What I Wish I’d Known When I Was in Grad School (Part 1 of 3)

Continuing on with our Sociology of Education Association conference series: the next three posts report on what attendees and other colleagues around the country wish they had known in grad school. – JLJ



I share with all my students Ben Barres’ comment that “I wish that someone had mentioned to me when I was younger that life, even in science, is a popularity contest.” That is, you can do the best study with the best data and the best methods, and if nobody knows about it or understands it, it won’t matter. And for your career, it’s unfortunately probably the case that convincing people you are right is potentially more important than actually being right. The good news is that academics are generally a pretty smart bunch, so that if you are right, they will generally realize this (and most people peddling snake-oil science don’t get far). Another way to say this is that like high school, in the academy if you have certain skills you are pretty likely to be popular–e.g. the star quarterback is probably unlikely to be persona non grata in high school, and likewise in the academy someone who does really innovative and rigorous work is likely to be noticed.

I also tell students that there are two opposite and equally deadly mistakes: thinking a paper is done before it is, and thinking it is not done after it is. Early in grad school people tend to think that the paper is good enough before it is (one of my mentors told me that the difference between a successful and unsuccessful academic is how much time you spend on a paper once you are sick of it). Later in grad school people tend to think that they need to keep working on a paper long after they should be, polishing something where there is little improvement to be made. It is important to find mentors who can help you learn where both of these boundaries are, and to be willing to listen to them about both boundaries. It is also important to realize that this is a learning process that takes time, and I suspect that to some degree we are always learning a bit better where these lines are.


s200_janice.mccabeIt’s easy to get caught up with classes and other requirements without reflecting on your short-term goals and your long-term goals. Make a semester schedule and a longer-term plan, and revisit it and revise it every semester. Inevitably, you will be faced with decisions where you have to prioritize some activities and interests over others, and being concrete with your goals will help you make these decisions in a way that it consistent with your own personal values (as reflected in your short-term and long-term goals).

Rojas1.  In the short term, academic success affected by status. It helps to publish in high status journals, enroll in a high status graduate program, or have high status advisers who can help you.2.  Graduate school is a training program. Find advisers and colleagues who are very professional in how they treat students. Any potential adviser should have a nice track record of publications with students or job placements. Avoid advisers who have a reputation for being difficult.

3.  Success goes to those who aim high and are good at executing projects.

4.  I wish I had read the Grad Skool Rulz, which is a total bargain at $3.


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