Barbara Lovitts recently wrote a book called Making the Implicit Explicit. Unfortunately, many of the rules and expectations in graduate school are rather implicit and difficult to decipher. Even something as critical as dismissal from graduate school can be subtle and unnerving. Your job as a graduate student is to decipher these unwritten rules without having to pay the penalty of breaking them first. That’s why, in addition to your advisor, it’s important to create your own “board of directors” to help you navigate through the “unwritten” rules and understand the subtleties of graduate school.
Call on your “board of directors” to help you interpret the signs that your mentor and teachers are giving you. If you are finding graduate school difficult at every turn, you may need to evaluate whether or not the faculty in your department is supporting you in the manner that you need, or if they are actually giving out subtle messages to try to get you to quit.
If you find yourself in the following situations, you may need to consult with your “board of directors” to further analyze what’s really going on.
• Are you finding it difficult to find a faculty member with whom to work?
Graduate studies are highly focused, in order to succeed, you have to pinpoint your area of research and seek out who on the faculty are experts in this area. Having a difficult time aligning yourself with those faculty members may be a red flag for you. It’s important to do your research, and understand the preferences and expectations of the faculty with whom you wish to work. If all of their advisees stay and work in the lab over the holidays, for example, that’s a big clue that you should be doing the same. And, not only should you stay, but you should make sure to get some meaningful work done while you are there.
Always reinforce the impression that you are a hard worker. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the culture of your department, and take care to adopt accepted practices. Take note, and follow suit! It’s also important to keep in mind that faculty talk to one another, so be sure you make a good impression in all of your courses, not just the ones led by the professors with whom you wish to work.
• Have you been assigned an advisor who hasn’t graduated anyone in years?
Not all mentors are equally enthusiastic about advising students. If you have been assigned an advisor, you need to do your homework. Does this person have tenure? Find out how long his or her students typically take to finish their degree. Ask his advisees and other graduate students what he is like to work, and how supportive and helpful he has been. If the advisor has not graduated any person in the past two to five years, you may be getting set up for failure. Find your own advisor fast.
• Has your advisor told you that “you won’t make it here” because of where you received your undergraduate degree?
If so, this is clearly not someone who you want to serve as your advisor. Graduate school is enough work in and of itself; you don’t have the time or energy to try to prove to someone that you belong. Find another advisor quick and move on.
Sometimes a comment like this is offered as a piece of advice from someone who sincerely thinks they are helping because of the perceived reputation of your undergraduate alma mater. At other times, however, it may be offered by someone who believes you didn’t perform very well in their class, and that you might not have what it takes to succeed in their department.
If, after careful self-examination, you agree that your undergraduate institution didn’t adequately prepare you for this next step, you need to do everything possible to get up to speed fast by taking additional labs, reading extra materials from “recommended” reading lists and even taking an undergraduate class that provides a survey of the research in your discipline. If you are seeking a graduate degree in a discipline different from your undergraduate major, you might consider taking an online class over the summer before starting graduate school.
In addition, make sure your writing skills are up to par. Though the content of your work is clearly the most important aspect of your work, if you aren’t skilled in presenting your research clearly and concisely, it doesn’t matter how good the material is. If your writing skills aren’t stellar, beef them up by take writing classes and by writing as frequently as you can.
• Has your funding run out, and you are having difficulty finding someone to help you secure new funding?
When faculty want to keep a promising student, they will go out of their way to help them secure funding. If you’re finding it difficult to secure this kind of support, it may be a red flag that the faculty doesn’t think you or your work is very promising. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Stay on top of your funding issues, and be sure to seek help well in advance of when your funding is due to run out. Also, don’t be afraid to seek outside funding as well. Remember, you might still need to get faculty recommendations for outside fellowships or grants. If no one on the faculty is willing to advocate for you, it may be a subtle message that it’s time to select reevaluate your decision about staying in that department or institution.
• Does your advisor have any idea when you are going to graduate?
If your advisor has no idea when you are going to graduate, you may not have adequately conveyed your desire to graduate. Remember: you did not come to graduate school just to find a job; you came to get a degree. In order to succeed, you must take the steps and make the deadlines to accomplish that goal. In the corporate world “if you want to get promoted, then you have to train your replacement.” Just as importantly, if you are working in a lab and you want to graduate you have to be willing to share your knowledge and nurture the talents of those below you. Your advisor might be willing to let you go if he or she feels that his or her lab will be left in capable hands. Moreover, you advisor needs to be thoroughly briefed on your goals and timeline, and reassured that you are “making progress” — accomplishing each milestone in a timely manner. Otherwise, he or she may question how serious you are about really achieving your goals.
• Do the rules seem obvious to everyone but you?
If so, you haven’t been keeping up with your cohort. Students who enter graduate school at the same time tend to make friends, form study groups, exchange information, and keep each other informed of what is going on in the department. If you get off course, you will have an even more difficult time keeping in the loop. If members of your cohort have long graduated, you need to participate more in department events to keep yourself abreast of what is going on. Stay in touch with the administrative staff. Attend the brown bag/lunch seminars on paper topics you might be interested in. Take every opportunity to network with people in the cohort both below or above you.
Remember: some of the most important rules and guidelines about graduate school cannot be found in a book; you have to seek them out from people who can help show you the way!!!