Grad school advice?
August 16, 2010 1:58 PM   Subscribe

My graduate school orientation is Wednesday and I'm getting nervous. Overeducated Mefites, I'd love any advice you have to offer!

I finished college four years ago, and I'm really nervous about getting back into academia. How do I make a good impression with my professors? The other students? How do I go back to living on a pittance? How do I keep organized? How do I deal with the commute, which will be fairly long? How do I make sure I don't neglect my fiance as I jump back into the realm of neverending essay-writing? How do I quit worrying about all of this?

If you have any advice, stories, or warnings, I'd love to hear them.
posted by honeydew to Education (25 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Which degree, which field? This is all very, very particular.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:03 PM on August 16, 2010

Be yourself. Really!
posted by Dr. Send at 2:05 PM on August 16, 2010

Yeah, it's hard to offer useful advice without knowing what you're going to grad school for. In general though, ask professors questions about something recent they've done, as long as you aren't especially difficult or stand-offish, it's hard not to make friends (or at least friendly acquaintances) with the folks in your cohort (at least in my program), rice and beans and every free bit of food available at your institution, with Sente, listen to podcasts, that's a damn toughie and probably depends an awful lot on the particulars of your relationship.

How to quit worrying about this? You don't. At least, I didn't, and I don't expect to anytime soon. As soon as these concerns are quelled, some new ones will crop up. If you're getting a professional degree, I reckon it's different, but if your plan is to stay in academia, that stress and deadline pressure are likely never to recede (at least not until tenure, and really only then if you decide to stop being a productive member of your academic community).
posted by solipsophistocracy at 2:07 PM on August 16, 2010

While knowing what field, what degree, how long is long for a commute, and other relevant details will refine responses, here's some basic stuff:

Professors - learn their styles before approaching them. Some pride themselves in being open and getting to know students, some are harder to approach. While you are paying to be there, that doesn't mean that you are the #1 priority in the lives of all professors.

Other students - chances are, four years is probably around average for time out of academia. Some students have known nothing but school, while others have returned to school for a new career.

Funds - how do you live now? What are your major expenditures? Will you have time for them once you're studying quite a bit?

See other commuting help AskMes for tips on the long commute.

Give your fiance the option of shaking you roughly if you get sucked too far into academia. That should jostle you loose from the clammy grip of endless study.

As for the worries - talk to people who have been in the program for year or more. Hopefully some of that will happen in the orientation.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:09 PM on August 16, 2010

General (cynical, Machiavellian) answers:

* Being smart doesn't matter (or at least it doesn't matter enough!). Grad school *usually* isn't a meritocracy, even though it looks like one. Pay attention to who has lots of assistants, who has grants, who publishes. Power and egos matter.
* Work on the hardest problems you can in your field.
* the commuting thing stinks. Make buddies with a grad school friend with a couch, and spend a night or two a week in town. Otherwise, try to find ways to get work done during the commute.
* Not a people person? Learn to fake it!
* Remember to claim credit for what's yours. Find excuses to get publications. Speak at conferences.
* Worried about food? Go to a lecture every day, and you'll get all the pizza and cookies you can handle.
* Remember that *you are paying them*. Even if you're on a free ride of some sort, you still have power.
posted by gregglind at 2:13 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I went to law school after three years in a high stress, very demanding wholesale banking job. In my last year at the bank, we worked incredible hours trying to keep the financial world from going down the gurgle tube due to an international debt crisis. It was exhausting.

So for me, law school was lovely . . . all my classmates were feeling the usual academic high anxiety about pleasing professors, acing classes, etc Me, I couldn't get over how relaxing it felt to be in a place where the only person who would suffer if I did poorly was me. It felt like playtime!

I'd suggest you just enjoy the fact that you get to focus for a while on studying, versus coping in "the real world." Strangely enough, a relaxed but engaged approach led to my best academic performance. Similarly, living on a pittance works out when you embrace downscaling and simplify your lifestyle. Staying organized tends not to be tough -- just stay ahead of the reading in your courses, and plan in advance for exams. Re the commute, if you can, I'd read or listen to assignments. And as for essay writing and your fiancee, schedule the times to write the same way you'd currently schedule work commitments. Keep some "date nights" open. Also, put your time with your fiancee ahead of socializing with other grad students -- it is getting swamped in someone else's milieu that can be tough on relationships.
posted by bearwife at 2:15 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm going to a large state university for a social science degree. I've been living on teacher wages for four years, which aren't awesome but are not bad at all.
posted by honeydew at 2:19 PM on August 16, 2010

Ph.D., Master's, or Other?
posted by mr_roboto at 2:23 PM on August 16, 2010

Response by poster: Graduate
posted by honeydew at 2:29 PM on August 16, 2010

Find a place on campus to relax and be comfortable in your off time. I ended up switching programs for several reasons, but one involved the fact that the program was small and in the opposite direction of everything else I liked. I couldn't relax because I didn't know where to eat my lunch and open my laptop; if I did it in one place or another, it would take too much time to get there, and my afternoon would be broken into smaller, less usable chunks. Finding my special spot in the library with the comfy chairs made a huge difference.

If you have a laptop (and who doesn't in grad school?), get a nice plain laptop backpack (less conspicuous than a messenger bag) and buy an extra power cable and headphone set so you don't have to keep unplugging them at home. Make your bag as grab-and-go as possible. (That goes for everything, really, even if your commute isn't bad.)

You do not have to attend every social event with your cohort. If you do attend, you are not required to stay out late, drink as much as they do or even drink at all.

During your first semester, just watch and learn as much as you can. Don't get thrown into things if you don't feel prepared. I choked because I was supposed to lead lecture for two hours and hadn't seen anyone else do it yet. My professor was very kind, let me lead as much as I felt comfortable doing, and then let me come back later in the semester to do it again. Don't wait until the last minute to ask for help.
posted by Madamina at 2:34 PM on August 16, 2010


There are a number of graduate degrees offered in American universities. These include Master's degrees (including Master of Arts, Master of Sciences, Master of Business Administration, etc.), and doctorate degrees (Ph.D., Ed.D., J.D., M.D., etc.). The graduate school experience is very different for students pursuing different degrees.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:42 PM on August 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

How do I make a good impression with my professors?

Work hard. Do the readings for your courses and think about them before coming to class. Participate intelligently in discussions. Don't trash or praise a paper for minor issues, engage with the main argument. Be humble.

The other students?

Be nice, and friendly; recognize that most of them are anxious too. Don't one-up or try to act smarter than them and don't pick fights with those that might try to do so themselves. Try to work together on coursework where you can. Be social; go out for a beer every now and then.

How do I go back to living on a pittance?

Well, you spend less money. The good news is, you'll be so busy you won't have time to go out to bars and movies and such. Major money-saving advice: make your own meals at home, instead of buying food at school. Good for your health, too. Also, get a coffeemaker at your desk if you don't have access to one, to avoid spending $2 for a coffee, which you will need a lot of, probably.

How do I keep organized?

Get some citation management software like Papers, Refworks, Zotero, EndNote, etc. Lots of opinions about this. Keep a notebook, preferably an electronic one so you can search it. There are many software options for this too. Set up a remote backup service like Dropbox.

How do I deal with the commute, which will be fairly long?

If you drive, music and podcasts. If you take a bus, books, or even papers to read, or music and podcasts.

How do I make sure I don't neglect my fiance as I jump back into the realm of neverending essay-writing?

Do your very best not to bring work home with you. Keep a 9 to 5 schedule. It will be very difficult to do so, but the alternative, letting work bleed into your home life in the evenings, can be ruinous to relationships. In your life as a grad student, deadlines are going to appear, and you'll feel like your personal life has to be on hold so you can do work. However, there are always going to be deadlines, throughout your academic career, and if your fiance comes second for everything that's due, your fiance will be second as long as you're a grad student. Often the penalties for lateness are not severe. If you fail to get something done during the 9 to 5, try to make the penalty fall on you (you accept whatever consequences happen for lateness) rather than your fiance (you bring work home and basically withdraw from your fiance's life).

How do I quit worrying about all of this?

Talk to people. Be friendly with your cohort, because they're going through the same thing, and can help you adjust. Also, talk to the older students in your lab as they can give you advice when you're struggling. Good luck.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:49 PM on August 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

Attend office hours (with specific questions in-hand), especially if you program is large, so your professors get to know who you are. This is key if your in a Master's and planning on continuing or applying for funding. If you can't think of specific questions, ask them to recommend sources for the paper you're planning on writing on Topic X.

And don't forget to get lots of exercise and sleep.
posted by monkeymonkey at 2:49 PM on August 16, 2010

Get on good terms with the department secretary or whoever is in charge of administrative stuff. This will save your bacon so many times.

Be friendly with other grad students, ask around about which courses are great or bad (though take this with grains of salt as needed). Avoid saying anything negative about anybody at this point; be diplomatic and alienate no-one. If you have funding to worry about, try to figure out what those decisions are based on and start working right away to be sure you are meeting all the benchmarks as needed.

The book Getting What You Came For is often recommended especially for PhD students.

In most PhD programs, you will need to steer your own ship, rather than waiting for someone else to tell you what to do. If this is the case in your program, get into that mindset early, be proactive about getting the info you need to make smart decisions about courses, and about asking for what timetable the department expects for you to be -- for example -- presenting papers at conferences, getting material ready for publication, etc - whatever the criteria are for advancement/success/hiring in your field, get advice about how to meet them and then follow it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:57 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also there are a million and one past questions here about grad school; for some of your questions (eg how to maintain your relationship, how to handle commuting) they have been answered before -- click on your tag "graduate" etc (top right corner of the screen) to browse them in case they have helpful info.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:59 PM on August 16, 2010


This is a total red flag: you can't express what degree program you're attending in a language that people in a university would understand.

Know why you're there, what you want to study, and what you want to get out of it. Make the most of the socializing that goes on during orientation. You won't have much time for it afterwards because of your long commute and your fiance, so this is the time to form those relationships with your classmates now.
posted by deanc at 3:01 PM on August 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

Relax. Be social, but don't feel obligated to do everything. Don't let the people who are posturing bring you down. Everybody gets impostor syndrome and you probably will too at some point. Be friendly to professors, ask pertinent questions, but don't try to monopolize their time. When it comes time to pick your research projects, pick things you care about. If you can use your coursework assignments to lay the groundwork for your thesis or dissertation, do it. Attend talks in your department. Talk to students in upper cohorts when something is frightening you and they will almost always say "I felt the same way, and it wasn't as bad as I expected." Have some activities that you can do that do not relate to your schoolwork at all as ways to unwind. Take time off. Be yourself.
posted by synecdoche at 3:03 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

And the department secretary is usually the person who really knows everything that is going on and it is in your best interest to befriend them.
posted by synecdoche at 3:04 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Four great things about graduate school... a) after holding down a real job, it feels like an incredible luxury to stop renting out your brain and, instead, deploy it to your own benefit; b) grad school work (getting up/going to class/studying/writing/test-taking etc.) will seem so much easier than professional work; c) it will also seem easier than college because you're older and wiser, plus it's your field and so you get to focus on your favorite subjects; c) it's a joy to be surrounded by other people who care about the same matters. Have fun!
posted by carmicha at 3:23 PM on August 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

(Assuming this is for a PhD research-based program. YMMV.)

Early on:

* Try to keep your mouth shut and listen to what people tell you.
* Don't overpromise anyone anything.
* Befriend your cohortmates and other grads. Do not talk shit about anyone. These aren't just your classmates, they are your peers and will be a part of your life for the rest of your life.
* Warn your family/friends that this is more time consuming than a 9-5 job. You might not be the best communicator for awhile.
* Be very kind to all admin assistants.
* Do all the class reading at first. Once you realize that you can't do all the reading, figure out how much you can get away with not doing.
* Don't wed yourself to an advisor until you've had the opportunity to see if you can get along interpersonally.
* Don't invest too much time into teaching. It can easily distract you from your research.
* Live as cheaply as you can. Accruing debt with the iffy job market is not a great idea.
* Read Getting What You Came For.

As you go along:

* Try to turn every class paper immediately into a conference submission.
* Give yourself 1 term to shape up a class paper and start submitting it to journals. Which journal? Start with the one that you cited the most, do a keyword search within that journal to see if there are any relevant articles, look closely at the last 2-3 years of issues.
* While it may seem interesting to start up on an entirely different topic for a class or for your next big step, it is much more efficient to stay (at least somewhat) on the same topic so that you're not having to learn a new literature.
* While taking a class because it sounds "fun" may seem like a good idea, look at it this way:
- You're not going to enrich your knowledge of the literature of what you're looking at.
- It will be a distraction from your goal to GET DONE WITH COURSEWORK.
- You're not going to publish something that is related enough to your topic that it will look good on your CV. (Ex. "So what's that recycling paper about?" "Err... it was a class paper." "Yeah, that's what I thought.")
* Keep literature review tables. You'll have an easier time sorting through what you've already read at your fingertips.
* Take some time to learn the basics of APA 6 (or whatever your field uses), if you haven't already. Editors/reviewers will love you if you actually have your manuscript in (as close to (perfect) APA 6 formatting (as you can get).


Comprehensive exams:

* Start with the question you perceive to be the easiest first. It will give you confidence and you can hopefully develop a flow faster than by struggling with more difficult questions.
* Canvass your old class papers for definitional or summary type things that you can easily cut and paste or modify. This can save you time and keep you from repeating work you have previously done.



* Make sure that each member of your committee is there for a reason and is an asset to your work, not a hindrance.
* Reasons to have someone (the more the better):
o They know your area well.
o They know your method well.
o They are well known and will help you get a job.
o They are going to write you good letters of recommendation.
o They have strengths that compliment your advisor's (or supplement your advisor's weaknesses.)
o They have RAship opportunities for you.
o They will give you co-authorship on things.
posted by k8t at 3:35 PM on August 16, 2010 [14 favorites]

Oh, regarding your relationship -- be prepared for the worst. The first year and other stressful times (comps, dissertation) are very tough on a relationship. I take my partner out to a very nice dinner every quarter to thank him for putting up with it all.
posted by k8t at 3:36 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

re: commute.

You might not expect it, but at least in my experience, I LIVED on campus the first year. There were 4 days a week of classes as well as just being AROUND. Not to mention the numerous evening lectures (mandatory) and then cohort-bonding dinners and drinking (should be mandatory.) Find a friend with a couch.
posted by k8t at 3:38 PM on August 16, 2010

Best bit of advice I got in grad school was part of a prof's welcome speech on the first day. He said something like, "Every one of you is secretly afraid that you don't belong here, and that we will find out and make you leave. Relax, do the work, you'll do fine."

It doesn't address any of your specific questions, but it made my blood pressure drop about 20 points hearing him say it.
posted by richyoung at 3:46 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's definitely an exciting time of the year, and great that you're doing something worthwhile for yourself. Based on my experience, a few suggestions come to mind:

1) Read up on the actual requirements for your degree, which should be listed in the department's graduate handbook (they may *tell* you about this at the orientation, but not everyone, including some faculty and advisors, actually reads it and stays current with the requirements). Based on what you read, make a plan for your next few semesters that takes these requirements into account (I know, real deep stuff...) as well as accounts for your other life responsibilities/demands. For instance, most grad students get really caught up in their coursework, which is great (classes can be challenging, and there's lots of fun stuff to learn), but, depending on the program's graduation requirements, coursework alone may not prepare you for other graduation requirements, such as culminating exams (if there are any) or a thesis/portfolio option. (With this in mind, based on the requirements, keep a list of possible exam/thesis topics as a regular part of paying attention during your courses.) Sometimes, I work with grad students who do impressively well in their classes for multiple semesters (since it's a format they recognize from their undergraduate years) but then hit a wall later, when it comes to choosing an appropriate topic or preparing their portfolios (even though all the expectations appear in the grad handbook they receive when they arrive). Again, faculty too can often get things wrong, even with the best of intentions, so, if it's important, plan to look it up.

2) Which goes along with a second bit of advice: stay clear of the department gossip chain as much as possible. Academic types *love* to gab, especially when they're feeling stressed and over their heads (read: much of the time in grad school), but remember that talking about problems and fears in the wrong ways can make them seem bigger and more overwhelming than often they actually are (again, especially with academic types, who revel in the *complexity* of their subject areas), all of which is a perfect recipe for making an already challenging, demanding, and occasionally scary task, like grad school, seem completely impossible, even for well-prepared, conscientious folks, like many grad students are. Basically, listen politely and supportively for a while when your colleagues vent about whatever, but then check their complaints against the actual expectations of the program and note what's really expected (often much less or more modest than the grapevine would have you believe). In the same way, recognize then stay clear of those fellow students who get off on playing up the drama in everything (they'll be enough for everyone without adding to it).

3) Moreover, work to strike a balance between two counterproductive extremes: on one hand, don't be cynical and try to get by on just gaming the system. Yes, there will be hoops to jump through, and the system expects you to do so regardless of what you would prefer, but you're there in grad school to learn and grow, both of which take an investment that goes beyond just pleasing the system by getting through. Again, stay clear of folks who can only talk/think about grad school in these limited terms. (As I suggested above, keep a list of topics/issues/questions that genuinely excite you in all the courses you take, especially those classes that you might otherwise not care for. Even if you don't officially pursue them all, keep these passions/curiosities in mind, especially when you're jumping through hoops to please the system, which you no doubt will....)

On the other hand, like I said above, know the actual requirements and plan to adapt yourself, your ideas, and your expectations accordingly. Nothing's worse than a grad student with unrealistic expectations who treats every piece of advice about developing a project in a different direction than she otherwise planned as some sort of personal affront. Particularly when you're new to a topic area - and most grad students, even if they have extensive workplace/professional experience, pretty much are when it comes to advanced academic study - there's a tendency to get drawn to large-scale, complicated questions and issues. Needless to say, there's nothing wrong with that in itself (that's what graduate study is all about). But these initial visions that graduate students often have usually don't work so well as the basis for planning an exam area or an extended writing/reseach project that's doable within the constraints of time and resources under which grad study always works. They need scaling back, focusing, and adjustment (which is what grad faculty are here to do), but this process calls for an open-minded, flexible attitude on the part of the student - the sort of balancing that I'm describing.

Oh, and finally, if you're of the teaching caste, never forget, and take with you always, that getting-the-shit-beat-out-of-you feeling you'll no doubt experience at some point in grad school (probably multiple times) when no matter how hard you work and how much you try, you just can't figure out something important. That feeling - that's exactly what at least a few of your own students encounter at times in the classes you teach, especially on topics that otherwise seem most obvious, easy, and commonsensical to you as the teacher. Whatever else you intellectually you learn in graduate school, use the challenges you'll encounter to become more compassionate and supportive of other learners. Ultimately, that attitude might stay with you longer than anything on the required reading list.... ;-)
posted by 5Q7 at 4:30 PM on August 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

I gave substantial advice on a variant of this question a while back here. (I'm a professor who trains a lot of PhDs.)

My axiomatic advice is simple: whenever you feel the urge to compete, resist it, and collaborate.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:01 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

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