Thursday, May 24, 2007

Surviving Graduate School (And Possibly Even Getting Your Degree), Part 1


First of all, a word as to what I wish to accomplish with these next entries. If you are reading this, I figure you are 1) considering graduate school; 2) in graduate school; 3) know someone struggling through graduate school; or 4) incredibly bored. Hopefully I will address things which will be helpful, or at least amusing, for all of you. That is my main goal. My secondary goal is to have a hobby which prevents me from having fantasies of slipping into a coma—not a serious coma, mind you, but one like in the soap operas, where you wake up feeling refreshed and with no loss of mental or physical function—while I finish up my own graduate degree. I hope it will give me a sense of accomplishment, passing on what I have learned; a sense of accomplishment that is simply unattainable by writing or defending my dissertation. This may sound strange, but I think you’ll understand what I mean after reading some of what I have to say. Some of these lessons may even be useful in the non-graduate school “real world”. However, I have completely lost touch with the real world, and therefore I can’t say for sure.

When I started Graduate School—what seems like a kazillion years ago—I had no idea what was in store for me. I had done quite a bit of scientific research and felt I was pretty good at it; I had learned the ups and downs and ins and outs in the way that you can only learn by being in a lab for years. This worked for me and against me, as I will detail if I remember to. Herein you will find tips, tricks, and warnings which are based upon my experiences and the experiences of other grad students (friends of mine) and are therefore only opinions and suggestions. We therefore make no guarantees, even though we are TOTALLY right and you would be a complete chump not to take heed.


This should be your mantra in graduate school. Don’t be a chump. And I think you will find (sometimes in retrospect, unfortunately) that there are a metric crapload of times that you will be prepped for prime chumpitude in graduate school. Here are just a few.

Potential Chump Situation #1: Becoming involved in a poorly thought out research project which has little or no chance of resulting in meaningful progress for you.

Warning Sign: Whoever is trying to get you involved in this mess is very enthusiastic, vaguely pushy, stands a lot to gain, but probably won’t have to put forth much more effort than you will; says things like “This could get us a quick/easy publication.”

Upon further inspection: This project will take up oodles of your time, but will not be part of your dissertation. There are two exceptions: first, if you are guaranteed authorship for a set amount of work, regardless of the outcome, and feel you can finish the said work in one week or less, it may be worth it. Second, if doing it would put the other person in your debt, and you think you can later use this to your advantage, consider it.

How not to be a chump: First, define all the details—specifics about the experiment and specifics about the authorship. If the deal is no good for you, just say no. This is a very important theme you will see throughout these pages: sometimes you have to say no. If you are no good at saying no, learning how to do so now will save you time and sanity. In fact, this is a good time for…

Potential Chump Situation #2: Not saying no to things you should say no to.

Warning Sign: Your boss (and basically everyone else) not only comes to you for everything, but sends others to you, too.

Upon further inspection: You have become a doormat. Sometimes people don’t even ask you to do stuff anymore, they just tell you to. I’m talking training others, organizing stuff, picking up other people’s slack, and so on.

How not to be a chump: In this area, all grad students have to be somewhat of a chump. You will have to do things that aren’t your job, and if you are any good, you will have to do more of this than other, stupider people around you. So in a way, it’s kind of a complement. The trick here is to find where to draw that line in the sand. Being fairly Machiavellian myself, I tend to ask myself the following question before doing just about anything for anyone: “Will this, somehow and at some point, be helpful to me?” Be sure to ask this inside your head. For some reason, people tend to think you are a jerk if you ask it out loud.

Potential Chump Situation #3: Waiting around for someone else to be the captain of your ship.

Warning Sign: You don’t know what you need to do to graduate.

Upon further inspection: You’re waiting for your boss to tell you to take your prelims, to form your committee, to write your papers, and to generally lead your life.

How not to be a chump: Surprisingly, the way out of this one is: be the captain of your own ship. I will talk more about this in Part 2 of Surviving Graduate School, coming soon to a blog near you.

1 comment:

docmama said...

you can just call me queen of the chumps - and my boss LOVES IT that way.
i think i would add to this advice that if you know you have a strong need for people to like you (i.e. you are a "pleaser"), you are gonna get PLAYED in grad school.
dr. vonb - where the hell were you and your glorious words of wisdom for my first 3.5 years of grad school?!?