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Understanding the Unwritten Rules of Graduate School


Even if you are not a political science major, to be successful in graduate school you must also major in your department?s politics if you want to finish your degree. Not paying attention to your department?s culture can hinder your progress despite your intellectual ability.

A department?s culture is the traditional patterns, norms, values, beliefs and behaviors that are passed down to new faculty and students alike. Ideally these unwritten and hidden rules are transmitted through the apprenticeship/mentoring relationship that exists between you and your advisor.

Although students are indoctrinated into some of the department?s culture by the written rules found in the Graduate Student Handbook, graduate students are often left to figure out the unwritten rules on their own.

Below are 10 rules that you won?t find in any handbook.

1. Keep Up With Your Cohort:

Some students suffer from trying to be perfect. Taking too long to complete your degree is frowned upon in Academia. If you tend to pile up a number of incompletes because you are a workaholic and are never satisfied with the quality of work you are able to produce within a given timeframe, you need to be aware that it is better to get a grade of ?B? than an Incomplete.

The faculty?s confidence in a student?s ability to complete a thesis/dissertation is diminished by this need for perfection and lack of completion. Piling up a number of incompletes signals to professors that you cannot finish what you start. If you cannot complete your assignments within a semester, professors become leery that you will not be able to finish your degree within a reasonable amount of time given that you have to set your own deadline.

2. Participation, Networking, and Visibility, are Critical:

Because of time restrictions, you cannot participate in all department activities. You must be selective in terms of which activities and how long or often you participate. Make no mistake, some participation is required. Your attendance and participation in national conferences, campus workshops, and ?brown bag? presentations are important components of your success in graduate school. Therefore, choose carefully the number and kinds of activities that you can be involved with.

Networking is a skill that is learned with time, practice and patience. I have known some professors whose presentation skills in the classroom have been lack luster and dry. These same professors display a totally different personality during office hours, at department functions, or at a conference. Attending department functions allows you and your professor to get to know each other on a more personal level. You should take advantage of these opportunities because as a professor you will be asked to represent your department in this type of social setting, especially when you serve on hiring committees.

Your visibility in national, campus, and department events helps you to become better known by your advisor, committee, and other individuals in your field. Your ability to network with faculty will help when it comes to securing fellowships, assistantships, opportunities to work in a lab, and recommendations for the future.

3. Don?t Leave Before You Are Done:

When you are ABD, time is not your friend. If you leave the university before you finish with your degree, you run the risk of not finishing at all. If you leave the comfort and support of your academic department your enthusiasm to write your thesis/dissertation will inevitably diminish. You will be faced with many competing events that will take priority over writing your thesis/dissertation.

When I got my first job offer they wanted to make sure I was finished with my dissertation before I showed up on campus to begin my new role as assistant professor. They said ?take another semester if you have to, but finish your dissertation.? They had learned from experience that once you begin your new job it is difficult to find the necessary time to work on your thesis/dissertation.

Much of your time as a new professor will be stressful. Your time will be spent learning how to be a professor, meeting with your students, grading papers, making up assignments, and serving on campus and department committees. Much of the stress will be the result of the new job, new location, new friends, and new responsibilities.

4. Prepare For Your Defense By Attending Another Student?s Defense:

Your advisor will not let you defend your document until he/she thinks it is sufficiently polished and if he/she is relatively sure that you will pass. Hence, when your advisor agrees to a defense date he/she believes that you are ready.
Nothing really prepares you for a thesis, proposal, or thesis/dissertation defense other than seeing the process unfold for yourself. These hearings are sometimes open to the public. Your attendance at a defense hearing should be based on the tradition in your department. Even if it says in the graduate student handbook that the defense hearing is ?open to the public? but no one in your department ever attends another student?s defense it is wise not to break this tradition. The repercussions will not be pretty.

If you can?t attend another student?s defense ask fellow graduate students about their ?hazing? process. You should focus on questions such as these:

?	How did it start? 
 ?	How did the advisor facilitate the process? 
 ?	How difficult were the questions? 
 ?	How did you know it was over? 
 ?	Did anyone else other than committee members attend the hearing?

5. For PhDs Teaching Is Not The Primary Task:

Even if you get top scores on your teaching evaluations as a teaching assistant, understand that the PhD is a research degree. Many professors believe that teaching is a task that can be learned over time with practice. As a professor your tenure and promotion will be based primarily on your publishing record. To prepare you for the "publish-or-perish" academic environment, the faculty focuses primarily on developing your research skills.

Hence, the faculty values research and the apprenticeship model above everything else. They believe that the majority of your time in graduate school should be spent conducting research. As such, securing a fellowship or traineeship/research assistantship is better than a teaching assistantship. However, securing a teaching assistantship is better than not securing any funding at all.

As a PhD student in a research program, participation in campus luncheon seminars is required. Presenting your research findings at a brown bag seminar gives you a chance to practice your presentation skills in a relaxed atmosphere before you ever have to teach a class, give a job talk, present at a national conference, or defend your proposal, Master?s thesis, or dissertation. Honing your presentation skills will help to increase your self-confidence in public speaking. Presenting your research findings on and off campus establishes your expertise and enhances your professional reputation.

6. Bridging The Generation Gap:Don?t Complain, Don?t Try To Understand, Just Do:

In graduate school there is often a generation gap between students, faculty, and professional staff. The faculty and staff established the culture in the department with the expectation that when students are admitted they will adjust their behaviors accordingly. Often the faculty and staff provide a graduate student orientation in hopes of answering many questions before they become issues later on. They do not expect to debate the rules and traditions of the department.

Some of us are use to debating with our parents, friends, or colleagues to win them over to our way of thinking. While some individuals can appreciate and support this type of interaction, understand that others do not. You are expected to ?adhere to? not change, the strict deadlines, rules and regulations of graduate school even if you do not agree with them. Spending an exorbitant amount of time trying to understand the ?hoops? and ?hurdles? is time that can be better spent jumping over them. Your task from the first day of graduate school is to figure out how many ?hoops" and "hurdles? there are and start jumping. The sooner you learn this unwritten rule the better.

7. Treat The Professional Administrative Staff Well:

Don?t underestimate or undervalue the role of the administrative staff in your department. These professionals like your advisor and committee members can either hinder or propel your educational progress.

They are responsible for managing students? records, paperwork and information. They provide timely information on all department deadlines, rules, regulations and eligibility requirements with respect to course requirements, course scheduling, qualifying/preliminary exams, funding opportunities, and the necessary signatures. They can or cannot remind you of upcoming deadlines. It is in your best interest to manage these relationships in a positive way.

For example, when my advisor was leaving for a year long absence, I made sure that I checked with the graduate secretary to see if there were any documents that needed his signature before he left. Be sure to find creative ways to say thank you to the administrative staff for all that they do.

8. Securing Funding For Historically Disadvantaged And Underrepresented Groups:

I was financially able to attend graduate school because a senior researcher at my institution had a $5 million NIH research grant. More importantly, he was willing as the principal investigator to apply for a NIH Research Supplement For Underrepresented Minorities to support me for six years. The addition of a minority student to his project did not cost him any funds from the original grant. Instead he gained additional funds. These additional funds were part of monies set aside by funding institutions such as NIH to support researchers who are members of underrepresented minority groups. Supplements are also available for the following groups: persons with disabilities, persons seeking research careers or re-entering research, and minorities.

According to the website Research Assistant.com, the best first step to obtaining independent research funding often is to receive training and supervision from an experienced senior researcher. They suggest that NIH Research Supplements for Underrepresented Minorities offer an excellent opportunity to receive grant funds to work on an existing NIH grant with a senior researcher in a particular area of interest. In other words, if you are looking to obtain research funding and have no idea where to start, start with the above website and a faculty member who has a federal grant.

9. Visibility and the Competition for Scarce Resources:

Unlike the undergraduate experience, graduate school involves competition for scarce resources such as: (a) research funds; (b) office space; (c) fellowships; (d) co-authorships; (e) time with faculty members; and (f) information. Lack of information and visibility are two of the key issues that put many students at a disadvantage.

When the faculty are making decisions about these scarce resources they need to know who you are. If you have not been on campus and have not participated in any department events your name will not be familiar to the people who are parceling out these resources. To stay informed about these decisions and to put your name at the top of the list, visibility is necessary to be considered an active member of the department?s academic community.

10.Your Lack of Class Participation is Interpreted as Lack of Knowledge:

In graduate school expect your workload to be substantially more than any one person could complete. The reading requirements can be sometimes overwhelming and burdensome. In addition to the required readings, in the syllabus you might find supplemental (recommended) readings as well. Don?t waste time complaining to the professor who assigned the reading; he/she fully expects you to come to class prepared to discuss the readings. Find creative ways to cover the reading materials for the course.

For example, in graduate school I was able to familiarize myself with all the readings by forming and participating in a class study group. We would divide the readings amongst ourselves and provide a summary for each reading. The summary included the abstract, the research question, the methodology, limitations, and the findings. Using this method allowed all of us to participate in the class discussion. In class, it is always better to make any contribution on something than not to participate at all. Sometimes class participation involves making a preemptive strike; raise your hand and volunteer an answer on something that you are prepared for before you are called upon to answer a question you don't know the correct answer to.

About the Author: As a single mother, professor Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D., completed three masters' degrees and a PhD. Her motto is a Good Thesis/Dissertation is a Done Thesis/Dissertation. She is the creator of a new innovative interactive resource tool on CD?TADA! Thesis and Accomplished. To learn more contact the author at drcarter@tadafinallyfinished.com. Or visit http://www.tadafinallyfinished.com


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