What I Wish I’d Known in Graduate School

by Dr. Mary P. Sheridan 

Indoctrination is Real

On your way to becoming a “PhD” (or anything else), you are not just waiting to become some future self. Take time to think about the trajectories you’re setting, and make sure you’re cultivating the ones that help you be the person you want to be.

Appreciate the Foundations You Are Setting

Folks give up a lot to pursue a grad degree, but you’ll draw on these foundations for a decade, if not your entire career.  I wish I had known what a gift these years are. 

  • Find your peeps, the ones who keep you grounded when you start to spiral, buoyed when you feel overwhelmed, and cheered when you make the moves that matter to you.
  • Find yourself, in new situations, with interesting questions, and with all sorts of informed ideas about learning, teaching and researching. You get to pick which ones you want to explore, ones that can help you do both well and good.  Take time to appreciate when you are doing meaningful work, designed by your choosing.
  • Make a good mess.  Learning in deep grooves helps you develop conventional disciplinary wisdom, bedrock as you navigate your way through your career.  Sometimes, however, that conventional wisdom comes pre-packaged.  It’s the messy, juicy, fraught questions that justify spending years to think through. These questions are all around us. Learn to re-see those messy questions so that you capture their complexity as you create alternative (even innovate) responses. Once you know your strengths, interests and the resources able to be leveraged, see what you can make happen.

Learn to Take Risks and to Support Others To Do the Same

The world gets more interesting when we jump in, in whatever way makes sense for us.  Jumping gets easier when others have our backs and when we have theirs.

  • Learn to fail because you reached for something new (and be kind to those around you who may be doing the same). This implies learning to be uncomfortable because you leaned into your weaknesses and sought out your blind spots (and again, be kind those trying to do the same). You’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice.  For example, extroverts, figure out how/when to sit in the silence, so others have an opportunity to voice many different ways to know something. Introverts, ask questions in the Q&A after a public talk or saddle on up to someone new and introduce yourself.
  • Build a community that encourages you to take risks. Check-in on each other frequently. Bring soup to a sick colleague or tissues to a sad one. Share your shitty first drafts as well as your awards. Pass along scholarship opportunities and dinner invitations.
  • Learn to revel in the moments when people, ideas and structures click. It’s tough to overrate celebrating successes, whether yours or others.

 Have a Life Outside of School

Working toward that mythic “balanced life” is a practice, so start now. For those feeling the Time-To-Degree specter, remember you can’t do it all but having a life beyond Bingham is both valuable in itself and you never how nurturing the many-parts-of-you can benefit the grad-student-parts-of-you.  For example, I was volunteering at a community organization long before GirlZone became my dissertation site; working with others to sustain this grassroots activist project challenged my understandings of postmodern theory, participatory action research, and feminist activism in ways seminar papers never did.

  • Indulge other passions by playing a sport or an instrument, by joining a church or a yoga studio, or by taking up martial arts, coding, knitting or cooking. You can even use UL’s free tuition; once you’ve taken all the methods classes you can, try painting or piano, economic theory or world history.
  • Volunteer at community organizations, whether on fair housing, health care, racial profiling, parental leave, the tree canopy, accessible public spaces, elder care, or voter registration.
  • Learn to care for yourself, including saying no to things others think you should do, and saying yes to things you find meaningful. 

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Grad school is not a dress rehearsal for an imagined future life; it is life.  Value who you are and who you are becoming as you set your course.

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