My first semester of graduate school was by far the most difficult. Through naive planning on my part, I began my semester with two heavy-reading courses in Political Science — American Politics and Comparative Politics– paired with everyone’s favorite: Quantitative Analysis. The two readings courses assigned roughly 300 pages of reading each. The quantitative analysis course, also known as the “grad student filter,” was scary for everyone. In hindsight, I’m grateful for that first semester and its difficulty; it acted as the semester to which all others were compared.
As I was struggling with those courses, I anxiously searched different variants of “Graduate School Advice,” and “How to Survive Graduate School” through Google. Though I found some amazing logistical advice, I did not find anything that spoke to my stress, a period of time for first-year graduate students I like to call, “The Grad School Freakout.”
What I wish I had known when I started graduate school:
1. You are not an impostor. Impostor Phenomenon refers to the feeling of phoniness, the feeling that you do not belong in your current position. You might feel less intelligent than your peers, less prepared, and that at any point you will be found out and suffer the consequences. According to my research, roughly 90% of graduate students suffer from some form of impostor phenomenon, typically earlier on in their graduate careers. I know I did. And that informal statistic should mean something to you: nearly everyone feels that way. Don’t understand something with the reading? Likely no one taught you how to read an academic article. Don’t understand a type of analysis? Your peers probably don’t either; no one is born understanding methodology. Trust in this, and the feelings of being an impostor will fade. Furthermore, remember that professors suffer from impostor phenomenon, too!
2. Academic journal articles and books are often poorly written. Not to insult my fellow academics, but just because one has a PhD doesn’t mean one is a good writer. Some of the worst writing I’ve seen (in terms of clarity and structure) are from the ivory tower. If an article or book is poorly written, don’t feel too bad if you don’t understand it right away. Chances are your professor doesn’t understand 100% either.
3. Learn to read efficiently. Let me be very clear on this: very few professors read journal articles and books in their entirety; that is, they read to get what they want, nothing more. How does this work? Academics typically read non-linearly; they pick and choose which sections of an article or book they want, often skipping the rest. They have developed what literacy folks call Disciplinary Literacy, a level of comfort in the discipline. Do not, dear readers, spend hours poring over a 20-30 page journal article. Unless you find it fascinating (in which case, by all means read it through!), read to write and understand.
4. Do not obsess over your grades. If you were accepted into graduate school, you are fully capable of achieving As in all of your courses. To not obsess doesn’t mean to not do well; instead, focus on your contribution to the field (through your writing) and to the course (through class discussions).
5. Avoid the Dark Cloud of Graduate School. I have seen so many of my peers fail, so many sucked into that dark void of melancholy and apathy. And, of course, misery loves company. When funding is low and workloads are high, even the most brilliant of graduate students can fall into despair. In order to avoid this cloud, you must surround yourself with uplifting people. Find a peer or a group of peers who seem to enjoy themselves. If you can’t find a peer, befriend your professors. You can always find those people; you just have to make it your mission to look.