Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Unhelpful Hints

It's fall again and I've begun to notice something around my department: people I don't know. They have these expressions that speak of a curious mixture of fear, uncertainty, and excitement. They're constantly out-of-breath and frequently avoid looking me in the eye. Who are these mysterious people? Fugitives? Sex offenders? Scientologists? No, they're something far more mysterious: first year graduate students.

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?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...


I keep trying to think of a non-snarky way to reference point number (6) in your case, and then failing. So, insert witty, but not overly-harsh comment about your relationship with your advisor here.

I also think (12) and (13) are particularly good advice that I wish people would heed more frequently. I imagine it's very difficult to think in terms of cutting your losses, but it should really be encouraged if you can't see yourself doing this as a career, or if you've found that you just don't want to.

And now I find myself wondering if I now qualify as an "older grad student". What is the cut-off for that?


Tuesday, September 04, 2007 12:06:00 PM  
Blogger SARA said...

This is excellent - a lot of which can be applied to life/work in general.

As for:
** 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?

Yes , very cool...reminds me of

"The time scale in grad school(BLOGGING) is really, really long. The publications(POSTING) process can require several years(MINUTES) to get one paper(POST) from a "final" draft to appearing in print(THE BLOG)..... Any paper(POST) you write for a class(BLOG) should be done with an eye towards turning it into ("Part the Second")a publication later.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007 8:19:00 PM  
Blogger Jay Livingston said...

When I was a college senior (this was back in the late pleistocene era) and thinking of going to grad school, I talked with my advisor, who said, among other things, "A graduate student's a pretty silly thing for a grown man to be."

I didn't give this gem much weight then -- maybe because at age 22 I didn't consider myself a grown man -- and I'm still not sure how accurate it is. But I've never forgotten it.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007 3:58:00 AM  
Blogger Mister Troll said...

Dear Drek,

Great list! I hope it helps some first-years. (Is it just me, or is the average age of first-year grad students plummeting?)

I would add a few things, which are probably just re-phrasing things you included:

* Grad school is not life. Grad school is not *your* life. Make time for other activities, and construct an identity that doesn't depend on grad school.

* Learn to recognize "grad school guilt" in other people -- and yourself. ("I tried to enjoy my evening, and didn't study at all... I'm a failure!") Do not ever give in to grad school guilt. (See previous point.)

* Figure out what you want to do. Not sure yet? Well, you're late off the starting gate. You want to be a professor? Hahahaha! Oh, you're serious? Then you'd better figure out what the job market is like; this will be your reality check. Now figure out how to position yourself for the future you want, and spend the next several years building your position for that specific goal.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007 6:11:00 AM  
Blogger Monsoon said...

Thank you for this post! This semester I am taking a graduate stats course as an undergrad, and am desperately trying to stay out of the first years way. Over the past two years, I have had good relationships with the first and second years in our department... however, this year is crazy. This new cohort is already fighting, dividing into small groups, and talking about one another (there is also one student who hates sociology and won't say why she's in the program). Anyway, what advice would you give to an outsider? or am I an outsider? All I want to do is study with others and NOT take sides.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007 6:13:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Hey Monsoon,

Well, you are an outsider, but it's only because you're not part of the cohort. First year students tend to be more insular because they don't know that many people. This tendency declines over time. You have, unfortunately, had the luck to end up with one of those cohorts that detonates more or less instantly on arrival. They happen now and then, though one always hopes that they will remain civil.

I guess my best advice is to study with whomever is available and not talk badly about anyone. Likewise, don't repeat anything you overhear. With luck, this will keep you sufficiently neutral as to not cause a problem. If someone can't respect that neutrality... well, nothing you can do will make them grow up sufficiently to allow you to study with them anyway.

As for the one student who doesn't want to be there: this early in the first year that may just be nerves. Then again, sometimes that happens. Someone in my cohort pretty much disappeared within the first semester.

And wow does this ever feel weird. Maybe I should start an "Ask Drek" feature?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007 4:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Take heed of what is written above. Drek knows whereof he speaks. Especially the part about your career starting now.

-- A faculty type.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007 4:50:00 PM  
Blogger Monsoon said...

Dear Drek (haha) and anonymous,

After your advice, I realized there was one thing I left out. Many of the students in this first year cohort I've taken undergrad classes with. This makes my position more awkward (many of us are already friends). If they were just a bunch of strangers, I probably would not care as much! Either way, your advice is good and I will practice what you preach (or at least do my best). Sorry to weird you out!!!

p.s. if you are seriously tossing around the idea of of an "ask drek" feature, I'm so there!!!! I love scholarly advice of all kinds.

Thursday, September 06, 2007 10:55:00 AM  
Blogger yli said...

on drek's #20 and mister troll's comment on grad school being your life versus not:

my take is *a lot of life happens in grad school* and it's very different from undergraduate life if you're fresh out of college. when you're an undergrad you can put off a lot of adult stuff and stay in a study-play routine, but in grad school, everything else happens at the same time: e.g., relationships, family, in addition to learning/building a career.

on a related note, besides having ways to unwind, since grad school is such a long trial of delayed gratification, it's helpful to work on something meaningful outside your program that can offer more immediate rewards: do volunteer work, start a book club, learn something completely different than sociology, etc. -- you risk overcommitment, but it can provide a sense of usefulness and balance when graduate work (inevitable but not endlessly) wears you out.

Thursday, September 06, 2007 12:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great advice. As a 2nd year grad student it seems the hardest thing to do is gain trust in yourself and your opinions. At first, everything you thought you knew is washed away, and a period of intellectual (and emotional) uncertainty sets in. I've tried many methods to get beyond this point, but the only one that seems to work is trusting in my own opinions, and knowing my views to be legitimate. This is not the hotshot self-certainty of a star undergraduate, but the tempered confidence of a growing scholar that understands that learned views come only from hard work, and that having a certain opinion on a matter is far more worthwhile than spewing forth cliches and buzzwords to gain the approval of a superior. (Hopefully) This is the first step toward becoming a (cliche) producer of knowledge, rather than a consumer. In any case, grad school seems to make more sense after realizing this.

Thursday, September 06, 2007 5:22:00 PM  
Blogger christopher uggen said...

nice. these are about the least unhelpful hints i've seen on the subject.

Thursday, September 06, 2007 5:39:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Volscho said...

My non-grad school activity that my partner (also a PHD student) and I find that puts meaning into life: our daughter now 1 year of age.

Having kids in grad school is a real trip! Luckily, faculty were very supportive throwing us a baby shower and other stuff.

Right now my 1 year old is knocking sociology books off the shelf!

Just make sure to get some major productivity in before having children. Let it be said that I really know the meaning of *time management* now.

Sunday, September 09, 2007 5:15:00 AM  
Blogger __mars said...

#22 amuses me.

Sunday, September 09, 2007 7:57:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was very disturbed by your comment #13. You are basically encouraging people to be assholes to people who are feeling stressed, lonely and confused in grad school, which is a pretty common experience among grad students. I think that grad students should help one another, not help each other. I was one of those who didn't know if grad school was for me and only made it through because some fellow grad students actually talked to me and shared their problems with it, and now I'm actually glad I went through and am being relatively successful.

Sunday, September 09, 2007 10:47:00 AM  
Blogger Zeno said...

It seems that few people appreciate the crucial importance of #19. It may be because some folks think they do their best work under pressure and everything is "feast or famine" for them. Maybe they're even right (for them). Most people, though, do better by training themselves to be consistent, always advancing toward their goal, even if the steps are small. Once I adopted the rule of working on my dissertation every day, no matter what, things really started to happen. You could see it growing and taking shape, even on those days when all I did was revise the table of contents a little to bring it up to date. And one day I sat down to correct a couple of typos and ended up with the better part of a new chapter.

#19 is golden.

Sunday, September 09, 2007 12:16:00 PM  
Blogger Jim Gibbon said...

Great list, Drek.

Sunday, September 09, 2007 12:42:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Anonymous: Actually, I felt a little dubious about #13 as well. For the record, I am not encouraging grad students to be mean to their fellows or to refuse to help. I am, however, suggesting that you should avoid becoming too emotionally entangled with someone who is having a really bad time of it. Grad school is tough under the best of circumstances- trying to do it while deeply enmeshed with someone else who hates it won't make things any easier.

Monday, September 10, 2007 10:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this post needs more warnings about what grad school (and academia) are not, in order to keep more people from becoming like those mentioned in (13). I read all the stuff on the internet about how you shouldn't do this unless you are sure it's what you really want and so on...

Here's my list of things I wish I'd known:

1)Once you enter grad school you no longer have control over your own destiny. Graduation does not entail fulfilling a well defined series of requirements like it did when you were an undergrad. You graduate when your advisor says so. You publish when your advisor says so. You work on what your advisor says and you change topics when he says... If you're ready to move on in life (perhaps you and your spouse want real jobs so you can afford to have kids before thirty -- perhaps you want to move to the same state) you get to move on in life when your advisor says so.

2) Graduate school is really frustrating. I was warned that it was really hard. Really frustrating is a different thing. Really frustrating means that you will fail, and fail, and fail, and you will pour all your heart and soul and effort into it and still fail, until you feel like quitting because your ego cannot take anymore failure. This may apply more to the sciences, where only a small percentage of ambitious experiments ever succeed. Everyone I know has contemplated quitting at some point. Eventually you try something easy enough that you have some kind of success, but that doesn't mean all that failure doesn't still haunt you.

3) Graduate school prepares you for a career in research, but a career in research is not what you think it is. The primary job of a research scientist (dunno about the humanities) is to write grant proposals. If your advisor does not get grants, he does not get tenure -- and being denied tenure means being fired. The university has a financial motivation for making hiring depend on grants -- they charge a 50% to 70% "sales tax" on anything bought with grant money to cover overhead, so they get a good chunk of that money, and can't afford to have full time faculty spots occupied by people who aren't bringing in money. Furthermore they get a large cut of any profits that come from the work -- so they want you to produce patentable work. Finally, grants support grad students and post docs. The university needs to attract these people in order to keep its reputation as a "research university." Grants are the name of the game.

4) There is the small but real possibility that your advisor will not get a grant and the university will not have a TA spot available and you will be working at Blockbuster to support yourself for a while.

5) Changing advisors in midstream is almost impossible, and could delay your graduation for years.

6) I thought grad school was a way to get paid for doing what I liked doing as an undergrad -- taking classes, thinking about science, living by a college campus. I thought being faculty was more of the same, only teaching instead of taking the classes. Living near the campus is nice, but the science I get to think about is not what I expected. I didn't get to take the full year of general relativity that I wanted to take, because I had to focus on learning about signal to noise ratios in laser lock systems, because my experiment wasn't working... It's much more like a *job* job than I ever thought. Ordering departments and office politics included.

I have a feeling all that applies to the sciences more than the humanities, and I hope it doesn't make me sound embittered and better avoided. I don't feel too bitter (any more.) Was it all worth it? Dunno yet. I'll let you know when I graduate.

-Mary M

Monday, September 17, 2007 7:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"monsoon" said:

After your advice, I realized there was one thing I left out. Many of the students in this first year cohort I've taken undergrad classes with. This makes my position more awkward [...]

Many of the first year grad students got their undergrad degrees from the same school?!

Some people would think it's not good when many students stay at the same institution for undergrad and grad degrees. Complaints of intellectual inbreeding and all that.

I wonder what's going on in your school's case?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007 4:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

2nd year grad student here, and I could use a little advice about how to/whether to proceed with voicing concerns to my departmental chair.

The dept. got rid of comprehensive exams last year and replaced them with annual student evaluations. Evaluations are supposed to be objective, but they are not. We're now evaluated on personal grounds (e.g., appearance).

This year, the dept. watered down the curriculum more by getting rid of the thesis option for the MA. We were not even notified about the change. I have a lot of concerns about that--one of the more personal ones being that when I apply for the Ph.D. program, I will potentially be up against persons from other, better MA programs who actually got to complete a thesis. On the flip side, I worry that if I choose to go and apply elsewhere, admissions committees will laugh at my "master's paper."

Besides the curriculum, I've recently become aware that our grad studies director has a habit of manipulating grad school policies/deadlines in an effort to crack the whip and instill fear in students. Students are currently being threatened about losing funding and being removed from the program, and the reasoning for all of that is based on manipulated policies and new, undocumented departmental policies.

I have been told that this kind of stuff doesn't happen so much in graduate departments. And I want to raise the issues, but fear reprisal from both the grad studies director and the department chair. It is my belief that the department is trampling on the well-being of students as well as our futures. It's also my belief that graduate education takes enough toll on students without the added stress of the abuses of power currently going unchecked.

Without getting into any further details, I'd like to ask those of you with knowledge of grad school politics if voicing concerns is too risky of an action to consider?

Friday, October 12, 2007 3:24:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...


I'm going to think about your situation and try to come up with some ideas for you but, in the meantime, a couple of issues.

First, if you feel comfortable, why don't you e-mail me directly? I suspect an involved conversation on this would be best carried out in a less public forum. I have learned over the years not to underestimate google's ability to track down comments that are buried in blog archives. I assure you that I will protect your identity. As a pseudonymous blogger, it would be hypocritical of me to do otherwise. My address is:

Secondly, if you like I will effectively re-post your appeal as a post in its own right; most likely on Monday when readers are expecting to see some content. This will get you a wider audience and greater diversity of suggestions, but may also expose you to discovery by members of your own department.

My initial reaction is that raising your concerns with the Department Chair is intrinsically risky (i.e. you're going over the head of the DGS) and will likely earn you the enmity of someone even if the chair takes your side. As such, it's really going to come down to your own call: you're a far better judge of how your own chair will react than any of us can be. Have you considered raising these issues with a member of the faculty that you already trust and respect? If s/he could take the issues to the chair, rather than you, it would be safer.

As for your concerns regarding the master's paper: don't panic. MA papers are increasingly common and seem to be a way to get students to produce publication-length work earlier in the program. A lot of the folks I know who produced full-on MA theses have ended up complaining about all the material they have to yank back out in order to get the work into print. So long as you show signs of trying to adapt it for journal publication, I doubt it will compromise your application to many doctoral programs. In the long-term it may even be beneficial to focus more on a publication-like piece earlier on, because it's your pubs that are going to get you a job. I could be wrong, though.

Friday, October 12, 2007 3:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response, Drek. I will take you up on your offer and contact you via e-mail. About reposting my comment, I don't have a problem with that. If someone from my department happens to stumble upon it, I don't believe that he/she would be able to identify me. Besides, it would be nice to hear what others have to say--especially if there is anyone else out there who has come across something like this before.

Obviously, I don't want to cut my own throat, but I also don't want other students to go through hell for no good reason.

Friday, October 12, 2007 4:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Thursday, November 01, 2007 10:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is very interesting. I am an advanced doctoral student in sociology. I learned many of these same points, but because I did not follow them initially. Now I am doing OK but very late to get going with dissertation research. I'd like to see advice here or elsewhere on ways to dig yourself out of grad school depression, low level of production, and general ambivalence. Are you doomed if you take a long time to finish?

Monday, April 21, 2008 4:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some people would think it's not good when many students stay at the same institution for undergrad and grad degrees. Complaints of intellectual inbreeding and all that.

Monday, October 26, 2009 1:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This blog is great! Thanks for your hard work on it.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009 12:47:00 PM  

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