Tips from professors to graduate students

What if you could ask professors anything about graduate school?

Me and my fellow students at an introductory course were given this opportunity earlier this week. We tapped into the wisdom of five professors sitting in front of the classroom, ready to answer our questions.

Here goes, from professors to students, things you need to know about grad school:

  • Read, read, read. It is what keeps you inspired and creative. When you have read something, reread, and then reread again. Ask different questions when reading. Observe your reading from another angle. Sometimes a great, novel idea comes just from linking two things together in a way that no one had ever thought of.
  • Create a time management system that works for you. And stick to it. In fact, be very rigid about it. Your time management skills are essential in order for you to finish your PhD. You might need to wake up every day at 5 am or 6 am to get going with your reading and writing before breakfast or family obligations or whatever it is that you do in the mornings. Stick to your system. It helps.
  • Write, write, write. Every day, make an effort to write. Write notes about the articles you read, observations about your field or any insights you might have had that day. If you stick to writing every day, you create a habit out of writing instead of making writing an event, which is not the path you want to choose. If you write every day, you always have something to edit. If you don’t write every day, you always have to start with an empty page.
  • Be teachable. Professors like this. Make it clear to them that you are open to teaching. For example, if you are international student and unsure of how some academic matters are dealt with in your new university, express yourself in a way that encourages the professor to teach you, for instance by saying: “I am new to this kind of academic environment. Please, can you correct me or tell me if I am acting foolishly so that I can become a better learner in this environment?”. Boom, you have just established a line of fruitful communication between your professor and yourself.
  • Be bold. Don’t be afraid to disagree with your professor. In fact, they might love that you disagree with them. You might be wrong, but once you reach a stage where you are not simply echoing the words of authorities, you are becoming an independent thinker. If you need to confront your professor about something, do it privately and bring evidence. Also, professors like students who are not afraid to speak in class.
  • For heaven’s sake, never waste a professor’s time! Period. Don’t do it. If possible, always email to confirm an appointment. Bring an agenda.
  • If you are a female in academia, you will run into barriers that male counterparts will not. You will have to be firm and courageous. You will run into subtle bullshit all the time. Ignore it if that is strategically wise, but speak out when you must. You will run into even more challenges if you are a female in academia with a child. Don’t give up, it can be done, but it will require a lot of creative time management skills.
  • Know what you’re doing. A lot of the time students procrastinate because they do not know what is expected from them or what they should be doing. For example, before starting your dissertation research, familiarize yourself with previous dissertations from your department. Read those and see what they are about. Often times the structure is quite clear and you don’t have to reinvent any wheels.
  • Grad school is about hard work. It might take some time to get used to the rigidness of it, the reading and writing requirements, but remember you are here for a PhD. A lot of times you have to give up fun. Not completely, but just in a way that you learn to find fun in reading 1000 pages a week. Put the effort in, be mature.
  • Don’t isolate yourself. Establish a study group so you are often engaging yourself in discussions with your study cohort. Get to know people in your department. Remember, your professor and your colleagues want you to succeed. You are in a friendly environment.
  • Don’t say yes to every opportunity. Opportunities will most likely come flooding towards you. Be discerning, don’t get excited about every one of them. Don’t get too distracted. You are here to publish and get the job done. But don’t try and finish too quickly, either. You need to achieve a level of mastery of your field and this takes time.
  • Collect recommendations. If you are given the chance to teach, immediately ask your professor for a letter of recommendation from your teaching experience. Just keep in mind that your recommendation letter is tied to your performance. Yes, professors will write you a letter, but the essential question for you is: what will they write in it?
  • Be ambitious. Your job as a graduate student is to make a modest contribution to your field. You should take the field forward in some way. You are about to publish original research, pushing back the barriers of human ignorance. Make sure your dissertation is in conversation with what is already going on in the field. Don’t avoid controversy, but be tactical.
  • Once you are ready to move to the job market, you will need to support and contacts from your major professor. However, the younger faculty at your department might be more valuable in giving you insights on current trends in the job market. What sort of requirements are there that you should be aware of? These are things older faculty might be completely oblivious about.
  • If you are in humanities, don’t get your hopes up for a job in academia. In fact, it might be a good strategy to be open to all employment options already in the beginning of your graduate studies. It is a tough market and academic jobs in humanities are extremely difficult to find.
  • Academia rocks. If you do end up working in academia, you will find yourself in an environment unlike any other. The flexibility and autonomy the job comes with is unique. You might love your work so much you don’t feel complete without it. You will feel immense joy of being able to pass the torch to younger generations and moving the field forward.
  • Dedicate days for your mental health. Take care of yourself, even if you have others to take care of as well. A healthy mind in a healthy body.
  • You love this! Have fun with it!

The panel was attended by Dr. Kim Golombisky, Dr. Julie Langford, Dr. John Liontas, Dr. Ojmarrh Mitchell and Dr. Les Shaw.

I will follow up this post with a similar tip inventory from senior graduate students.

Did you find these tips useful? What is missing from the list?

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