Anyway, just as I was getting at with my removing-the-training-wheels metaphor, Undine says grad students must be proactive in their studies and their shaping of themselves into scholars ---- that a casual mention of an unfamiliar name or event or school should be noted as something one needed to study up on oneself, not wait for the professor to contextualize, to which I say, Exactly! Only it helps if you explicitly tell incoming grad students that.
(Especially when you consider a trend toward being more and more explicit for our undergrads now, as in the writing-program style of modeling all the assignments, which was different from my English-major experience of being handed a prompt and told to bring back a paper.)
Undine also stresses the importance of cultivating a verbal filter and more restrained public persona — not every thought you have or trouble you want to bitch about is worth airing in public. And not only is this true, likewise you should consider the context of when you do speak and the power relations thereof. Airing your complete hatred or ignorance of, say, the eighteenth century, or psychoanalysis, in front of a professor who might be in charge of allocating future funding or otherwise helping your graduate career, is foolish in the extreme. Whether that prof is your advisor or someone whose class fills a distribution requirement (or is merely passing you in the hall), painting yourself as ignorant or lazy, or even self-deprecating, will only predispose them toward helping the “more worthy” grads instead. The walls have ears! Take your cohort completely off campus to do your kvetching and gossiping; that’s what bars are for.
Now, no one told me any of this --- in fact, the most common advice I got as an undergrad or MA student was “go away and leave me alone! I have research to do.” (usually this was said through body language rather than explicitly, but not always.) What saved me --- and what got me out of my first, unhappy program into my second --- was the book Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or Ph.D., by Robert Peters. I love this book! First of all, it is funny. And readable in a very accessible way. Second, it is so useful in revealing the structure of grad programs --- both their written and unwritten rules --- that I go back and reread it at least once a year, and dip in and out of it regularly (I reread it as much for a comfort ritual as for getting information now; I know some women in the hard sciences who similarly reread and rely on it). It starts with a chapter on what is grad school, is it worth it, and should you actually go, before even getting to the gritty details of applying and surviving. If you are a prospective student, and you are
stupid foolhardy determined enough to actually apply for the experience of several long years on poverty wages with a very real chance of never getting the type of job that you have been trained for, then you absolutely should read this book beforehand; when I got to the “funding” chapter I was kicking myself at all the chances I missed. It includes a chapter on how to apply as well as one on how to improve your chances of admission.
It is just as important to consider politic (as in Machiavelli) and pragmatic aspects to how one should research and choose one’s future department, or dissertation topic, as idealistic ones. Furthermore, your personal behavior and interactions, as I’ve mentioned already, have serious repercussions on your future. The most important chapter of this book, to my mind, is “Playing Politics,” which begins with the subsection “Start Your Job Search on Day One” ---- it asserts that whereas undergraduates are granted excuses, somewhat like children, grad students are on probation ---- being tested for their fitness as future colleagues. The author tells the following story:
“John, one of my fellow biology students at Stanford, made the fatal mistake of getting a reputation among faculty as someone who wasn’t serious about his work — the greatest academic sin”(I should note here that to research this book, the author interviewed hundreds of grad students from many varied disciplines, ---- English is well represented here although there is a strong science bent ---- and that the stories of defeat and despair, as well as success, provide many of the pleasures of reading, schadenfreude or otherwise)
"Whenever he took a break from research, he practiced rock climbing on the sandstone walls of the biology building, shoeless, shirtless, and in cutoff shorts. When he ran into problems with his thesis, he could be viewed at all hours clinging precariously to the outside of the building. After he also began giving prolonged displays of shirtless juggling in the central courtyard, his future was decided. The departmental senate reviewed his academic progress, judged him inadequately serious, and he was exiled to a job in computer programming in which he made much more money than he ever could have as a biologist."How can you not love this book? But seriously, he has many good points about the expectations for good graduate student behavior and ways to keep the faculty, other grads, and perhaps most importantly the secretarial staff, on your side. As someone who loves lists and time management crap, I especially appreciate his chapters about structuring one’s time and work space, and the chapter on the writing process and writing the dissertation was so important to me that at one point when I was young and stupid I assigned it to a comp class (they did not understand it. I might as well have given it to them in Arabic.).
However, while it’s amazing for learning how to navigate academic culture and politics and very useful in explaining how to survive and get a PhD, that’s only part of “what I came for.” It’s not so strong on the academic job market, or even the job market in industry, although he does have some science info (who have an industry to go into ---- I wish they had poetry factories and someone wanted me for a line foreman --- I’m sensing a Monty Python skit coming on ---) and it has nothing about being a professor or getting tenure. For that, I turn to the blogs. And here we are.