What I Wish I’d Known in Graduate School by Frank Kelderman

Quick question: how do you write a Ph.D. dissertation when the last thing it seems you have time for in graduate school is writing a dissertation? I’m still not sure I can answer that all the way, but I’ll share a few bits of advice that I’ve mulled over since starting my graduate program—and gratefully attribute what follows to the mentors who helped me along the way.

Learn to make the BASST (The Bold Assertive Statement by the Scholar Thinking)
Attributed to Julie Ellison

When I was in the early stages of writing my dissertation, I had to practice making bold, assertive claims that move clearly from A to B. The instructions: go home, go to the mirror, stare yourself in the eye, and articulate a series of declarative sentences—with conviction! What’s fun is that you can practice with completely nonsensical statements: “In the early Republic, the water balloon was a crucial matrix for contesting modes of finger-painting.” Or: “Whether or not she co-authored Blood Meridian, Cyndi Lauper re-centered the American novel on questions of restrictive shoe-lacing.” It can get whackier than that, but it helped me to get a sense of what an argument sounds like, at a purely syntactic and stylistic level. Also, it taught me how to keep up a confident façade at a point when I wasn’t convinced that I was even in a position to make any claim at all!

Define your archive
Attributed to Mary C. Kelley

When you’re writing your prospectus and planning a sequence of chapters, think first about how you define your archive for each of them. Whether your archive is an actual collection in a library somewhere, a set of movies, or a series of interviews, it is important to map your chapters onto what exact texts you’re going to make claims about. This will help you to plan the actual work involved in the project (simply knowing roughly how many key text you’re going to have to grapple with), and it will establish common ground between you and your advisers as you’re starting a new scholarly conversation.

The donut and the hole
Attributed to Scott Richard Lyons and Philip J. Deloria

In my first year of coursework, I would often come to class ready to talk about how great the article or monograph was that we read, only to be surprised when my classmates found all kinds of critical flaws that I had somehow missed. What was I doing wrong? I thought that book was super-smart! I soon found that our class conversations typically focused on what was “missing” in the book—what the author was not doing and what critical questions they ignored. So I got into the habit of doing the same thing: focusing my reading on the possible critiques I could make in terms of what I thought other scholars had failed to do.

Now, it’s important to build our own claims partly on what we think is a “gap” in the existing discourse and on the productive critique of other scholars. But it’s also useful to remember that behind the books and articles we read are real people with lives, histories, families, and pets of their own, whose publications sometimes represent a decade of commitment to an intellectual project. This does not mean we should hold back our criticism—indeed, to do so would be unproductive and perhaps even academically dishonest. But as we make our critiques of other scholars, we might remind ourselves that we may meet that person someday on a conference panel, at a reception, or (yes!) during a job interview. And then we’re faced with the question of whether we’d make our critiques the same way we did from behind our word processor!

Thinking about this in relation to my own dissertation, I think I simply would have learned more had I focused my reading less on what I thought other scholars didn’t do, and more on questions that would have better empowered me to think about my own project: “What is this scholar contributing? What are the stakes of their project, and how do they define the scope of it? And how do they pull this off, as a thinker and a writer?” To paraphrase David Lynch, there’s the donut and the hole. Keep your eye on the donut, not the hole.

Bottlenecks and hoops
Ok, this one’s just from me.

A PhD program has many bottleneck moments; for me, these were the second-year review, the preliminary exams, the prospectus defense, and the dissertation defense. Moments like these can feel like you’re just being asked to jump through institutional hoops, and they can cause great stress because we know we have to do well. But by the time I got to my prospectus defense, I had learned to appreciate these bottleneck moments more positively: they are also opportunities to claim a little more ownership over your own project. A chance to generate some buzz and excitement among faculty about what you’re doing. To show off a little bit! And ultimately, taking these bottleneck moments and turning them into your own performance is a useful training ground for the job market, when you’ll spend much of your daily energy preparing for exactly such performances!

Frank Kelderman is an Assistant Professor who specializes in Native American literatures, with an emphasis on nineteenth-century writing and oratory. At the University of Louisville he teaches courses in Native American, early American, and multi-ethnic American literatures.


What I Wish I’d Known in Graduate School: Faculty Series by LuMing Mao

mao_lumingAs I reflect back on my graduate school experience, on what I wish I had known then, several things come to mind.

Doing course work and branching out: these days our graduate programs are tightly structured and normally students are expected to complete their course work in the first two years of, normally, a four-year and, occasionally, a five-year program. Students spend the first two years trying to knock off the requirements as I did then. At the same time, I wish I had talked with my mentors more about possibly taking one or two courses outside my requirements but resonating with my larger interests. I wish I had taken a course on comparative religion, for example, or on psychology across culture. The potential benefits for branching out didn’t quite dawn on me yet.

Reading for knowledge and reading for publication: I mistakenly, at least in my mind, made a distinction or binary between reading for knowledge and reading for publication as a graduate student then. While pre-professionalization starts at a much earlier point for current graduate students than for my generation, I still felt the need to publish before I went on the job market—hence my desire to carve out time to read for publication. Doing so unnecessarily handicaps the generative power reading affords, as well as diminishing the pleasure that comes from reading, too. I should have learned to let writing or publishing come to me more spontaneously.

Collaborating with peers: I wish I had spent more time working with my peers as a graduate student not only to know more about what they were doing but also to help build an intellectual community, which is so necessary for supporting each other’s work. In spite of the fact that we all are pressed for time, I wish I had formed some reading group so that I could read with my peers together regularly. Similarly, I could have teamed up with my peers for a writing group, especially at the dissertation-writing stage. While the culture in the department then was different, I wish I had taken the initiative to do something like this. There is a lot to be said and done about collaborating with others.

Conferencing: I didn’t do a lot of conferences then. There were at least two years, as I recall, when I didn’t attend any conference. I told myself I didn’t have the time for conferences, which was both true and not true. I didn’t quite realize or didn’t realize soon enough the values of going to conferences—getting your work circulated; learning what your peers are doing; networking and building relationships; and speaking to journal/press editors, among other benefits.

Preparing for the job market: Definitely do a mock interview and a mock job talk, and have your cover letter read by more than one person. While you should not try to anticipate the exact questions your future colleagues would ask of you during a Skype interview and/or campus visit, preparing for such eventualities as thoroughly as possible is something I cannot emphasize enough now.

Dr. LuMing Mao is Professor and Chair of the Department of English at Miami University of Ohio. His many publications include Reading Chinese Fortune Cookie: The Making of Chinese American Rhetoric, Comparative Rhetoric: Traversing Rhetorical Times, Place, and Spaces, and Representations: Doing Asian American Rhetoric. His honors include the Richard Ohmann Outstanding Essay Award and (twice) the Theresa J. Enos Anniversary Award.

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.