So, You’re Going to Graduate School

Two weeks from today, I’ll graduate from my PhD program, and it feels surreal to cross that finish line. The journey has not been without its many challenges. Many of which swirled in my mind as I read Marcos S. Gonsalez’s recent Twitter thread about the challenges of humanities PhDs, the job market, and being a first gen academic of color. The conversation that ensued reveals the thick fog around purpose, outcomes, and expectations for pursuing graduate studies that applies to the students and faculty involved in the situation. The handwringing I noticed from faculty was particularly distressing and it reiterated for me why, broadly, the U.S. public undervalues the humanities as much as it does. But, I’m not here to rehash the argument on whether people should go to graduate school (especially in the humanities).

Rather, since the Council of Graduate School’s April 15 Resolution deadline has just passed and a new cohort of students begin preparing for the start of their new programs, I posed two questions: what did you do the summer before graduate school and who advised you on it? Nearly 30 people replied and most of them were current PhD students or people with a graduate degree working in academic and alt-ac contexts. Their responses cohered around three critical points: how to navigate finances; burn out or lack of transition time; and a severe lack of mentorship about the role of a graduate degree in their career paths.

1. Figuring Out Finances
The majority of people who responded to my call (30 in all) worked full time, or more, through that summer. Some, like Payal, a molecular immunologist, and Marwa, a historian, were working in fields that aligned closely with their respective degree programs, but most others worked further afield from their scholarly interests. Having banked a great deal of vacation time, Payal was able to give herself a six week buffer period between the end of her work commitments and the start of the fall semester, but it also meant that she had to finish all her projects in progress within the six month period from acceptance notification to starting her program.

Several people prioritized the need for more information on two major financial aspects: cost of living in the area and typical expenses for graduate students; and how many students complete the degree program within the guaranteed years of funding.

Graduate Programs: Include information about the financial health of the department in your Graduate Student Handbook. Such data (assistantship amount, tuition waivers and benefits, and non-departmental funding sources at the institution) should be collected and updated annually because it can be used in multiple reporting venues (to incoming graduate students, for any departmental or institutional reviews).

Graduate Students: Reach out to your colleagues. As soon as you’re admitted, you should ask the department to arrange a visit (and see if they can fund it), or, at the very least, how you might be able to connect with current students. If there is a graduate organization in the department or on campus, those are great venues for asking such questions, too.

2. Finding Mentorship
Even those who had strong mentorship regarding the academic aspect of graduate school through the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program and/or the McNair Scholars Program felt under-prepared for how to navigate the professional expectations and norms of their fields. Jamiella noted that, as a graduate student of color, she struggled to find mentorship and learn about her rights as a graduate student and that, in her efforts to build those relationships, when she strayed away from her own department, she was criticized for not being more present. Luckily, for Markeysha, her department of Afro-American studies happened to be more welcoming socially. She reached out to several graduate students before she started via social media and while not everyone responded, those who did said they wanted to help her ward off the isolation that they encountered in their first year.

Only two people received significant guidance from their departments for the summer: Mary, a neurobiologist and, currently, a graduate dean, told me that when she went to Columbia in the late ‘80s, they had to take entrance exams based on reading list prepared by department faculty. She said “the prep set [her] up with a solid foundation … and communicate[d] the expectations for a) assumed prior foundational knowledge, b) students’ self-learning ability, c) accountability.”

Similarly, Marwa’s program circulated a reading list, sans exams, that included materials on how historians do their work, foundational texts in the program’s strengths, and recent books by faculty in the department. She said the latter was especially important for being able to assess immediately what kind of research and teaching were happening in the department and who might be on a shortlist for exams committees, which could then help select courses, allowing the student to build meaningful relationships with faculty of interest from the beginning.

The lack of such guidance led Kate P, a global modernist, to sign up for a course simply because it actually listed the required readings in the course description. That choice allowed her to get some sense of what a graduate seminar in her department would look like.

Graduate Programs: Have faculty in the program, by sub-field, identify 1-3 texts that incoming graduate students should have read and update this list annually ideally. Faculty with administrative roles like chair, graduate director, and job officer should similarly identify 1-3 texts that speak to writing, researching, teaching, and other aspects of the profession so that students get a full picture of what graduate school entails as well as the careers for people #withaPhD. If you assign faculty and peer mentors to new students — and you should — connect them in May rather than waiting until the new term begins.

Graduate Students: Become familiar with our trade publications like the Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Ed. Check out social media resources like @TrynaGrad or @IamSciComm and engage with your professional organizations. Get the inside scoop from a graduate student point of a view at GradHacker and Conditionally Accepted for insight into the navigating profession as as person on the margins . Ask your colleagues about assistantship responsibilities such as teaching or working in labs.

3. Mitigating Burnout
There was a chorus of agreement around preparing oneself psychologically. Sid, a cell and developmental biologist, and Evelyn, an MA student in public health, stressed the importance of listening to one’s body and figuring out where to put energies and when to conserve them. Fellow GradHacker Megan put it well when she advised, “You can’t compare yourself to others … You don’t need to work 24/7 … Work hard, but smart … And finally, your work does not define your worth.”