Get and Give All You Can: Advice for New Graduate Students

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

gasman2009It’s that time of year — new graduate students are setting foot on campuses across the nation hoping to gain knowledge and have new experiences that will help them progress in their careers.  As a professor and adviser, I get really excited about new graduate students.  They are usually wide-eyed, excited, and eager to get started.  However, after a semester, I often sense their frustration with the academy.  So, I thought I’d offer a bit of advice for getting (and giving) the most out of your graduate experience.

1.   Keep an open mind.  Don’t let the students who have been around for a few years color your experience.  Make your experience your own experience and enjoy it.  This is one of the most wonderful times in your life — oh to be able to just think!

2.  Get to know the faculty members in your program.  Make appointments with them a few months into the semester.  This is especially important if you are enrolled in a master’s program and you want to enroll in Ph.D. programs in the future.  Most master’s programs are short and you need to get yourself on the radar screen of faculty members right away so that they are willing to write letters of recommendation for you.  Getting to know faculty members and having good intellectual conversations and debates will stimulate your thinking.

3.  Ask faculty members if you can help them conduct research and write articles.  You can do this in one of three ways: serve as a research assistant for a faculty member and learn the ways of writing and research in an apprentice-like way; ask to be a partner in a current research project (making sure to negotiate co-authorship if there are publications involved); or bring one of your own ideas to a faculty member and ask them to partner with you and serve as a co-author (with your name as first author).  One of the best ways of learning in graduate school is through collaboration around ideas.

4.  If you truly enjoy a class that you are taking and you do well when grades are given at the end of the semester, ask the professor if you can serve as a teaching assistant (paid or unpaid) for the class the next time it’s offered.  As a teaching assistant, you can gain experience grading, facilitating class discussions, lecturing, and designing a syllabus. 

5.  Most universities have many different cultural events, speakers, and organizational activities.  Frequent these.  The relationships that you establish across disciplines can be wonderfully beneficial and long lasting.  In addition, interacting with people outside your program or discipline keeps you on your toes and intellectually stimulated.

6.  Read, read, read.  Although there is typically more reading assigned than can possibly be digested in graduate school, do it or as much of it as you can!  Being well read is essential in life, especially if you plan on being a professor.  In addition, reading makes for better writing.  Study the way people write, keep track of smart phrases and uses of language and pull them out later when you are writing.  Read all kinds of things — fiction, magazines, newspapers, journals, blogs — reading non-academic works keeps you in touch with the rest of the world and stimulates creative thinking.

7.  Attend conferences even if it means rooming with lots of other students.  Sometimes graduate students make the mistake of only operating within their own institutions or only listening to the perspectives of their program’s faculty members — don’t do that!  Get out there and gain many different perspectives.

8.  Get in the habit of writing every day.  There is a great deal of research that shows that if you write every day, you will be a better writer, a more productive writer, and that writing will come more easily to you.  Writing becomes natural instead of feeling forced.  Even an hour a day can keep you motivated.

9. Stay focused on ideas and not academic politics.  Asa Hilliard, my wonderful mentor, gave me the best advice when I was a new faculty member.  He said, “live for ideas not academic politics” — such sound advice.  I have faltered a few times, but once my head clears, I let the politics go and get back to the work.  The work is what is important to making change and making a difference in the lives of others.

10.  Make sure that you give as much as you get.  Find something about which you feel immense passion and give as much as you can to whatever it is.  The only way to sustain an academic career, or any career for that matter, is to pursue something that makes you want to get up each day and go at it. 

Good luck new students!

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).



3 responses to “Get and Give All You Can: Advice for New Graduate Students

  1. Mary Beth,
    I loved this brief piece!
    We are putting together the “orientation” to new students in our program (much needed) and I can see your piece becoming part of it!
    Thank you for your great ideas!
    Gabriela Silvestre

  2. Once again Dr. Gasman is right on the money and from experience I know that each graduate student reading her blog can trust her statements; and I concur. From a recently conferred graduate student, I offer these supporting words:

    1. If you don’t keep an open mind, you will surely fail. My first six weeks in grad school I questioned my presence there because I was lost, to say the least. I kept my mind open to the fact that I had to academically compete to be there, was chosen, and funded. I kept my mind open to the fact that students who had been there a year or two might be a bit jaded. Many graduate students suffer through that. Follow Dr. Gasman’s advice, which ironically was the advice I received from the graduate secretary: “make your experience your own and enjoy it”; don’t let the experiences of other graduate students dictate what your experience will be. Do YOU!

    2. I did not get to know the any faculty in my field because there were none. Grad students who focus on remote fields are usually left hanging; but what they can find are faculty members who ‘dabble’, and that was useful for my plan of work.

    3. Pursuing research with faculty members has a caveat: you will work for free and get little, if any, pubic credit for that work; but the professors with whom you do work will remember that when it’s recommendation time. Never burn those bridges; always keep your word to the professors with whom you work; and, complete the tasks assigned and volunteered.

    4. Asking for a “paid or unpaid” teaching assistant for a professor applies if you don’t have a fellowship. Some schools don’t let funded students double-dip. If you have received a fellowship, your second year will present all hell breaking loose as you will be teaching and learning, grading and being graded, etc.

    5. University events are a perfect place to become involved with professors. When they find you there, they often begin to ask you to go, and knowing you’re probably broke, they often pay and cook dinner (yum, free food!). You can meet professors from different field that are connected to your own and find out about events that as lesser publicized that are interesting and worthwhile. These events force you into a social situation with professors, so always have your best face on!

    6. Read, read, read? No disrespect Dr. Gasman, but add seven more ‘reads’ to that list. All graduate students do is read. If you don’t like to read, you will fail. If you don’t read regularly, you will fail. If you don’t read critically, historically, theoretically, and thoroughly, trust me–you will fail. Walk away from your TV. I was lucky, I’ve never owned one and now I’m trained not to, LOL. . .

    7. I can’t say enough about the conferences. I did my first two as an undergraduate and then pursued more as a grad student. Now, I don’t feel quite adjusted if I don’t do at least one a year, preferably two. These conferences are FUN and often funded, albeit, not as fun when you aren’t one of the presenters. If you are in the humanities, the MLA, and its branches, such as the M/MLA, is worth attended every year. That’s where the job networking begins; not to mention, you get to meet your new literary heroes: for me, it was Homi Bhabha!

    8. Writing everyday is a must. For me, my most valuable writing was what I wrote in my books. Those notes captured my first thoughts about what I’d read, how that new knowledge applied to my field, how I could question, complicate, and challenge what I’d read. When dissertation time came around, I was ready with a great question, a theory, and ways to prove it.

    9. Academic politics will get’s grad students in much trouble and should be avoided. What Dr. Gasman’s advisor told her is definitely “sound advice,” and you may “falter a few times,” but the scholarship you are producing is your ticket to that dream job in your field. It’s what sets you apart from other applicants. In combination with excellent recommendations, skilled critical thinking, and knowing your scholarship, you can beat out that competition, no matter how stiff.

    10. Passion is always required in graduate school. If you are studying something you don’t give a damn about, that will revealed in your work quality. Tune into to YOU and YOUR interests because that is pure motivation, not only to know more about your selected discourse, but to find a point of entry into that discourse and having something worthwhile to say about it. That’s how dissertations are written, presented, and accepted.

    Good luck to every new grad student who reads this and by all means please remember that graduate school is crazy fun! Enjoy the next 3-7 years. . .

  3. Dear Dr Gasman,

    Your tips were a good reminder for me to keep up the high spirit and good work, in addition that it gave me a great boost now since I know I do almost all of these things mentioned without the intention but the thrill and passion to be engaged.
    I love to do many things and enjoy as you said, I feel more knowledgable and motivated than staying in the scope of my class only. I’m really happy to realize now after reading your article that I’m on the right track and will keep myself motivated and passionate as long as I can. Your article made my day!

    Thank you,
    Muna AlSheikh- Community Agency Counseling
    International Grad Student @ Cleveland State Uni

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