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If you can give a starting Grad one piece of advice...


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You are not special.

I don't mean that in a flippant way. It's really the most useful piece of advice I know. Worried that everyone is juding you behind your back? They're not. Because they don't care all that much about you because you're not special. Faced with crippling anxiety about whether or not your planned project is absolutely perfect? Stop worrying and get to work. You're not going to come up with a field-changer in your first year. You're not special. Still have some bad work habits that you secretly think are part of your creative genius? They're not, because you're not Keats, you're just a grad student. Suck it up and fix them. Again, you're not special.

I guess I could phrase it as "Work hard and keep your head down", but it doesn't have the same ring. :P

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  • 2 months later...

I would suggest that all entering graduate students in history carefully "consider the source" when getting advice from experienced grad students. A tactic that works very well for J may prove self-destructive to you. A mindset that provides balance for S may push you over the edge. X,Y, and Z may warn you away from a professor that might be the best mentor for you.

This is NOT to say that experienced grad students are out to screw you. It just means that experienced graduate students should not automatically be treated as consultants who have the training, the skills, and the emotional detachment to help you reach your goals in ways that are authentic to your vision and that reflect a firm understanding of your strengths as a student. There is a big difference between good advice and useful advice.

As an example, take the discussion on this BB on how to approach reading assignments. There is a lot of very good advice on how to tackle the mountain of words graduate students will need to navigate each and every week. However, for those students who would be better off reading every word, the well intended suggestions to read specific parts of books in a specific order are not very useful. Instead, these students who would be more comfortable reading every word have to wrangle with the notion that they're "doing it wrong." In fact, all they may really need is useful guidance on ways to stay alert and focused while they read everything.

My $0.02.


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For humanities grads, don't ever take more than one incomplete per year if you can avoid it! You get stuck writing at times when you don't really have to be writing, or want to be working on your own stuff. I had never taken any until this past semester (my last semester of coursework, a family emergency came up at the end), and I still haven't finished one of them. If you have anything you need to do over the summer (teaching, writing, family stuff, other jobs, etc.) those papers will catch up to you really fast!

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Be an advocate for yourself. Although you should/will have an advisor or mentor and may have some other informal mentors, they will be very busy and may not respond to your requests immediately. They also simply may not be the person who can help you. You also do need to learn how to stand up for yourself, because at some point you will be expected to be relatively autonomous. So scour that handbook and learn who does what - learn who to ask if you need a projector for a course, or if you need someone to unlock the bathroom after 7 pm, or if your paycheck is 4 weeks late (happened), or if financial aid arbitrarily decides not to pay you your TA stipend (happened) or yanks your financial aid and then doesn't tell you until you've realized it didn't show up (happened). And don't back down easily for battles that are worth it. This is especially important if your university has a wacky and/or slow bureaucracy and/or a habit of obfuscating how to get things done.

Your professor, no matter how nice he/she is, probably does not know the course requirements for you to graduate. And quite frankly, he/she probably doesn't care very much either - he/she is going to want to professionalize you - teach you how to do research, how to write grants, how to get published, how to network with others in the field, how to present at conferences. It's up to you to figure out what you need to do to actually get the PhD.

Learn how to say no. And learn how to *stick* to no. You can't do everything.

Best piece of advice I read - decide before you begin what you are not willing to sacrifice for graduate school (and academia). Financial stability? Your relationship with your SO? Geographical living preferences? Having children before 35? Buying a house? Personal time? And then...don't. Once I came to terms with what I was willing to give up, and what I would hold onto no matter the costs, I felt a lot more relaxed and comfortable in my program.

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