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,
Sumiko

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