In response to our first, "How can we help you?", post a reader, Damon P. Suey posed the following query:
I'm not sure if early-grad school counts as early-career, but over the past couple weeks I've found that grad school introduces an entirely new kind of relationship with faculty. As an undergrad, faculty were distant enough to be treated as a kind of authority figure; even if that wasn't weren't strictly their role, you treated them the same way you might have treated your high school principal.
But as a grad student (at least at my school), the faculty want or expect to know you personally, and tend to treat you as something like a colleague rather than a student. As someone who's never really had a professional relationship before, I'm not sure how this is supposed to work. Maybe this isn't as widespread an issue as I'd imagine, but I'd love to see a post with some advice on adjusting to and navigating these new relationships.
I think this is a really important issue. By and large, the people I saw do best in grad school were the ones who had the best professional relationships with faculty: they tended to publish while in grad school, progress through the program well and on time, and do well on the market. Conversely, grad students who struggled to form strong professional relationships (myself among them) seemed to struggle far more. And, is this really surprising? At least offhand, having good professional relationships with grad faculty can be critical in many ways. First, the more one feels supported by faculty, the easier it can be to progress through one's program with confidence. Second, good relationships with faculty can be crucial for one's philosophical development. The more invested faculty are in your development--and the more receptive you are to their guidance--the easier it plausibly is to learn from their expertise. Finally, of course, having grad faculty in your corner can only be a good when it comes to professional prospects (e.g. the job-market).
How, then, should one go about cultivating good relationships with grad faculty? In one sense, I'm probably not the best person to ask--as I made many mistakes here in grad school. Although I finally got the lesson into my head relatively late in grad school (during the dissertation stage), throughout a good deal of my grad career I made a number of cardinal errors--errors that, in my experience, are not uncommon among grad students. Let me begin, then, with a few suggestions of things not to do.
Some obstacles to forging good professional relationships with grad faculty
The biggest cardinal error I think I made--and which I have seen others make--was being afraid of faculty. Although it might seem rational to be afraid of faculty (as their opinion of you matters viz. your professional future), my experience is that being afraid of them is a terrible way to actually forge the kind of positive relationship one has reason to want. I know from experience. As a shy, introverted person, my natural tendency is to avoid uncomfortable social situations. Unfortunately, when this natural tendency was coupled with fear of faculty, the result was that for much of my grad career I avoided faculty--to my own detriment. When other, more outgoing students were getting help with their revise-and-resubmits, I tried to handle my revise-and-resubmits all by myself. Do you want to guess what happened? They published, I didn't! And do you want to guess what happened when my revise and resubmits got rejected? I got even more reticent to approach faculty. Which led me to a second cardinal error: fading into the background. I wasn't the only one to do this. In my experience, if there's one common error I've seen many grad students make (especially but not only at the dissertation stage), it is avoiding grad faculty like the plague. Although this might seem patently irrational, when one feels uncertain or lacking philosophical confidence it can be all too natural to do! When one lacks confidence, the prospect of meeting faculty members during office hours or for coffee can be disconcerting. But, in my experience, this is precisely when approaching them can be the most important thing to do! Which brings me to another common error I've seen. Sometimes students try to over-correct for lack of self-confidence, falling astray in the other extreme, trying to "show off" to faculty in the hope of improving their philosophical estimation of you--for instance, by trying to look like "the smartest person in the room" during seminar, etc. Although I have seen some grad students get away with this, my experience is that by and large it tends to make one look bad in everyone's eyes. One key to forging good relationships is to treat one's fellow students as colleagues and faculty as mentors--as people to engage with constructively and learn from, not people to "show off" in front of.
I fell prey to all three of these errors as a grad student, paid for them, and saw others do the same. It was only once I started to avoid them later in my grad career that I started forming better relationships--ones that dramatically improved my grad school experience and development as a philosopher. Anyway, these are just a few obstacles I can think of. Can you, my fellow Cocooners, think of any good ones from your experience?
Some suggestions for forging good professional relationships with grad faculty
I guess the single biggest tip I would suggest for forming good professional relationships--both with faculty and fellow students--is to "put yourself out there" by doing things like making a habit of approaching faculty, asking them if they are willing to meet for coffee, attend their office hours, and talk in seminars and reading groups. Again, my overwhelming experience in grad school was that the grad students who put the effort in here benefited tremendously. One thing I would also note here--which I expect some people may disagree with--is don't be afraid of saying philosophically "stupid" things. I've actually heard faculty and grad students say that one should be "careful" what one says in front of faculty, because you always have to be "on" in grad school (viz. faculty will judge you negatively for making bad, confused arguments). My honest experience here is that this is mostly hogwash. Here is what I saw in grad school. I saw grad students make a "dumb" comment in their first, second, or third year--and yes, other grad students and faculty reacted negatively. I then saw those very grad students learn from their mistakes and become super-competent people by the time they finished their dissertation and went on the job-market...and no one even seemed to remember, let alone care about, the "dumb" things they had said years earlier. Quite the contrary, all too often, it was the grad students who had said the "dumb" things that progressed better than those who didn't. Why? Answer: because saying "dumb" things are opportunities to learn from. Which brings me to another tip: be a good, conscientious colleague, both to your fellow students and faculty. Some programs are competitive--but, in my experience, it is much better to view your fellow students as allies, not competitors. Faculty and grad students are both likely to pick up on your overall attitude, and having a good overall attitude toward those around you--being there to learn, help one another, get work done on time, etc.--are far more likely to help you forge good relationships with grad students and faculty than coming across like the person who just wants to "be the smartest person in the room."
In short, my own experience is that, aside the occasional "impossible" faculty member who resists one's best efforts to forge a good relationship, it's not all that hard to forge good relationships with faculty. By and large, you just need to (A) make a habit of approaching them (during office hours, for coffee, etc), (B) engage with them and fellow grad students professionally and as a "good citizen"--in a spirit of learning and mutual collaboration, rather than competition--and (C) avoid the opposite of these things (avoid fading into the background, trying to solve all of your problems yourself, and coming across as an insecure, super-competitive "show off").
Anyway, these are just some of my thoughts. What are yours? What tips do you have for grad students looking to form good professional relationships with faculty?