How to Succeed in Grad School


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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Dreaming of Fake Tokyo

Some people remember their dreams and they seem to be somehow cohesive narratives. This happens only extremely rarely for me. Instead, I have recurring half-remembered people, buildings, events and especially places.

Many of these dreamed places map strangely to real places. There is dream version of Tokyo, an amalgam of an imagined Tokyo and the surrounding peninsula. What? Tokyo’s not (exactly) on a peninsula? It is in my dream. And there’s a toy store that has a secret door in one of the rooms on the fourth floor and is in an ersatz Victorian townhouse. And there is a town, where I used to live, and its popular shrine and tightly packed central district and 1960s-era train station. And two stops down is a centuries-old temple overlooking a beach (not exactly like this), with a parking lot full of tour busses.

None of these things really exist. At least I don’t think so. They might. They certainly could. They are the most extreme version of nostalgia–remembrances of things that don’t quite exist. They are probably disjoint compilations of real memories. I’m pretty certain there are elements of Harajuku in the imagined toy store, bits of La Foret, along with the best toy store ever, the Red Balloon in Georgetown. It all goes with my misremembered Japanese, which I can sometimes manage to halfway speak in the dream.

And I’ve already written about my deeply held conviction that a dreamed advertisement in the Yomiuri for dirigible captains to serve the Sultanate of Brunei for ferry service to Hong Kong and Osaka was a real thing.

I suspect some of this may be that the first and second times I spent time in Japan we didn’t have these fancy GPS enabled maps in our pockets. Especially the first time, when I only had a week or two in Tokyo proper, my internal map was close to the subway map. But then that’s still true of NYC, and I lived there for a half-dozen years.

I shouldn’t suggest that Fake Tokyo (and really Fake Japan, since on occasion, I’ll make it over the mountains to the south-west shore… of a Honshu that is oriented like a jelly bean, directly north-south) is the only recurring region in my dreams. There is fake Germany-Turkey-Spain, which I tend to navigate by trains and a dented rental VW Fox. There is an Nonexistent Tiny South Asian Archipelago that probably map to my imagination of what Lombok is like (if I hadn’t been sick and missed the ferry from Bali) crossed with my short visit to Fiji, with a little Hawaii, Aruba, and Santa Catalina thrown in for good measure.

Last night did include a very short stop in Fake Tokyo, at Imagined Favorite Restaurant. There are definite elements of real Japanese restaurants in here. That includes our Real Favorite Restaurant–now gone, but used to be around the corner from City Hall in Odawara, run by a couple whose son was a professional sumo fighter, and who always brought out their homemade pickles when I walked through the door. But this was mixed with elements of two little places I had only visited once each: an amazing little tempura place (Takasebune) on a Gion side street, with a withered, nearly toothless and scowling cook serving up the best red miso soup I’d ever had; mixed with a joint in the middle of Ikebukuro (might have been Ichiran, but probably just gone) with a bunch of construction workers on break literally pressing into my back while I struggled to quickly down a delicious but too-hot bowl of ramen. These and others make up the Imagined Favorite Restaurant of Fake Tokyo, and often contribute to the inevitability of being late for my departing flight. (Tokyo Airport is just on the edge of the city in Fake Tokyo.)

But most of it took place in a small New England town (a cross between my time teaching in Connecticut and time living in Jersey as a kid?–and a whole lot of movies?), with a small Marriott at the edge of town and a tourist trade for quaintness. Yeah, that could be anywhere. There is a ramshackle old house that sells curios and mostly junk, run by a stoner and a recluse, each of whom live upstairs, who hired me as a teenager to try to sort and price things. A better metaphor for my memory palace can’t be found. After digging to the back this time, I find a parka I wore in the 6th grade, complete with aging lift tickets (1), and a control arm from my old 1984 Porsche 944 (2). I tended to keep old broken parts of that car in the hope that someday they could make for good decor–I’m sure that’s part of next year’s Restoration Hardware catalog.

Anyway, I could only spend a little time here, since I had to get to the hotel, which was near where I was hosting a conference (3). I was wheeling in a cart with an extra projector, when I someone named Erika P* (4), who looks like an old acquaintance named Andrea (5), asks me if I can find her presentation slides–she’s sure she emailed them to me and her session is about to start. I do know who she is, right? (I don’t.) She’s not the famous P* who wrote that article in 1955, you know! I pull out my laptop to search and she notes my phone is ringing. I say “just let them leave a message and I’ll get to it as soon as we’re done” but it keeps ringing and ringing and ringing. Eventually it managed to wake me up, but today was a rushed, late morning.

As these things happen, it’s not until I write all of this down that I start to form some connections:

(1) I wore a parka for the first time in several years for a quick day-trip up to Flagstaff last week when my brother was in town. Although it didn’t have any lift tickets (and neither would have my 6th grade parka! I didn’t really ski much until I was a teen), my brother brought snow suit hand-me-downs for the kids, which did have old lift-tickets on them. While the jacket in the dream was a blue puffer parka from when I was a kid, I have no doubt it was triggered by the strange sensation of wearing something other than shorts and sandals for a change.

(2) I did a lot of work on that 944, which I sold a quarter-century ago, but in this case the connection is pretty easy: my Christmas gift to myself this year was the unexpected expense of new bushings for my current car.

(3) Yes, the IR16 nightmares continue. I thought I’d left them far behind, but I have to do an annual report now for a remarkably unproductive year. And so the time sink of IR16, which I perhaps unfairly blame for a lot of that lack of productivity, has once again reared its head.

(4) I don’t know anyone by that name combination (a reasonably common Portuguese & Spanish surname), but I have had several students with that surname, and there was one person at IR16 with it (though I’m fairly certain I didn’t meet her), so I am leaving it out lest people think I am dreaming of them. And according to Google Scholar, P* (1955) could only be an article on the nutritious content of Cassava, which I am confident I’ve never read.

(5) I haven’t met Andrea in more than two decades, but I know why she came to mind. On that trip up to Flag, my brother and I briefly discussed our admiration and generally good experiences with park rangers in the US (who tend to be more engaging than their Italian counterparts), and I recalled Andrea, who had spend more than a year in a fairly remote part of the national parks in, as I recall, Oregon. So, she may have come to mind again because of what’s happening there.

Don’t worry, this will be my last dream-journal for a long, long time.

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My Christmas (To Do) List

check-markWhenever I’m feeling overwhelmed by my “to do” list I get the impulse to make it public, because by doing so, I somehow bracket it and make it feel less overwhelming. This is my “work” to-dos. I have family coming for the holidays, there’s a lot that needs to happen around the house (we are considering selling and finding a place with more space and less commute), and some long-delayed major dental work that needs to be done, but you really don’t care about that. And I’ve left off all the exciting things like committee work, advising, writing letters of reference for people, refereeing, etc.

Honestly, you probably don’t care about any of this, but I’m putting it out there because (a) you might care, and might actually want to be involved in some way and (b) nobody really reads this blog any more so it’s not too self involved to do this. I guess I could always make my To Do list entirely public–but I suspect that would increase rather than decrease my stress. I’ll put that project on a back burner for now.

1. Funding Proposal. Trying to put together a proposal to the NSF for extending the work on BadgePost, applying it to peer-certification of social science methodology expertise. This is a bit of a last-minute push, but I’m hoping to throw it together pretty quickly. Two of the people I asked to serve on the advisory committee are applying to the same solicitation, so my suspicion are odds are pretty low here, but it’s worth a try, at least. Also Co-PI on a different proposal with a colleague.

2. Book Proposal. I’ve been saying I’m writing this book, All Seeing for years, but haven’t actually proposed it to a press. I need to do that before Christmas, and getting the book in some kind of drafty state will be the major project of the first part of 2016.

3. Talk at Harvard. If you are in chilly Cambridge in late January, I’ll be giving a short talk and a discussion with Alison Head about social search, looking especially at the potential for tracing search patterns in a more discoverable way.

4. Article: Death of the Blogosphere. I’ve proposed a chapter that looks at what the blogosphere meant, and what influence it had, and how it might stand as a counter-example to “platformed” social media.

5. Article: Badgifying Linked-In. I have been sitting on survey data that shows what people think when you swap badges in for LinkedIn skills. I really need to write it up, but–to be honest–it’s one of those things that doesn’t quite fit anywhere. I have a potential target journal, but it’s way outside of my normal submission space. At least it might provide interesting reviews. Hard to get excited about this one for some reason.

6. Course: Technology & Collaboration. This is a new course for our new masters program. I actually have a syllabus for it, but it was for the course proposal, and it is kind of horrible. This week, I need to get a new syllabus in working order so people know whether they want to take it. It’s online, which means it has to be more structured that my usual approach, and the hope is that students will have early drafts of Real Research™ by the end of the semester.

7. Course: Sex Online. I’m really hoping I can fall back a lot on what is already “in the can” for this course, though I have a long list of updates I need to make to it, and because FB killed my private group last year, I have to figure out whether to go with Reddit or Slack for discussion.

Projects on Hold

1. International Communication Association. I really wanted to get more than one thing in. I have a great panel on peer-veillance and IoT in, with a great group of people, but ICA is always a crapshoot. I’ve only had one (maybe 2) things ever rejected, but I thought they were my best work. And the worst thing I ever submitted got an award. So, waiting to hear on reviews. This is a long haul (Fukuoka), but if accepted, I will try to see if anyone in Japan wants me to give a talk (or potentially in Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.). And there looks to be a fun post-conf on Human-Machine communication, which is of interest to me.

2. Mapping StackOverflow Achievement Sequences. Did some work with Hazel Kwon on figuring out how to make sense of the order in which people achieve certain badges on Stack Overflow. It was kind of a sticky analysis question, but we finally worked out something, and I think I even ran the analysis. But something came up, and it’s fell off my radar. Now I have to figure out if I took good enough notes to be able to recover it or if I have to re-do a lot of thinking and work on it. Probably won’t touch it until the new year.

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A Fond FAoIRwell

Last weekend was #ir16), and it really was the last of its kind, given the name change for the conference next year. It also spelled the end of my time on the Executive Committee. At IR5, Steve Jones took me aside in Chicago (I thought I was in trouble!) to ask if I would take over for Jeremy Hunsinger as the “web guy” on the executive committee. That means that my stretch on the exec ran just over a decade, including a stint as president and–most recently–as both the local and program chair of the Association’s Phoenix conference. So, while others may be suffering Post-Con Depression (PCD), I’m feeling a set of intense feelings of separation that extend beyond hosting the conference here in Phoenix.

After all, I’ve been involved in both the day-to-day work of the organization and helping to chart its course for many years. Taking on organizing a conference after having already served as president suggests how little eagerness I had for letting go of the organization. Many people talk about AoIR being kind of their “academic family,” but that is often tied to the annual conference. For me, there wasn’t a week that went by that I wasn’t working on one or another project to help AoIR, and there were more weeks than I can count when that was all I was able to work on. Given that kind of investment, it’s really hard to let go. I am still a member (through next June–I just checked!), and I am vaguely a part of the “jedi ghosts” of previous AoIR presidents (Steve Jones, Nancy Baym, Matthew Allen, Charles Ess, Mia Consalvo, and–as of last week–Lori Kendall). But it’s strange to be coming out of the back end of that experience.

On the other hand, it provides a profound sense of relief. I’m passionate about networking people together to do great things, and that’s one of the reasons I jumped on board for AoIR (as well as helping out with DML and helping get three graduate programs off the ground), but that has ended up being a large part of what I’ve done as an academic. It’s meant far less time than I would like to pursue my research. And my tenure on the committee has been an adventure–what may seem like a fairly placid affair from the outside often includes contentious decisions (e.g., moving the conference from Thailand to Korea), and a whole lot of ongoing work. As I look back on my more recent tenure, I think I was on the dissenting side of quite a few votes, and sometimes alone there. (No doubt, several of the continuing Exec members are breathing a sigh of relief in seeing me leave!) Finally, I’m confident that the Association is in great hands. I don’t know that it has ever had such a vibrant group of dedicated and bright faculty and students, and I expect that few would be able to do as good a job at navigating the organization through its difficult teenage years.

So, yes, I’m sad that I get to watch this only from the sidelines. But, as I mentioned to some folks on the committee, forgetting is sometimes healthy. AoIR is no longer the only game in town when it comes to scholarly organizations and conferences dedicated to understanding the social and cultural implications of networked technologies–it needs to find its place in that ecosystem. And some of its decisions have been based on a strong culture that too easily does things because it’s the way they’ve always been done. But AoIR is a unique organization with a special place in my heart. I will, along with my fellow AoIR members, be eagerly watching to see where its next chapter takes it.

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