Survival Guide to Grad School

by Péter Kristóf Makai

To survive, you need to use your time well. Do something useful every day.

If you’ve made the decision to come to grad school, it means you are dedicated to hard work and intellectual adventures. Act like it. You don’t have to write several pages or read a whole book in one sitting, but make an effort to learn something new every day. Check out a new book in the library, pick up an article in a journal on your topic, watch a YouTube video, make an outline for a future article. Anything counts, really, so long as it moves your project forward. But take off time when necessary.

In the arts and humanities, every paper is an experiment

We are not here to reinvent the wheel, nor to hear the same sort of paper with another set of novels/periods/artists/theories. Be bold, think wild, dare to know. If you haven’t figured out an original angle on your topic after a year of focused research, you should consider another one. And it is fine to change topic, or, in some cases, even your supervisor. If you are in an intellectually stale environment where your topic no longer interests you, it is a surefire way of producing an awful thesis.

Start writing early.

You don’t have to begin with thesis-quality material, but you have to put your shoulder to the wheel early. Explore subtopics, individual writers or phenomena that you want to discuss, create a literature review, jot down your thoughts in a Word document. The point is to have some written memory of what you have thought about a particular piece of writing, otherwise you are bound to forget it in the slew of articles and source materials you will be reading. It pays to have an annotated bibliography, which does not have to be more than a sketch of broad brushstrokes: how does this person approach the topic, what are its main insights, what strikes you as especially useful for your thesis. It is like an intellectual family album. It will serve you well.

“You should be writing” is the wrong mantra.

Yes, ultimately you will be judged by your thesis. It does not mean, however, that you should sweat bullets to write every day. Guilt actually hinders your thinking, it saddles you down with the pressure to produce something, anything, which will just give you more stuff to cut out of your final work. Even at the All-But-Dissertation stage, when you focus on writing, it is perfectly fine to take a day or two out, but don’t let a week pass you by with at least two solid days dedicated to writing your thesis. Take everything in moderation and give yourself ample time to develop your arguments.

At some point, you’ll have to stop reading.

Overresearching your project will kill it so hard, it’s not even funny. My original bibiliographical list was over 40 pages long, and that was just the bibliographical entries in MLA 7, nothing more. I ended up using only a third of that, and I had to cite plenty of other papers instead. You will not be using everything you read and it is perfectly fine.

Your supervisor is there for you. Use this to your advantage.

Frankly, I know how hard it is to find a supervisor who believes in your project and will contribute enough time and effort to make sure your project crosses the finish line in a timely manner. So don’t accept the rules, don’t accept the apathy and go after your supervisors. Badger, bother and bugger them constantly to give feedback on your work. When you’re stuck and need new and original thoughts: contact your supervisor. When you need a new conference to go to: contact your supervisor. When you can’t judge the usefulness of a paper: contact your supervisor. When you have existential doubts… well, nah, find a therapist instead. Still, always respect your supervisor’s time and effort they do put into examining your work. Always be courteous, strike a balance between professionalism and informality. They are not your drinking buddies, but you are going to spend 3-4 years together in close collaboration, so maintain a healthy relationship that will be mutually invigorating. You don’t want your supervisor to duck behind the desk when you come knocking on their door.

Reading THAT paper: it’s not the end of the world.

In every grad student’s life, there comes a point when they have finally figured out what they want to write about, they are having original ideas, a new take on an old chestnut, and …BOOM!… they read a paper that argues for everything they wanted to put on paper, only much more eloquently and with a wider reference pool. Don’t lose heart! I cannot stress this enough. Just because you think they have already written your thesis five years ago, it doesn’t mean you can’t use it to your advantage. The first thing you need to do is cite the paper. Of course, if it speaks so much to your project, it strengthens your argument if you refer to fellow thinkers. Second: find a point of attack. I mean, they literally can’t be _all_ right about every single detail. Take a critical eye to re-reading the paper again, get a feel for where the author might be cutting corners and call them out on it. Nothing feels better than correcting a big name in a field who thinks they can afford a few mistakes every now and then. Use this to your advantage. Third: improve your arguments. So maybe somebody got the same idea as you. Big deal. You can have better thoughts. Cross-reference the arguments that feels closest to you with another theory, find a comparison with another source. Anything that promises a productive dialogue with these arguments will certainly help you in formulating new ideas you can turn to your advantage.

Don’t neglect your private life outside of grad school.

Seriously, we all love researching for hours in a library, being lost in a good book or listening to the reassuring clicks of a keyboard as we furiously type. But this is not your whole life, so don’t let your personal relationships suffer because of your work. Seek support from friends and family, ask them to give you time and mental space to do your research. If you feel like you are becoming a workaholic, make sure you take a day or two off, pursue a hobby, chat with friends outside academia, and generally move outside your comfort zone. It will keep you mentally fresh, it will help you avoid PTSD (Pre-Thesis Stress Disorder) and it will remind you that daylight is a wonderful thing.

If it all gets too much, there is no shame in dropping out.

Okay, so you thought a dissertation would be just like writing an MA Thesis, only a bit longer. But what if it turns out to be a whole different kettle of fish? You are expected to go to conferences, present papers, publish papers, discuss your work with editors outside of the familiar faces in your department, the work might look unmanageable. It’s… not even remotely close to how you write an MA Thesis from a life skills perspective. If your relationship turns serious, if you think about settling down, if you realise you are just trying to prove something by getting a PhD, if the economy hasn’t been kind to your family and you need to take a job, if somebody important dies… all of these can take a toll on you and your willingness to go on with the project. Don’t risk your mental health, don’t let the years you’ve sunk into the project stop you from making the right decision. What is important is that you pursue life goals that you can get behind, not to have a piece of paper or to add a couple of letters to your name.

Be proud of your work and have fun with it.

Ultimately, getting a PhD and writing a thesis is something you do for yourself. You are seriously interested in a project, so take joy in your work. Savour the prose of the novel you are reading, be fascinated by the historical figures you come across, delight in the abstract patterns you discover. Craft delicate sentences that feel like poetry, take pride in a presentation delivered well, enjoy the intellectual repartee with your colleagues. This may be the last time of your life you feel genuinely free to pursue knowledge for its own sake before jobs, spouses and kids take precedence. Researching and writing should be fun (although it might not look like it at the moment, but it really is), and never miss an opportunity to share the joys of being a researcher with your fellow grad students.

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