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If I knew then what I know now (Officially Grads version)

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My advice: volunteer for stuff. I forgot to do this my first year and I get the feeling it pissed some students in my program off. There is a sort of unspoken rule that first years volunteer to help out at events (in my dept, anyway), since the other years are the ones who basically plan it all. I didn't know this when I first got there, and sort of naively thought that no year could be busier than my first year (jeez, how wrong I was), and that I'd help out more later when things calmed down (they never did).

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My horror story: Said elderly gentlemen had the bad habit of saying incredibly sexists and racist remarks during his undergrad lecture. One of the other TAs mentioned this to a younger faculty member who then called me into his/her office and asked me to be involved in a complaint about this colleague to the department chair. While I think the comments created a hostile environment, I definitely did not want to be involved in potentially forcibly retiring a very prominent academic within my field. As you can imagine, it created a sticky situation that I would not have even had to think about if I had just suffered the TA experience in silence.

Wait... a faculty wanted you to get involved? That's dirty pool, and I'd stay well away. It's unfair to ask any student to stick their neck out like that. I'd claim conflict of interest to anyone who asks. Run in the other direction ASAP.

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Wait... a faculty wanted you to get involved? That's dirty pool, and I'd stay well away. It's unfair to ask any student to stick their neck out like that. I'd claim conflict of interest to anyone who asks. Run in the other direction ASAP.

I was able to negotiate my way out of the situation, but there was a pretty terrible week there. The surprising thing is that my department is not of the toxic variant in general.

Edited by IRdreams

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My advice to first year Graduate Students: Change your mind and turn around. Don't go to grad school!

Come on, people can't do anything to you if you don't want to finish.

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Thanks for elaborating on the politics game. It really helps me to hear some concrete examples. Hopefully I can pay back by helping some future first years when I am more experienced.

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Come on, people can't do anything to you if you don't want to finish.

They can ruin your reputation, and dropping out of Grad School looks awful on your resume.

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This is a great thread. I'll add a few things:

1) Gregory Semenza's book "Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century" is excellent for humanities folk. It has motivated me in many ways to make the most of my time during the MA. Read it!!

2) Don't blather on with personal stories during class discussion. Keep your comments focused on the course material and avoid derailing the whole conversation just so you can chat about your ancestor who was in the Civil War or your visit to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, or whatever. Yes, now and then a personal story is appropriate, but keep it short. Avoid becoming "that person" who only wants to talk about him/herself.

3) Participate in department events, like end-of-semester dinners, important guest lectures, and so on. You don't have to attend every single thing, but be a presence so that others know you care about the department and are taking advantage of the resources offered.

4) School is now your job, so you should treat it like one. Do not miss class without an excellent reason, do not turn in assignments late, do not whine about the grades you are given. (I've seen other first-years making these types of faux pas... they tend to be here straight out of undergrad.)

5) Advice above re: sleep is great, even if I haven't taken it myself. You might barely function with four hours of sleep each night, but give your brain a chance to rest with a good 8 hours so you can work at full mental capacity!

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I agree with what everyone has said. I have a slightly different take on a couple topics, so here is a couple things I've learned (probably have posted something along these lines in the past)...

- While I agree with others that it's good not to gossip, it's also good to learn who you can trust and vent to. I have someone in the department who is a good friend of mine (not in my cohort) and I can just completely vent to her, and she vents to me. She's never betrayed my trust, and sometimes it helps just to have someone to do this with. Frankly, I get annoyed easily, and I'm also a complainer, and if it doesn't get out of my system, it just festers. An objective party (my husband) + someone in the situation (a colleague & good friend) is the perfect pair for me to vent to.

- Find out the unwritten rules. I'm so used to being told "this is mandatory" or "highly encouraged" and "this is optional" that it was new to me to learn that "optional" really means "mandatory" in some cases, and others are truly optional things. There will be events that seem like a waste of your time (e.g. not in your research area), but if you are expected to go, you better go. You want the faculty to view you in a favorable light. They do not look kindly on students that they see as not being involved. Also, you will be told things last minute, or not at all. Building good relationships with others allows you to be on the "in" with events going on.

Okay, one academic/research-y thing...be proactive! Get involved in research projects. It seems obvious, but you would be surprised how many students just wait for things to come to them. They figure they're in their first year, it's all still learning, and they should focus on classes. Get involved in research and your name as a co-author on conferences and papers if you can. It will pay off.

Edited by alexis

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oh yeah, seminar etiquette. this may vary by discipline, so i'm speaking primarily of history (and this can extend maybe to most of the humanities/social sciences).

1) don't talk about your personal stories, as someone else mentioned. we're trying to discuss a book, not hear your life story.

2) don't talk about your research in seminar, unless you are specifically asked about your research or unless the reading is precisely on your topic. there are few things more irritating to your colleagues than hearing, "this really reminds me of my own work on _________," especially when your own work actually has zero connection to the reading. talking about your research doesn't further the conversation for anyone else. after seminar, when you're hanging with your cohort, then talk about your work and how the books relate and all that. but in the 2-3 hours you have to really discuss this stuff in seminar, use it wisely.

3) find something good to say about the stuff you're reading. grad students' favourite hobby seems to be ripping apart the scholarship they themselves cannot (yet) produce. it's important to see a work's limitations or missteps, but try to engage with the reading by asking, "what is this author trying to do? what was their aim? did they achieve it? am i convinced?" rather than, "he really should have talked about X and Y instead of A and B." you can't criticize a book for not answering the questions it doesn't even ask, but that doesn't stop many grad students from trying.

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I'm wondering if anyone here has any advice for the first year grad student who plans on getting a part time job of some sort not associated with school. I'll be pursuing more of a professional degree so I won't have any research to do in a lab or a TA, but I know it will be way too tight on loans alone. My basic plan is to get some type of part time job, ideally related to my field in anyway possible and take my classes at night. I'll have Washington DC at my fingertips so it should happen for me sooner or later. Fortunately I have some money saved up to use for the costs of moving and getting started so it won't be too desperate financially at least in the beginning. But that sounds reasonable doesn't it, the part-time job and classes at night? That's what people do right?

Edited by Mal83

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. But that sounds reasonable doesn't it, the part-time job and classes at night? That's what people do right?

I have classes/tutoring/TAing on campus 3-4 days a week, and a part time job off campus 1-2 days a week each term. My department doesn't offer night classes at all, really, and I don't know if I'd take them if it did with the way my body clock works. That's obviously just me and my experience/preference, though. Do you know if you'd be able to take night classes for sure?

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I have classes/tutoring/TAing on campus 3-4 days a week, and a part time job off campus 1-2 days a week each term. My department doesn't offer night classes at all, really, and I don't know if I'd take them if it did with the way my body clock works. That's obviously just me and my experience/preference, though. Do you know if you'd be able to take night classes for sure?

Yes, I've already registered for my classes, 2 start at 7pm and the other is at like 4:30, something like that. So I feel like that a job is a must. I don't necessarily want to be in class until 10pm, but that's what it is and it really is best for getting a job. You have a full load though with what you're doing, that's good. I don't want to be one of those students who just goes to class and that's it. I'm going to both get a degree and to start my career as early as possible.

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Yes, I've already registered for my classes, 2 start at 7pm and the other is at like 4:30, something like that. So I feel like that a job is a must. I don't necessarily want to be in class until 10pm, but that's what it is and it really is best for getting a job. You have a full load though with what you're doing, that's good. I don't want to be one of those students who just goes to class and that's it. I'm going to both get a degree and to start my career as early as possible.

I did my MA at GWU and most of the classes in my program were offered in the evening. Most of my classmates worked -- many of them worked full time and were enrolled as full time students. I think this is one of the advantages of doing an MA in DC. There are so many good work opportunities if you are in IR or a related field. Personally, I worked part time the first year and then was offered a full time position in my second year and took it. I was busy, but it was definitely worth it! I also managed to somehow stay involved socially with my cohort. It is possible to work and do an MA, you just have to prioritise.

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On a slightly different note:

Before my first semester started, I gave myself some time to get my living space well in order. Especially since I had moved across the country to start my program, I had a lot of work to do in terms of acquiring furniture, organizing all my belongings, etc. It was totally time well spent. My living space isn't large, but it's well-organized, functional, and beautiful; it's an optimal environment for getting work done and for relaxing at the end of the day. If you have the time and even a little money to invest in organizing/decorating your living space before school starts in the fall, I strongly encourage you to go for it.

I asked one of the ABD's in my department what she did to survive her first year. She said "I bought a good, comfortable reading chair and a very large bottle of vodka, and made good use of both."

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I won't be attending grad school until the fall, but would agree with what the above poster said about a good reading chair. I had a good chair during undergrad, and it helped me out so much! Think about how much more time we are going to be spending studying or in front of the computer writing papers...a good chair is a must! Staples is having a great sale ($100 off in some cases) on chairs starting May 1st. Check it out!

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I agree about the importance of good chairs. I started this year with a $20 "task chair" from Target, which I used in front of my computer. My attempt to save money by getting a cheap chair COMPLETELY backfired, because after working on a paper for a while, I'd feel like my entire body was screaming out in pain, and I'd ache for days. In fact I stopped using my nice, big desktop computer because I couldn't bear the task chair any more -- instead I'd curl up in bed with my tiny netbook.

A few months ago I invested in a higher quality, ergonomic desk chair. It cost $300, but I feel like I'm sitting on a cloud. It gives me more stamina and energy for academic work.

In short, don't skimp on the chair!

(And by the way, just because a chair looks big and leathery doesn't mean it will be comfortable after 5 hours. Look for a chair that's recommended for all-day work, not one that just has an "executive" appearance. Here's my chair: http://www.officedep..._cat=2000000361)

Edited by Katzenmusik

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Re: desk chairs

If you go to an office supply store like Office Depot, you can often find ratings on the chairs saying how long they can/should be used for daily. I bought one that is for 6-8 hours of daily use and is certified by the American Chiropractic Association. It's a HUGE difference from the cheaper desk chair I'd gotten before. I was able to make it more affordable by using a coupon I got online for 25% off. It has been such a good investment that I don't know why I didn't buy it sooner.

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Can some of you please elaborate on navigating department politics. What to look for, who to ask, what absolutely not to do, horror stories, whatever

Politics: Academics are a genteel bunch, generally speaking. They usually won't say anything outright negative about other people (partially because it's such a small world and that person might be on a committee you're on next year - or even better, on your grant or tenure review committee). Look for the veiled references, the awkward silences, the pointed omissions. Ask current graduate students, too, before you tie yourself to someone because they are far more willing to be frank with you about your advisors.

As a grad student, having a powerful advocate for you within the department is great. Assistant professors can be awesome but they generally cannot fulfill the role of a powerful advocate. My advisor is an assistant professor, but I have another official advisor who is a full professor and an informal advisor who's associate. Their contacts in the university have been invaluable in helping me through some bureaucratic nightmares. One example: I TAed in the department my full professor advisor is appointed in and partway through the semester, I was told I would not be compensated (long story). I fought the good fight with financial aid on my own for weeks getting nowhere. I mentioned it to my advisor and within two weeks the money was in my account. Work with people who can advocate for you.

My advice:

-I'm gonna go the opposite of snarky and say *don't* volunteer for stuff. It depends on your department culture, but volunteering for too much can add way too much on your plate.

-Don't lose yourself. Grad school has a way of taking you over and taking the joy out of a lot of the things you would otherwise rather be doing than work, because you feel guilty about not doing work just about any time that you aren't doing work. Find a way to beat that feeling and maintain who you are. Hold onto cherished hobbies, read a pleasure book every now and then, allow yourself mindless reality television or whatever your guilt is.

-Corollary to above: Decide right now what you are willing to sacrifice for this degree and the requisite career after it. What is important to you? If you have to list it out on paper, do that. Now think about which of those things you are willing to give up in exchange for quality of your work and career. Good research takes time; great research takes more time; excellent research takes even more time and being a superstar takes most of your time. Realize that there is NO shame in realizing early on that you do not want to be a superstar.

-Sometimes, the best advisors aren't the ones with the closest research to your own but the ones you get along with the best, and who are really dedicated to getting you up and out.

-A paper will never be good if it's not done.

-If you are interested in non-academic jobs...find out what you need to do to get them, and do those things. Don't let anyone (advisors, colleagues, etc.) browbeat you or persuade you to drop your non-academic aspirations, if you know that the professor life is not for you. I've found that advisors have unrealistic expectations about the ease with which their students will get tt jobs after grad school.

-If you have health insurance and need to see a therapist, use it. You'd probably be surprised to know how many people in your department are battling mental health issues and talking to therapists. (Everyone in my cohort is or was.) Grad school threatens that mental health. Work on it.

-I agree with the chair advice. I already had chronic back pain when I came to grad school and grad school has made it worse. However, a decent chair helps a lot. I didn't have the money to spring for a $300 desk chair (that will be the next step though, maybe next year) but I did get a $70 one from Wal-Mart that gives me pretty decent support. I can't sit in it forever, but 4-6 hours is usually all I want to sit there for anyway and I can usually get through that pretty comfortably. (The education school here has EXCELLENT desk chairs in their meeting rooms - they feel like sitting on a cloud, and my back doesn't even notice them. But I'm sure they were like $600 a piece or something, lol. That's what inspired me to get a mesh chair next time I buy a chair).

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Although I am entering as a new Ph.d candidate this year, I remember very well my MA program, and so I am basically taking some of my own advice, which I will note for you guys here in case you'd like to follow my example.

1. I always contact my profs in advance for any readings or assignments I can start in the summer. I am in English, so this is usually a BIG timesaver. During my MA program, I taught for a program which required us to read and lead discussions on a reading packet (which had over 500 pages!!). I read and took notes on the packet in the summer, so that when the fall semester hit, all i had to do was look over my old notes and I was ready to teach. Right now, I've already begun contacting profs, and they have been giving me suggested readings. I have the summer off, so I am planning to hit the books and get ahead, which has always been the secret to my success (I rarely get too stressed out).

2. TIME MANAGEMENT. Let me say that again: TIME MANAGEMENT!!!!! When I get an assignment (for an essay, say), I don't wait until a week before it's due to get started. I IMMEDIATELY go to the library (sometimes directly after the class) and start compiling the materials I will need. I keep a detailed planner keeping track of what assignments are due when. With good time management, you don't have to do any all-nighters or be miserable because you don't have any free time. Work hard, work efficiently, and you WILL have time for fun in your life, even in your first year. In my first year as an MA student, I taught 9 hours a week for the linguistics department, making all my own lesson plans. I also took 3 full seminars. And yet, I don't remember being particularly stressed out. I set aside my Saturday mornings for lesson planning, and I'd plan my teaching for the entire week, setting aside all the materials I would need and making sure to make any required copies. Then the rest of the weekend would be for homework, research, etc., but I'd often go to a cafe and take time to go to the gym or take a walk. For me, grad school has always been WAY easier than working a 9 to 5 in a cubicle somewhere. In grad school, you make your own hours. If you're nocturnal, you can work all night if you want. If you're a morning person, you can get up at 4am to study. Perhaps the freedom of it all is what gets people into trouble....

3. Do NOT procrastinate. In undergrad, you could get away with cramming the day before the test, or staying up all night the night before an assignment was due, busting out a 5-page essay in 8 hours. In grad school, your profs will KNOW sloppy work for what it is. Get working on stuff early.

4. Communicate. You may not like many of your profs. In fact, a great many of them are arrogant a-holes. They may be condescending, or treat you like dirt. This is irrelevant. You have to put your personal feelings aside and communicate with them in a professional manner. I absolutely loathed several of my profs in grad school, but I smiled and did my best to visit them at office hours and ask them for advice. Trust me. It works.

5. Make sure the people on your committee are people you respect, and who will help you. Don't just get anybody who agrees to be on your committee. Be very, very careful. These are the people who will approve or deny your thesis/dissertation. You want people who will help you revise, or guide you along the way, not a prof who is already mentoring 8 other people, is never around, is 8 months pregnant, is near death or chronically ill, is head of a department and exceedingly busy, etc. etc. etc. You are going to want to show your work in progress and get guidance. Make sure the people you choose are the right people.

And of course, take time to relax and have a little fun. Audit an undergraduate course in something that interests you (sorry, I'm a nerd, that's what I do for "fun"). Go camping for a weekend when you're ahead on your work. Go study in an outdoor cafe--get Out of the house/library, for god's sake! Life is short. If you're not having a good time, you're doing something wrong.

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All of this advice is spectacular. Thanks to all who posted so far.

Can some of you please elaborate on navigating department politics. What to look for, who to ask, what absolutely not to do, horror stories, whatever :)

Um, steer clear from department drama. From what I've seen from others mistakes: don't sleep around with other students in your department. It gets messy. I swear, there has been more drama in my department this first year then all of my undergrad years.

Make friends with the secretaries- be NICE. They're usually the ones that make sure you get into the necessary classes, research materials, and departmental paperwork done on time. (Also, never refer to them as "secretaries"- you should know their names anyway). Also, it doesn't hurt to be friendly with the janitors too.

Also, figure out which faculty are the big kahunas and always mind your P's and Q's around them.

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