I am delighted to introduce the Cocoon's newest series: our Grad School Survival Guide. This series will consist of a series of posts -- mostly guest-posts by Cocoon readers, but also perhaps by some existing contributors -- on how to navigate and flourish in grad school. As someone who struggled in grad school in ways I never expected (and who has spoken to many others who had similar experiences), my sincere hope is that this series will help readers who are considering, beginning, or already in grad school anticipate, avoid, and/or grapple effectively with the many challenges grad school can present.
Before introducing our first guest-post, I would like to note that the advice and guidance offered in this series is just that: sincere advice by past or present graduate students offered in a spirit of assistance, but which may or may not be correct or work for everyone. If some of the advice offered seems wrong to you -- or something else worked for you -- please feel free to let us know in the comment's section (bearing the Cocoon's safe and supportive mission in mind!). Above all, the purpose of this series is to be helpful -- so the more friendly and productive discussion there is, the better!
Anyway, without further ado, here is the first post in the series:
Starting a Philosophy Graduate Program: How to Hit the Ground Running
By Johnny Brennan (Fordham University)
I’d like to thank Marcus for letting me contribute to this new series at the Cocoon: Grad School Survival Guide. I just completed my first semester as a PhD student at Fordham University, and prior to that I received my masters from the New School for Social Research in 2013. In between programs I worked at the American Council of Learned Societies. Given that I’m a bit older than the average incoming graduate student with a wife and newborn (something I’ll talk about in a future post), and that Fordham has a separate, shorter track for those entering with an MA, I knew going in that I wanted to make the most of my time while also being as efficient as possible. That’s what I’d like to talk about today: how to start your graduate program on the right foot. Perhaps it goes without saying that these tactics have worked well for me and my temperament, but your mileage may vary; you may not find all (or any) of what I have to say helpful.
Grad school is a tough transition, whether you’re coming in directly from an undergraduate program or, like me, coming back to school after taking some time off. There is an undeniable learning curve: figuring out how to handle all the work, what professors expect of you, planning for major program requirements that might be a year or more away, and fitting in professionalization opportunities such as submitting papers to conferences that, for better or worse, seem to be necessary to keep in mind from year one in order to best prepare yourself for the brutal job market at the end of your studies. It can be very disorienting and overwhelming. I thought I had a good sense of what I was getting into. During my time-off before starting a PhD program, I followed professional philosophy blogs like the Cocoon closely, and I worked at an organization that allowed me an inside look at how academia functions. I thought that I knew the pitfalls that graduate students often fall into and how to avoid them. I was wrong. I was still hit very hard by the emotions and insecurities that come along with graduate level work. As an example, early on in the semester, while I was still struggling to cope with the workload, I ate the rest of my pregnant wife’s favorite ice cream and thought, ‘no problem, I’ll just replace it before she gets home.’ I was under the naïve assumption that the corner store across the street would have it. After an hour-long wild goose chase that took me to every store in the neighborhood, I came up empty handed. My wife came home to find me on the brink of a meltdown, babbling about how I was not only a failure as a scholar but a failure as a husband. Despite my best intentions, I was letting imposter syndrome bleed into my personal life only a few mere weeks into the semester.
This (hopefully understandable) expression of anxiety aside, I have found a handful of techniques that helped me get through my first semester feeling on top of all my work and ready to take on what comes next. Hopefully you will find something valuable to take away and integrate into your own work habits.
Have a plan
It’s helpful to write out a long-term plan. I’m talking five years long. Granted, the further out you get, the vaguer these plans become, but even having a general idea of what major projects you want to get done down the road helps you plan and prepare. In the summer before I started my graduate program I wrote out a general five-year plan so I could spread out all the program requirements and set myself up to accomplish professional goals by the time I graduate. I also made a more detailed plan for each year to set monthly goals. I shared these plans with my kind and accommodating director of graduate studies to make sure I wasn’t being too ambitious (or not ambitious enough). This guards against getting into a situation where I have to complete an inordinate amount of work at the eleventh hour. It really helps minimize the stress of graduate school.
Make sure your hitting your goals
This is an extension of having a plan, on a more fine-grained level. I found it really helpful to keep a blank notebook in which I wrote down not only my weekly assignments, but I also kept a daily to do list. This helped me accomplish two things: first, to break up my weekly assignments into manageable chunks; second, to take actionable steps toward long-term goals that otherwise could easily fall off my radar and come back to blind-side me later. This could involve making sure you read some secondary literature for a term paper, study for a qualifying exam, edit a paper for a conference submission, and so on.
I don’t know about you all, but at times I am goal-oriented to a fault. I write out a to-do list and I’ll get upset if I don’t complete everything on the list, or I’ll get a little anxious if I don’t make at least a little progress on all of the projects I’m juggling. I often need to remind myself that it’s OK to put some less pressing projects on the back-burner so I can focus my attention on the more urgent ones.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, what has helped me most with managing my time is being flexible with it (this is especially true once the baby came along). I wasn’t too successful at sticking to pre-established blocks of time devoted to reading, writing, graduate assistant work, etc. I did much better when I didn’t worry so much about when I was going to work, or for how long, as long as I got most of the items on my to do list done. The one caveat to this is that I try not to work (not always successfully) after 8pm. I try to reserve time each day to just spending time with my family. A variation of the Pomodoro technique helps me be more productive. For those not familiar, the Pomodoro technique instructs you to work for 25 minutes without distraction followed by a 3-5 minute break. Once you complete four cycles, take a longer break (20-30 minutes). But since I like to think in terms of tasks rather than time, instead of working for 25 minutes at a time, I’ll try to complete a certain chunk of work: read 10 pages, write a few paragraphs, etc.
Write early, write often
One of the biggest changes in my work habits was to start freewriting. I used to start writing only once I had a solid thesis and a detailed outline. I tried to write the best first draft possible, not wanting to make my thoughts “real” by putting them on the page until they were at least moderately well-formulated. As you can guess, this led to a lot of anxiety and stress. Over the summer I read a few books on writing—the two most helpful were How to Write a Lot by Paul Silvia and Writing with Power by Peter Elbow. There are many helpful tips in these books, but the most valuable to me was to incorporate freewriting into the process. Doing this helped me accomplish two things: first by getting words on the page I was more relaxed, and could play around with different ideas and writing styles; second, writing my thoughts as they came and following them to their conclusions in written words allowed my thinking to become clearer. I was now writing to think instead of thinking to write.
Take advantage of extra-curriculars
A lot of learning in graduate school takes place outside of the classroom. Take advantage of the myriad of opportunities that are available: go to all the lectures you can, participate in workshops, attend weekly reading groups. This can involve a bit of extra work, but can pay dividends: not only will you extend your breadth of knowledge by being exposed to philosophical ideas you wouldn’t otherwise, you’ll get to meet and talk with really interesting people, potentially leading to fruitful professional relationships later on.
Be proactive with faculty members
Related to the previous point, take advantage of your professors’ office hours. It goes without saying, though, to be respectful of their and other students’ time (i.e., don’t drop in just to shoot the breeze; have an agenda you want to discuss, and don’t take up all of their time, especially if there are others waiting). If there is a topic from class that you want to discuss further, or if you have ideas for a term paper you want to get feedback on, office hours are a great opportunity to get some individual time and foster relationships with your professors (and potential dissertation committee members).
While all of this may seem like a lot of extra work on top of all you have to do as a graduate student, once in motion it is remarkably easy to maintain. It is a very centering activity each morning to take a few minutes and think big picture about what’s important to you, what you want to accomplish, and come up with attainable projects you can get done today to make progress toward those goals. It helps keep me from feeling like things are spinning out of control. I still have high-stress days, but they are fewer and less intense than when I wasn’t using these techniques.
I'd like to thank Johnny for starting off the series in such excellent fashion. Are you a past or present graduate student with a topic of experience or advice that you think might make for a good post in the series? If so, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about contributing to the series!