A former student about to start a Ph.D. at my alma mater asked me for advice on his first year. I came up with a top ten list. While some of my recommendations are very location-specific, there’s an intention behind even the Philadelphia-specific stuff that can be generalized to other schools.
This afternoon I got an e-mail from a former student of mine who’s about to start the history of science program at my alma mater. The message concluded,
P.S. One more favor. Any advice for me as I begin? Knowing what you know now, put yourself in my position. What advice will enable me to have a successful first year and grad career?
I love these kinds of assignments. I post here my advice for a first-year student, and while some of it is very location-specific, there’s an intention behind even the Philadelphia-specific stuff that can be generalized to other schools. I would love to hear from readers about what advice they would give. [Update, 10:04 p.m.: For the sake of argument, and to eliminate the obvious piece of advice, this assignment assumes that it’s too late to say, “For God’s sake, don’t go!” Please gear your comments towards the management of graduate school, rather than its avoidance.]
0) Start keeping a notebook, or research journal, or whatever you want to call it. It’s the place you’ll write down library call numbers, the names of interesting-sounding things that you come across in footnotes, impressions of what you’re reading, research paper ideas, etc., etc.. I started doing this when I was writing my dissertation, and was dogged the sinking feeling that I was looking up stuff, then having the same idea two weeks later. You’re going to be thinking about a lot of stuff. You need a way to keep track of it.
1) Nobody reads everything. You’ll often think you’re the only person who didn’t get through all this week’s reading. You’re not.
1.1) This kind of insecurity, incidentally, will be your constant companion. Everyone else has done the reading, everyone else knows what’s going on, everyone else is smart, and you’re the only person who’s faking it. The key is to use that insecurity profitably, to employ it to get you to do just a bit more than you might otherwise.
2) Learn to read tactically, rather than comprehensively. You’ll figure that out as you go along.
3) Spend some time wandering around campus, looking for good places to work (e.g. Bucks County Coffee, across from the Law School; the Furness Library reading room; that ratty but charming cafe just north of Baltimore on 40th; etc.). You’re going to be doing a lot of reading and writing, so you need lots of places to move around in. You’ll find that different spaces fit your moods, and are good at different times of day. Intellectuals are instinctive nomads, especially when they live in the apartments in West Philly.
4) Remember that you’re not just reading individual works; each article or book is part of a larger conversation or intellectual landscape [insert synthesis metaphor here]. In some ways, its less important to master the details of each piece, than to build that picture of the larger whole.
5) Take notes on everything you read. There’s no better way to find out what you don’t know than trying to write it down. And, paradoxically, you’ll remember the things you take notes on better. You’ll also have the notes to refer to.
6) Start reading book reviews. They are your best friends.
7) One of my professors once said that 5% of your disposable income should be spent on books. Since as a graduate student you have NO disposable income, you’ll have to formulate another equation. The consumption of books should be a slight addiction, except for those Routledge books that always have the cool covers, cost $50, and turn out not to be quite worth it. Those you can get out of the library, then ignore until they’re overdue.
8) Go to the gym, or go running, or something, every day. It’ll give your mind a break, and your mind will need breaks. (Every now and then you’ll find that your mind just turns off for 24-48 hours. Don’t fight it. Just do laundry until your brain comes back online.) Every Saturday or Sunday, do some reading in the morning, then take the rest of the day off. Get off-campus. Go downtown, or better, walk downtown. Go to the PMA. Go to the farmer’s market at the old Reading Terminal. End one of your days at 4th or 5th and South Street, at that really great, crowded used bookstore; then go to the Pink Rose Pastry Shop, at 630 South 4th Street. One of the other evenings should end at Sang Kee’s Peking Duck House, 238 N. 9th Street, the best Chinese food in Philadelphia.
[Also see this post that continues the conversation. And if you’re already through the graduate school stage and trying to figure out what to do next, “Journeyman: Getting Into and Out of Academe” may be of interest.]