The Ten Commandments of Graduate School
The academic job market stinks. That doesn't mean you shouldn't get a Ph.D., but it does mean you will want to keep your options open and take care of yourself--no one will do it for you
It’s a holiday weekend, and I thought I would take a break. But here’s a revision of a post I wrote on my old blog, Tenured Radical, back in 2013: I still think this advice is pretty solid. If you do, too, send it to an entering or current graduate student, a young person considering graduate school, or a faculty member who might want to share it. And those who went to graduate school? Use the comments section to dispute my advice and/or leave your own!
Photo credit: Ted Coles/Wikimedia Commons
So you are starting graduate school in the fall, eh? Against all of the best advice that Twitter has to offer, you are determined to embark on life as a scholar. Well, you know what I have to say about that?
Good luck and godspeed! Keep your feet dry and your spectacles up to date! Cover your head when the sun is too bright! Don’t fly with ballpoint pens in your luggage! Get a cat!
As you make your way through this first year, finally acting on that sense of purpose that coalesced in your undergraduate years, know that there will be times of frustration and sorrow, but that many of us have found this to be a good life all the same. There are, as the foundations say, deliverables. There is the reading. There is the teaching (that sense that you have just taught an excellent class? *Priceless*!!!) There is social media fun. You will make friends and have ideas.
Is academia in a godawful fix right now? Yes, it is. So know that you need to remain alert to that and that you need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Get involved in conversations at your university about what is a fair wage and a fair workload. Don’t act like long-term contingent or contract faculty have failed at something you are sure you will succeed at. Don’t assume the tenure system is the best way to organize academic labor or the surest protection for academic freedom: that’s not true.
And if you really want to be a college professor, you better not be picky about where you want to live. You need to be flexible; you need to be ready to change directions if your ideal job in your ideal city doesn’t have your name on it. Or your second place job. Or even your third choice job, in your fourth place city. How things ought to be is not how they are right now, and the sooner you accept that, the better.
OK, so without further ado, here are the Ten Commandments of Graduate School:
Thou shalt not rack up unnecessary credit card debt. You may need to take out student loans to pay for things like shelter, food, medical care, and a decent computer. But don’t take out loans to pay for things you bought to make yourself feel better. Try to make a budget for yourself that includes fun and going out to dinner with friends, but not all kinds of stuff you will end up throwing away when you have to move. And just because it’s a book doesn’t mean you need to own it. One of the great weaknesses of all academics is buying books they never get around to reading.
Thou shalt not neglect thy dental or health care. Every tooth of mine that gets worked on in middle age became a problem in graduate school because I didn’t budget for the dentist. I am totally serious about this. Is there a local university with a dental school? They probably have a supervised student clinic where you can at least get your teeth cleaned at an affordable price.
Thou shalt find an excellent thrift store. You will gradually build yourself a wardrobe of professional clothes (ok, if you are like me, you will build a wardrobe of black tee-shirts) and you needn’t buy anything new to look nice. Go to thrift stores in swanky neighborhoods and buy the really nice things other people discarded. If you don’t know how to shop, look for someone in your cohort who is well-dressed and get them to teach you.
Thou shalt not assume that merit systems determine anything and that you have been cheated out of things you deserve. It’s a Twitter theme: people claiming that the person who got the job/fellowship/prize isn’t as smart or deserving or credentialed as they are. It’s the “I wrote four articles and have a book contract, and *that* person only wrote one article and a review essay” syndrome. I always wonder, Hmmm....maybe you didn’t get the job because the other person was nicer? #Everthinkathat? Academic success is not about racking up points in a head-to-head competition. It’s about other people making choices that you have no control over. Imagine doing your best work, and then letting it go.
Thou shalt have an excellent professional backup plan. First, tape this to your mirror. Then, keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to learn things that will give you options if that dream job -- or any tenure-stream job -- does not materialize. Things digital, things foundation oriented, things administrative. Yes, the Ph.D. program is designed to educate you, but this is the moment to begin educating yourself about what will support your work in the world if that academic job does not pan out.
Thou shalt become an excellent colleague. Be generous with the others in your cohort. Look for people’s good sides and try to ignore their annoying qualities. Don’t suck up to the powerful at the expense of your peers.
Thou shalt join thy professional organization. It is a false economy to be out of touch with what is going on in the larger world of your field (particularly if it’s not a terribly large world, like Scandinavian Studies or something.) While you are at it, keep educating yourself about academia in general by reading Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education (some sections are free, but a two-year subscription is cheaper than a month of your cable bill), and academic blogs/newsletter—particularly those written by people in your field that will alert you to books long before the reviews appear in a journal. There are many voices: listen to all of them, decide what you think and what you care about. Professionalize yourself—don’t wait for someone else to do it for you.
Thou shalt not suck up to thy mentors nor have sexual congress with them, nor shalt thou, when a TA, cross the line thyself. Need I elaborate? An excellent way to shred your career right at the beginning is to have an affair with a faculty member. Here’s another hint: undergraduates and graduate TA’s are not “students” in the same way. If you are running a discussion section, you are subject to all the rules attendant to your university’s sexual harassment policy, even if you are only a year or two older.
Thou shalt not gossip and spread hurtful calumny, nor write vituperative emails, nor bcc when chastising others, nor subtweet about colleagues and mentors. Many of the ways people behave on the internet as undergraduates erode reputations in the real world. For example: telling tales out of school on the faculty or other graduate students; expressing resentment and anger to a social media audience; or writing long, enraged emails that you copy or blind copy to other people. Don’t assume your university email is private either: make sure you have a private account for confidential correspondence that only the NSA can get into.
Thou shalt use the word discourse sparingly; likewise neoliberalism, and other theoretical catchphrases designed to obscure that thou hast not fully thought through thine ideas. The best part of the first year in graduate school is immersing yourself in the theoretical tools of your discipline or interdisciplinary field. You will feel like a big, wonderful sponge. But, as the wise Carroll Smith-Rosenberg once said to me, “Wear your theory lightly, my dear.” Don’t sound smart: be smart. We who teach you don’t want to have the all-stars of theory read back to us: we want to know what you think. So learn to speak and write in the most inviting way you can.
Thou shalt remember that this was supposed to be fun. If you aren’t having fun in graduate school, it is essential to find out why. Don’t be afraid to quit if it isn’t working out—and don’t wait until you are in crisis to ask for help.
That’s what we’re there for. And I am so looking forward to meeting all of you.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
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