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Friday, August 17, 2007

Grad School Rules

Fabio Rojas (a Sociology professor at Indiana) has compiled a truly impressive collection of advice for graduate students that he calls Grad School Rulz. Here are the topics he covers, listed along with my take on each piece:
  1. Get the (official) rules - know the actual requirements for your program. This keeps you from doing things you don't have to, and makes sure you dot all the necessary I's and cross all the essential T's. Don't rely on your faculty - go to someone who has the responsibility to know the correct rules -- like the graduate chair or the director of the program.
  2. Get the unwritten rules - most of the "really" important information you need to survive (like how to approach certain classes, who to work with (or not), and where to get help with technical issues) isn't on paper. Make sure you tap the experience of the student who've gone before you.
  3. Choosing a graduate program - different schools have vastly different profiles. This can be anywhere along the continuum from "survival of the fittest" to ""we look after our own" (luckily, mine was of the second kind). Try to figure out the profiles of the programs you're considering, and make sure it's a good fit for your strengths/weaknesses.
  4. How to make the best of course work - some very good rules of thumb on what types of courses to take (and how much effort to put into them). In the short run, they're important. But in the long run, keep your eye on the prize - focus on your research, and use courses to help you in furthering your progress towards it.
  5. Grad school exams - Exams are a "hygiene issue (i.e. you don't get noticed unless they're bad). For "sit down" tests, get copies of old exams, and talk to previous students. For take home exams, also get copies of old exams, but prepare beforehand by having good written summaries of articles (you should be doing this during your seminars in any event).
  6. Why friends are important - While over-socializing can hurt you, don't be a hermit. Friends can offer emotional support, provide technical assistance or comments on your work, and generally help you in your weak areas. It's likely that grad school peers will become your first non-faculty coauthors. And in addition, no one else will really understand what you're going through like the other people in your program. That's why many of them will become life-long friends.
  7. Picking your advisor - no advisor is perfect, but yours should have at least one strong suit. Some of the factors to consider are: record in placing students, reputation for competence in the profession, record of coauthoring with grad students, accessibility, ability to offer helpful criticism, expertise, and intellectual style
  8. Choosing other (non-chair) members for your dissertation committee - The end goals of your committee are to facilitate your getting the dissertation done and to help you get a job. Most of the responsibility for both jobs lies with your chair. But as for the rest of the committee, make sure they have complementary skills, get along, and aren't jerks that will put you through unnecessary hell.
  9. Why you shouldn't pay for grad school - it can be expensive. Luckily, b-school professors make good money. But in the humanities, that's not often the case. This piece makes some suggestions on how to minimize your debt load coming out.
  10. Choosing a dissertation topic - should you go with the "big obvious problem", come up with your own new problem, or take a topic from your advisor? Each has pluses and minuses. Whichever you choose, make sure it's something you feel passionate about (you'll likely be working on it and related pieces for several years). Also think about issues of compatibility with your intellectual style, strengths, and weaknesses, the popularity of the topic, and where the topic is in the research life-cycle (too new or too old both have risks).
  11. What to do while you are working on the dissertation- the short answer is, "as little of non-dissertation activities as possible." It might not be possible (depending on finances), but try to minimize teaching responsibilities. Also, be very leery of moving away from campus - it's much harder to finish your dissertation when you're in another city (to a great extent, it's "out of sight, out of mind" from your professors' viewpoints).
  12. Writing your dissertation (parts 1 and 2) - part 1 discusses how the different models for how the dissertation fits into your larger career (i.e. is it intended to be drafts of future books.articles, a job marketing tool, etc...). The more interesting (and potentially helpful) material is in part 2, which gives some very useful advice: dissertations are NOT "masterpieces, and the best ones are FINISHED ones. So do good work, but realize that the key thing is to "get er done".
All in all, Fabio's individual pieces of advice are all well worth reading. Follow them and you'll save yourself a lot of unnecessary work and grief.

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