Being an “Awesome First-Year Graduate Student”


As his son approaches graduate school, Eric Schwitzgebel (University of California, Riverside), has been thinking about advice he can offer him to be an “awesome first-year graduate student”.

Donald Judd, Furniture Installation with Chair 84

In a post at The Splintered Mind, Professor Schwitzgebel makes a number of suggestions, which I reproduce in an abbreviated form here:

  1. Do fewer things better. It’s better to have one project that approaches publishable quality than three projects that earn an ordinary A. Whether it’s admission to top PhD programs, winning a grant, or winning a job, academia is generally about standing out for unusual excellence in one or two endeavors.
  2. Trust your sense of fun. Some academic topics you’ll find fun. They will call to you. You’ll want to chase after them. Others will bore you. Now sometimes you have to do boring stuff, true…. [But the fun stuff] is what keeps your candle lit. It’s where you’ll do your best learning.
  3. Ask for favors from those above you in the hierarchy. Professors want to help excellent students, and they see it as part of their duty to do so. But it’s easy for professors to be passive about it, especially given the number of demands on their time. So it pays to ask.
  4. Think beyond the requirements. Don’t only read what you are required to read. Don’t only write on and research what you are required to write on and research. Actively go beyond the requirements.
  5. A hoop is just a hoop. Don’t let the more annoying requirements bog you down.
  6. Draw bright lines between work time and relaxation time. During the time for working, focus. Don’t let yourself procrastinate and get distracted. And then when it’s time to stop, stop. Although sometimes people regrettably end up in situations where they can’t avoid overwork, unless you are in such a situation, remember that you deserve breaks and will profit from them. You will better enjoy and better profit from those breaks, however, if you first earn them.

You can read the full versions of these suggestions here.

I’d also suggest readers check out “Grad Traps!” by Daniel Silvermint (University of Connecticut).

And if you have any suggestions for how to be an awesome graduate student, please do share it in the comments.

Related: “Profs: What Would You Tell Your Grad Students, But Can’t?“. “Grad Students: What Would You Tell Your Fellow Students, But Can’t?

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A Philosopher
A Philosopher
1 year ago

Don’t be a competitive jerk who constantly tries to prove you’re the smartest person in the room.Report

Andrew MIlls
Andrew MIlls
1 year ago

Be conscious of the first impressions you make, especially on your faculty. Turning in all your assignments late in the first semester leads your professors to get an idea of you as someone who can’t get things in on time, no matter how prompt all your future work is. Similarly for behavior in seminar, conscientiousness as a TA, and so on.Report

Avalonian
1 year ago

“Ask for favors from those above you in the hierarchy… Would they be willing to write you a letter of support? Would they be willing to read a draft? Would they be willing to meet with you?”

While I understand the point of this (students are being encouraged to ask for important things and not be shy about it), let’s just all pause to reflect on the fact that these are framed as ‘favors’. They are not favors. They are (with a few minor exceptions) manifestly part of the job description of any faculty member at a PhD-granting institution. This is something that should be said loudly and often, as at present the norms of our discipline generally allow tenured profs to completely ignore many of their basic institutional responsibilities wrt grad students. Moreover, more grad students need to go into grad school knowing that these are not supererogatory or charitable, because it is partly their collective subservience and fear that allows this state of affairs to continue.

Grads: any faculty member at your institution must (ethically speaking) say yes to any of these requests, barring very special circumstances or excuses. While sadly you should, as ES says, “be ready for no (or for no reply)”, and while you should sometimes be ready to *act* as though such things are favors so as to maximally stroke the precious egos of those who hold your future in your hands… they are not favors. If you ask your prof to look at a paper and they refuse or fail to reply, they aren’t “busy”. They are an asshole.Report

Bre
Bre
Reply to  Avalonian
1 year ago

Spot on. We can give grad students advice for days. That’ll never change the fact that some/many professors don’t think it’s their job to be good advisors/mentors. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Avalonian
1 year ago

To be fair, it’s not implied in the OP that this is restricted to faculty at *your institution*. Report

Guy who got wise early
Guy who got wise early
1 year ago

Another bit of advice would be, learn the unspoken rules and requirements that govern intra-department awards, journal publications, successful conference presentations, and success on the job market. Many of these rules and requirements have nothing to do with doing good work.Report

Guy who didn't get wise early
Guy who didn't get wise early
1 year ago

Be aware of the social aspects of the profession. For example:

– Be the best team-player you can be in your grad program. Show that you don’t think you’re too good for administrative work (unless you’re sure you are). There are plenty of departments that need people to design or re-design programs, chair committees, etc., more than they need someone to publish in J Phil.

– Do your best to be part of a research community. Networking is part of this but so is writing the right way. Be social in what you write and how you write it. There’s a lot that might go into this, like being humble and open-minded in how you read others, and being collegial in how you write. I’ve never met a “big name” who has a problem with people objecting to it. Most like it, as it’s a sign of importance. What they don’t like are dismissive or disrespectful objections–objections that treat them as enemies in some kind of conflict as opposed to teammates in the game of truth-seeking.Report

jj
jj
1 year ago

How about – there is no one way to be “awesome” – in fact, no need to be awesome – most of us just muddle through and, hopefully, and some point, find our own voice in the profession? Just make sure you have fun doing it…Report

Bknows
Bknows
1 year ago

If given the opportunity, sit in on faculty panels where prospective asst. professor applicants are presenting. Normally there are opportunities for the applicant to speak with PhD students regarding current courses and their areas of interest. Be leery of an applicant’s first question of “so what’s the dirt on this place?” I totally shut down on the faculty applicant who asked the question. Better to ask, “what is it about the PhD curriculum you like and dislike and why?”

Definitely give yourself breathing room and enjoy life. By the time I got my prospectus approved, I was totally burned out and didn’t finish. I still regret that 25 years later. Report

RJB
RJB
1 year ago

Sorry for the self-promotion, but a number of students have found value in How to Be a Good Professor . One student found it immediately life-changing: he read the book, decided academia wasn’t for him, and dropped out of his doctoral program. But I think the majority of the 3600 people who have downloaded it used it to navigate their career as graduate students and junior faculty.

Abstract:

A good Professor achieves a three part mission of research, teaching and service. After elaborating on this mission, I provide some broad strategies for accomplishing it: know when to say no; don’t try to win the measurement game; don’t be a jerk (in the technical sense); “think otherwise”, but judiciously; and be your own adversary. I then spell out specific learning objectives, explain why they matter, and provide advice on how to achieve them. Stated in the language of instructional design, a good Professor will be able to: communicate effectively; craft constructive reviews and effective response memos; put philosophical insights to practical use; motivate students; share in the governance of their institution; and blend work and life so that each enriches the other.

Report

David Velleman
David Velleman
1 year ago

Unfortunately, “Do fewer things better” may be good career advice in the current state of the profession. It’s not good advice for becoming the best philosopher or doing the best work you can. That requires learning as much philosophy as possible, across as many sub-fields as possible, including the history of philosophy. When you eventually specialize, your work will be better for your broad education.Report

Barry Lam
1 year ago

Wrote this on Facebook but I’ll repost here:

David Epstein has a great book, Range, that goes through the literature on specialists and generalists in many domains, music, sports, other achievements like moving up corporate ladders, social change, and so forth. The literature suggests that you should bet on Eric Schwitzgebel’s advice for short-term success, and you should bet on David Velleman’s advice for long-term success. You should also expect generalists to be late bloomers, and specialists to peak early. My own suspicion is that academic philosophy has structured itself to weed out the generalists, but occasionally, a few of us still slip through.Report

Robert A Gressis
Robert A Gressis
Reply to  Barry Lam
1 year ago

For what it’s worth, Barry Lam’s take on the situation has accurately described my own trajectory. During grad school, I read around like crazy, I took lots of different courses in different areas, and it was hard for me to do my dissertation, partly because I was much more of a breadth guy than a depth guy.

From about 2008 to 2016, I just worked on Kant. I didn’t like it, but that’s what I wrote my dissertation on, and so that was where I figured I had ability to publish (also, I didn’t think I had anything useful or interesting to say in any other areas). It was really difficult for me to get anything written, because, frankly, I didn’t enjoy what I was writing about. I got tenure in 2014, but in 2016 — for reasons that are unclear to me — I decided to start writing in other areas (there’s no pattern, either; something in experimental philosophy, something in Hume’s philosophy of religion, something in the epistemology of disagreement, etc.). Now, it’s extremely easy for me to write, because I quite enjoy it, and a lot of what I have learned from different areas is coming to be useful.

Note: just because it’s extremely easy for me to write doesn’t mean it’s easy for me to publish! I have a lot of papers I’ve written that have been rejected, and I don’t see much chance for their getting accepted. But I still enjoyed writing them and I valued getting the feedback, even if it was negative. Report