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Justin Dunnavant is a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Florida. You can find him on Twitter @archfieldnotes or at his blog AfricanaArch.

The semester begins next week and I will enter my fifth year as a graduate student. As I have become a seasoned member of my department, prospective students and younger colleagues are now asking me for the same advice I once asked; knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently in graduate school? It’s hard to articulate quality advice. Rather than attempt to outline a list of dos and don’ts, I’ve found through my years as a graduate student it’s important to revisit the Three R’s: the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

When I first entered graduate school I, like many of my colleagues, felt that I was thrown into the ocean and told to swim. Some of us encountered the impostor syndrome, while others struggled to stay afloat. I considered this first year to be the bootcamp year. If you’re like me, you either had too many classes or a couple of the more difficult classes in one semester. One week I was assigned to read two monographs and write five-page papers for each, in addition to completing other coursework. Of course the professors didn’t get together and conspire to make my life difficult, but I feel many graduate programs are intentionally set up to assign you an unrealistic amount of work just to see how well you handle it. It was during this year that I learned to revisit the importance of reading for comprehension as well as speed. I stopped reading every word on the page and learned the strategies for reading a book in two hours or less.

While the first year taught me the importance of reading, the second year introduced me to the importance of writing. Constructing a thesis is no easy task and involves thorough planning and discipline. My initial concern was to write as many words as possible; what happened to them or how many remained after editing was irrelevant. However, once I began to think of myself as a writer, I paid greater attention to the craft and it reflected in my work. I adopted a process of outlining, drafting, editing, and revising that has served as the basis for all of my writing projects.  Learning to write clearly and concisely is one of the greatest skills we can learn as graduate students.

By the third year I realized I had neglected the arithmetic. Through my participation in organizations in and around campus, I learned the names and faces of most of the key administrators and built relationships with other graduate students and faculty members outside of my department. It was during this period that I learned the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration. However, I eventually discovered I had spent too much time taking courses on special topics rather than methodology. I came to the realization that you don’t need a dissertation topic in hand to begin taking the methods courses. Learning the importance of research design and methodology, not just the fancy computer software, is fundamental to crafting a thorough research proposal and imperative to graduating in a timely manner.

It wasn’t until my fourth year that I finally realized it’s okay—and necessary—to say “no” sometimes. Being involved in multiple organizations, both on campus and professional, is great but can become overwhelming when attempting to juggle the rigors of graduate school. I learned it’s better to commit to two or three tasks thoroughly than complete five tasks inadequately. It was also during this year that I began to understand the importance of setting aside time to study the process of becoming a productive scholar. I had muddled together my own process through a system of trial and error and talking to colleagues, but I began to see real changes in my scholarly output when I started reading books on the subject. On Writing Well remains one of my favorites. Additionally, I explored books on writing a good dissertation, establishing a writing routine, speed-reading, conducting research, and giving presentations.

So now it’s my fifth year and the end seems in sight, although still a great distance away—rumors are that a PhD in Anthropology can take an average of nine years! I’m now at the stage where coursework doesn’t have the same allure, I’m rarely in the department, and, although my university has treated me relatively well, I’m ready to graduate. This is the year of executing my escape plan. Publications are coming together and—while it’s always been in the back of my mind—I’m beginning to seriously think about how I’m going to package myself for the job market.

So what do I say to younger students who ask: What would you have done differently in graduate school? Study the Three R’s in the earlier stages of your graduate school years. Learning how to properly read, write, and analyze/synthesize information can save a lot of time and stress later in the process. Learn the ins and outs of the university and meet colleagues outside of your department who can become potential collaborators. Learn to say “no” when it’s necessary and learn to say “yes” when unique opportunities arise. Finally, I would say you should plan ahead. It’s important to remember, “a fool with a plan can beat a genius with no plan.” Sit down before the semester begins and write out your goals for the semester, year, and the rest of your graduate career.

What advice would you give going into the new academic year? What, if anything, would you have done differently in graduate school?

[Image by the author used under creative commons licensing.]

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