How to Succeed in Grad School

howtosucceed

In about 10 minutes I am headed to orient our small group of incoming MA in Social Technologies grad students. I figure this is a chance to get down verbally with the young folk and give them some advice for succeeding in grad school.

1. Have a plan (A and B)

It’s true, many people enter graduate school by default. They aren’t quite sure what they are going to do with a grad degree that they aren’t without. But humans are goal oriented. You need a goal that you are working toward. It doesn’t matter what that goal is, or if you have to have a new goal (you will), only that you have a place you are moving toward. Like sharks, a grad student without a target is dead in the water. Don’t expect, as with undergrad, for the conveyor belt to just keep turning and plop you out on the other side. This isn’t a holding pattern.

Our program has dual ends: it is intended both for those interested in an academic research career and for those interested in a more traditional career path. You should prepare for both. Even if the academic side isn’t your thing, now is the time to engage in that. Even if you are very sure you don’t want to go into business, you should prepare to. You should dedicate your time to both Plan A and Plan B, and ideally to work that will allow you to build toward both.

Relatedly, from day 1, you should be putting together an “idea file” or “dream book” that you can draw on for your degree thesis project.

2. Say “yes.”

One of the pieces of advice that you hear a lot of in grad school is “you don’t have to do everything.” There are so many things that come along that have absolutely nothing to do with your own coursework or research, that it is tempting to tunnel. In my experience students who say yes to opportunities and try for things that they may never get have a far more rewarding graduate experience.

Someone interesting coming to campus? Go. Someone doing a research symposium on a topic you have only a passing interest in? Go.

For goodness sake, go and talk to your faculty. Set up a time just to get together and chat about their and your research. Make an excuse to meet with them.

Apply for things you know you cannot get. It isn’t wasted effort. It’s good to get accustomed to rejection, and to realize that you have 0% chance of getting something you don’t apply for. And please do apply for money. Get someone else to pay for your school.

Volunteer to help. Yes, you don’t have time. But look for projects (with other students, with faculty, within the community) where you can have a positive effect. There’s no better way to find your passion.

3. Brand yourself.

Yes, the terminology here is icky. But you should be “that person.” People should know what you do. That means, minimally, you should tie your work together in a public way. But it also means you should have a short statement that relates to your goal(s) (see #1), and you should talk publicly about it in as many venues as you can and at every opportunity. You want to open up the possibility that when someone says “Oh, you have a question about blockchain?” someone in the room will say “Fiona is all about that.”

Part of this is also networking on the network. You should seek out opportunities to get to know people who are interesting and who might be able to help you. The fact is, you probably don’t know who can help you, and so it is a good idea to meet as many people with shared interests as possible. This is a big university, and a bigger city. Swim outside the local pool.

4. Own your time

When I started grad school, I had a great mentor (Gerald Baldasty) who told us something that should be obvious: break your day into segments–15 minutes, 20 minutes, half an hour if you must–and accomplish something in each of these. The single most significant point of failure I have seen for grad students is those who think grad school is about showing up to the seminar and nothing more. Showing up really is important, but without the work that happens outside of it, it ends up not mattering.

He also reminded me that grad school only lasts for a few years, but that the people you love can be a lifetime relationship. Make sure you keep your priorities straight. It’s important that grad school is prioritized, but your family is more important. It may be the only thing that keeps you relatively sane through this process.

What did I miss? What advice would you give to a new grad student?

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