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The Eleventh Commandment of Graduate School: Be Nice to People!

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Claire Potter has her Ten Commandments of Graduate School, all of which I recommend highly.

Thou shalt not rack up unnecessary credit card debt. You may need to take out student loans to pay for things like shelter, food, medical care and a decent laptop computer. But don’t take out loans to pay for things you bought just to make yourself feel better. Try to make a budget for yourself that includes fun and going out to dinner with friends, but not all kinds of stuff you will end up throwing away when you have to move. And just because it’s a book doesn’t mean you need to own it. One of the great weaknesses of academics is buying books they never get around to reading.

Thou shalt not neglect thy dental or health care. Every tooth of mine that gets worked on in middle age became a problem in graduate school. I am totally serious about this.

Thou shalt find an excellent thrift store. You will gradually build yourself a wardrobe of professional clothes (ok, if you are like me, you will build a wardrobe of black tee shirts) and you needn’t buy anything new. Go to the swanky neighborhoods near your university and buy the really nice things other people discarded. If you don’t know how to shop, get someone to teach you.

Thou shalt not assume that merit systems are determinative. If there is anything I hate seeing on the Interwebz, it is people claiming that the person who got the job/fellowship/prize isn’t as smart or deserving or credentialed as they are. It’s the, “Gee I wrote four articles and have a book contract, and *that* person only wrote one article and a review essay” syndrome. I always wonder, Hmmm….maybe you didn’t get the job because the other person was nicer. #Everthinkathat? Academic success is not about racking up points and head to head competition. It’s about other people making choices that you have no control over. Do your best work, and then let it go.

Thou shalt have an excellent professional back-up plan. Tape this to your mirror. Keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to learn things that will give you options if that dream job — or any tenure stream job — does not materialize. Things digital, things foundation oriented, things administrative. Yes, the Ph.D. program is designed to educate you, but this is the moment to educate yourself.

Thou shalt become an excellent colleague. Be generous with the others in your cohort. Look for people’s good sides and try to ignore their annoying qualities. And if you must, be honest with someone, whether it’s a hygiene issue or something that is just getting on your nerves. Beginning any comment with, “Hey, it’s probably just me, but…..”

Thou shalt join thy professional organization. It is a false economy to be out of touch with what is going on in the larger world of your field (particularly if it’s not a terribly large world, like Scandinavian Studies or something.) While you are at it, keep educating yourself about academia in general by reading Inside Higher Ed, this publication (some of the best blogs are free, but a two year subscription is cheaper than a month of your cable bill), and academic blogs (particularly those in your field that will alert you to books long before the reviews appear in a journal.) There are many voices: listen to all of them, decide what you think and what you care about. Professionalize yourself. Even if you end up leaving academia, you will know why — and how to use your experience to do something that suits you better.

Thou shalt not suck up to thy mentors nor have sexual congress with them, nor shalt thou, when a TA, cross the line thyself. Need I elaborate? An excellent way to shred your career right at the beginning is to be part of a sexual harassment suit. Or a co-respondent in someone’s divorce. Here’s another hint: undergraduates and graduate TA’s are not “students” in the same way. Even if you are only a year or two older.

Thou shalt not gossip and spread hurtful calumny, nor write vituperative email, nor bcc when chastising others. Many of the ways you may have behaved on email as an undergraduate will erode your reputation as a graduate student. For example: telling tales out of school on the faculty or on other graduate students; expressing resentment and anger to an audience; or writing long, enraged emails that you copy to other people. Particularly in the latter case, that email may be out there forever. Don’t assume your university email is private either: make sure you have another account that only the NSA can get into.

Thou shalt use the word discourse sparingly; likewise neoliberalism, and other theoretical catchphrases designed to obscure that thou hast not fully thought through thine ideas. The best part of the first year in graduate school is immersing yourself in the theoretical tools of your discipline or interdisciplinary field. You will feel like a big, wonderful sponge. But, as the wise Carroll Smith-Rosenberg once said to me, “Wear your theory lightly, my dear.” Don’t sound smart: be smart. Intellectuals don’t want to have Michel Foucault, or Michael Warner, or Gayatri Spivak, or Anthony Appiah read back to them: they want to know what you think. Make sure you know, and learn to speak and write it in the most inviting way you can.

Thou shalt remember that this was supposed to be fun. If you aren’t having fun, it is essential to find out why. Seek out appropriate counsel.

Claire gets at my larger point in a few of her commandments, but if there’s one thing I would say to graduate students, it would be to be nice to other people. Be nice to your fellow grad students. Be nice to your professors. Be nice to the students in classes you TA for. Never ever ever do something like sabotage fellow students by running to the library and hiding their books (this may in fact be an urban legend, but for whatever reason graduate students in history at Chapel Hill were always accused of this to me. Who knows.) Don’t undermine fellow people. Don’t talk bad about your peers. Don’t complain that someone got funding and you didn’t. Even if your fellow graduate students aren’t very nice, why engage with this? Stay positive, which means being positive to other people. Your fellow graduate students shouldn’t be seen as competitors with you. Instead, express solidarity with them through your fellow class interests.

Even though, as Claire points out, academia is no meritocracy (I have my job because I am lucky, not because I am so much better than all these other people), at the end, if your work is better, you will have a better shot at jobs. Being a jerk isn’t going to make your work better. It’s going to make you a bitter mean person who no one will want as a colleague. That matters a lot because departments don’t want to hire people they won’t want to see in the halls and exchange pleasantries with. That might not be the case at the very tippy top elite schools, but at the vast majority of institutions, it is. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of three departments, each of which range from being cordial with each other to having a lot of true friendships. And I don’t think anyone in these departments would allow great research and brains to overcome an unpleasant personality.

In short, as with most of life, be nice.

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