What I Wish I’d Known When I Started Grad School

After I wrote my last post, Confessions of a Struggling [PhD Student] Writer, I was pleasantly surprised to find that what I’d written was helpful to people! One of my friends even shared it with her students, who were (reportedly) comforted by the idea that good writers are made through painstaking and heartbreaking labor, not born. As I was reading about the uses of epideictic rhetoric in the service of war, a few other things were rattling around in my brain as well.

One is that I’m over the halfway mark on my PhD program – huzzah! But now I am faced with the fairly terrifying task of getting everything lined up so I can write a dissertation and graduate without taking a whole decade to do it. And that got me thinking – what do I do now that I really wish I’d started doing the day I began grad school? Predictably, I thought this might be fun to write up in a list.

  1. Write a quick summary of EVERY SINGLE THING that you read – include the main points, the theoretical contributions by the author, and key words – and keep it all in the same place. I am intensely envious of people who seem able to recall the highlights of everything they’ve read in the past, but my brain does not work like that. My brain is very fond of keyword-searchable banks of information, especially when I have to write a lit review.
  2. Use some kind of citation management system. I use Zotero, which is a free, open-source program that you can use across operation systems and access from the web. Even after my institutional affiliation changes, I’ll have access to this.
  3. Figure out how to take notes – fast. I can’t even begin to say how hard this was for me. I rarely studied anything in high school; in college the only things I studied for were chemistry and organic chemistry (my downfall!). So when I got to grad school and found that the volume and complexity of the work before me were actually a challenge, I had to figure out how to take notes. I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. I experimented with typing up my notes, but found that handwriting was better because it forced me to summarize and make decisions on the fly about what was really important about an article or a seminar lecture. I am still working on some kind of decent note-conversion system and I suspect I will be for quite a while.
  4. Prioritize self-care. American culture tends to glorify busyness and that bleeds over into grad school. If you let it (and I have – sometimes I still do) it will eat up ever moment of your life, cannibalizing your sanity, your relationships, the non-academic parts of yourself to fuel the pressure to be doing something all the time. For me, self-care looks like no-guilt trips to a spa on occasion, drinking quality tea and coffee while staring into space, snuggling with world’s most adorable man and the world’s most adorable dog (see below), and riding my motorcycle. If I don’t have these things, my sanity starts to crumble and I can’t even string together sentences. The point for me is that I need to remember to put these things first, I won’t be able to achieve much academically. IMGP0083
  5. Build friendships within your program, but don’t neglect friendships elsewhere. My friends in grad school have helped me through when I felt like quitting, inspired me to do better, and sympathized with me when I felt like an incompetent idiot. My friends from outside grad school reminded me that in the grand scheme of things, grad school is a very privileged position to be in, and to stop whining please, because most folks don’t give a damn about the rhetorical significance of anything Foucault wrote.
  6. If you lend books out, take a picture of the person you lent it to holding said volume. I still have no idea who has my copy of Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists. If it’s you – can I please have it back?
  7. How to ask good questions. This one is still really hard for me. It takes me a while to formulate a careful question that is relevant to anything. I’m not an instinctively critical person, and I usually tend to agree with academic articles.

So, that’s my list! For now, at least. Maybe I’ll write an update when I’m finished with my dissertation. What things do you  wish you’d known – either before you started grad school, or before you started some other major undertaking?

Love, peace, and 20/20 hindsight,


What I’ve Learned in Grad School

To celebrate surviving the first two and a half weeks of my 21st year of school, here is a post about what I’ve learned in grad school! No, this is not going to be about anything actually academic, but I love writing lists and I think all of these things are pretty funny on some level.

  1. Not only is “dissertating” a word, it’s a word that inspires envy in those of us who aren’t even thinking about comps yet.
  2. Also, “comping” is a word. And it has nothing to do with comp time.
  3. Many people go for days at a time without reading or responding to emails.
  4. A few people go for weeks at a time without responding to emails.
  5. Pretty much everyone in grad school agrees that there’s a special place in hell for the person who drinks the last of the break room coffee without starting a new pot.
  6. Having a department mailbox and checking your mailbox are two vastly different things.
  7. If you want grad students to attend (anything), you’d better have free food there.
  8. Grad students will spend an inordinate amount of time fretting about things that only they (and perhaps fifty other people in the world) care about.
  9. Hanging out with your fellow students is not only fun, it’s necessary to survive. This goes double if you’re in a PhD program.
  10. A Clif bar is a perfectly acceptable dinner when you have the 6 – 9 pm class and you’ve been at work/teaching since 7:30 am.
  11. Everything you ever read on PhD Comics is actually true.
  12. Despite all the madness and the sleep deprivation and the stress and the pressure, the chance to study exactly what you want to study – in nauseating detail – with brilliant, passionate people, is an amazing opportunity.

Love, peace, and thanks to all my fellow U of U Comm grad students for being amazing,

A Perfect Day


Here’s what goes into it:

  • hiking in very early morning stillness and solitude somewhere in southern Utah 
  • a matcha green tea shake
  • returning to the place where home is
  • reading
  • writing
  • thinking
  • becoming-happy
  • seeing my sweet dog jump in circles when I get back from a trip
  • sunshine
  • walking barefoot in the grass
  • hugs in the arms of the man I missed while I was away

Today was pretty much a perfect day. What does your perfect day look like?
Love, peace, and unexpected perfection,

Auditory Joyfulness

I know you’re excited…here’s another list! YAY, LISTS!

Or “yay, Liszt?” Either way, really.

These are things that I get really happy whenever I hear.

  1. My beloved playing video games with his childhood best friend. They both revert to completely gleeful, over-bubbling, giddy kids in the space of the game. Hearing him laugh with his entire being makes me so happy.
  2. My dog’s funny, distinct noises. I can tell when he’s throwing a toy up in the air and catching it, or when he’s wiggling on his back on a (freshly vacuumed, damn him) carpet. His tags jingle in different ways and his paws have certain patterns hitting the floor. I love hearing those things.
  3. Good exhaust sounds from motorcycles. (Kind of inevitable.) That’s kind of a paradoxical exuberant, Zen feeling for me. Motorcycles are definitely my happy place.
  4. Cicadas. Reminds me of miserably hot, humid August nights when I was growing up in Massachusetts, and even though the weather totally sucked, I loved the sound of cicadas.
  5. Choral music. Bonus points for good a capella choral music. I just can’t help it. I’m a voice person through and through.
  6. Aspen trees rustling in an otherwise still valley. Oh my goodness. Aspen trees always get me, man. I’m convinced that if Rivendell were on this earth instead of Middle Earth, it would be located in a valley in the Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park, in a riverbottom lined with aspen and draped in the most dramatic shades of red I’ve ever seen. The elves would totally love it there.
  7. Pens gliding across good paper. I’m old school like that. It’s just not the same as the incessant clicking of keyboards.
  8. The crinkling, crunching sound that a loaf of fresh bread makes when you squeeze it ever so gently. It’s an amazing, tantalizing, happy sound.
  9. Coffee in a percolator. Or espresso in my little Bialetti pot. They make this fizzy, bubbly, steamy sound that is a delight to my ears.

And there you have it. Noises and sounds that make me happy. What do you like to hear?

Love, peace, and happy ears,

Last Week: A Summary

  1. Tumbleweeds really are kind of cool. 
  2. My job takes me to some very remote places with some very beautiful skyscapes, and for that I am immensely grateful.

    Southeast view from a hill above Montezuma Creek, Utah.

  3. SNOW! After a pitiful winter season last year, the first proper snowstorm of this year deposited a reasonable amount of snow in my yard.
  4. Things my ridiculous dog has tussled with in the past seven days: a sock, a pillow, his fleece dog sweater, every single one of his toys which I neatly placed into his basket and are now strewn all over the floor, and a Tupperware that he managed to sneak off the counter. He’s a brat.
  5. What I have listened to over the past seven days: Harry Potter audiobooks, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Kathryn Calder, Mozart, Norah Jones, Regina Spektor, Jimi Hendrix on repeat, and some random 3-second snippets of songs on SongPop.
  6. How many miles I drove over the past seven days: a lot. Sorry. Lost count after 1,000.
  7. After a certain point in the evening, making sense of continental philosophy just doesn’t work well for me.
  8. Chocolate chip cookies and watching BBC’s Top Gear is more fun than reading about Derrida.
  9. Pretty sure I’ll never be able to eat Ruffles sour cream & cheddar chips again. Ugh.
  10. Cast iron cooking implements = greatest ever.

Nine Things You May Not Have Known About Motorcycles

  1. Motorcycle engines starting up is one of the greatest sounds on this earth. 
  2. Riding a motorcycle through leaf-strewn streets is really fun because the leaves skitter all around you. (Please note: this is not fun if the leaves are damp or remotely wet.)
  3. Someday I’m going to figure out how to combine my research, my love of motorcycles, and earning money into one amazing dream job. Until then, I’ll keep posting random list-type blogs.
  4. The cylinders on the engine are referred to as “jugs.” Go ahead, laugh! I snorted coffee out my nose laughing when I first heard that…because I have the sense of humor of a thirteen-year-old boy. I was hanging out with a bunch of mechanics, and mechanics aren’t always known for classy humor.

    photo credit: Katie Coon

  5. Most bikers have a superstitious streak when it comes to their bikes and riding. I sure do. I have a bell on my motorcycle that belonged to my great-grandmother Masami (to catch the road goblins), and if someone makes a joke or even a comment about a bike wreck I compulsively start knocking on wood.
  6. Unlike in a car, it’s a good thing to ride the clutch when you’re on a motorcycle.
  7. Motorcycles engender families – they can’t help it. My family rides, and when I’m riding with my friends, we’re all family too! Even when you meet up with a bunch of other bikers on the road, there’s a friendly acceptance that can be hard to find in other places.
  8. You only need seven things for a road trip: sunscreen, boots, jeans, t-shirts, bandannas, a tool roll, and lots of coffee. Everything else is basically fluff.
  9. There’s no good reason to put your motorcycle up for the winter! Heated gloves, heated vest liners, heated pants, heated handlegrips, or even just wearing layers…unless there’s snow on the asphalt, keep riding.

As I was riding to work this morning, the temperature was a balmy 48F and I couldn’t stop grinning. The sunrise was gorgeous, the cold air was so invigorating, and my sweet Ginger and I were just skimming along the highway. I felt like I might come untethered and just kind of float on forever – such serenity in that feeling.

Love, peace, and safe riding,

A Friday List

I realize it’s been a shamefully long time since I’ve posted anything. Since school started, I’ve been scrambling just to meet most of my obligations (you know…homework…work…doing laundry once a month…) and I’ve started a dozen posts but not finished a single one of them. In light of that, here is a Friday list reflecting the current state of my brain.

In no particular order:

  1. Chili verde burritos make my life complete.
  2. Making friends with the research librarian for your subject is one of the best decisions a grad student can make.
  3. I think I’m starting on a problem with collecting fountain pens. Help.
  4. Voting by mail > voting in person for people who have trouble remembering all the candidates’ platforms.
  5. “Students of color” and “colored students” do not mean the same thing, and if you’re giving a speech to hundreds of educators, it might be a slip-up you don’t want to make.
  6. Other things I have a problem with collecting: tea, teacups, scarves, red lipsticks, and anxieties.
  7. Every once in a while, I wonder “What if I hadn’t been terrible at organic chemistry and I’d have gone to medical school instead of graduate school?”
  8. Cheese is amazing and gross when you think about it.
  9. Anyone who waxes poetic about the smell of fresh country air hasn’t driven through a small country town containing a slaughterhouse or a stockyard.
  10. Sometimes all I need to turn around a bad mood is to see this cute furry little face: 


  11. Homemade yogurt is sooo much tastier than store bought yogurt.
  12. Without post-it notes, research would be impossible.
  13. I really want all of  these finger puppets from The Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild.
  14. Rain in October is much more beautiful than rain in November.
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