5 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me in Grad School: A Smorgasbord

Jul 6, 2021

In a recent panel organized by Ashley Leeds and the Women in Conflict Studies (WICS) group, I had a chance to reflect on some things I wish someone had told me while I was getting my Ph.D.  The Bridging the Gap project got excited about bringing the panelists’ reflections to a larger audience through a week of posts here at the Duck of Minerva blog.  I’ll start off with various thoughts, and fellow participants will explore their own themes throughout the week. 

Maybe you’re fortunate to have lots of mentors and get consistently great advice.  Even so – and even if you’re past grad school – perhaps you’ll benefit from hearing about some things that took us a while to figure out.  My 5 things are a smorgasbord: how to choose classes, survive conferences, extend invitations, cultivate an inclusive environment, and plan for the long-term.

No. 1: Take classes in what you couldn’t – or wouldn’t – learn on your own.

That means something different for each person.  What are the areas of learning in which you need to have a structure, schedule, and community?  It might be languages, or research methods, or philosophy, or economics, or something else.  Whatever the areas are for you personally, prioritize those when selecting your classes

Keep in mind that grad school is a special time: you’re surrounded by plenty of smart peers, most of whom have humbly recognized that there’s more they need to learn.  Make the most of this.  After graduate school, not everyone will work in a university – and even if you do, you’ll find that the opportunities, time, and social support for learning through formal classes become scarce.

No. 2: When you first start going to professional conferences, it probably won’t be much fun.

Conferences get hyped as a place to learn about exciting in-progress research, and a place to meet exciting like-minded people.  But many times, they’re not the font of cutting-edge ideas that you hoped they’d be.  Plus, everyone else already seems to know each other, and they aren’t always very attentive to helping you feel included.

This gets better, but it takes time.  As you start meeting more people outside of your home institution, you’ll build a bigger support network that you’ll look forward to catching up with at conferences.  To start meeting these people, seek out smaller conference events such as mentoring panels, or receptions sponsored by particular universities or research sections.  And once you’ve got that support network constructed, don’t forget to extend it to people who feel as left out as you once did.

No. 3: More than expected, people will say “yes”to things you ask them to do.”

A good example is organizing a conference panel on a topic that interests you, then asking more-established researchers to be on the panel as chairs or discussants.  You may be surprised how often they’ll agree.  This gets your work in front of people in your area, but the arrangement is also attractive to them: your topic is relevant to them, and it saves them the work of assembling the panel themselves.

So, don’t rule out politely asking people (even people you don’t know firsthand) to do things.  If they say “yes,” that’s great.  And even if they say “no,” don’t take offense – it’s unlikely to be a reflection on you, and instead is just part of the reality that everybody faces constraints. 

No. 3 Try not to give up in helping people say your name correctly.

You might have this issue with your family name, your given name, or both.  I have this difficulty with my given name, Tana.  Maybe some people assume they know how it should be pronounced and don’t ever re-examine that assumption; maybe other people are reluctant to ask and so they just guess; and maybe other people initially had it right but then get swayed by mispronunciation by others.  Whatever the reason, hardly anyone is trying to be demeaning. 

Still, it can be demoralizing when people – even people who’ve known you for years – refer to you very familiarly by a name that’s not your own.  I try subtle things, like proactively introducing myself rather than relying on others to introduce me, or offering little mnemonic devices such as “Tana rhymes with Diana.”  It’s not fun persevering with diplomatic corrections, or experimenting with new forms of reminders, when it would be so much easier to adopt a nickname, or just let a thousand pronunciations bloom.  But if you face this particular difficulty – or any other difficulty that risks marginalization – try to keep going with grace, realizing that your efforts are part of a bigger and more important push to make our environments more inclusive in more ways, for more people.

No. 4: Save money for the future.

While you’re in grad school, you’re foregoing better-paid full-time work.  Maybe you even gave up a full-time job in order to go back to school.  But don’t forego saving money for the future, especially if you’re in a country that doesn’t have a robust social safety net.

Yes, you probably don’t feel like you have a lot of “leftover” money after expenses.  And yes, retirement probably feels far enough away that the focus should be on more immediate concerns.  But, putting aside even $1,000 a year during grad school would give that money time to grow.  Plus, some countries offer investment vehicles with tax advantages or no-penalty withdrawals.  (Currently in the U.S., for instance, a Roth IRA permits contributions to be withdrawn without the usual penalties if you need that money for an emergency, and it allows earnings to be tax-free if taken out in retirement.).  Whether you went to grad school directly from college, or returned to school many years later, try not to neglect your long-term financial security while you work on your degree.

Summing Up

I had much to learn, so I’ve presented a smorgasbord of what I wish someone had told me.  First: take classes in what you couldn’t – or wouldn’t – learn on your own.  Second: when you first start going to professional conferences, it probably won’t be much fun.  Third: more than expected, people will say “yes” to things you ask them to do.  Fourth: try not to give up in helping people say your name correctly.  And fifth: save money for the future.

In other posts this week, fellow participants will explore themes of their own.

This is the first post in our week-long “Five Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me in Graduate School” series. – The BtG Editors

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Tana Johnson is an Associate Professor of Public Affairs and Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her work has appeared in outlets such as Journal of Politics, Review of International Political Economy, and International Organization.

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Bridging the Gap promotes scholarly contributions to public debate and decision making on global challenges and U.S. foreign policy. BtG equips professors and doctoral students with the skills they need to produce influential policy-relevant research and theoretically grounded policy work. They also spearhead cutting-edge research on problems of concrete importance to governments, think tanks, international institutions, non-governmental organizations, and global firms. Within the academy, BtG is driving changes in university culture and processes designed to incentivize public and policy engagement.