Grad School Pointers for the Common Folk

So I'm heading into my 3rd year of my doctoral program, my 5th year of graduate education total so far. It's comfortable and familiar now, but wasn't always. My first day of orientation at USC, as I walked toward the Communication building, I eyed the pansy-filled flowerbeds and prehistoric-looking giant fiddlehead ferns, looking for the best place to throw up. I was terrified I wouldn't measure up, that they'd see through me. This was one of the most presitigious Com programs in the country; surely they'd figure out what a mistake they'd made in accepting me. My stomach churned and heart raced. That first year was hard, and I went to bed crying more than once.

Two years before, I'd been almost as anxious starting my master's program. It was a professinal program, with evening classes, in Seattle, and I imagined my peers would be all these massively hip, cutting-edge technorati. The week before classes, I'd practiced sending my address card from my cell phone via bluetooth and infrared, certain the first night of class would be filled with such deft zapping of contacts. Actually, I missed the first night of class. Despite my synchronized desktop-laptop-phone and wall calendars, I thought they started a week later. The bf and I had finished dinner, he was watching TV, and I was futzing on the computer. I just happened to look through some school materials and saw the class start date -- today -- TWO HOURS AGO.

My first day of grad school ever, after having been rejected once before by this same school, and I was missing class. My bf drove me down to campus; I ran from room to room to building to building, squinting in the dark at my blurry printout of the campus map, trying to find my cohort on campus tour. I did -- five minutes before class ended. My professor, to her credit, was totally cool. And no one had zapped any address cards.

It was an inauspicious start to my now fairly successful graduate career, and I describe these scenes to underscore how it wasn't always like this: confident, exciting, secure, familiar. To use academese, I want to denaturalize my present situation.

Because grad school is NOT natural for lots of people. That's my main point, and I'm constantly reminded of it by my peers who come from generations of PhDs and other grad degrees. My dad only has a BA; my stepmom didn't go to college. My birth mother got a master's but, although I remember a lot about her research, mentor, and experience, I don't remember her ever telling me anything about the process, benefits, or struggles of grad school. She stopped talking to me entirely shortly after I graduated college, so she wasn't much of a source of information when I did finally go to grad school. (Although I directly attribute my intellectual curiosity, especially towards cultural studies, to her.)

So here's a list of random pointers I wish someone had given me when I was younger:

1. Don't extrapolate from your undergrad experience to grad school. I went to a fine arts studio school. They only had masters degrees at the grad level, and in Art these are pretty much a more independent, studio-focused extension of the kind of work you do in undergrad. People do it to develop (further) a body of work, build a portfolio (if they didn't go to art school as an undergrad), or to be able to teach. Graduate degrees actually vary immensely across fields and disciplines; I just looked at what was around me and thought that was all there was to it. I didn't need to go to grad school because I didn't want to teach and was determined to become a published novelist through my own discipline, determination and talent, without the 'crutch' of grad school.

2. Grad school is not a 'crutch.' It's more like intensive training, with your professors the equivalent of physical trainers or coaches. The point is not that you can't do it alone, it's that they can push you further. That and they, and your peers, will become an invaluable career resource. Sure, I published 2 novels without getting an MFA in writing -- but if I had, chances are my writing career would've been much more successful as my peers and colelagues helped me with press, reviews, awards, etc.

3. Don't listen to what people tell you. Or, better yet, get lots of 3rd and 2nd opinions. In my late teens and 20s, all I heard about academia was kvetching and moaning. The politics. The backstabbing. The hypocrisy. The egos. It sounded like a viperpit I wanted nothing to do with. What I didn't realize was that the complaints were almost entirely from people who went straight from undergrad into grad school. Yes, academia has all those faults -- BUT THE REAL WORLD IS 10 TIMES WORSE. I never heard the perspective of someone who spent over a decade in corporate America before going to grad school. That's what I ended up doing, and, let me tell you, even with its problems, academia is a luxurious bubblebath. You get to be surrounded my smart people, have smart conversations, do your own research, teach, learn, share, have a flexible schedule, and get discounted tickets. I've made big bucks in advertising and been a pauper in grad school, and guess which one does NOT make me wake up every morning with a depressed fist of nausea in my gut?

4. You can go directly from undergrad into a PhD program. It's harder, but can be done. I'd always assumed you had to get a master's first. Wrong. Could've maybe saved 2 years and big bucks if I'd known this little fact.

5. There are different kinds of graduate programs, schools, and students. I got my master's in an evening professional program. It was a specialized degree within the regular Com program at a big, respected university. I assumed my program was as respectable as the main Com program. Wrong, and I've seen this elsewhere since then. Professional programs are departmental moneymakers and, regardless of the caliber of education, faculty, or students, they are looked down upon scholastically. If you want to continue on from one into a PhD, you often have to work extra hard to accrue publications, conference presentations, awards, or other accolades to balance out your professional degfree and show that you're a "real" grad student. Professional programs also often cost more, are not eligible for some financial aid, are excluded from departmental promotions and events, and are not eligible for teaching or research assistantships. That being said, they may however be a necessary stepping stone: Quite possibly I wouldn't have been able to get into my PhD program without first having done my professional masters.

6. Do GRE prep classes. The test is funky. You can't prepare for it enough.

7. Stay in contact with former professors, friends who have gone into academia, and professional colleagues. Letters of recommendation are gold.

8. PhD programs are FREE. Let me rephrase that into one excellent peice of advice I did get: "A program that doesn't offer you a full ride isn't worth going to." But what I didn't know if how common this is. At my school every single PhD student in every single program is fully funded for 5 years. This isn't always the case, but you really shouldn't have to pay for a PhD (except for extra loans, etc.) unless there's absolutely no other option.

9. Apply to LOTS of schools. I know it's a pain, but do it. The more options you have, the better. See above.

10. Visit schools BEFORE you apply. Make appointments to talk to professors about the program. It's part of their job to do this; don't be scared of them. These interviews will greatly help your decision-making and your chances of getting accepted. (Again, this was some great advice I did get.)

11. Acceptance is something of a crapshoot. Sooooooooo many factors come into play besides quality of applicants. Don't get weirded out by it.

12. If you're in a relationship, brace yoruself. Grad school will rock it. Talk out every angle you can think of, share your thoughts as you go through applications, ask for your partner's input. Doing some counselling to prepare for the unexpected -- which WILL come -- is an excellent idea.

13. CV = resume.

14. Typical PhD program = 2 to 3 years coursework, a semester studying and taking your qualifying exams, then two or more years writing your dissertation. Many people apply for and get teaching jobs after they've passed exams but before they've completed their diss and graduated.

16. PhD stuent = before exams. PhD candidate = has passed exams. ABD = All But Dissertation (is completed).

17. Be a freak. My CV has some weird shit on it. I don't know if it's ever kept doors from opening for me, but I do know it's definitely opened them. Often this was due to weird luck and coincidences, but my point is: don't try to make yourself sound like what you think a grad student should sound like. Well, actually, on your CV and letters of intent (applications), DO sound like a grad student, but sound like your freaky version of one. Application committees have to read bazillions of these things; they WANT people who have unique things to offer. Acceptance is not solely about whether you're good enough to go to a school, it's about what you can ADD to that school. They're looking for people who will bring something new to the table, publish and present and teach in ways that will add to their own reputation. They aren't doing you a favor, they're hunting for future jewels to put in their own crowns.

18. Professors are just like everybody else.

19. When you ask people to write letters of recommendation, also ask what their history is with the institution(s) you're applying to. You don't want a letter from someone who has bad blood with the department you're applying to.

20. Take care of yourself. Grad school is hard, mentally and physically. Diet, exercise, therapy, addiction control, whatever. Your health will take a hit in some way, so be prepared. Not to mention this will also make you a better, sharper student.

Ok so there's my 20 Tips. I'm sure there's more where they came from, but I hope for now these are useful to someone out there. I love being a nerdriffic grad dweeb; I wish I'd done this years ago. Maybe that's my last piece of advice: Don't be scared, don't be intimidated, and most of all: Don't ever think you're not good enough!


  1. wow - awesome. this should be required reading for anyone even thinking about grad school.

  2. So when do I get to start calling you Dr. Scott? (and exclaiming Great Scott! behind your back?)

  3. on number 13 and 17, what does CV stand for? I am guessing that it is a transcript or list of past classes taken?

  4. A very, uh, educational post. And timely as I'm headed to Grad School this fall here in Portland. Which reminds me, would you mind if I started stalking your ex? Just wondering...

  5. Cool glad y'all liked it!

    David, you're a big part of the reason I'm here...
    Kathleen, I crack myself up with that same joke constantly and will demand it of my first class of students ...
    James, CV stands for "curriculum vitae," but usually people just say CV. It's not a transcript (although you do send those in separately when applying). A CV is an academic resume: education, degrees, publications, presentations, service, teaching, etc.
    b., my ex is a pretty wonderful guy and deserves a good stalking. Good luck, and let me know of any job openings up there!