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Friday, January 13, 2006

Inside Higher Ed :: What They Don't Teach You in Graduate School -- Part IV

Inside Higher Ed has been running a series called "What They Don't Teach You In Grad School'. The previous pieces in the series have been chock full of good advice (go back and read the them- it's worth it). They've just posted Part IV, which focuses on "life as an academic". It gives a lot of good advice, but here are parts I particularly liked (the bold typeface is my addition):
  • Never, ever choose sides in department politics. The side you are on expects your support because they know they are right. They will give you no reward for it. The side(s) you are not on remembers forever.
  • Secretaries are a scarce resource. Treat them as such ... If you develop a good relationship with them, they will work miracles for you. They know every arcane administrative procedure needed to get things done. They can say nice things about you to people who matter in the department. If they don’t like you, they can kill your reputation.
  • Learn the idiosyncrasies of your institution’s computer center... Although a computer center is a service organization, it is usually staffed by people who are not service oriented.
  • Like the computer center, you have to deal with physical plant.
  • Maintain collegiality... Don’t be perceived as a loner or a misanthrope, particularly by the senior faculty.
  • When you do something noteworthy let your college’s public relations department know and have them publicize it.
There are a lot of other good points - read the whole thing here. I've merely highlighted the ones that hit home with me. In general, they seem to come down to being aware of the poeple around you, and acting graciously toward them. One of the best "life's rules" I ever heard was, "Don't make enemies for free". In any organization, there are a few poeple who can make a huge impact on your quality of life. A generally good strategy is to always stay on good terms with those people.

In graduate school, the elder students in the program stressed from day one that we should never, ever, ever get on the bad side of the director of the computer center (empirical finance research is often computer resource intensive, and she could make or break our time in the program). I took this idea even further, and made it my business to put her strongly on my side. I found out that "Joan" liked two things - slightly off-color jokes and good coffee. So, instead of only stopping by with problems, I'd often pop my head into her office with a cup of coffee or the latest joke. As a result, I had more space allocated on the mainframe than any faculty member in the college, and Joan would regularly spend hours working on my computer programs.

It may seem like manipulation (or selling out), but the ability to get on people's good side (and to put them on your side) is IMHO one of the most important skills for an academic (or anyone else).

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