My first semester of graduate school was by far the most difficult. Through naive planning on my part, I began my semester with two heavy-reading courses in Political Science -- American Politics and Comparative Politics-- paired with everyone's favorite: Quantitative Analysis. The two readings courses assigned roughly 300 pages of reading each. The quantitative analysis course, also known as the "grad student filter," was scary for everyone. In hindsight, I'm grateful for that first semester and its difficulty; it acted as the semester to which all others were compared.
As I was struggling with those courses, I anxiously searched different variants of "Graduate School Advice," and "How to Survive Graduate School" through Google. Though I found some amazing logistical advice, I did not find anything that spoke to my stress, a period of time for first-year graduate students I like to call, "The Grad School Freakout."
What I wish I had known when I started graduate school:
1. You are not an impostor.
Do a Google search on some variant of "How to write in graduate school" and you'll find sources galore, typically sources that discuss how difficult it is, how to grind your teeth, and push through. I've always been turned off by this advice, mainly because all of it is based on a single premise: writing is painful, and there's nothing we can do about it. One of my favorite authors, Ernest Hemingway, said, "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."
No doubt, writing can be painful, particularly when you find yourself writing something you care little about. But we shouldn't let that reality blanket all of writing.
My own process developed over several years of graduate school, mostly in an answer to the pain I was feeling as I pounded away at the keyboard. My process is based on a single principle: eliminate all the elements of writing that can cause pain and, adopt a baby-step process.
The blinking cursor can be a jerk. It just stands there, staring at you, blinking at the same pace and daring you to type something brilliant. It always reminded me of those inflatable clowns with the scary, laughing faces rocking back and forth: Go ahead! Write something awesome! I dare you!
What's the solution? Eliminate the blank page. Let's start with the most common assignment in humanities and social science courses: the literature review.
Ah, yes, citing sources, the great bane of undergraduate students and the great headache of graduate students. When the stuff you write is based on other stuff, you need to cite. Most likely, your professor/department asks you to cite that stuff using the American Psychological Association (APA) citation style or the Modern Language Association (MLA) citation style. Your discipline may have its own citation style (e.g., American Political Science Association; American Anthropological Association). Whatever the style, it can be a headache for new and returning graduate students.
Why does citation give people so much trouble? I foresee two reasons why citation evokes such bad vibes.
Reference Pages Are No Longer the Big Concern
During my undergraduate career, it was the dreaded reference page (APA) and the Works Cited page (MLA) that was difficult. Remembering where to put the commas, the periods, the order of authors, the editors, yada yada made it an absolute nightmare to type out in hand.
"Jonathan, this is wonderfully written. You have a real future as a scholar and thinker!"
Oh, how those 15 words quickly scribbled on my final paper felt. I nearly skipped to my car, feeling on top of the world as I whistled during the drive home. My advisor's praise was everything to me; his respect in the field, by virtue of his comments, passed to me through his praise. My skin tingled with anticipation of the future.
His words were a sweet drug that shot me through the clouds. I was superman, cape flapping in the wind. I could stop bullets.
My next paper, sent to a very reputable journal, received the following:
"Your argument upon which everything is based is unclear. Further, your methods are questionable, and thus I find your results contrived. To me, it's just too basic. Nor is it complete enough to be included in this journal."
My first day of graduate school was one of terror: fear that I was in the wrong program, fear that I was going to fail, and fear that I was an impostor soon to be found out. I felt overwhelmed as I flipped through one of my course syllabi, struggling to figure out how on earth I'd fit in the readings while working on the end-of-the-semester paper. And that was just one course.
Such feelings are normal, of course. But just because a fear is normal, doesn't mean it's unavoidable. Such panic can be demystified with proper technique, and learning that technique is the whole point of The Tao of Graduate School.
The path to ensuring success on your first day or week of graduate school revolves around both reading and writing, many of which should be tackled immediately after the syllabus is put in your hands.
Here are 6 steps to succeed from your very first day of graduate school:
1. Identify the major assignments in the course and begin planning immediately
"Tao" refers to "the way" of something. By putting the term in front of Graduate School, I'm invoking a grand tradition of teaching that way, in this case, the way of graduate school.
Several years ago, I began to notice what I might refer to as The Dark Cloud of Graduate School. Despite being in an environment in which one can pursue his or her interests, reading and writing and teaching about them, I found that my graduate peers were suffering severe bouts of melancholy. Some were fresh out of their undergraduate careers, excited at first to begin their advanced study but suddenly overwhelmed by the quantity of work and expectations. Others were veterans of Graduate School, walking aimlessly across campus, conversing with few, asking themselves, "Why the hell did I do this in the first place?"
I don't mean to paint all graduate students with this brush. Many are successful and move on to successful careers, in academia or elsewhere. But one thing is certain: most graduate students suffer from a dark reality that I believe is avoidable.
Many conversations on the topic of graduate school are based on a premise: Graduate School is very difficult and stressful - Follow these steps so you can finish it as quickly as possible with the least amount of damage to your life.
The Tao of Graduate School has a different approach. I am here to argue that graduate school can, and should, be something to enjoy, something that fulfills the student, not defeats. Something that can enlighten us, if only we knew how.
What credibility do I have to write the Tao of Graduate School?
Since 2007, my personal, professional, and academic life has revolved around teaching reading and writing, particularly in higher education. While receiving my master's degree in Political Science in 2008-2010, I taught the difficult skill of reading and writing in the academy. I tutored both professionally and for university, with my students ranging from incoming freshman to well-published faculty. I was invited to discuss the intricacies of reading, writing, and teaching in the ivory tower.
I'm currently pursing my PhD in Literacy, with an emphasis on reading and writing in higher education. In other words, my entire academic career is focused on a single, overarching question: How can the difficulties of reading and writing in higher education be demystified? In addition to my ongoing work with students and faculty, I'm immersed in the current academic literature on the topic. Paired with my PhD work, my primary occupation is as a consultant to graduate students and faculty as to how they might teach reading and writing in their courses.
I believe that success in graduate school is a function of skills that can be learned. I believe that success in graduate school is rarely about intelligence; rather, success in the ivory tower is a function of one's ability to read and write well in his or her discipline while thriving in one's personal pursuits.Most importantly, I believe that Graduate School can be fulfilling.
As more and more of people attend graduate school, I perceive a dark cloud of fear and self-doubt in my peers. It's the fear that one isn't smart enough, that one is merely an impostor waiting to be found out, that one is merely wasting time. To banish these fears, among others, is the purpose of the Tao of Graduate School.
I'm always searching for the books that actually matter, for those books that will make a significant change to my life. Indeed, one of my favorite openers in a conversation is "What books have changed your life?" It makes for interesting conversation, but the question also acts as a filter, allowing me to vet certain books based on personal recommendations.
Consider me your filter. Through my research and conversations with students and faculty across the curriculum, I've found some fantastic resources to which I turn time and time again. What follows are the cream of the crop, the books that will stand the test of time and change the lives of those who read them.
The Elements of Style, Strunk and White
Originally written in 1918, but with a ton of new editions along the way, this book single-handedly changed the way I thought about writing. I've read it a zillion times, and I find myself coming back to it often. Now, you'd think that an old book on writing, having the gumption to name itself The Elements of Style, would be boring and pedantic. Let me assure you: it's exactly the opposite. It's practical and, at times, hilarious. For example, the authors intentionally break their own rules in order to make a point (and, I think, to jab the reader). They do this so subtly that many critics argue the authors don't follow their own advice. For me, these mistakes are purposeful. I kept it in the bathroom for a year, as it makes for great morning reading! (Yes, I know. Crazy.)