Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's that time of year- the time when the wee little firsties begin their magical journey into post-graduate education. I don't have a lot of contact with first years anymore, to be frank, largely because I've been here for a really long time. As such I'm one of those scary older grad students who stalks around the department always looking busy.* That said, the appearance of first years reminds me of myself when I was at that point. Particularly, it reminds me of all the stupid shit that I thought I knew then about graduate school. It occurs to me that perhaps I should pass on some of my admittedly poor insights about grad school to future generations. And so, contained here is a random assortment of things I wished I'd realized when I started grad school. I make no guarantees as to the quality of these thoughts- if you want quality you should read Fabio's series of posts "Grad Skool Rulz" rather than this crap. Only take my advice if you want to turn out more or less like me.
Drek's Unhelpful Hints for Graduate Students: Part the First**
(1) It is important to realize as soon as possible that you are not an undergraduate any longer. In fact, you're not really even a student. Grad school is more like an apprenticeship program than traditional schooling. As such, you're here to learn by doing. Stop thinking about what you do as "school" and start thinking of it as "work" and particularly as "your career." You're no longer practicing for your future- you're doing it right now.
(2) Along these lines, keep in mind that nobody is impressed with your ability to get by while doing as little as possible. If you didn't want to do the work, you shouldn't have come to grad school. The idea here is to work hard and accomplish a lot, not just to pass classes.
(3) Grad school has a short game and a long game. The short game is about a year long- passing classes, taking comprehensive exams, finishing a master's thesis, and so on. The long game is about four to five years long and involves positioning yourself for success. The short game is important- you have to pass your classes to keep playing- but the long game is your real path to success. Don't get so wrapped up in the short game that you forget to pick your head up now and then.
(4) Ultimately, as long as you pass, hardly anyone cares about your classes. Don't obsess over them. That said, keep in mind that your classes are taught by faculty who you are going to need to sit on your committees and write your recommendation letters. Don't be rude, don't be obnoxious, and don't be a goof off.
(5) Remember that faculty members are people too. They have lives beyond the department, spouses and children and hobbies and a need for leisure time. When they give you their time, be grateful. When you ask for time, make sure you don't waste it. Also keep in mind that faculty have personalities the same way grad students do. Some of theirs won't mesh with yours, no matter what you do. This can be an exercise in professionalism but, more often, is a signal that you need to work with someone else.
(6) Like it or not, some advisors suck. Some are really hands-on and will help you a lot, but may be very controlling. Some are totally hands-off and will leave you flailing, but give you freedom to follow your own path. Be prepared to figure out what you need and find a way to get it. If you can't work with your current advisor, switch to a new one. You'll make your advisor and yourself happier. Additionally, remember that the person with the greatest stake in your success is you. Don't expect your advisor to run after you with a whip to get you to do your job.
(7) Get to know your faculty. These people will have a lot of control over your life and can help, or hurt, you substantially. Additionally, a lot of them are genuinely fun. If all goes well, you're going to be a colleague of folks like these before too long, so start getting ready.
(8) Remember that your faculty's needs do not always match up with your own. Senior faculty have been busting their asses for twenty years or more to get where they are. They will not be impressed by grad students who miss deadlines. Junior faculty are in the process of busting their asses and don't have time for dead weight. When working for or with faculty make sure that you're meeting their needs if you are going to expect them to help you meet yours.
(9) Most faculty are pretty good people. They're smart, energetic, and often fun. At the same time, a relatively small number are exploiters and will suck you dry if you let them. Figure out who these faculty members are and stay away from them to whatever extent possible.
(10) Get to know older grad students in your department. They've been around the block and can point out potholes that you'd be wise to avoid. They can also be a source of information about which faculty are good to work with. At the same time, keep in mind that grad students have interests of their own. They may not want to share their advisor's attention with someone else. Likewise, take all advice with a grain of salt. Beyond a certain point it's worthwhile to ask why an old grad student hasn't become young faculty yet.
(11) Get to know your own cohort. You're going to spend a lot of time with these folks and they're good study partners and potential collaborators. Social isolation is a near death sentence, so avoid it.
(12) Some departments foster a lot of competition between grad students, some don't. My view is that you're usually better off being helpful and decent to others than not. It's always good to be owed favors and, frankly, a lot of academia runs on goodwill. Don't be a sucker, but don't be an asshole either.
(13) Some grad students realize in the first few years that they've made a horrible mistake in coming to grad school. This is normal. Unfortunately, some of these folks will continue to plod through the program because they don't know what else to do. This is, generally speaking, bad. If this is you, don't do it- you're just wasting time. If this isn't you, don't get too close to these folks as they can be a motivation suck.
(14) Find what works for you and do it. Grad students are different people and, while some of them might work 9-5, others will prefer quasi-nocturnal schedules. In the end, it doesn't matter as long as you get things done.
(15) You're a really smart person. You probably spent most of your college career near the top of your classes. This is good but, when you get to grad school, you will be surrounded by people like yourself. You're all smart, you were all at the top of your classes, and you're all small fish in a big pond. Get over the shock of this as quickly as you can. Being surrounded by smart people is a good thing and will ultimately help you succeed, if you let it.
(16) Grad school is sort of like a marathon crossed with a steeplechase. This is to say that it's a long-ass race with intermittent barriers that you're going to have to clear. Sometimes you will be running with wet feet. Don't try to run grad school like a sprint, doing everything at once- you'll just exhaust yourself. Instead, work steadily throughout your years. And don't forget: when you become faculty the workload will only increase.
(17) The time scale in grad school is really, really long. The publications process can require several years to get one paper from a "final" draft to appearing in print. Other times you may get a paper into print- start to finish- within a year. Be prepared for these long time scales and start early. Any paper you write for a class should be done with an eye towards turing it into a publication later. The sooner you start on this, the better, because you will need these things for the job market.
(18) Learn how, and when, to cut your losses. Some papers are just craptacular and will never get better no matter how much work you put into them. Painful though it may be, let these papers go. Every hour you sink into them is an hour you could have been spending on a paper that actually has a chance.
(19) It's almost more important to work consistently than it is to work long hours. Given the long time scales of grad school, regular consistent performance will mount up rapidly. Don't wait til the last minute to do things.
(20) Remember to have fun. For at least the next few years, grad school is your life. You have to decompress and relax periodically or you'll burn out. Play sports, work out, see movies, hang out with friends... whatever. Just make sure you have a way to unwind.
(21) Fun is good. Too much fun is bad. Remember: you're being paid to be a grad student because the department thinks that there's an outside chance you might turn into a respectable Ph.D. someday. They're going to give you time and space to develop, but this isn't a decade long pass to screw around.
(22) Don't spend too much time reading the blog of some asshole online. His opinions aren't necessarily correct in your case. We're all different people with different styles of working. Find what works for you, do it, and don't feel guilty.
* As it happens, I think I've almost transformed into faculty at this point. I walked into my office last Friday, returning from a quick out-and-back to get a cup of coffee, and realized to my dismay that I was the only person still there. At 2:00 in the afternoon. My immediate thought was, "Shit! Why the hell isn't anyone working?!"
** Labeled as such so that, if I want to add to the list later, I can call it "Part the Second" and make it all look intentional. Cool, eh?