Advice for graduate students

I’m a digital pack rat. The odds are good that, if I wrote something of even minimal significance on a computer since the first one I owned back in 1988 (a dual-floppy disk system running MS-DOS with an amber-screen monitor), I still have a copy tucked away in some folder on my hard drive. And that means sometimes I surprise myself with the things I stumble across. This week’s dip into the archive is one of those finds.

Though I had no recollection of this until I (re)discovered the file in question, evidently, in the spring of 1994, during my 6th year as a PhD student, Howard Maclay asked me to be a guest speaker in my program’s doctoral proseminar to do two things: (1) give a brief talk about my dissertation-in-progress, and (2) say a few words about how to get through the program and choose a dissertation topic. I haven’t reproduced the former bit below (the bits worth saving from that all wound up in Elvis After Elvis anyway), but the latter still strikes me as (mostly) good advice for grad students, even (gulp!) 35 years later.

To be sure, this is not an exhaustive catalog of survival tips for graduate school, and while I think it has broader applicability than just the Communications program at Illinois in the mid-1990s, there are a few things here that are very US-centric (and maybe even Illinois-centric). Ex’s, for instance, were the University’s official grade for “incompletes” (and, when spoken about, one spelled the word out (“ee-ex”)), and they were a common feature of grad student life then and there. (To give you a sense of how normal these were, for a brief moment one spring, I officially had 5 Ex’s hanging over my head, and this was not something that put me in formal institutional trouble of any sort (not that I ever knew about anyway). And 5 wasn’t even close to the record. I’m not sure anyone outside the registrar’s office ever really knew what the record was, but I had friends (note the plural there) who had as many as 8 Ex’s to finish up at one time.) This is also perhaps the one piece of advice in what follows that I would not give to grad students today (at least not in any of the programs I know about).

I’m also not sure if I’d still recommend the Sternberg book. Mind you, that’s not because I have any specific reason to think poorly of it now. I simply haven’t looked at it in a decade or two (and may not even have a copy of it anymore to do so), and there may be newer, better versions of such “self help” guides for dissertation writers available now.

Getting through the program (the stuff Howard wouldn’t want me to tell you)

Course reading: No one — I repeat, no one, does all of it. Of course, you should do as much of it as you can, but for your own sanity, prioritize the load and eliminate (or at least save for last) those readings that aren’t absolutely essential. For example:

  • 1st: read what you know you need to read in order to understand the lectures and in-class discussions
  • 2nd: read what you know you need to read in order to write the required papers/exams
  • 3rd: read the stuff that interests you but that has no immediately obvious use value
  • 4th: read everything else

Ex’s: These are virtually impossible to avoid, if for no other reason than that, typically, by the time you feel you’ve grasped enough of the course material to tackle a term paper, it’s almost the end of the semester, and there’s no time left to do it in . . . and when this scenario plays itself out in 2 or 3 courses at once, Ex’s become more or less inevitable.

Therefore, minimize your feelings of guilt and anguish over these. They’re a very common phenomenon, they’re not inherently sinful, nor are they a sign that you’re a bad student. In fact, they’re often necessary evils that allow you to finish some of your coursework on time (i.e., it’s often better to plan on taking an Ex in one course early in the game so that you can finish the work for your other course(s) without distraction than it is to tackle three papers at once and wind up finishing none of them at all on time).

That being said, don’t take Ex’s if you don’t have to. And when you have to, try to clear them up ASAP. Ex’s aren’t a crime, but they can still make you feel real bad. There are few worse feelings than having an Ex hanging over your head for extended periods of time, and you can’t get on to the joys of post-coursework life until those Ex’s are off your record.

Honing your skills and filling up your vita (the stuff Howard may not have told you)

Don’t be shy about putting your work in the public eye: Send papers off to conferences and/or to be published in academic journals. Even if you don’t think so now, rest assured that all of you can do work of sufficiently high quality to cut the mustard in such settings. To be sure, the Institute’s Admissions Committee isn’t perfect (sorry, Howard), but I can’t think of anyone they’ve let in since I’ve been here who simply wasn’t smart enough or good enough to have papers accepted by conference selection committees and/or journal editorial boards. I doubt that any of you are the first such.

At some point, I imagine that all of you have picked up an issue of this journal or that, or that you’ve heard some conference paper, and said to yourself, “How in the world did this piece of crap get accepted here?” or “I can do better than that.” And, in many (if not most) of these cases, you’re probably right. So go ahead and prove it. Send your intellectual babies out into the big, bad world. The worst thing that can happen is that your paper gets rejected . . . but that happens to everyone at some point (and usually at several points). Being rejected is no sin, it’s not necessarily a sign of your inadequacy (it’s possible, for instance, that your perfectly wonderful essay would simply have been a better fit at a different conference or in a different journal), nor does it go into some permanent file where it will come back to haunt you later. The best thing that can happen, however — and it will happen, if not the first time around, then on the second or third (I don’t know anyone who’s tried more than once who’s never had a paper accepted anywhere) — is that you get to go to a conference (i.e., you get to visit a city other than C-U) and present a paper, or you get a publication to call your own . . . either of which counts as good experience, a reassuring ego boost for you, and an excuse to add another line to your vita.

Speaking of the vita: Start one now. Keep it on disk (or on file) and update it whenever necessary. It’ll probably be a bit skimpy at first, but it’ll grow faster than you think, and you won’t have to try and remember all the relevant minutiae of your career at Illinois when you go on the job market in a few years. Bear in mind that there’s much more to your vita than listing your name, your degrees, and your published/presented papers. Courses taught, guest lectures (such as this one!), assistantships, awards and fellowships, any and all committee work (no matter how trivial it might seem at the time), manuscript reviewing, memberships in professional associations, etc. — all of these are perfectly legitimate additions to your vita, as they demonstrate your ability to perform the wide variety of tasks that will be expected of you as a professional academic.

Choosing a diss topic (the stuff Howard probably already told you)

Generally, I don’t recommend self-help books, but in this case, I’ll make an exception: David Sternberg’s How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation [hold book up] is worth finding and reading, even at this early stage of the game. Not all of it will be relevant, and not all of the suggestions he makes will mesh with your personal style, but there’s a lot in these pages that will serve you in good stead down the pike.

Anyway, without trying to panic y’all too early in the game, you should bear in mind that — with very few exceptions — finishing your dissertation will take even longer than you think . . . this is true, even if you bear in mind that it’ll take longer than you think.

Even in the best of situations, however, you will be spending an awful lot of time obsessing over your diss. All of that time is open-ended and unstructured, and it’s more or less guaranteed that, at some point (or points), you’ll hit a wall: writer’s block, self-doubt, motivational problems, apathy, etc. The most important thing you can do, then, is to pick a topic that you feel comfortable with — and even enthusiastic about — from the start. Preferably something that you already have a fair amount of knowledge of, something that is pleasurable for you to work on, and something that you feel to be important in some way.

Why? ‘Cause when you hit that major snag somewhere about halfway through chapter three (with three more to go afterwards), your friends can lend you moral support, your s.o. (if you’ve got one) can give you backrubs, and your advisor can play good cop and/or bad cop (depending) in order to try and put you back on track. In the end, however, you’re the one who’s going to have to summon up the energy and the willpower to muscle through (or finesse around) the snags and finish the damned thing (and you will think of it that way long before it’s done) on your own. And getting past those snags is a lot easier to do (which isn’t to say that it’s exactly a walk in the park) if you’ve chosen a topic that you know, understand, and care about. It’s all but impossible, however, if your topic is one that you don’t like.

Case in point here: When I started at the Institute, I had no real conception of what my diss topic would be, above and beyond the fact that I knew it would have something to do with popular music. The first potential idea I came up with had to do with the question of musical genres, how they are defined (or not, as the case may be), who gets to define them, how they function, and what the socio-politico-cultural ramifications are of dividing the musical terrain up in the way(s) that it is. There was (and probably still is) a viable and valuable diss to be written on such a topic — genre remains a curiously underexamined realm of popular music scholarship — so this was not in and of itself a bad choice. As it turns out, however, I wasn’t the right person to do it. Or, more precisely, it wasn’t the right project for me, as it wasn’t something that really caught my imagination or excited me a great deal intellectually. In fact, the most painful Ex of my career was a paper on musical genres that hung over my head for about a year and a half before I could bring myself to write the thing — which only serves to underscore the notion that this would not have been a good diss topic for me. If I was bored stiff by the notion of writing a mere 25 pages on this subject, the prospect of going on for at least 150 (and, in my case, probably more) would have meant a slow, but certain death for me.

As for how I came to be writing on Elvis . . . well, unfortunately for y’all, there’s no easy-to-learn, how-to-choose-a-diss-topic technique that I learned and can now pass on to you. Long before I came to the prairie, I had a sort of campy, fan-like appreciation for tacky Elvis stuff, but the idea to write about this phenomenon didn’t occur to me until well into my second year of coursework . . . at which point, more or less out of nowhere, the idea of doing my entire dissertation on this unlikely seeming subject just popped into my head. At first, I simply laughed my head off about it, but the longer I considered the possibilities, the more plausible the idea seemed to me, as it became apparent (1) that there was something going on here that no one else had said a lot about (not necessarily an essential aspect of a good diss — being the first to write about something has its own dangers — but it does help to reassure you (during those inevitable moments of doubt) that at least you’re not just regurgitating someone else’s tired shtick), (2) that the phenomenon was certainly large enough (perhaps even too large) to generate a diss-length manuscript, and (3) that it was something in which I already had enough of a personal investment (as a fan) that I felt fairly confident that I could devote inordinate amounts of time to the project without going completely nuts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.