Advice for Incoming Graduate Students

I was sitting at the kitchen table this morning drinking coffee and trying to narrow down which graduate programs I am going to be applying to this fall. We all know this is a stressful process, even more so for me right now since I have to do it again. Leaving my previous graduate program was ultimately a good decision, although through my frustrations have me thinking about how I might have done things differently at the beginning if I knew going into graduate school what I know now.

I’m going to give new and incoming grad students, the people who are crazy enough and fortunate enough to have the ability to go to graduate school, some unsolicited advice. Feel free to take it or leave it, these are mostly just based on things I learned both the hard and easy ways.

Applying to Graduate School

So you’ve decided you don’t want to be a doctor, lawyer, or want to make a livable wage, and instead want to go to graduate school. Good for you! You probably think of yourself as pretty smart and are very interested in the subject you wish to pursue for a career. I am also going to guess you are a good student and have made connections with professors in your department who see potential in you. All of these are important factors for determining your success as a graduate student and in the application process.

All of these are important because if you aren’t interested in the subject you’re about to go to graduate school for, it’s going to be a complete waste of time for you and you’re going to leave (or worse, you’ll be set with a very specialized degree tailor made for a career you hate); you have hopefully made good connections with your professors because they are going to be a constant source for letters of recommendation both in the application process and in the early grant-writing stages; and you are hopefully a good student because you’re about to be doing nothing but that for at least another four years.

In terms of picking a program to apply to, I have only one very important piece of advice: picking the right graduate advisor is everything. Your advisor is going to be the gatekeeper of your success in graduate school, and if things aren’t set well with them from the beginning, it has the chance to make everything fall apart. They sign letters of recommendation for you, they write department evaluations on you, sometimes they will coddle you and at some point they will inevitably piss you off. In some fields, where this person is the head of your lab, they may be your employer (meaning you may be doing their work with no credit to you except monetary compensation, or hopefully, with monetary compensation and credit to you). You need to pick someone with whom you can repetitively work with and get frustrated with over a series of years.

Picking an Advisor

But how do you know who might be a good advisor? This list has some clues for what to look out for. Not all good advisors are going to have these traits, so don’t start marking people off because they lack some of them. Likewise, there are some real monsters who look good on paper:

  1. Has the person published in the last three years (preferably as first or last author)? You want to make sure your graduate advisor is still working in the field you’re in because they are going to be very important for linking you, their graduate student, with other researchers in your field.
  2. Does the person publish alone in a field which normally has multi-author studies? Although not always true, this can be a sign that this person is uncooperative when it comes to science and putting work on the table. For you, this can be dangerous.
  3. Likewise, have they published with their graduate students? This can be a rather good sign, as it means you’re going to actually get work done while you are in the program and indicates you are with a cooperative person.
  4. Is the person at least an associate professor? This isn’t always important, but if your professor doesn’t have tenure and they don’t get tenure, then you might be lost without an advisor hanging in the wind when they move to better pastures.
  5. Finally, does this person actually graduate any students? Check out their CV and see if they list their graduate students. Did any of these people finish to completion and get their PhD, or did they leave? This is critical. If you are looking at someone who has been in their position for almost two decades and they haven’t graduated any students (or if their last student finished 10 or 15 years ago), steer clear because you are going to get burned. For you, this should be an automatic non-negotiable red flag. (If you’re a biological anthropologist, you can check out the Academic Phylogeny of Physical Anthropology to see your advisor’s progeny)

Additionally, you can ask other people in your field how your potential advisor is as a person. You can meet potential advisors at conferences. You can email current grad students and see how they enjoy their advisor and how the program is. In some places, you can have more than one advisor to co-chair your committee which can protect you against the not-uncommon chance of having an ill-willed despot running your life. Another good piece of advice is to make sure there are people doing research somewhat related to your sub-field in your program and at your university, so that when it comes time to build a committee, you have a group of experts who, in addition to checking your work (which is their job as a committee), can also check each other’s input.

The Graduate Student Mindset

Most advice people give you coming into graduate school is rather useless and speaks more to maturation than it does to specifically being a graduate student (keep 9-5 hours, treat it like a job, take time off, etc). You’re going to hear advice like this a lot, so I’m not going to bore you with it. What I am going to tell you about is the mindset change you need to immediately kick yourself into so you don’t get screwed over by evil people and, just as importantly, you don’t become one yourself.

You’re now in graduate school and, like the maniac that you are, you’re actually going to sit for four to seven years in the same place learning as much as you can about a trivial topic that almost nobody is ever going to read about. Some people find this really cool and some people play mental games to convince themselves that their work is actually super important. I don’t want to burst your bubble, but unless you are curing cancer, it’s not. You need to come to terms with the fact that no member of the general public is ever going to read your work. Other academics might think your work is cool, certainly, but in their mind, their work is actually more important.

Yes, it’s true that on grant applications you have to convince people that your work is important, but don’t waste the time convincing yourself. It might sound mean, but there is a very good reason I say this. The more you convince yourself that your work is a gift to the world, the more likely you begin to think of yourself as a gift to the world. Academia is filled with a bunch of people who are doing this for every reason except for money. Academics think the work that they’re doing is cool and they love nothing more than getting credit for it. All this means is that academia is, in most cases, a selfish, ego-driven pursuit. This is true even for fields that do matter! Come to terms with the fact that you are doing this for yourself, rather than the world at large, and I promise you will come out as a more altruistic person that people actually want to work with and look up to.¹

The most important advice I can give is to stop seeing yourself as a student and start seeing yourself as a peer. People who have already received their PhDs might read this portion and get angry, indignantly so. But the advice I am giving you right now provides you with the only means for you to protect yourself with. The structure of academia is set up so that you are nothing but a peon on its magnificent, self-righteous court steps. As a graduate student, you are being paid less than what anyone doing the amount of work you’re doing should ever expect. You are providing the university with labor for a pool of undergraduates who, in our market economy, are looking for a product from an ancient institution which reeks of inefficiency and unaccountability. You have fewer protections for your life’s product, your intellectual endeavor, than workers in almost any other field. What happens to graduate students who cause problems? People often won’t be straightforward about this, but except in the most supportive departments, they are usually shown the door. What I am saying to you is that there is very little room for recourse when you get screwed over (and you will get screwed over).

As an undergraduate, your mindset was built looking up to your professors as the ultimate keepers of knowledge, and going into graduate school you may very naively be thinking that you and everyone around you is doing science for the sake of science. Remember that this is science for the sake of ego. From now on, you have to look at the people in your field, including your professors, including your advisor, including your best friends- as your competitors. This sounds counter to what I told you before, but the only way you are going to protect yourself is by gaining a sense of arrogance. You are training to become an expert in something no one has done before. By definition, your PhD dissertation means that you know more about this subject than any single person on the planet, including your committee.

When someone says that you are wrong and forces you to question yourself in instances when you had the right of way, you need to put yourself in the mindset of mentally saying, “I know better than you.” Make no mistake, this is your dissertation. Not your committee’s, not your advisor’s, not your mother’s. You came here to get this for you, and no one else. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise, and don’t back down from the list of demands you walk into meetings with. In academia, there are sharks in the water waiting for you to trustingly dip your feet in, and they will fucking eat you. That AAAS member you look up to is going to take your idea, get a grant, and hand your project off to a team of post-docs; your advisor is going to delay your graduation so that you can do more research into something they don’t want to do for themselves; and professors you are TAing for are going to steal your time on weekends so that you can sit with students who should be talking to a tutor rather than a TA. All of this is going to happen, but only if you let them.

Keep your ideas for research close, your profile and networks high, and your general trust in strangers low. Be generous with the people around you and realize half of the people in the cohort you came in with are depressed and could use a friend. If there is an idea you don’t agree with in class being dictated by the professor, speak up, and you will gain the respect of your peers. Don’t screw over other graduate students and don’t spy on them for manipulative professors. Realize that professors know things about navigating your career that you don’t know, but know that if they got into academia before Obama was elected that their advice is probably dated. Don’t take yourself seriously, but don’t let others see you as a joke. And finally, realize that none of this is important and there is nothing here that is worth losing your soul over.

How to Tell When Things Have Gone Wrong

I don’t have too much else to say regarding the antiquated system you have chosen to enter, but if you end up like me and things go south, you need to be able to come to terms with it and do something about it quickly so you can figure out a backup plan. Everyone is different, but there are a number of signs I have seen in people before they’ve left, had a mental breakdown, or tried to hurt themselves. I’ll list some of them here.

  1. Excessive drinking. This is the most common thing I see in students who are close to breaking. If you or a fellow grad student are spending three or more nights a week suddenly getting plastered, it usually means you or them are coping with something. This can happen despite the person being productive at school, and they will often use their productivity as an excuse for their drinking. Please don’t fool yourself.
  2. Reclusiveness. If a student who has similar coursework to you drops off the map or if you start finding yourself laying in bed all day, things aren’t going well and something is eating away at you. There is a problem you are electing to not confront.
  3. Hiding from your advisor. A lot of things go downhill at the student-advisor intersection, and people are often scared to disappoint their advisor out of fear of being punished. Instead of letting them know that they are having problems or confronting their advisor head on about problems they are giving them, students will usually elect to hide from their advisor entirely.
  4. Second guessing. Everyone second guesses themselves, it’s a natural thing in academia. But for many months with my problem, I failed to acknowledge its existence because I repeatedly second-guessed myself. It was only after bringing my issues up with a mentor that I realized I was not going crazy.
  5. Thoughts of suicide. I’ve never had another graduate student express this to me before hurting themselves, but one can see how this would not be a good sign. People who hurt themselves usually never say anything about it beforehand, but if these thoughts happen to arise, immediately seek help.

If you think you or a fellow graduate student might be harming themselves or in a bad state, don’t be a flake. Take the proper follow-ups to make sure people get taken care of. Many universities have internal “Say Something” systems for reports, and every department has an HR person who knows what to do better than you do. If things get urgent, there’s always 911. Having the cops or paramedics come won’t ruin someone’s chances of finishing graduate school, but it might save their life.

What I’ve covered here isn’t comprehensive, but it’s the best I can really give right now. There are other resources you can follow up on, which I might update periodically on this page as I come across them. I wish you luck in your future endeavor, and I hope to see your work at a future conference one day.

Resources
  • GradCafe – You can check on this site if other people have heard back from schools regarding admissions and can also talk about general grad school things with other students.
  • Nassim Taleb on Life Advice – A good speech by academic, mathematician, former day-trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb on life advice.
  • Toxic Academic Advisors – I’ve heard stories about students who have had bad relationships with their advisors. This website lists a number of different types of toxic advisors and what to look out for.

References

¹Kafashan, S., Sparks, A., Griskevicius, V. and Barclay, P., 2014. Prosocial behavior and social status. In The Psychology of Social Status (pp. 139-158). Springer, New York, NY.
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