Sometimes what you don’t do makes the difference in your success and stress.
Whether you’re thinking about graduate school or currently taking classes, here are some tips for completing a graduate degree successfully and without more stress than necessary.
The most successful, least stressed, best prepared-for-life graduate students don’t just know what to do. They also know what not to do.
Here are some very common behaviors I’ve observed as a grad student, an instructor, and a graduate teaching assistant supervisor that should never happen. Graduate students should never …
Talk About Work When They Could Be Working
I completed a teaching assistantship while getting my MA in English. All of the TAs shared a communal office, basically a classroom filled with desks and computers.
At any given time, you could hear TAs talking about the reading they hadn’t done, the papers they had to write, the stacks of student papers waiting to be graded. We also chatted about our professors, students, and lives. We shot the bull.
As a TA supervisor, I had a private office attached to their communal office. I left the door open most of the time, but even with it closed, I could hear their long, rambling conversations about nothing as well as their complaining (more on that below).
Some socializing is healthy, of course, and it can build personal friendships that support professional networks. But with a lot of talking about work, it’s hard to get any work done.
Never talk about work when you could actually be working or at least building relationships and networks.
Think Their Thesis/Dissertation Must Be Perfect and Publishable
Courses are the easy part of grad school. Most graduate students who struggle to make progress toward their degrees (or fail to earn them at all) don’t have any problem passing classes. They get stuck on their masters thesis or doctoral dissertation.
Usually, they think their thesis or dissertation must be perfect and publishable. Paralysis by analysis sets in as they waver on a topic, a methodology, or both. Once they start researching and writing, they invest far too much time, energy, and effort into the project.
A thesis or dissertation demands a massive investment, of course, but there’s a big difference between committing to writing something that impresses your professors, hiring committees, and future colleagues versus planning on handing the finished manuscript to a publisher. It’s more likely you could publish chapters “as is” in scholarly journals, but even then, you’ll likely make major revisions based on the peer reviewers’ feedback.
I once sent a book proposal to a publisher specializing in my subfield of English Studies, and I mentioned that it was based on my dissertation, thinking it would lend the proposal credibility. The publisher replied that I would need to substantially rewrite my dissertation before it would be a good book. When I said I planned to do so, the publisher suggested publishing articles first.
Bottom-line: you won’t publish your thesis or dissertation, or even excerpts from it, without major revisions.
Never let perfect be the enemy of the good — and “good” means finished.
Neglect Networking with Professors and Peers
I’m not a good networker. If I could change something about how I approached graduate school, I would have networked more intentionally with my professors and peers.
I worked pretty closely with a few professors throughout my MA and PhD programs, but I could have sought out more opportunities to co-present at conferences and co-author papers. Most professors love to collaborate with students because it looks really good on them. Find faculty with similar interests and don’t be afraid to ask about working together.
Similarly, I could have built stronger relationships with my fellow students. Don’t get me wrong, I had many mutual friendships. But I’ve recently learned how vital those friendships can be. I reached out to several classmates from my MA to solicit participation in a research study. Some replied, some didn’t. What if I had worked with those people more when we were students?
Perhaps most importantly, I should have nurtured my network.
Gradually, I allowed what relationships I had with professors and peers to fall by the wayside. Social media provides the perfect way to keep in touch. React to posts, comment now and then, and share helpful tidbits when you can. When you need something, you won’t feel as awkward about reaching out.
Gripe (Excessively) About Professors and Peers
We’ve all done it. It’s natural, it’s cathartic, it can bond people together. But my time as the TA supervisor showed me that there’s a right way and a wrong, wrong, way to gripe about professors and peers.
When I was an MA student, one of my peers questioned a professor’s motivations, and we talked about the apparent mismatch between words and actions. It was a contained, discreet conversation that didn’t harm our ability to work with the professor or each other. The topic didn’t become a regular feature of the communal office.
As a doctoral student, I had an awful group project experience with a classmate. Upon learning one of my friends had a different group project with the same classmate, I warned my friend to ask for the person’s work rather than assuming it would get done. I helped my friend both avoid a bad experience and hold the classmate accountable, ultimately helping that person, too.
Griping crosses the line when it harms people’s ability to work together and serves no purpose.
Broadcasting innocuous statements to the communal office, like “Chad flaked on me," doesn't poison the office culture, but it's another thing entirely to escalate the commentary until anyone listening would have zero interest in working with Chad -- or the commentator.
Such complaining serves no purpose other than voicing the complainer’s anger. Avoid caustic, harmful character-assassination. It hurts you as much as anyone. Maybe more.
Ignore Easy Professional Development Opportunities
Grad students are busy. Besides classes, assistantships, talking about work, and complaining, they also present at conferences and submit to journals. Presentations and publications are great professional development, but it’s vital to take advantage of the many other, easier professional development opportunities that universities and programs offer.
Attending workshops on teaching, research, or other activities can help you stand out from the crowd of grad students who presented at a conference but never did anything else.
I’d rather hire someone with ten workshops on his or her CV than someone with two published papers. Those workshops demonstrate dedication, participation, and collegiality. And they’re open to anyone, whereas a conference presentation or paper has to be accepted.
My university, for example, offers weekly workshops open to all faculty and grad students. A grad student could attend half of them each semester and come away with a few dozen items on his or her CV, plus face-time with the faculty who attend or facilitate those workshops. All for just an hour of the student’s time.
Advice to grad students (and everyone else) usually focuses on things they should do to enhance their success during and after their studies.
But sometimes it’s the things you don’t do that make the difference.
Eric Sentell teaches writing and rhetoric at Southeast Missouri State University. He’s the author of How to Write an Essay like an Equation and Become Your Own Fact-Checker.
Learn more at www.ericsentell.com