 years ago

Just about every graduate student should be thinking about how to prepare for private sector employment–even those committed to academia. It is hard to overstate how bad the job market is, and, like S. Wilkins says, things may get worse. If you have demographic advantages (i.e. are female) your prospects are better, but unless you’re from a top-5 school nothing is guaranteed.

Happily, it seems like many philosophy graduate students have already taken this lesson to heart. I’ve seen students do work in data science and public policy, in part so they have transferable skills.Report

Brian Klassen
Brian Klassen
3 years ago

After reading both threads, I learned that I was right to avoid graduate study in Philosophy.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
3 years ago

I’ve two bits of advice to graduate students and potential graduate students that are closely related:
1. There’s a good chance your interests will shift and evolve in graduate school. Keep this in mind when both picking a school and in thinking about cultivating relationships and taking classes once you have picked a program. You might well find that develop some unexpected interests in grad school and that they either beat out your old ones or you have something much more original to say about your new ones than you did your old ones. One of the worst things you can do is to pick a school that’s a powerhouse in X and stinks at everything else or only get to know the professors who work in X at your school because as an undergrad or first year grad student you are into X.
2. There’s no shame in picking a dissertation topic or AOS for pragmatic reasons. By pragmatic reasons I primarily mean because your school is good at it or because there are a lot of jobs in that field. Now I’m not saying you should write a dissertation on say Spinoza or material constitution if you find those topics utterly dull and trivial. But if you could see yourself writing a dissertation on say Locke or Kant and your school is known for Locke but has no recognized Kant scholars then that’s a perfectly fine reason to choose Locke. Or if you’re interested in metaethics or bioethics and you’ve a reputable bioethics program, then go for the latter as there are a lot more schools that want bioethicists than want people who do metaethics. I don’t think this is mercenary. I chose to do a dissertation on Kant even though my grad program wasn’t known for Kant and I really struggled to get a job. I look at other graduates of my program and it’s pretty clear to me I wouldn’t have had as steep a hill to climb if I’d wrote on Locke or bioethics. And here’s the thing, I often find myself wishing I knew a lot more about Locke and a good many topics in bioethics. If you’re an intellectually curious and open minded person you’ll find that there are a lot of topics that can be deeply interesting to investigate on and that you can do good work on. If you’re not curious and open minded then you shouldn’t be in this field. Also, I’ve seen grad students try to ignore or work around serious personality conflicts or let themselves get exploited because they can only see doing a dissertation on X and if they’re going to do X they absolutely have to have a particular person as an advisor or at least committee member. I’ve never seen that end well.Report