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.
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.