Often, academic advice columns are framed negatively -- ways to overcome barriers and deal with the high-stress environment that is graduate school. These columns highlight important obstacles and shed light on a dark underbelly of academe. However, I was lucky enough to have a supportive department, faculty and peers during graduate school.
That does not mean graduate school was easy. One the contrary, it was difficult, particularly during my first year, which was filled with theory and methods course work that I had no previous exposure to, since I did not have a sociology background. In addition, as a person of color who was raised by my grandmother and did not have much, if any, social and cultural capital related to academe, I spent a lot of time -- in my mind -- “catching up” with understanding sociological foundations and trying to navigate my place in the department and university as a whole.
But looking back, I was not alone. I have realized that everyone in graduate school -- with few exceptions -- is trying to understand the material, and each person has different strategies for coping with new circumstances and environments. Yes, some enter grad school with more capital and privileges than others, but they have their own obstacles and lives they are dealing with. And no one enters with a perfect understanding of academe.
I also recognize my own privileges of being in a supportive, top-ranked department where I was fully funded on fellowships and that very few people will have the opportunities I did. Nonetheless, I look back at my experience fondly and want to share 10 tips I’ve learned for thriving in, not just surviving, graduate school.
- See graduate school for what it is: professionalization into the academy. Graduate school is not undergraduate college. It’s meant to introduce you to the field and professionalize you in how to be an academic, which includes how to do research from conception to completion, as well as how to give and receive criticism.
- Think of research as a conversation. When you’re deciding on your master’s thesis or dissertation topic, think about it in terms of what conversations you want to have and with whom you are having them.
- Use class assignments strategically. If you have to write a proposal for a methods class, use that time to think about a project you can do for a master’s thesis/publishable paper requirement and as part of applications for grants, such as the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program or the Ford Foundation’s Predoctoral Fellowship.
- See your peers as just that: peers who can provide support networks. Realize that you all do such different things (even if your research is on the same topic, you’ll likely have different approaches or arguments), so cultivate a supportive -- not competitive -- cohort.
- Create a working group composed of you and two to four of your peers in which you read one another’s work and give feedback. You are all at the same stage in your careers and likely struggling with similar issues -- whether it’s coming up with a dissertation topic or writing your master’s thesis. So you can use each other to motivate you on the downs and celebrate the ups of graduate school. I still have a working group with two of my grad school peers, and we’ve been meeting since 2010.
- Break down projects into small tasks. Don’t say, “I have to write a research proposal today.” Think of it in stages. Today is an outline, tomorrow is the introduction and so on.
- Write daily, even if it’s just a paragraph or two. (See Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development for great tips.)
- Don’t take things personally. That includes criticism and comments on your writing -- whether via journal rejections or comments from faculty members. It also includes realizing that faculty members juggle multiple demands between their own research, teaching, service and advising students. If someone forgot to email a response to you, perhaps they were overwhelmed with email or simply having a bad day. If your adviser doesn’t remember your previous conversation, it’s not that they don’t care -- it’s probably because they have so much on their mind. (So be organized in your meetings with faculty. Always keep a notebook and have particular things you want to address or cover.)
- Related to the previous recommendation: be positive and think the best of people and their comments. Although the news media has us primed to think of all the corruption and unfairness in the world, I’ve found that people are just trying to live their lives and meet their obligations the best they can. Few people have nefarious agendas. The people who have been and are great mentors to me did not have to take such interest in my professional and personal development. They invested time and energy in me when they did not have to do so. I am grateful for all of them, and as such, I always feel a need to pay it forward -- to be a mentor and give advice to others.
- Recognize what you can and cannot accomplish on any given day. Since life does not stop for graduate school, it’s important to realize you can tackle different aspects of your work at different times. For days when you are emotionally drained, work on routinized aspects of your work, such as reference lists or cleaning data. Save your work that requires higher-level functions (e.g., theory developing) for another time. In doing so, you are continually moving forward with your work in a productive way.
I realize that these tips can be difficult for grad students to implement if they are confronted with racism, sexism and microaggressions, among other negative things. Sometimes switching advisers, departments or schools is the only answer. Other times, you can find ways to mitigate their impact on your life -- for example, by cultivating a supportive environment, having multiple mentors (like Kerry Ann Rockquemore suggests) or following one or more of these tips, which can go a long way toward making anyone’s graduate school experience a good one.
Victoria Reyes is a sociologist whose work examines how culture shapes global inequality. She is a postdoctoral fellow at University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity and an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside.
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