It’s once more the time of year when graduate student thoughts turn to the writing of syllabi and the purchasing of new stationery. This year I was asked to lead some of the training sessions for the department’s incoming cohort of graduate students, and to share advice with them about how to approach their time here. I’m reproducing some of my remarks here, because they include things I need to remind myself of every now and then.
“Enjoy your time here. There will be plenty of things to complain about—grading, advisors, the job market, grading, grant applications, grading—but you are going to spend at least five years here surrounded by people who are all passionate about history, getting paid to read and to research. Venting is a great and necessary thing, but every now and then remind yourself why you’re here.
Don’t fret about how much you don’t know, or how much more your colleagues seem to know in comparison to you. There’s a term for this—Impostor Syndrome—which means that feeling that no matter how much you’ve accomplished, someone’s going to unmask you as a fraud at any moment. High-achieving women and first-generation college students in particular are prone to this. Remind yourself that it’s okay. If you don’t know something, that’s okay. That’s why you’re in graduate school, this is where you’re going to start learning—and where, pro tip, you’re surrounded by other really smart people who also don’t know everything. An awareness of what you need to work on is great, but don’t let it turn into chronic self-doubt or feelings of inadequacy. On the flip side, if you’ve arrived here thinking that you know better than your advisor, or even your peers—you don’t. Remember what pride goeth before.
Repeat the mantra: “I am not my work.” Your self-worth isn’t dependent on what you produce.
Make sure that your office is always stocked with a heavy duty stapler, a water bottle, your preferred form of caffeine, and Kleenex. The Kleenex isn’t necessarily for you—you will see what I mean when you have office hours in the run-up to exam week.
Be kind to yourself. Be kind to other people. If you’ve been working for a week straight, your body and your mind are going to need time off. Don’t let guilt drive you into all-nighters or endless stretches in your office. It’s one of those weird brain things, that sometimes you need to think about nothing in order to be able to think about anything. Make your writing a priority, protect your own boundaries, but don’t cut yourself off from other people. Sometimes it’s a good thing to give up your time on behalf of others. Your training as a historian doesn’t just involve acquiring a knowledge of your field’s historiography or how to plumb the depths of JSTOR, but also learning what it means to be a colleague.
When you go to conferences, do not be an asshole. People will remember you.
Get to know graduate students and faculty at Iowa outside of the history department. Their perspectives will enrich your work in unexpected ways. Remember to keep in touch with the family and friends you had before you moved here—you will want to stay grounded with people who knew you before you were mumbling about comps lists in your sleep.
Read stuff outside your field. Read fiction. Read poetry. Read with an eye to the ways in which people use language. It will help with your own writing, but also it’s just fun. You will need to remember what fun is.
Your relationship with your advisor is going to be extremely important. Depending on
who that person is, you may develop a strong mentoring relationship with them; with others you may not. Regardless, you’re going to have to learn to advocate for yourself with your advisor. Take their advice on board, but remember that their career is not your career, that their priorities are not necessarily your priorities. Seek out the people who will be your best guides.
Never presume upon the time of Pat, Sheri, and Heather, the department’s administrative assistants. Always appreciate their work, and the fact that they know so much more about the arcane ways of university bureaucracy than you do. They know all. They see all.
Have a sense of purpose, but just as importantly, have a sense of humour. And remember that here I’m giving advice which I don’t always follow. I have days when I think my dissertation is crap and I just want to go home. But I love what I do. Remember that you love what you do.”
* “She hoped to be wise and reasonable in time; but alas! alas! she must confess to herself that she was not wise yet.” —Jane Austen, Persuasion, Chapter 19.