In “Week 1: How to Succeed in Grad School,” Will does an excellent job covering the arc of our Week 1 readings (they are identical across our syllabi). His description of what he tried to impart to his students is pretty much in step with what I did, so I won’t rehash that here. Instead, I’m going to talk a little about some minor deviations, mostly by way of framing and extra emphasis, that I pursued in my run through Week 1.
Before I get to that, I’ll make a comment on tone. Over the past four years, I’ve developed a reputation among our grad students as being a bit… scary. This is mostly unintentional. I say “mostly” because I do intentionally have very high expectations—especially when it comes to students being prepared for seminar—and I have enforced those expectations pretty harshly. I do this especially in the intro class because (1) the students have a lot to learn in a hurry, and few can do it without working exceptionally hard, and (2) I know my colleagues expect them to be prepared in future seminars, so I see it as my job to set that expectation right off the bat.
I don’t mind my scary reputation, per se. But I’ve begun to worry that it inhibits student learning in seminar, as they’ve seemed increasingly nervous and tongue-tied in recent semesters. I’m making a concerted effort this semester to foster a less nerve-racking environment: fewer cold calls, fewer moments of icy silence, (slightly) fewer reprimands for students that don’t fully prepare. We’ll see how this goes, and if the tradeoff (i.e., I assume students will be a little less likely to read fully and carefully as a result of the “kinder, gentler” me) is worth it in the end.
I tried to give it to them pretty straight in Week 1: you’re no longer an undergrad; this will be really, really hard at times; you need to treat it like a job; this first semester—and maybe the whole first year—will feel a little like drinking from a fire hose; our expectations are very high; etc.
I then pointed out that the job market is just around the corner. Since first year students have a hard time conceptualizing four (or more) years as just around the corner, I asked them to count backwards from the day they hoped to be on the market. This is the relevant end point because students’ ultimate goal (at least in the first round of their careers) should be to secure a tenure track position.
I asked my students to assume that they want to be on the market in the fall of their fifth year (a slightly optimistic but certainly not unattainable goal), and to imagine what their file needs to look like to have a shot at interviews: excellent letters from three faculty members and several publications, including at least one on their own or with a grad student colleague. We then worked back through the math of how long it takes to write, revise and publish papers, and considered how many other things (e.g., RAships, coursework, technical training) needed to happen for them to be ready to start that process. We also talked about the need to start making a good impression on faculty now (more on that a little later).
Certainly this is a bit of an unnerving thought exercise (come to think of it, maybe this didn’t help my attempt to be less scary…), but my intention was to jar them out of any remaining sense that grad school is “just the next step in their education.” It seems absolutely essential to me that students come right out of the gate understanding that this is professional training; an apprenticeship, where there is no time to waste.
To this end, I also emphasized the immediacy and importance of cultivating their professional reputations. I pointed out that their reputations had already begun to take shape, at orientations and first class sessions and would quickly be shaped by their participation at department talks and meetings in faculty offices and circulations of paper drafts and presentations at conferences…on and on; and that this would continue, indefinitely, for the rest of their careers.
I stressed this point because, in my experience, first year graduate students fail to appreciate how small the world is that they are entering, and how long everyone’s memories are. I reassured them that there will inevitably be missteps and shared a couple of my own—I made a giant ass of myself in front of Ray Wolfinger as an undergrad, and Mat McCubbins summary comment on my final paper for my intro grad class was “and you were the one I had hope for, too…”—as evidence that a few mistakes aren’t likely to be career killing. But I encouraged them to be mindful of the impression that they are making with all of their professional activity.
Faculty aren’t the only audience, either. I reminded them that the grad students they meet today will one day be faculty and co-authors and journal editors and search committee members and lots of other useful things; making a positive impression now and building positive relationships early will pay dividends for a long time. To reinforce this point, I told the stories of how I came to know some of my regular collaborators, like Jeff Jenkins (I unexpectedly got swept up in a group lunch at MPSA), Chris Den Hartog (we bonded over a giant burrito), and Jason Roberts (we had lots of phone calls before 6 am about one of his working papers), when I was still a very green grad student.
Undoubtedly, coverage of these “professionalization” topics in Week 1 only scratched the surface. First year students will need to hear all of the lessons 10 or 100 more times, communicated in a variety of ways before they really take hold. And they’ll need to learn a lot of other lessons that go beyond the scope of a three-hour session (I appreciate that my department has developed an excellent monthly workshop for just this purpose). But I think our discussion got them off to a pretty good start.
And after class I was asked grudgingly by an older student why I didn’t scare the first years like I used to. So… progress.