Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me in My First Year of Graduate School

As I get closer to the finish line, I now seem to qualify as an “advanced” graduate student.  I sat on a panel this week for the first year students in my grad program. I didn’t voice these things verbatim, but here’s my advice (that I nearly always heeded).

Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me in My First Year of Graduate School

1. Always be learning

  • Things you hate doing are actually learning. Learning opportunities are not just the time spent in courses.  It’s the job talks, the colloquium talks, the informal chatter in the hallways.  You see good presentations or terrible presentations—internalize what worked in those situations.  Don’t avoid the chance to network with people in the department.  You can learn from them, too.
  • Teaching is some of the best learning. I cringe when I hear other grads decry their teaching responsibilities. Yes, grad student labor is a huge issue, however, it can be hard for some grads to get teaching experience. Teaching keeps you on your toes and forces you to organize your time because you can’t just phone in a 50-minute class. Teaching has been a great opportunity to stretch myself intellectually.  I have to know a lot of information, be ready to present it, and field student questions on the fly. Teaching keeps me sharp, engaged with the field and with current events. And often, I improve my own work because I have to model the work for my students.
  • Make your work work for you. Double dip on anything you can to maximize your exposure and experience.  Use course papers to prep future journal articles (this is what most people advise).  But beyond that, find conferences and send abstracts of work that’s not yet finished. If they get accepted, then you have a self-imposed deadline. Notes from a seemingly irrelevant class I TA’d years ago fit right into that lecture for my survey class.  Just don’t do work twice—I typed these notes to myself and I’m using them as a blog post today.  I did the work so I might as well get something out of it.

2.  COMPARTMENTALIZE & ORGANIZE: Not having a brick and mortar office with a time clock to punch affords me serious freedom and flexibility with my schedule. It takes serious dedication to report to yourself every day, stay focused all day, and get things accomplished when no one is looking over your shoulder.  Two things to remember:

  • To help stay focused, I compartmentalize my schedule. Teaching prep/teaching activities happen on teaching days. Writing/research happen on non-teaching days. If I am not in a position to have full days dedicated to teaching or writing, then I block off consistent time on my calendar.  And I stick to it.  Once you get into a schedule, work that schedule. Don’t sabotage yourself by making appointments or having lunch or procrastinating.  Getting into a schedule groove can take time and will change from semester to semester.
  • To get organized, I use several technological applications to help keep myself together.  Bookends for reference management, Evernote for cataloguing ideas, and Twitter for sharing/engaging with colleagues.  These tools have helped me streamline my workflow and keep me from distracting myself. Add your course readings to Bookends (or other ref software), keep notes and ideas in Evernote and use Twitter to connect with others and stay current in the field.

3. Your professional life is happening RIGHT NOW–not in five years or after you’re done with your comps.

  • Take every opportunity out there to get into the field whether it’s attending a conference, presenting your work, or engaging with colleagues.  Don’t wait until you think you have something to say. Just get out there—you’ll feel more confident, you’ll start to make connections, and you’ll feel like colleagues rather than “just a grad student.”  Through social media (Twitter and blogging), I have found great support and have formed e-colleagues. Don’t worry about embarrassing yourself or making mistakes, just get in the game.
  • There are ways to do good sociological work outside of the academy.  The nature of higher education is changing. The job market is tough. Don’t be afraid to find models for what you want to do.  And be honest with your mentors. They want the best for you and they know when something is not a good fit.
  • Down time is relative. No, we don’t get “summers off.”  And while finishing a project is reason to celebrate, it’s not time to simply drop the ball for several weeks. As you near completion on one project (a chapter, an article, the semester), start planning what you’ll spend your “newfound” time on before your schedule opens up. Transitions out of and into every semester can be a serious adjustment, so make it easier on yourself by planning ahead.  My advisor says you can reasonably accomplish three things in a summer. So be realistic.

4.  Your personal life matters: Whether you’re destined for it or not, the pursuit of professional superstardom comes at a cost. Eating well, sleeping, exercising, and mental health time all fall by the wayside easily at the beginning of graduate school. And even if you don’t expect it, life can change in 5 or 6 years.  While in graduate school, I lost my mom unexpectedly during my first year, bought a house, had two kids (in my third and fifth years), and am negotiating a potential move out of our current house. My family gives me balance and motivates me to be excellent at what I do because in my mind, my work makes the world better for those two little girls. You will feel pressure to put work first and like any other industry, you’ll have to make choices about how you allocate your time.  Life does not stop because you’re getting a PhD, and you still have to find ways to make your personal life a priority.

I had so many thoughts, so I distilled it down as much as I could.

What did I miss? 

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About rglw

Sociologist mom writes for work and for pleasure.
This entry was posted in academia, higher education, teaching, work, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me in My First Year of Graduate School

  1. Dinur says:

    Don’t be afraid to work on areas outside your specialization. Find reading groups/research groups both in your areas and outside of them – this not only helps you enlarge your network, but also helps you become rounded in your research. I’d also recommend working with other people on research – they will provide support as well as motivation for you to get your work done (I find it easier to get work done if not everything depends on me, and if other people are counting on me to do my share of a project).

  2. Maura says:

    That’s great Rachel! I would just add how important your grad school colleagues are! The will teach you how to write, they will teach you how to teach, they will be the beginning of the network you build throughout your career. I couldn’t have done it without YOU and all the other grads!

  3. elizjamison says:

    Your comment about how “Your professional life is happening RIGHT NOW–not in five years or after you’re done with your comps” really makes me think. My dissertation advisor keeps telling me to join more conferences (I usually do one a year) to upgrade my CV. The problem is (or my excuse is) that teaching high school full time makes conferences so difficult! But anyway, I really need to start thinking about my career like this now – – not when I finish my dissertation. Thanks!

    • rglw says:

      I think that the sooner you start embracing the future career you want, the better prepared you’ll be to go out there and make it happen. It is challenging to balance a full time job and graduate work (you are amazing btw), but your blog is a good example of something you are doing to network yourself.

      • elizjamison says:

        Good point. Why is it that writing on a blog is so enjoyable? I hope that I can make my blog work for me at some point (maybe now, as per your entry). That’s how I have to think about it. 🙂

      • rglw says:

        It’s enjoyable because it doesn’t feel like work. Yet it’s making you better at your work. Serious win-win!

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