Welcome to Graduate School; Six key lessons to help master's and doctoral students thrive in their first year

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Author: David Shorter
Date: Sept. 19, 2014
From: The Chronicle of Higher Education(Vol. 61, Issue 03)
Publisher: Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,908 words
Lexile Measure: 1030L

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Byline: David Shorter

As graduate adviser in my department for the past five years, I've distilled the advice I offer each fall to new graduate students down to six key lessons. Here is my crash course aimed at those of you just starting out now in M.A., M.F.A., or Ph.D. programs in the humanities and social sciences, and at those of you running orientation programs.

1. Be grateful for this opportunity, but prepare an exit strategy. First and foremost, pause to consider that you wanted to be in this graduate program. And here you are about to receive attention and training from leaders in your chosen field. Not many professions provide this phase of directed reading, mentorship, and fostering of your creative, intellectual, and personal goals.

As many of us in the academic world come to learn, graduate school seems at times like the absolute worst; (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXvv5sTqNa4) but in hindsight it was the absolute best. When else will you be asked to pursue your goals and be provided a peer group and support network to help you do so? You will look back at this phase and fondly remember the time you had to read, to read more, and then to read some more. Relish it, but don't get too comfortable, because graduate school is a stage, not the destination.

That's why you need to start planning your exit now. Literally sit down and map out when you plan to jump through the various hoops. When, exactly, will you take your language exam? And your qualifying exams? By what date will you need an outside committee member? Do you have to do fieldwork? If so, how will you pay for it? If that entails applying for grants, what are those deadlines to secure money in time for the research?

Talk about your plan with your adviser. We are better prepared to help you if we know your career aspirations early on. So tell us about your intentions with this degree and tell us when those intentions change.

Most important, use this overarching plan to structure your week-by-week scheduling and show those weekly plans to your adviser, too. It might help you to keep a simple equation in mind: Most faculty assign work that takes three times the amount of in-class time. If a seminar is three hours, I imagine the students doing nine hours of work every week on reading and writing. Now multiply that by the number of courses you are taking. You'll spend additional hours doing professional development, research, teaching assistantships, and more. Ultimately, the first couple years of graduate school may prove to be mostly about time management. And, frankly, that skill is one best learned early in the academic profession.

2. Every act is professional. If you are working with faculty members who have doctorates, you should probably start off by calling them "Dr. Smith"...

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