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Robert Gee is a PhD candidate in the History Department at the University of Maine and a permanent author at GradHacker. You can follow him on twitter at @robgee18.

By this point in the semester you're beginning to get the lay of the land. You've navigated the administration of classes, bookstores, parking passes, and coordinated the eight different campus offices required to pay for it all. You are likely carrying several more pieces of plastic in your wallet and have dozens more passwords floating around in your head than you did a month ago. You've hopefully also gained at least a vague sense of what is expected of you as a student, as a TA, and as a colleague. Often such expectations are not written down anywhere and get relayed inconsistently if at all. You may also be getting early indications of which people in your department solve problems expeditiously and which ones are more inclined to complicate your issue by spinning a web of abstractions and speculative obstacles around it.

Hopefully you've also had a chance to interact with your cohort a bit, engineer some social gatherings (see my last post) and attend the obligatory department, college, and grad school orientations and meet and greets.  So you may be getting a preliminary sense for department dynamics, alliances, friendships, and which professors are inclined to come to blows over competing interpretations of 17th century philosophies of pacifism. And three weeks in you may have moved your coffee maker closer to your desk—you may even be considering how to hook it directly to an IV.

As you acclimate to your new environment you will inevitably find aspects (and people) that appeal to you and those that do not.  You will find people who, merely by being nearby, will inspire you and make you better, smarter, and more productive.  Other personalities and attitudes will make you feel anxious, desperate, sad, and suspicious that grad school may have been a tragic misstep in your overall life trajectory.  You will need to think about and manage your exposure to positive influences—and this is a highly personal set of decisions you'll face.  All of it together makes up your department culture.  Like any other culture, the culture of a department is ever changing and reflective of the people who pass through at every level.  Some imprint themselves heavily upon it, others may be but a blip, but everyone leaves their mark in some way—even if their portrait isn't hanging in the seminar room.  And as the senior grad students in my department told me when I arrived, and as I have since told others:  your job is to leave it better than you found it.

Obviously because culture is a highly complex construct and “better” is a highly subjective notion, there is no prescription or blueprint for how to do this.  But here are some ideas of ways to start that can help you understand your department, how it fits into the university and into the wider discipline, and how you can make contributions to it that will simultaneously promote your reputation as an early career professional, improve the atmosphere, outlook, and reputation of your department, and create clearer expectations and greater opportunities for future generations of grad students who pass through.

Recognize that it is the way it is for a reason.  It's not always a good reason.  But policies and practices at the department level are generally a reaction to some past set of circumstances, problems, or personnel.  The last professor to advocate for it may have retired in 1982 and technology may have made the whole issue obsolete in 1995, but the policy remains until there is a compelling reason and adequate initiative to change it.  It's fine to advocate for change, but be sure to do your homework.  Just because something looks silly or provides unnecessary complications for you does not mean it was trivial in its context or obstructionist in its intent.  Be respectful of your department's conventions and those who created them, especially when your purpose is to question them.  To do that you need to:

Find the institutional memory. And buy it a coffee.  Senior grad students in your department can be hard to track down sometimes.  They are not always visibly engaged in the day-to-day activities of the community and may travel a lot, but they can help you in a multitude of ways.  They can help you navigate quirky faculty personalities, funding opportunities, courses and reading lists.  It's good to find someone studying similar topics to be part of your intellectual circle, but it's also good to interact with those who know the department better than you do—regardless of their research focus.  The department administrative staff is also a great potential ally and source for understanding how and why things are the way they are.  And faculty, under the right circumstances, will often relish the opportunity to reminisce on faculty meetings and department politics of yore.

Make connections outside your department.  The view from inside your department as a graduate student can be very limiting.  Forging both social and intellectual connections within other departments gives you a wider angled lens. It can also expose you to practices and conventions in other departments that can be advantageously adapted to your own.  Contact administrators in other departments and ask to be put on mailing lists for lecture and seminar announcements.  Studiously follow university-wide announcement and events boards—and share what you find there with members of your own department.

Join Committees.  Nobody likes committees.  Just ask them.  Faculty will generally refer to them as the bane of their personal existence and the source of all their hardships—the ultimate restraint of productivity.  That being the case, volunteers for committees are always warmly received because your willingness spares someone else the anguish.  And very often committee work opens up other opportunities for engagement and deposits you into some interesting debates amongst smart people. It's also an important line on your CV (in a section that for too many graduate students is woefully underdeveloped) that demonstrates to future employers and search committees a degree of collegiality and professionalism.

Recognize that change doesn't always come quickly.  Recognize that in the grand scheme you are but an interloper.  What makes your department a vibrant, supportive, and intellectually nurturing environment for you and your peers may not look quite like it did for earlier or later generations of graduate students in your department.  While you should be respectful of the community that has been there for the long term, you should also feel empowered to make your community be what you need it to be. Encourage your graduate student community to exercise some autonomy, organize events, form collaborative reading and writing groups. Invite the faculty to participate with you, don't wait for them to initiate new conventions and practices—you will likely be disappointed.

A department can be a curious place and within it the grad student role is often unclear and heavily freighted with contradictions.  How can a department culture be both rigorous and supportive, competitive and cooperative, social and professional?  It's asking a lot of any group of people.  I have a friend who likes to say that grad school is an awkward place because it is temporary by design.  As a grad student, you are fundamentally transient, expected to integrate and engage, but also to be gone within a reasonable interval of time.  However, you've made a lot of sacrifices to become a graduate student.  You have a right to a healthy department culture that will help you succeed.  But you also have a responsibility to foster that culture through active, informed engagement in your community.  If the next generation of grad students in your department can look to you for ideas and practices to emulate and adapt then you can feel comfortable that you've left your community better than you found it.


Do you have any advice for improving your department culture? Let us know in the comments below.