Some basic things you should know about being in a Ph.D. program

"Cloister, Glasgow University," by _skynet

Disclaimer: This post is not about the politics of humanities Ph.D. programs, the ethics of these arrangements, or whether you should go to grad school in the first place. But if you haven’t already looked into this and you’re thinking of going to grad school, you need to do your homework on this stuff. Start here.

A few days ago I had a nice phone conversation with a recent college graduate who was thinking about applying to Yale’s Film Studies program. Talking to her reminded me of my first year or so as a grad student at Yale, and what I remember most is just all-consuming confusion — the ubiquitous sensation of doing the wrong thing, and, worse, of not knowing what the right thing was.

In a way, the conditions of my entrance into grad school virtually guaranteed this. The only professors I knew were the faculty at my liberal arts college (where we didn’t have grad students). They were wonderful, but we didn’t really have heart-to-hearts. I’d never actually known a grad student. I hadn’t done my homework as well as I should have. I went to grad school because I liked college, was good at it, and thought it sounded cool to get paid to read. Simple as that.

I was 23. It can’t be that unusual.

And, disastrously, I was the first grad student to enter Yale’s Film Studies Ph.D. program, and the only one that year. Meaning I was a cohort of one. The faculty were generously solicitous, but they were so far removed from my own station that I think my constant missteps were baffling and sometimes exasperating to them.

Not all grad students are like me. As I quickly learned, a lot of them know what being a grad student is all about, have done their research, and understand how to navigate academia. This post is not for them. This is about the really basic conventions and etiquette of what it means to be a Ph.D. student.

If all this sounds like BS to you, you should ignore it. I hope you do, actually. But I think it’s only fair to have the option of knowing what the conventions are before you decide to flout them.

  • Most people who enter humanities Ph.D. programs want to be professors. Laugh if you want, but I didn’t know this. I thought, you know, you’d read a lot, maybe intern in summers, and emerge as, say, a writer or an archivist or, sure, maybe a professor. Not so. The measure of success at most humanities Ph.D. programs is whether you get a job as a professor — preferably tenure-track — and your actions will be judged against this benchmark.
  • The minute you enter grad school, you’re a professional. Grad school is not college, or at least not college as I experienced it, i.e., a special personal journey of exploration and wonder and alcohol. You’re at grad school to be professionalized into academia, and your behavior is expected to reflect that.
  • Your fellow grad students are your colleagues, not (necessarily) your friends. You’ll make good friends, of course you will, but relationships with most other grad students will be more like coworkers than buddies. So if they don’t come to your party, say, or don’t want to hang out after class, don’t be offended. That’s just not what it’s about for a lot of people.
  • You are supposed to go to all the departmental lectures, screenings, colloquia, etc. This stuff is not a fun extracurricular activity that you can hit or miss depending on your interests. Your attendance is expected and your absence is noticed. It’s part of being a good colleague.
  • Pick your classes according to the following criteria, in descending order of importance: 1) The professor is someone you want to know and might want to work with; 2) your seminar paper might come in handy for your oral exams or dissertation research; 3) you’re interested in the topic.
  • You primary, and often only, class assignment will be one 20-page paper, due at the end of the semester.
  • Faculty hierarchy goes like this: endowed professor, full professor, associate professor, assistant professor, and everything else, including visiting professor, instructor, adjunct professor, research professor, etc. You have tenure if you’re an associate professor on up; otherwise, you don’t. You may want to note this if you’re considering taking a class or working with someone, because you’ll want to know whether that person is permanent.
  • Have something to say when someone asks you what you’re interested in. And that thing can’t be “twentieth-century American history” or “English literature,” even if that’s true. It should be something like “race and the body in Puritan theology.” There, use that.
  • It is no longer self-deprecation time. That’s charming, but it’s over.
  • Start applying to conferences and getting ready to publish as soon as you’ve written a seminar paper. I know, right? Intimidating! Here’s how you can comfort yourself: Go to an academic conference and listen to the papers. Your stuff’s just as good. You know it is.
  • There is likely one professional association for your discipline. For film studies it’s SCMS; for American studies it’s ASA; for literature and languages it’s the MLA. That’s the conference you’re supposed to go to and those people are your colleagues.
  • Subscribe to the relevant listservs and RSS feeds. That’s how you know about calls for papers (CFPs) and what other people are working on. For example, I subscribe to two H-NET listservs, the American Studies Association RSS feed, and this feed of CFPs.

Honestly, the smartest thing you can do immediately after starting grad school is to pick out a nice-seeming older student, buy him or her a beer, confess your ignorance, and ask this person what you should know.

There are a million other things you should also know about research habits, job-market preparation, productivity, and writing. These things are admirably well-covered in places like ProfHacker, GradHacker, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed. (I’d recommend Lifehacker, too.) But this is the stuff that will get you in the door and through your first semester or so without embarrassing yourself. Unlike some people I could mention.

11 thoughts on “Some basic things you should know about being in a Ph.D. program

  1. Nice post! All things I wish I knew when I started grad school at 23 but only realizing four years after getting my M.S. Hoping to “restart” (ugh) my PhD goals in American Studies as informed as I can be. This post is a helpful reminder that I must not be the only one who missed the original memo.

  2. Great work Miriam! I’m definitely going to be directing some people to this. I have one possible quibble, though — I think the advice to go to conferences and publish early can be either good or bad, depending on the field you’re in. I felt pressure to do this (from other grad students?) in my first years, and my adviser was great in consistently, forcefully, telling me not to. In art history (and history?), the degree tends to take a while (travel and all) and you really just need to do well in your classes, pass your language tests, get fellowships and get the hell on with your dissertation. It’s great to get some conference papers under your belt, but it’s fine to wait til after you’ve finished your 3 years of coursework to do so. And publishing – unless it’s something that just falls in your lap (like a museum catalog essay because you had to do it anyway for a methodology class) (#personalexperience) – or you’re an older student who’s already published in the field and knows what it’s about – should definitely wait until you’re at least in the writing stages of your dissertation. Before that it makes little sense. Publishing an essay is not like turning in a seminar paper, it’s multiple edits and rewrites, and dealing with other people, and figuring out reproduction rights for your pictures, and you just Do Not have time for that, aside from the fact that you have not yet completed your coursework and likely don’t have a solid grip on your own theoretical stance vis-a-vis the broader debates in your field.

    Observing my own co-grad students (cohorts a few years below and above me), there’s definitely a difference between those who tried to go to lots of conferences and publish early, and those who didn’t: the former finished in 8, 9, 10 years or more, with funding running out, leading to lots of adjuncting at roughly sweatshop-level pay, while the latter finished in 6-7, often beating the funding clock, and got postdocs and/or jobs. This of course doesn’t prove anything, but I think it’s worth considering when thinking about how to best use one’s time as a humanities grad student. Now, in the sciences, of course, it’s totally different….

    So that’s my two cents; maybe it’s only worth something to a small percentage of the audience :). Again, great post!

  3. Interesting, Sarah! I hadn’t really thought about it that way. You’re right, stuff like that could be an unnecessary distraction from getting in and out of your Ph.D. program.

    Still, I remember being absolutely baffled as to how other grad students knew about conferences, not to mention how they had stuff to present on and publish. So how about this: You can present and publish or not. But many of your colleagues will be writing their seminar papers with an eye to presenting and publishing them.

  4. Love it.

    I also wanted to say that conferences serve a lot of different functions. Sometimes you get great feedback, but often (for me, anyway) the connections you make are far, far more important than your 20 minute presentation. I know it varies by conference and discipline, but really–the experiences of meeting leaders in the field, in my second year alone, have been priceless. (Okay, the cost of a plane ticket and a hotel room, but you know what I mean.)

  5. This post is worth its weight in gold for new grad students. Especially this: The minute you enter grad school, you’re a professional.

    I’d love to see you write more on what the self-deprecation thing looks like! Because the fact is, academic women make a highly refined art form of self deprecation that extends all the way through emerita status, as far as I can see. Unless you call out what exactly it is and how exactly it sabotages your chances, these newbies won’t even know they’re doing it.

  6. All so true! I was just like you when I entered grad school…and now, starting my second year as an adjunct, these things are just finally starting to click. Particularly the parts about conferences and papers–I’m hoping to get full time at my school and need to know this stuff, but no one ever sat me down and explained it to me, so I feel like I’m behind everyone else, who somehow picked it up on their own (perhaps through osmosis?).

  7. I agree about the need to expand on self-deprecation…as an older female student with a very elaborate education I’ve found I am sometimes intimidating to colleagues and students, so I use self-deprecation deliberately as part of my professional persona (in combination with the unadulterated displays of knowledge that I can’t help) in order to be who I am without inciting umbrage or hostility. It’s an uneasy compromise that has been successful for me so far, though now I am wondering how tenable it will be in terms of advancement. Anyone else?

    (Also, I love “a special personal journey of exploration and wonder and alcohol.” Fabulous post! And congratulations on surviving being a cohort of one.)

  8. Great post! I love your coverage of basics that so many undergrads would not know without being told — essential information, well said.

    RE: self-deprecation, I see female grad students prefacing questions and comments with phrases such as, “This is probably a dumb question, but…” or “I don’t know if I am understanding this correctly, but I think….” and so on. Male grad students do NOT tend to say things like this. Female grad students need to be kindly told to stop doing this (preferably after class, privately, so as to minimize the potential embarrassment).

    I did this myself as a 22-year-old, and I was lucky enough to have a male professor tell me privately to stop undercutting myself. It made me much more aware of how I came across and of how gender roles can get in a woman’s way in grad school.

  9. You can have a sense of humor about yourself without being self-deprecating. But yeah, cut the questioning tone and the “I think” and the “this might be wrong buts….” Speak in a reasonably authoritative voice. Teaching really helps with this.

  10. Oh you are a God send. I am starting my second year in a Phd program. Thank you…..thank you…..Thank U!!!!

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