Ten Tips for a New Graduate Student

This evening I’m taking out a couple of my students who have been accepted into graduate school for next year. I threatened (offered?) to give them my list of ten tips to being a successful graduate student (also know as “things that I wish I had done in graduate school or did, but only by accident). I riffled through my harddrive and found a few versions of it and decided to compile them into one list. 

This list is directed at prospective graduate students in my field and it reflect my mistakes and successes more than anything else. 

1. Have fun. Graduate School is fun. Resist the urge to rush through the program toward an uncertain future. Don’t dawdle by any means, but make sure to savor your time in graduate school. Chances are that your graduate school environment will be the most supportive, robust, and dynamic that you experience throughout your career. Enjoy it.

2. Take all the gloomy press about the job market with a grain of salt. Graduate school in the humanities is like minor league baseball. You do it because you love the game and because you believe you have what it takes to make it to the big leagues (such as they are …). Don’t do it if you feel entitled to an academic position at graduation or out of some false belief that the minor league system is designed to give every prospect an equal chance at success. Do it because you love what you’re doing and it’s a remarkable opportunity to do it for a few more years. 

3. Read as much as possible. Get in the habit of looking at the major journals in your field and reading reviews. Read bibliographies. Get to be friends with your librarian. Anything you can do to know what is being published and what it is about. (The arrival of review volume of the Journal of Roman Archaeology remains one of the highlights of my year.)

4. Work harder than everyone you know and collaborate with people smarter than you. My experience is that these two things are related. Smart people have better ideas, get more opportunities, and generally have more fun. Part of the reason that they are successful is they have less smart collaborators and colleagues who work really really hard. Work hard and smart people will let you ride their coattails. 

5. Write all the time. I write for at least an hour every day, even if it’s just working on my blog and each year, I find it easier to write more. I might not be developing new ideas or getting smarter, but I am definitely better and bringing my ideas from my eddying and swirling brain to the page. Ideas only really count when they are on the page. Writing a blog or a journal offers a simple way to maintain writing discipline and move ideas from thoughts to words. It also offers you a chance to produce a positive presence on the web. 

6. Develop a digital ecosystem. Find ways to stay organized on your computer, back up your harddrive, develop ways to use mobile devices to make your life easier. Try new software to streamline your workflow. 

7. Develop some ancillary skills. I was lucky enough to be a sufficiently marginal field archaeologist to have a chance to develop some skills in GIS and database management. While this began as a way to keep me from somehow messing up field work, it has since put me in the position to shape field procedures, interpret data, and produce analysis. Despite only ever taking one archaeology course in my life, I have turned using various database tools into opportunities to direct my own projects and to publish the results. If you can, take classes outside your department and discipline.

8. Balance professional development and taking risks. There will always be pressure to publish and present your work and it begins in graduate school (earlier and earlier these days!). At the same time, remember that graduate school is where you can take risks, learn your limits, and experiment with new approaches and ideas. Despite the feeling that the stakes in graduate school are high, they are much higher when you get your first academic position. 

9. Spend time at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. This is the greatest of the foreign research centers for American graduate students. It has an amazing alumni network, brilliant facilities, and a solid program. The School as an institution and its faculty take graduate education seriously. If you’re working in the Eastern Mediterranean, do what you can to spend time at the ASCSA.  

10. Be interested in everything. There is tremendous pressure these days to professionalize and focus. While focus and discipline are good and will ensure that you move through your program with pace, maintaining academic interests outside your narrow field of dissertation represents an important risk management strategy. If your particular, specialized graduate research doesn’t end up being the “next big thing”, you’ll have other irons in the fire.  

One last tip … listen to and trust your mentors. 

7 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Historian Loose on the Northern Plains and commented:
    Outstanding Advice: “Work harder than everyone you know and collaborate with people smarter than you. My experience is that these two things are related. Smart people have better ideas, get more opportunities, and generally have more fun. Part of the reason that they are successful is they have less smart collaborators and colleagues who work really really hard. Work hard and smart people will let you ride their coattails.”

    Reply

  2. Bill, I would add: seize every opportunity. Every seminar, every lecture, every class you TA for — it is an opportunity to learn, even if it’s “I don’t want to teach Greek history the way Nakassis does.” Don’t be content to get through a class (or other activity) that you’re not interested in. It is up to you to make it interesting.

    Reply

  3. good thoughts Bill. several resonate with john cage’s rules for students and teachers

    http://www.alisant.net/cca/sitespecific/cage.html

    Reply

  4. Dimitri,

    Yep. That’s sort of what I meant by “be interested in everything”, but I agree. Being interested is sometimes not enough, you have to actually act on that interest.

    Bill

    Reply

  5. Reblogged this on Singapore and the United States: A New Cold War History and commented:
    Thanks, Bill. I no longer feel entitled to “an equal chance at success” just because I have a PhD. Your post has inspired me to work hard.
    All the best,
    Daniel

    Reply

  6. As an older, non-traditional student, a parent of college students, and a teacher of students in grades 6-12, I really appreciate the advice presented in your article. Your thought-provoking suggestions will come in handy for people at so many stages in life–in academia or outside of the tower. Thank you very much for sharing! I would add one more point: Age quod agis – really do whatever you do.

    Reply

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