Week 1: How to Succeed in Grad School

As I explain here, this course seeks to provide first year PhD students who want to join the scientific community the basic training they require.[1]  Rather than use the first week of the semester as a chance to “pass out the syllabus” and do introductions around the table, I emailed them these assigned readings a week prior to the semester’s start.


In week 1 I wanted to (a) establish expectations and (b) provide them with tools for success as PhD students.  In seminar I stressed that (i) while PhD study is awesome in lots of ways, it is also stressful and, frankly, shitty a times; (ii) it is unrealistic to expect that your program /college / university will provide all of the assistance and support you want / need (what, with being created and staffed by human beings and all); (iii) unlike the old days when PhD students had to walk 10 miles to school in the snow, without shoes, uphill both ways, blogs and social media exist today and provide ; (iv) your competition is in her first year of graduate school at other universities–the people in this room are your siblings and starting today you individually and collectively want to create a positive, supportive community

In an effort to stress that PhD work is very different than the undergraduate experience, I titled the week “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” All of my US born students knew the quote, but half of my students who were not born and raised in the US had no clue.  D’oh!  I need to be revise that for next time.

The first reading is several sections of Marie des Jardin’s 1994 post How to Be a Good Graduate Student: “Introduction,” “Before You Start,” “The Daily Grind,”“Staying Motivated,” “Getting Feedback,” “All Work and no Play. . . ,” and “Issues for Women.”

I organized the remaining reading into four groups:  “You ain’t know nuthin (yet),” “Putting Critique & Rejection to Work,” “Self Care,” and “Whom might I Follow? #YMMV.”

The first set of readings (and my title, which you will not want to use if you do not have my personal style) are about setting expectations: the degree of difficulty just changed dramatically.  Here are the readings.

Martin Schwartz’s  The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research, Kate Bahn’s Faking It: Women, Academia, and Impostor Syndrome, and Stephen Aguilar’s We are not Impostors.


The readings are all about building up confidence and reducing stress, but in seminar I tell them that they have spent 18+ years learning how to consume knowledge, and have all been unusually successful.  Were that untrue they would not be there.  But the next several years are all learning to produce knowledge.  And they have effectively zero experience doing that.  As such they are just like a person learning to play their first musical instrument: everybody stinks when they first play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on the piano, guitar, what have you.  Nobody wants to listen to you practice or perform!  But there is nothing to be done about it: I stunk when I started, and so did every other PhD.  The difference is that virtually all beginning music students know that they stink, but because traditional (i.e., 20 something) first year PhD students have succeeded in academic work for virtually their entire lives, it would be curious if they thought of themselves as total novices.  The key to the insight is that they are learning to do something entirely new: produce, rather than consume and disseminate, knowledge.  The readings, on the other hand, address the well known downsides to the perfectionist tendencies that have played (and will continue to play) such an important role in their academic success.  The readings also explicitly address systematic variation in the experiences of women (on average) and men, but fails to explicitly address the many other dimensions over which (lack of) privilege influences the PhD experience.  I raise that absence in seminar, but would love suggestions on some posts that address that issue (especially ones that also contain resources).

The second category groups readings that address critique / rejection.  We selected Jessica Weeks’s article Facing Failure: The Use (and Abuse) of Rejection in Political Science, Brian Martin’s Learning to Love Rejection post, and Amanda Murdie’s Rejection post.  For the third set we selected Amanda Murdie’s post Depression and Academia–Let’s Talk, and
Joan Van Every’s How to Take the Weekend Off.

In seminar I did a bit of autobiography, and gave them a thumbnail sketch of my son’s life and death, the fact that I live with depression, that I have an autism diagnosis, and that whatever “life balance” might mean, I am confident I am not a great role model for it.  I then emphasize that my personal story is wholly irrelevant beyond an illustration that, as human beings, academics wrestle with the shite life shovels in our path just like everybody else.  While I have no turn key solutions or recipes to offer, removing those topics from the realm of shame and placing them on the table as legitimate topics for discussion will, hopefully, help us individually and collectively weather those storms and succeed professionally.

Finally, I list a recommended “starter set” of blog and Twitter accounts to follow.  In seminar I emphasized that the key is to curate their own, personalized set of blogs and Twitter accounts, culling and adding to the starter set accordingly.

Twitter: @AcademiaObscura ; @AcademicBatgirl ; @AcademicsSay ; @Dissertating ;
@FromPhDtoLife ; @ISQblog ; @JoVanEvery ; @PHDcomics ; @PhDForum ;
@ProfessorIsIn; @raulpacheco ; @redpenblackpen ; @ResearchMark ; @VivaSurvivors ;
@womenalsoknow ; #ScholarSunday

Blogosphere: Andrew Gelman ; Chronicle of Higher Education ; Duck of Minerva ; Inside
Higher Ed ; Kieran Healy ; Lady Economist ; LSE—Impact of Social Sciences ; Marginal
Revolution ; Math of Politics ; Mischiefs of Faction ; The Monkey Cage ; The Political
Methodologist ; Political Violence @ a Glance ; Quantitative Peace ; Research Whisperer ;
Retraction Watch ; Science of Us ; Sociological Images ; Tenure She Wrote ; Tom Pepinsky ;

While those three categories are not comprehensive, and there are lots of complements and substitutes for the specific reading we selected, it seemed to work quite well.  But the most important things, IMHO, are (a) we began the course acknowledging the (individual and collective) personal  / social aspects and making them legitimate topics of conversation and discussion, and (b) provided them with not just specific resources, but the practice of using social media to build (and share) their own.


[1] Nate Monroe and I developed it together, though our final syllabi are not precise replicas of one another.


About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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4 Responses to Week 1: How to Succeed in Grad School

  1. Pingback: Week 2: Reality, Perception & Human Knowledge | Will Opines

  2. Pingback: Week 3: What is Science? | Will Opines

  3. Pingback: Learning to Drink from a Fire Hose | Will Opines

  4. Pingback: Want Ye Some Building Blocks for Theorizing? | Will Opines

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