What I Wish I’d Known in Graduate School by Dr. David Anderson

There are several pieces of advice that I would offer—all concerning things I would do differently if I could. Think of me as Jacob Marley dragging around a chain of graduate-school regrets, come to warn you all before it’s too late.

1) Ask somebody. I suppose this is obvious, but bears repeating. Please pick the brains of others, whether fellow graduate students, faculty, staff—whatever. When I applied to graduate programs, I didn’t visit any campus, and didn’t get a chance to speak to other graduate students before I signed up for my first courses. I wound up taking three bad professors in my first semester, and might as well have thrown that semester away.

Collect many different opinions, and use your b.s. detector when talking to others. If your hair stands on end, your intuition is telling you something valuable.

While it’s good to access the collective graduate-student mind, I find that students rarely ask me questions about my areas of expertise, which is a shame. I’d be happy to share what I know (and admit what I don’t know)—FOR FREE!–about teaching, books, delivering papers at conferences, submitting articles to journals, and so on. I remember that I was a fifth reader on a dissertation committee about rhetoric concerning welfare and race some years back, and I was only scheduled to get a copy of the dissertation right before the defense. It turned out that the student’s thesis was common knowledge, but the student hadn’t really bothered to ask me about the subject.

2) Try to make every grad assignment count. I have to admit that I have the attention of a mayfly, and flit about from subject to subject, which is quite fun, educational, and professionally detrimental.

If you can, try to use some aspect of your class assignments to explore topics that might be related to a later M.A. or doctoral project. If you’re interested in trauma for a thesis, can you do some of your background research in one or two of your classes?

3) Remember why you came to grad school. I was lucky to have teachers whom I deeply admired, not only as critics, but as human beings. Doc Noonan and William George, who were two of my favorite English teachers in high school, fostered my interest in literature and writing, but also modeled ways of being humane and supportive of students, which I hadn’t experienced until I took their classes. I often think of their examples when I teach. 

4) Be good to yourselves. I know this piece of advice is awfully avuncular, but it’s still important. Graduate school can be, as you well know, demanding, frustrating, and humiliating, and it’s very important that you take care of your physical and emotional health. I say this because I became deeply depressed right when I began working on my dissertation, and I needed to seek professional help. I had to learn ways to protect myself, to balance study and recreation, to know when to fight and when to let go, to enjoy the city, to reach out when I needed help. 

5) Unexpected allies. I’ll just say that you shouldn’t assume that some people will automatically be allies, and others enemies. I was very disappointed that a scholar I deeply admired turned out to be a moral monster, while another completely out of my field went out of his way to protect me and support me. Don’t be surprised by disappointments in graduate school, but also know that there are others here eager to support you, or who may know ways around obstacles.

David Anderson

Dr. David Anderson is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Louisville. He is currently interested in neglected African American poetry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, environmentalism and African American literature, and studying poetic forms and traditions.

What I Wish I’d Known in Graduate School by Kristi Maxwell

Be curious. Read widely. Enroll in a class that is outside of your specialization. Generate questions. Host salons and curiosity symposiums. Keep a running list of things you’d like to know.

Foster non-academic areas of your life and find a community that extends beyond classmates and faculty. This was especially important for me in the face of the brutal academic job market because it helped me remember that my life is a lot bigger than a job. Remember your worth doesn’t come from your degree.

Take advantage of opportunities for cross-disciplinary conversations. My PhD work in English was deeply enriched by my graduate certificate work in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, which helped me better understand the ways pedagogy and social justice can intertwine. Go to talks put on by the Commonwealth Center for the Humanities and Society, the Anne Braden Institute, etc. Expose yourself to other people thinking out loud. kristi-maxwell

On a practical level, use a different color pen each time you reread a book. Inside the cover, note which pen corresponds to which date. This will help you keep track of how your questions, interests, and critiques change and develop over the years.

Invest in giant Post-its, cover your office walls, and chart connections between ideas. This visual aid has been enormously useful for me.

Dr. Kristi Maxwell is an Assistant Professor of English. 

What I Wish I’d Known in Graduate School by Paul Griner

Most of what I wish I’d known in grad school are practical things.  Some have been alluded to in other posts (Stephen’s about administrative work, for instance, which comes to most of us, no matter how much or little we want it; plan for it, and do your best.  In my case it turned out I actually liked it).  Some I figured out only as I went on.  Some I’m still figuring out now.  But if I could give advice to grad students, one of the best pieces I think is: be broad.

It’s easy to specialize.  To learn everything you can about some area that not too many other people know much about, to create new knowledge.  It’s also exciting.  And there’s a practical reason to do so: if you’re working in an area that no one else is, you might get an interview that could lead to a job.  But I’d be wary of being too specialized, of having your SLA and SRA, say, be too neatly tied to your dissertation, or of taking only fiction courses on your way to an MA/MFA.  This has nothing to do with job prospects, about which I can’t give much advice.  Instead, it has to do with sanity.

I teach a lot of workshops, everything from introductory creative writing courses all the way through the graduate ones, and I like doing so.  Over time, I think I’ve become pretty good at it.  But if that was all I taught—never any lit courses, never any comp—I’d probably be burned out already.  202 isn’t much like the graduate course, in the way I conceive of them, or in the suggested course outcomes for CW.  But they’re still relatively the same thing: talking about form and structure, language and imagery, dialogue and enjambment, asking how things work, how we can make them better, what’s missing from a draft, what we want more of, less of, what confuses us, thrills or saddens or enrages us.  In lit courses, we talk about some of those things, but generally not in the same ways.  In one you figure out how a car engine works, like a mechanic, in the other you critique the entire car, the industry, the very notion of consumer culture.  They’re linked, but sometimes only tenuously, and it’s the differences between them that I’m talking about.paul-griner

In my lit courses, I get to read books I might not otherwise, exercise different parts of my brain, figure out ways to teach texts I use in a CW classroom in vastly different ways.  It keeps literature from getting stale for me, me from becoming an automaton, from the repetitive nature of teaching the various elements of craft to new students year after year.  It’s all interesting work, and I’m lucky to have it, but even a job that you’re lucky to have can become dull, if you let it.  Hard to do, but imagine that you’re going to be teaching something—your current area of expertise—for twenty or thirty or forty years.  Look around, in our department, and in others.  What other subjects or areas might you be interested in learning about?  What might keep your mind fresh, and save you (and your students) from boredom?  It’s never to early to start.

Paul Griner is a Professor of English. 

What I Wish I’d Known in Graduate School by Dr. Ian Stansel

A list of the things I wished I’d known in graduate school could fill up the internet. Hell, a list of the things I wished I’d know last week would be more than this blog could accommodate. But for purposes of this post, here are three thoughts…

Don’t write papers for your classes

Write papers for publication. They will be inspired by your classes, and they will have to adhere to whatever parameters your professors have set, but you should have an outlet or two in mind for eventual publication. Talk to your professors about where you could see the piece ending up so that they understand not only their expectations for the project, but also your goals. These two things may not always fit together, but at least you’ll know, and you can adjust based on the advice of your professors. It might end up that most of what you write in grad school does not get published. But having the larger goal in mind will get you through the moments when you feel like you are just spinning your wheels.

Don’t spend all of your time working

You are going to spend most of your time working. You already do spend most of your time working. But there are the occasional moments of respite. Or if not respite, moments when you just need some time, an hour, maybe even a day off. Moments when you just can’t. This is fine. But in those moments, do something else you love. You might not know what this something else is yet. Try things. Get a hobby! I know that sounds trite, but it isn’t. Having something else you “do” will buoy you when you feel sunk by your academic work.

This “something else” can be just about anything else. Learn to cook more. Learn to play the guitar. Learn Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. It can be literally anything.

If all you can imagine doing in your time away from your studies is watching Netflix, fine. Make that into a project. Watch all of Jane Campion’s films over the course of a couple weeks. Pick a year and watch only movies from that year. Invite friends to join you. Make your thing a thing.

Specifying the project will stave off those God-I-really-should-be-working feelings, and will thus allow you to actually recharge.

You can decide to do this

My MFA program had, at any given time, one hundred students. But that wasn’t all of the writers hanging around. There were also the nonfiction writers (the CNF program was housed in a different department). Plus there were not a few writers who’d graduated and stuck around the very comfortable, very writer-friendly hamlet in the cornfields. There were even a couple folks here and there who had moved there to be in proximity to program and to take classes here and there as they could. My point being that even in this one little town—a scale model, if you will, of the larger literary world—there were a hell of a lot of writers.

Some had already published quite a bit, others none at all. Some came from Ivy League undergraduate programs, others from vast state schools. Some grew up surrounded by books and art and the like, others were raised on television game shows.

I was of the none at all/state school/game shows breed.

This is not to say that some didn’t have certain advantages. They did. I did. But my point is that none of those factors seem to have made all that much difference in future publishing (or not to the extent one might fear). I firmly believe that those who have gone on to publish did so because they wanted to and because they kept at it. And they kept at it because they loved it. It wasn’t for just for publication. It wasn’t in service of all daydreams where they get interviewed by Teri Gross (you know you’ve had them). It was loveian-stansel

This can be you. You can do this thing if you want to and if you work at it and if you approach reading and writing and teaching with humility. A lack of humility is the greatest barrier to learning and, in turn, achievement. So as you look around you at your fellow graduate students, know that none of them, not even those who seem to be riding on the big float at the head of the parade, are a “shoo in” for a life of academic/literary/whatever success.

No matter who you are or where you came from or how many times this week you felt like you were utterly up against it, you can do this. 

Dr. Ian Stansel is an Assistant Professor in the English Department. 

What I Wish I’d Known in Grad School by Kiki Petrosino

You’re going to be jealous.

In torrents, in sheets. In chapters. You’re going to spend entire Wednesdays being jealous, entire hikes being jealous, you’re going to be jealous right through the spin cycle.

Pinpricks of jealousy will poke at you just as you’re stirring tiny cubes of red onion into your famous guacamole, which you’ve made for your old grad school buddy’s book release party. You’ll be jealous as you spoon that guacamole onto a festive platter. The truth is, you don’t feel like making your famous guacamole right now, let alone a whole festive platterful. In fact, you strongly desire to break that platter, & all platters, into tiny cubes. You’ll realize, with a surge of vision, that breaking things is your favorite activity. Especially if those things belong to your old grad school buddy, & double especially if you can start breaking things right now, at this party.

Here is what will happen.

Once a week for the rest of your life, your old grad school buddy will win a different, prestigious fellowship. Then, they’ll get a tenure-track job at your dream college (an idyllic woodland campus that is also Hogwarts & also a lunar colony). While you’re still sending out your CV & driving to job interviews in unfamiliar towns, while you’re still waiting tables or working for minimum wage at the art supply store, your old grad school buddy will be promoted to Full Professor. They’ll receive a six figure salary, a research assistant, & their own lab. On your busted laptop, you’ll watch your old grad school buddy appear on The Daily Show as an “expert commentator.” You’ll watch your old buddy laugh along with the host, both of them simplifying, for the purposes of television, what should be a nuanced argument on a cultural topic you care deeply about. You’ll watch all this & the image of your old grad school buddy—on TV, wearing a bright, asymmetrical jacket you heartily loathe—will weave & feather across your mind, glistening like scar tissue.

Years will pass.

You’ll get a job & move steadily up the ranks. You’ll publish some papers, & soon: your first book. You’ll take your famous guacamole to faculty potlucks where it’s a grand favorite. You’ll buy a house, go to conferences, & help your students. Eventually, you’ll hear from mutual friends that your old grad school buddy has resigned their Professorship. You’ll hear they’ve bought a houseboat & moved to Paris to write full time, because why not? One morning, as you’re reviewing the galleys of your next book, you’ll kiki-petrosinoreceive an e-mail from your old grad school buddy. In this e-mail, they’ll complain—ever so lightly, ever so elegantly—about the rain in Paris, about the dull, trudging crowds that make the Beaubourg simply impossible every weekend & about how difficult it is to run an Airbnb from a houseboat while simultaneously choosing where to spend one’s Guggenheim year. This e-mail will actually contain the sentence: I miss American TV.

You’re going to be jealous when you read this e-mail.

What else will you be?

Your professional jealousy will never leave you, not fully. But if you allow it to shut down your heart, to make you small or bitter or sarcastic when you hear of someone else’s success, then you’re the one who’ll miss out on crucial opportunities to grow as a person & as a colleague. Every time you encounter jealousy, you have a chance to improve your character.

Here’s a truth: someone else’s star will always glimmer just a bit more brightly than yours; someone else will always be able to move faster up the ladder than you will. C’est la vie. But la vie—especially after grad school—isn’t a zero sum game. Have faith that many invisible gifts & opportunities are waiting for you, most of them you can’t even imagine right now. Did you decide to enter graduate school for the awards & the houseboats? Or did you fall in love with an idea, a book, a set of irresistible questions? It’s supremely difficult to reach past jealousy to that generous, expansive precinct of the mind, but it’s that very capacity in you—that thing that allows you, in your research, to make connections across seemingly disparate queries—that you must activate in order to be a good colleague.

Start practicing now. When you hear that a classmate has won an award, gotten a job, or been recognized in some other way, challenge yourself to be the first to congratulate them. Even if they’ve won something you wanted for yourself—especially then. Don’t let yourself be second or third to congratulate your grad school buddies: be the very first. Do it quickly, before the embers of your jealousy have time to kindle themselves into a true flame. Choose any method you wish: a personal conversation, an e-mail, a text, a greeting card, whatever you can do swiftly. You’ll find that wishing someone else well has positive effects on your own outlook. Try saying “I’m happy for you,” & stand back as it becomes true.


Kiki Petrosino is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at U of L. Her books of poetry include Witch Wife (forthcoming in 2017), Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013), and Fort Red Border (2009), all from Sarabande Books. She co-edits the independent on-line journal Transom and serves as Editor for the Mineral Point Poetry Series of Brain Mill Press. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop.



What I Wish I Knew in Grad School: Or, Two or Three Things I (now) Know for Sure (Or am Trying To) by Dr. Karen Kopelson

The Myth of the Holy Grail

For many of you right now, the academic job, particularly the tenure track job, is the proverbial Holy Grail—in both associations of that phrase: it is what you are questing for and is what you assume or hope (unconsciously perhaps) will provide happiness and “eternal life.” But adjusting to faculty life can be surprisingly hard. And this may be true even if you somehow land a, or even THE, job you really wanted, as I did, and end up in an exceedingly welcoming department, as I did. Perhaps there is something Freudian about this difficulty (weird, I have never cited Freud in my life, but . . . ):  Freud famously observed that depression can, and apparently often does, follow on the heels of achieving a long-pursued dream, but there are also more pragmatic factors, I think, that make the transition from grad student to faculty particularly difficult.

One, as both Beth and Brenda suggested in their posts [last year], there is something unique, and frankly irreplicable (I declare this a word), about the graduate school cohort experience. Right now you are likely surrounded by people who not only have similar interests to you but are all basically in a similar phase of career and life, and are living, with some exceptions of course, a similar style of life. When you get to your faculty destination, you will likely be surrounded by people in all different phases of their careers and lives, many of whom will be comfortably settled into the deep grooves of their lives. While you all at UofL have observed, twice, over the last few years, large cohorts of young faculty coming in to our department at the same time, this is not normal. It’s great, for everyone involved (and I think especially for them), but it’s not typical. Rather, you may find that you are the only young (or, if not so young, “new”) faculty in your department; you may be the only person in your field, as Beth discussed; you may be the only single person, or the only person who doesn’t have kids. You may find yourself living in a type of town or part of the country (or world) that doesn’t feel familiar. Any/all of these factors can be alienating. If you are a minority of any kind, you (undoubtedly know) may need to multiply your potential sense of alienation by (insert factor here).

Plus—and at the significant risk of looking the proverbial gift horse deep in the mouth here—being a new, or “junior,” or, to use a term I detest and thankfully have only heard once in my many years at U of L, “probationary” faculty, brings its own unique challenges to sense of place and self. Think about it (I hadn’t): you finish your graduate program at the top of the pecking order, and, ideally, at the top of your game. Some of you will finish as a leader of your graduate student community or “star” of your program. Even if you are fortunate enough to land a tenure track position, those former and ego-affirming positionalities will be erased/effaced and you will be starting again at the bottom for yet another apprenticeship period that is very long—rivaled only by the apprenticeship or “probationary” periods in law and medicine, I believe. Let’s just say the years leading up to tenure are not always the most ego-affirming times.

“I write so slowly that I could write in my own blood without hurting myself.”~Fran Lebowitz   

“Wherever you go, there you are”~Self-helpy slogan that happens to be true

Related to the above, if you happen to suffer from “impostor syndrome”—and academics are (in)famous for so suffering—this is probably not going to go away any time soon. Actually, what I think academics feel more often than “fraudulence,” is simple inferiority—feelings of being not as good as, smart as, and (the big ones) as accomplished as, and productive as one’s colleagues, peers, friends, neighbors, strangers  . . . (insert person here). I cannot repeat often enough, because I still have to repeat it to myself, what Brenda said in her post, and so I will repeat it in commandment form: Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s CV. (But you probably will.) I am writing this post on the weekend of my 50th birthday and smack in the middle of my FIFTEENTH year as a professor and, while I do not actually “covet” other people’s CVs—that is, I do not really desire them for myself at this point—I do sit in a sort of awe at them and feel anxiety and/or (again) inferiority in their presences. In her post, Amy Clukey linked us to an article by Devoney Looser which traces out the rejections or failures behind her enormous successes. This article did not comfort me, as was its intent—perhaps precisely like my post is not comforting you!! My response to it was, as it always is, to feel panicky at the thought that Looser has “failed” at more endeavors than I could ever conceive of, let alone pursue. If I could fully eradicate this anxious inferiority response from my affective repertoire, believe me, I would have done so by now and would tell you how I did it. But the only formula I have found thus far is to be honest with yourself about your goals, motivations, desires, and, yes, abilities, and then strive mightily every day, as Brenda also said, to develop and measure yourself by your own yardsticks. This does get easier to do with time and age (and it gets easier as you meet your personal yardstick goals!).

“The more things stay the same . . .”

Graduate school can feel like, and be, one sustained hypomanic burst of intellectual and psychic energy in pursuit of the finish line and aforementioned Holy Grail. Though I have focused above on ways you may not be fundamentally transformed by becoming a faculty member, the constant state of arousal you may be in now will dissipate, for better and for worse. Yes, the pre-tenure period can evoke similar states of arousal and mad productivity pushes as does grad school, and yes, as other posters have noted, you may have times when you are busier as a faculty member than you are now. But the truth remains that, ideally, careers are long and you will go through many new phases—ebbs and flows, periods fertile and periods fallow. In my experience, the first few “ebbs” or fallow times can be alarming. If you are a person who draws much of your energy from teaching, your first uninspiring and uninspired semester (and you will have them) will be an unwelcome reverse-jolt of sorts to your system and you may think you’ve lost your mojo (or your love or joy—you will get it back). Or, the first time you find yourself without an idea at the ready for a new project, or that you experience intense “writer’s block” if you have not been particularly prone to blockage, you may think you’ve simply lost IT (you probably just need to read, and relax). You will have many new experiences, in other words. And not all of them will be good. I recently had a not-at-all-good new experience of and with my writing, and whined to a mentor, “but this has never happened to me before.” She said in response, “Well now it has.” karen-kopelson

Concrete advice: find a mentor who cuts through the shit, and save some money on therapy.

Dr. Karen Kopelson is an Associate Professor and University Distinguished Teaching Professor of English. 

What I Wish I’d Known in Graduate School by Dr. Susan Ryan

It’s okay if some faculty members—or peers, for that matter—think your intellectual work is mediocre. You don’t need to be universally admired. What you need is a core group of faculty (enough for exam and dissertation committees) who are open to what you’re trying to do and willing to help you get better at it—and a supportive circle of peers willing to trade drafts, respond to your ideas, listen to your feedback on their work, etc.

When I started graduate school (mine was a combined MA/PhD program, where one could get kicked out after the MA, but didn’t have to formally reapply for the PhD), I had a bad case of impostor syndrome. I had not been, as an undergraduate, a particularly committed or passionate student. Like a lot of 18-22 year olds, I had a lot of projects going at once, including some basic personal direction-seeking, with the result that I was often underprepared for class and rarely started papers early enough to allow for a thoughtful revision process. I was an intellectual late bloomer, to put it kindly—a fact that was very much in evidence when I started graduate school. I suspect I was admitted largely on the basis of good GRE scores (I have always had the weird quirk of being a humanities person who was good at math, and the University of North Carolina then looked at composite scores). I had not (yet?) learned to feign sophistication, and I can recall, in excruciating detail, some key moments when my ignorance and naivete were on full display. Perhaps more limiting, I did not yet think of myself as a “real” scholar—whatever that means—but rather as kind of a worker bee. I had a good work ethic, plenty of commitment to the tasks at hand, but who knew what else? I was wounded but not surprised, then, when a professor whose class I took as an MA student let on that she’d been disappointed by the level of discussion in our seminar all semester—we hadn’t offered the kinds of trenchant analysis that she had expected. But at least I had good grammar, she helpfully pointed out. Oh my. Faint praise.

Another professor in the program had registered similarly tepid responses to my work. When I encountered him at a conference a few years after graduation, he was so very, so visibly shocked that I’d published a monograph with a good academic press—the very press that had published his own most recent book. That was a satisfying moment, to say the least. susan-ryan-and-tatjana-soldat-jaffe-pic

I should note that I found incredibly generous faculty mentors and peer interlocutors in my graduate program. Without them, I would never have finished the PhD or been a competitive candidate for an academic position. And it’s worth pointing out that, with regard to those who thought my work was middling at best: it wasn’t personal. They weren’t out to get me. They just didn’t think I sparkled. Fair enough.

Self-doubt has a way of aligning with and amplifying the skepticism that we perceive in others—especially those in positions of authority. So a less-than-encouraging response to my work seemed for a while to confirm what I already suspected—that I didn’t belong there. Happily, I was also stubborn—and was getting enough positive feedback to keep me going. What I wish I’d realized earlier is that opinions—even expert opinions—vary widely. You don’t have to please everyone. In academia, we all need mentors and advocates. But we don’t need an unlimited supply. A few will do nicely, I have found.

These insights hold up pretty well, I think, in academic life generally.  The peer review process is a good example—I’ve gotten the full range of readers’ reports over the years—effusive & glowing; critical but helpful; condescending but moderately useful; and downright mean. One report, which I received as an advanced doctoral student, actually said “what the essay needs—and it’s not clear whether THIS author can provide it….” Obviously the journal rejected my essay—the peer reviewer wasn’t even sure I was worthy of my relatively promising topic—but after a few rounds of revision, the piece found an entirely respectable home in print. The important thing, I have found, is to take what’s useful even from a generally mean-spirited review and move on. It still isn’t easy or comfortable, but I’ve gotten used to the process and have (mostly) stopped letting negative feedback obliterate my confidence. I just wish it hadn’t taken so long.

Dr. Susan Ryan is an Associate Professor of English.