Tonight is graduation at Ursuline College, and I will be proud to see several of our math majors march across the stage to receive diplomas.
My favorite part of the evening is always the “honor guard” we form for the students as they leave the ceremony. All the faculty and staff line up on either side of the exit and applaud as the students process out, on to new and exciting things. The honor guard, of course, quickly disintegrates into a mob of students and teachers hugging and crying.
Tonight one of those students will be one of our math majors named Jessica. She is off to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. Although I informally have given her some advice, I wanted to write this entry for her, and for any other students entering graduate school in the next few months.
Please know that I write this as someone who was just successful enough to graduate from my program, not as someone who got As in all of her classes. However, in all the twists and turns and heartbreaks, I think I learned a few lessons that I want to pass along. So, for what they are worth, here are some thoughts for you, Jessica, and for anyone else who will be embarking on such a grand adventure (as Winnie the Poo might call it.)
1. Find a safe and secure place to live. This may mean paying more than you expected for rent out of your small stipend, but it is worth it. I learned this lesson the hard way, having four apartments in my first nine months of graduate education. I was a very naïve and trusting 22 year old when I ran into a series of unscrupulous realtors, incompatible roommates and even a “studio apartment” that was not zoned to be an independent apartment. Eventually, I found an apartment where I lived for almost five years. However, along the way, I took my first semester final exams while staying with a friend, as I was between apartments. A trip to the campus housing office had unexpected benefits when I went with my friend with whom I was staying to meet the new Assistant Director of Housing at the time. They are married now, with two cool teenage boys.
2. Form study groups. The cohorts in our program that survived their class work and comprehensive exams were the ones that formed study groups and encouraged and helped each other.
3. Your first responsibility is to your studies. Yes, you need to work as a graduate assistant or teaching assistant, but don’t put more work into that “job” than you do into your classes. I remember worrying that I was not working hard enough at my assistantship, when I should have been worrying that I was not putting enough time into my studies. Eventually, I did well enough, but I do remember that my priorities were misplaced those first few months.
4. Start early to look for a subject that might interest you enough to become the topic of a dissertation. I asked a question on the second class day of one of my first year courses that eventually turned into my dissertation. While I received a somewhat acceptable answer to that first question, it would not go away, and I found myself asking how each of my subsequent courses could inform that same question. Today, in a very tangential way, I am still answering that original question in my current research.
5. Understand that your advisors are not evil, even if they ARE making your work harder than you have ever worked before. It is easy to project your frustrations on the person of your advisor, but that is not the best approach. As I was told as a graduate student, but didn’t believe at the time, the criticism you receive from your advisor is nothing compared to what you will someday receive when a journal referee in a bad mood reviews your work. This is a good time to start to develop a thick skin, something that I have never really managed to do.
6. Find other graduate students to socialize with, even if they are not in your own discipline. In fact, do so especially if they are not in your own field. Eventually, you will grow tired of the jargon-based jokes that make sense only to those in your discipline. I have many fond memories of time spent with fellow graduate students, at the weekly graduate student happy hours and over the summers, in trips to local beaches and other attractions that we soon began to call “summer camp.” Graduate school is difficult, but it can also be fun. Life is too short not to enjoy the journey.
7. You enter graduate school with a stellar undergraduate record. Don’t be surprised if you don’t earn quite as many As in graduate school. That is ok. As they told us in grad school, what do they call the person who graduated at the bottom of their class from your Ph.D. program? “Doctor.” Good luck, and keep in touch!