Five Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me in Graduate School: Summing Up

7 July 2021, 1503 EDT

The four contributions thus far this week come from women at different stages of their career, with different backgrounds, who have faced different challenges. Together, they touch on a number of consistent themes. In this post, I give my own list of five things that I wish I had understood better in graduate school, which re-emphasize points made by the other contributors.

No. 1: Your dissertation is the beginning, not the end.

After several years in graduate school, much of which is spent analyzing how published work could have been better, it is easy to feel pressure to write a dissertation that flawlessly solves a big problem.  For most of us, that is unrealistic.  In fact, if you plan on a research career, the dissertation is just the start of your research agenda, not your final contribution.  Don’t strive for perfection; demonstrate that you understand both the strengths and the weaknesses of your current work.  As Heather Smith-Cannoy and Modupe Oshikoya note, it is OK not to know everything yet, and a key to success is being open to learning more.

No. 2: There is no good time in your career to have a child; have one or more children, if you want to, when it is the right time in your life.

One of the most common questions I get asked, particularly by women, is “when is a good time to have children?”  Academia is not set up well for non-linear paths, and frankly any time you have a child or switch focus to another endeavor (e.g., caring for an ill parent), it will interrupt your career to some extent, at least for a short time.  The system needs to get better at supporting childbirth and childrearing and other family obligations. But, for those who are working within the system and don’t feel efficacy to change it right now, my advice is to make decisions about family formation based on factors in your life—including the support system you will have—rather than where you are in your career.  As Heather emphasizes, your life matters, and you need to be able to step away from work, for a night or for a year, when you need to.

No.3: Find people who will both support you and tell you the truth.

Georgina Holmes and Modupe discuss the importance of finding community, and Modupe also advises choosing advisors wisely.  Every writer/researcher needs a set of people—perhaps advisors or mentors, likely also some peers—with whom you create enough trust that you can give each other honest feedback.  As you get more senior, in particular, it is much easier for people to offer compliments than to engage in tough conversations about how to make work better.  This may be one of the reasons that people are surprised by harsh anonymous reviews.  Build a community of people (even if is a very small community) who act out of care and commitment to you, who will invest the time to read your work carefully, and who feel free to push you to do better.  The best way to accumulate these folks is to be one for others.

No. 4: Academics like to talk about ideas.

Tana Johnson encourages early career researchers to feel comfortable asking people to do things because they will often say yes.  Academic networking is less about who can shake the most hands at a conference or who is best at small talk.  It’s about sharing ideas.  For senior scholars, getting to talk to early career researchers is particularly rewarding.  Most of us don’t remember all the people we were introduced to at a reception, but we definitely remember the good papers we read as a discussant, the great conversations about new ways to interpret and build upon our past work, and the excellent questions we get when we present our work.  Talking with people about research, teaching, and policy is not a bother; it’s why we go to meetings, and we absolutely want to engage with you.

No. 5: You are enough and you belong.

This is the most important thing that I needed to understand—not just be told, but see, feel, and experience.  Georgina and Modupe emphasize how challenging this can be for many, and especially those from underrepresented groups.  When I entered academia, I had never been part of a minority before, and yet, in the mid-1990s, women were a very small proportion of faculty.  There were so many indications that I might not be welcome, that I wasn’t really a part of the community, and that I didn’t really belong.  I often thought this was about me, and if I could somehow be different—more feminine, or less feminine, or less assertive, or more assertive, or less emotional, or more confident, or more humble—that I would belong.  What I know now (and have written about elsewhere) is that academia in general, and international studies in particular, are better because our field is becoming more diverse.  We need researchers with varying life experiences, and we need you because you are who you are.  Follow Modupe, Tana, and Georgina’s advice to advocate for yourself, and also to provide a positive environment for others, especially those different from you.