What I Wish I’d Known in Year One: Or, On Dissertations, Assholes, Cupcakes, and Being a Person by Rachel Gramer

The dissertation is a piece, not the whole; a beginning, not the end.

The dissertation needs to be done—there’s no denying that. Outside of done, what the diss needs to be and do by the time you defend—and what it can be and do, post-defense—is up for debate.

What I wish I’d known was that my dissertation would never get or lose me any single job. I have been most surprised to discover that I was asked very few questions about my dissertation in job interviews for many different kinds of positions, programs, and institutions. It’s not that people don’t care; of course, the dissertation is a signature of sorts that shows other scholars not just what you are interested but how you think and conduct research. It’s just that there’s just no one piece of this puzzle that matters more than all the others. I was asked more interview and campus visit questions about teaching, contributing to a program/department, and being a colleague, than about my research or dissertation—regardless of the type of institution or position—because these are things that matter to the people deciding whether or not they want to work with you.

The dissertation is important. And I believe what Mary P said in my first semester here: choose something you are passionate about, not just something you’re interested in. Because we are curious, interested people who can find so many things interesting. But interest alone won’t carry you through the long haul of a 1/2/3 year project. Just like your diss won’t make or break you all by itself.

I was already a person before I entered graduate school.

This seems obvious. But let’s just say, some people (me) have found that some academics (not all, but quite a few) forget that people are people in ways that precede, infuse, and—perhaps even more importantly—exceed the bounds of being an academic and a graduate student. So many of the things that have been most helpful to me in finding a job that’s a good fit happened before I got to UofL: teaching high school, teaching two-year college, writing in/for a non-academic workplace, and gaining all kinds of peer mentoring and community building experience along the way. These experiences didn’t just shape who I am; they also helped me articulate who I am and who I want to be to any number of virtual strangers along the PhD journey.

When I use the phrase “gap year,” I try to self-correct. There is no “gap” year. There is life. And life lived outside the academy is a resource, not a deficit. Fuck anyone who makes you feel differently. Maybe they never made it out, or maybe they just forgot to check their own privilege and not assume that we all privilege the same kinds of being and doing or the singular trajectory of grad student-to-academic faculty. Sometimes all we can do is hand those folks a cupcake (even a tiny one), find ways to laugh out loud with them, and hope it helps.

Never underestimate the value of Not being An Asshole.

This is also on my list of reasons why I think I’ve done well in my job search, my dissertation process, and any number of professional activities (including publishing, co-authoring, mentoring, administration, grant writing, community engagement, and other professional development). Not being an asshole is not to be confused with being meek, weak, naïve, or nice all the time. It just means that I try to assume good intentions; and when I find myself immediately gearing up for a fight (sometimes before the scene even begins), I breathe deeply, pause, and try to be honest without being aggressive, presumptuous, condescending, or dismissive.

We all need to be honest with ourselves and with each other, but there are many ways to do so. I try to be honest while also being kind and thinking generously of others who are—not who may be—struggling in ways I do not know and cannot imagine.

Sometimes Not being An Asshole (or NAA, as folks in my circle call it) also means not choosing battles, but not seeing everything as a battle to begin with (thank you, FEMINISM). And Letting Go of what does not fill you up when you are nearing empty. What those things are is different for each of us; for me, those things are Competition and Complaint. I had to let them go in order Not to be An Asshole, for myself and to others. And I really can’t express in any blog post what a gift it has been to learn to be generous and kind toward others in such an intensely taxing, draining, constantly changing time of life during the PhD—because doing so has helped me learn to be more generous toward myself personally and professionally. And I need that, too.

Asking for help is not just OK—it can make us better people.

Like many graduate students (and many of you, I suspect), I am an introvert who learned, over a lifetime, to be an overachiever; and I was often spurred on by wonderful people who believed deeply in individualistic bootstrap models of success. This is fine (arguably), but this scenario did not give me many low-stakes opportunities to learn to ask for help. And we all need help. There is so much that is new for graduate students—in life, in work, in relationships, in writing, in budgeting, in learning how to be a scholar as a complex professional activity. And it is OK to ask for help, from your peers, your advisors, your family and friends.

Maybe some of you were raised to feel comfort and not shame at asking for help—great! I hope you help the rest of us out by modeling that behavior; meanwhile, the rest of us will keep trying to banish the knot of shame that rises up in our throats every time we even think we will come close to saying: I need help, I cannot do this alone, there has to be an easier way than suffering in silence. There is: ask for help.

It’s not just OK to ask for help—it’s so deeply deeply needed. When I have asked for help—which ranges from “Can you read these 25 pages of word vomit?” to “I need to do laundry at your house,” or “I can’t possibly meet this deadline unless…” to “Can you sit with me while I’m locked out, crying, and have a nosebleed and no tissues?”—I have let people see me struggling, received their goodwill, and had the chance to say Thank You. And that gratitude and honesty have made me a more generous peer and a better human being.

There will always be more good things to do than you have time to say Yes to.


Grad school is a safe(r) place to figure out who you are and want to be.

I’ll end with this one because it’s perhaps the one I’ve forgotten most, often on a daily basis. While grad school is stressful, exhausting, daunting, taxing, draining, seems competitive, high stakes, and full of places to misstep–it’s also a place where people are charged with supporting you, building you up, checking in on you, guiding you in helpful ways, and giving you opportunities to try, to fail, and to fail better. And though it may not always seem like it, the stakes for any individual activity are relatively low (see #1 about how no one thing will make or break you).

And if any of these above “What I’ve Learned” statements are not your idea of what graduate school can and should do for you—that’s okay, too. I truly hope there are tiny cupcakes in your future. rachel-gramer


Rachel Gramer is a doctoral candidate in rhetoric and composition who is dedicated to the following: (1) not being an asshole, (2) saying thank you, (3) defending her dissertation in April, (4) getting her first tattoo on that defense date in order to keep it from being totally anticlimactic, and (5) doing work with and for others that encourages people to shine. And she has a job next year working with great people in a neat place, which is a most amazing relief and source of excitement. 


One thought on “What I Wish I’d Known in Year One: Or, On Dissertations, Assholes, Cupcakes, and Being a Person by Rachel Gramer

Comments are closed.