Describe ideal grad student
June 28, 2006 9:39 PM   Subscribe

What is a typical excellent grad student like as a person? I'm not interested in grades/GRE scores. My concern is with character, personality, work ethic.

I just finished my first year as a grad student in philosophy. I'd like to better understand my role.

I have also been asked by one of my undergraduate professors to write a paper for his students, giving tips for applying to grad school in philosophy.

There are almost certainly different types of successful grad student: different people succeed in different ways. If you know of unusual but highly successful types, feel free to mention those; but I expect that the rare types might tend to look riskier on paper (esp. applications).
posted by Eiwalker to Education (26 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a grad student, but I'm not entirely sure what you're asking for. Are you talking about characteristics like "determined" or "good work ethic!" or "willingness to think about theoretical ideas that almost never have any practical bearing on your life for 4 months at a time quite happily" or "ready to be broke a lot longer than your peers!" All certainly apply.
posted by theantikitty at 9:44 PM on June 28, 2006

ready to be broke a lot longer than your peers!

giving tips for applying to grad school in philosophy

a lot longer...
posted by phrontist at 9:55 PM on June 28, 2006

What, to the PI? Other grad students? Other humans?

Honestly, after spending the last seven years around grad students, the best ones don't work all the time. They treat it like work and the live live and enjoy it outside of work.

The ones that obsess about it... eh. You never see them anyway, so they kind of end up being those people you just hear about more than actually hear from about the work they are doing.
posted by smallerdemon at 10:14 PM on June 28, 2006

If you are discussing graduate school in general, I think it is necessary to distinguish between terminal M.A. programs and Ph.D. programs, as well as the types of programs themselves. The wide spectrum accompanying these two dimensions makes any potential analysis ill-advised and of little real value. Are there really that many similarities between somebody getting an MBA and somebody getting a Ph.D. in Russian Literature? However, if you are limiting the discussion to only Philosophy students (which I can't really tell if you are or not), this point might be a bit moot.

I think the beauty of grad school is that there is no 1 successful type. No two people in my program share much in common beyond a certain given level of innate intelligence.

The only predictor I can think of is whether or not a person is humble or dedicated enough to swallow their pride and focus on developing their weaknesses rather than focus exclusively on feeding their strengths. Given the intimidating academic environment that most grad students face, this is much harder than it sounds.
posted by jtfowl0 at 10:15 PM on June 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Let me be more specific about my question. I don't want: Good character? Yes. Good personality? Yes. Good work ethic? Yes. I am looking for more specific descriptions. For instance, if the person has an excellent work ethic, describe that person's work ethic throughout a typical day. Specify how serious the person works on academic matters throughout a typical 24-hour period. How many hours are spent doing research, and how many new things does the person think of or learn about each day?

If the person has a successful personality, describe the person, say, as having the perfect balance of modesty with other successful traits, or as having a sense of humor including a moderate amount of saracasm but tempered in various ways. (But: if sarcasm, what is the relation between this and the person's moral character). It might help to give examples of situations that such people might be in, and how they might act.

If the person has a successful character, this is pretty straightforward: I am asking how good-hearted or moral the person is. How might the person act in various cases, or what kinds of relationships might she form with her professors and fellow grad students.

If it helps--and it would probably help me--try to describe cases of unsuccessful grad students. What are they like?
posted by Eiwalker at 10:21 PM on June 28, 2006

I'm not a grad student yet, but I do know which grad students annoyed me as an undergrad. This may not be what you're looking for, but the experiences I've had with grad students I would consider "bad" have influenced these pointers:

1. If you're a grad student TAing a course and the professor is a bit lax when it comes to grading/attendance/etc., DON'T be a humorless prick who urges the professor at every point to hold his/her class to a higher standard. Ever see "Real Genius"? Don't be that guy who kisses up to the professor, telling him/her how "the students just don't understand our way of thinking," then fails to help students understand the material.

In other words, don't be a prick.

2. DON'T walk around trying to get into conversations with pretty young things about your field of study, unless it's a topic that is genuinely interesting to real people. No one wants to hear you spout off about Kant or Wittgenstein, especially not at a party or over lunch. Most people don't care about priming paradigms or dialectics, except where they're applicable to everyday life. You ever see "Good Will Hunting"? Remember that prick at the bar? I've actually met a number of grad students like that—the character is a cliché only because he's so common.

3. DO have a sense of humor, and use the things you learn for your own amusement. Grad students need a sense of humor—preferably a sarcastic one, but not a holier-than-thou-because-I-memorized-William-James'-works-and-you're-just-a-stupid-undergrad-and-everyone-knows-undergrads-don't-matter kind of sarcasm. Be willing to laugh at lowbrow humor—being a grad student doesn't mean you should check your earthy, Anglo-Saxon words at the door.

4. DO get involved in all kinds of wacky side projects and build crazy installations on campus with other grad students or even—gasp!—members of the undergraduate population. Become a personality. Grad school is as much about meeting people and making connections (the means to various ends) as it is about getting that shiny new degree or getting your name as second author on a dozen papers.
posted by limeonaire at 10:55 PM on June 28, 2006

Are there really that many similarities between somebody getting an MBA and somebody getting a Ph.D. in Russian Literature?

Worth repeating. You're asking about stereotypes across an unreasonably broad sample. I suspect you'll have to narrow it down from "grad student" to elicit worthwhile answers.
posted by cribcage at 10:56 PM on June 28, 2006

I'm sorry to tell you this, my friend, but I think what you're asking for is simply too reductive. Other posters are right on in saying that every graduate student is different in the same way every individual person is different. I could tell you what my average academic work schedule is per week, but I guarantee that person B will say they work 10 times more and person C will say they work 10 times less. There simply isn't a magic formula (or even, I'd say, best or most popular way of doing things). Trying to formulate the perfect grad student's personality is impossible (and scary). I know grad students that are incredibly successful as grad students but totally unsuccessful as people. And vice versa. You can quantify certain characteristics that grad students should probably possess some measure of, but I think that's about the best you can hope for.
posted by theantikitty at 10:57 PM on June 28, 2006

I know a few successful grad students, and there is not straightforward way of describing them. I know one who is extremely goal oriented and motivated to exceed. However, I know another who is equally successful yet just seems to let the opportunities find him.
I agree with Eiwalker about character, though. Both of them are very personable, and very good-hearted.
Hope that helps.
posted by cholly at 10:57 PM on June 28, 2006

I think they are a lot like you. They keep asking the same question until they get the answer they want.
posted by zackdog at 11:02 PM on June 28, 2006

1. I hereby narrow my question to pertain to Ph.D. students.

2. It seems we are having a hard time pinning down typical personal characteristics. Are there really none, or do people on admissions committees look for certain things of the sort that I am interested in?
posted by Eiwalker at 11:17 PM on June 28, 2006

From Nature: What makes a good PhD student? It's brief but does deal with things like how much time you should spend working.
posted by teleskiving at 11:53 PM on June 28, 2006

Well I was a philosophy grad student until recently (luckily landed a job my first time out), and I can understand where Elwalker is coming from. You come to philosophy grad school and see people in various stages of study, some making it, some not, and wonder what the hell they do to make it or not make it. You wonder a lot "am I doing enough?", "should I be more interested in this", and so on.

But truth be told, there are many different kinds of successful graduate students. We had a merciful shortage of them, but the arrogant pricks and "logic choppers" tend to do quite well as graduate students, impressing their professors and writing "interesting" dissertations. But they don't tend to do so well on the job market, where such personality traits don't serve anyone well. The people who read everything that's printed tend to do great work, but don't seem to be able to negotiate other hurdles in the process of getting the degree.

As far as work ethic goes, I don't think one can narrow it down to a hour amount per day. My work ethic wasn't amazing, but I made it. If I knew then what I known now, I'd try to get around to at least three journal articles a week. Don't waste your time on blogs and such. But the most important part of having a work ethic is making sure you've mastered the obscure skill of "making progress". You can read everything, and be a journal troll. You can revise and revise, but unless you're making progress every week, you'll get bogged down and be less successful. The papers and books you choose to read should advance your understanding of some issue you want to help resolve. What you write should be aiming towards some specific larger research program. It's not enough to know that you do metaphysics, or Hume. What problems in particular are you most interested in? Spending time on this early will save you a lot of time on the dissertation saga and the job market.

Personality-wise, I think there is a little that makes a good graduate student personality different than a standard good personality. Generally, having a good sense of humor and being able to be entertained by thinking about technical, but maybe not practical problems. Take your conclusions seriously in papers you right, but less so in conversation. A willingness to listen closely to what people and your students say is good. Never just wait to tell an answer to someone who is trying to understand philosophy, but be eager to help them understand and not overly eager to get them to understand it your way. Be dedicated to the idea that helping someone think clearly is good even if by thinking clearly they don't agree with you. Never be in it just to "win" an argument, but always to understand the issue. Humility is essential, but don't be a push-over. You have a great power -- clear thinking -- and this power has to be used responsibly.

Other than that, most successful graduate students seem to use at least some of their spare time to cultivate an interest in finer things than at the undergrad level: literature, jazz, wine, food, soccer, and scotch are popular.

Finally, on the moral side, I don't think there is anything that separates being a good person in general from being a good graduate student in philosophy. There are successful philosophy graduate students prone to extreme selfishness, infidelity, and worse ethical lapses. This has nothing to do with their success and it's foolish to think it is. Take duty seriously as well as others' happiness. If it comes to a choice between being a good person and being a successful graduate student (as can happen with certain advisor relationships), I would really hope you'd take the former.

limeonaire's #4 is false. People who become more members of the university than their departments tend not to do well. By all means, make friends with grads and undergrads in other departments, but being a graduate student is very different than being an undergrad, and it's about working, and less about social life. The connections you want to make are in your discipline, not at undergrad parties.

Oh, and try to hang out with people who have similar personalities to the one I described above.
posted by ontic at 12:42 AM on June 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

I should also note that one of the best graduate students in our department (who I dearly hope finds a job soon), was the kind of person who would get up, come to school, read and work 8-10 hours, go home, drink a twelve pack of Old Milwaukee (24 pack on the weekends), and repeat. He also knew everything there was to know about jazz.
posted by ontic at 12:47 AM on June 29, 2006

Perhaps part of the difficulty answering this question is that what it is to be a successful grad student is usually measured by performance on the job market, and the factors that lead to getting a tenure track job don't have much to do with personality, or the day-to-day work ethic. For instance, having one (or preferably more) publications accepted into a peer-reviewed journal in your major subfield typically results in someone doing well (though it isn't necessary, and this might vary by field) -- so whatever personality traits it takes for this to happen will do. Or writing about something that is perceived as a hot topic at the time you graduate can result in doing well.

What you might want to do is figure out what tenure review processes are like in philosophy -- in some sense, a successful grad student in an academic field is one who can eventually get tenure. Or be a successful academic in general. (by the way, have you seen this essay? it's even by someone influential in your field. But I've never been able to make up my mind if it's good advice.) I've actually seen a research study about young faculty members, trying to come up with some predictors of success in the tenure system, but I'm afraid I can't find the link. It was linked off a mefi thread at some point. One common factor seemed to be very good time management, in particular the ability to work on projects in small doses over the long term, rather than in large doses close to a deadline.

I can come up with some things that I've witnessed not leading to success. First of all, outright insanity. Don't be insane. A more subtle version of the same basic problem is not connecting with your advisor and other faculty members (and your peers); also, having a very mistaken idea of what the field you study is about (and refusing to give up that idea -- many incoming grad students come in with mistaken ideas, but give them up pretty quickly). People who don't publish have a lot more trouble succeeding. People who don't make as many connections as possible within their subfield have a lot more trouble succeeding. To some extent these things are personality traits, though I'm not sure they're the kind of thing you're looking for.

limeonaire's #4 is false. People who become more members of the university than their departments tend not to do well.

This is very true. In general, limeonaire's comments seem to pertain mostly to teaching/interaction with undergrads, which for better or worse, does not seem to play so much of a role in a grad student's success (unless they are interested in purely teaching jobs). And I'm in a field where teaching is relatively valued.
posted by advil at 2:05 AM on June 29, 2006

Hi Eiwalker. ;)
posted by fake at 3:44 AM on June 29, 2006

It seems this question is more skewed towards grad students in Doctorial programs, versus Masters.

As a recently graduated Masters program student (of history), I can say that in regard to the aforementioned questions, there really was no need or place to work it like an actual job. You still have classes you need to take and so, you have the reading and work associated with them. As a graduate student, this could easily mean reading one or two books a week, at the least, a journal article or two. There is no expectation for the student to go out and work beyond this, but only to turn in well written reports or papers and be a force for discussion in class.

The grit only comes when one focuses on their thesis, which depending on the graduate student and the topic, can run from 65 pages to 150 pages or more. Again, the work really depends on the subject material. I had days where I'd write four or five hours and days where I just went through books for a couple hours noting citations that I planned to use. Often it could be a mix of such activities. All of this, in turn, might take just a semester or a semester and a half.

If I would say there is one thing a graduate student of any discipline should learn to do, it is to write well. A well written paper can and will make up for problems with the topic and with the amount of resources one might have. It also will impress professors and grab their attention. I tested poorly in one professor's class, but I wrote two excellent papers. Based on the quality of the papers alone, he agreed to be my advisor for my thesis. I will also admit that when reading other student's papers, I judge a paper much more harshly (and the writer's motivation behind the paper) if they do not write to what I believe should be a graduate level. (this for peer reviews for a class).
posted by Atreides at 5:01 AM on June 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

Mm. Sorry if my comments were misleading in part—my main experience with grad students was, again, obtained while an undergrad.
posted by limeonaire at 5:34 AM on June 29, 2006

In my experience both as a grad and out in the workforce afterwards, the most valuable things I learned were:

- How to write. I was a terrible writer coming into grad-school, so terrible I thought I was good. Write, write and write some more. Get someone who will tear your writing apart (your supervisor) and rebuild your composition skills. Every one of the best grad students I knew and know, without fail, knew how to write well and quickly. Publish as much as you possibly can.

- How to finish stuff. PhDs in particular are all about time-management. In a lot of ways, it's what a doctorate is for: to give you a big project to complete in your own time. The best people made very efficient use of their time. This meant they weren't in the lab at 11PM on Fridays, they were out drinking, 'cause they had their shit done.

- How to speak well: Take every opportunity to get in front of an audience. The best people were also interesting speakers. Nobody will seek out your work in the journals, but one or two good presentations at a couple of big conferences can really get you noticed.

- How to keep current: One of the best things my friends and I used to do was spend friday afternoons in the reading room. You don't need an encyclopaedic knowledge of your subject to get through your degree, but if you don't know anything about anything, you're going nowhere.

That's enough.
posted by bonehead at 6:05 AM on June 29, 2006 [4 favorites]

A short list:
1. Passion for your field of study.
2. A cooperative attitude towards other grad students. They are not your competitors, they are your future professional network.
3. Wide interests beyond your discipline, and the ability to draw connections. A bit of a Renaissance person.
4. A blase attitude towards material goods.
5. The ability to cook simple nutritious cheap meals.
6. High comfort level with technology.
7. Good people skills for networking/brown-nosing. Reread Franklin's autobiography.
8. Can hold your liquor.
posted by LarryC at 7:11 AM on June 29, 2006

Applying to grad school: be assertive, about what you think and about what your goals are.

Being a grad student: be in your department. Go to both academic and social events, whether or not they are in your field of study. Know people, and be able to speak to their work, again whether or not it is in your field of study. It's a cliche, but your most productive learning can and will happen outside the classroom/library, in conversations.

Getting a job: have something useful to say to both faculty and grad students about their work in the department at which you're interviewing (assuming you've gotten that far).

I suppose what I'm adding to this conversation is that a lot of being a doctoral student is maintaining breadth in the face of the sometimes overwhelming urge to gain depth in a specialized subject. Especially in the humanities, consider how unlikely it is that you'll have colleagues working in the same field/sub-discipline as you -- particularly when you become a faculty member somewhere.
posted by obliquicity at 9:43 AM on June 29, 2006

The book "getting what you came for:" is an evenhanded discussion. Things I would have appreciated while in grad school from my peers:

1. less overt brown-nosing
2. less backstabbing and internal competitiveness
3. I'm going to quit now because I need to move on.
posted by mecran01 at 6:08 PM on June 29, 2006

How to have a good career in computer science is an excellent resource from which lots of generalities can be gleaned (it's more about how to be a good grad student, imo, at the very least a good sciences grad student), and doesn't really pull any punches. I'm relatively new at this so I'm still working on all these things, so good luck to you and me both :).
posted by kaytwo at 1:23 AM on June 30, 2006

Phil Agre's online "networking the network" is *excellent*.
posted by mecran01 at 6:25 AM on June 30, 2006

I'd like to thank everyone for their contributions. In my own thinking, and in the paper I write, this discussion will influence me. I don't have everything figured out now, I'm better off than I was.

Remarks about time-management were clearly the most common. I am especially interested in the claims that go roughly as follows: "The most time-efficient Ph.D. students tend to get a lot of work done and have a fair amount of free time left over to spend as they please."

This past year I had a bad habit of feeling guilty about not working, pretty much whenever I was not working; yet that guilt did harm and no good, and carried over to when I was working. While working, instead of simply trying to make progress, I entertained thoughts such as, "If I had been working earlier today I'd have come farther."

The harm of such doubts is not just that they are distracting (try to read philosophy and think about something else that you feel strongly about at the same time); the additional harm is that negative self-appraisals lower one's confidence as well--and, as those of you who play chess, or any other game for that matter, know: lack of confidence makes a person play worse.

Too much confidence also makes a person play worse. Try to find a good balance, then. (Nothing, as I recall, has been said about this so far in this discussion; yet confidence is relevant, since it involves personality and character. With that said, it would take a significant amount of creativity to articulate a plausible case for the perfect balance, either as a specific degree or as a range.)

My wife and I had our first baby two days ago. I will now be a Ph.D. student and a father at the same time. Taking care of the baby will be a lot of work; yet I will now have a greater sense of urgency with regard to the end-point: getting a professorship. Thus everything else (coming up with class paper topics, etc.) will be put into perspective with that as the ultimate aim. I will be more apt to do the sorts of thing that are likely to lead me to that goal; and for each means to that end, I will say not only, "I want to do X, because I love philosophy," but, "I have to do it."
posted by Eiwalker at 3:15 AM on July 2, 2006

Good luck with the baby, Eiwalker.

As for confidence, you're entirely correct on finding the right balance. Be confident when you speak and from where you speak from, and this will always gain you points and respect from your peers and professor. The tipping point is reaching the point when your confidence becomes arrogance, that your understanding or knowledge has no space to contemplate or recognize that of others. The graduate students that annoyed me most were those who took a very strong position and refused to consider at all other points of contrast. Of these students, I eventually reached a position where I automatically began to disqualify whatever they said, since from experience, I knew what they were going to say in spirit, if not in content. I noticed Professors would also take the same approach, so I felt less bad about doing so.

Essentially, everybody's point of view is relevant. It doesn't mean its correct, and if it needs correcting, do so in a humble manner.
posted by Atreides at 10:25 AM on July 2, 2006

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