Humdrum Tips for Grad School

Grad students have at least four roles they must fill, sometimes simultaneously. They are students, assistants to other teachers, teachers themselves, and researchers. Each of those jobs comes with its own set of challenges, some of which are big and life-defining and can only be faced alone. But some grad-school challenges are nitty-gritty (even humdrum) details that can be dealt with better or worse, using methods that can be communicated easily. There wasn't much of this kind of talk when I started grad school, with the result that a bunch of us in and around my cohort spent lots of time re-inventing the wheel. So on finishing I thought it would be worth writing down a few practical recommendations of the kind I wish I'd heard from older students.


Write summaries of the articles you read

You'll read massive amounts of material during your coursework and dissertation prep. At some point you will have the experience of discovering marginalia, in your own hand, on a paper you have no memory of reading. Minimize the downsides of forgetfulness like so. When you finish reading a paper, spend half an hour writing up a summary of the argument and listing particular points of interest (illustrations, examples, etc.), and sketching possible lines of objection. Staple your summary to the paper before you file it.

Learn a reference manager

Managing references by hand is a miserable slog, even for a seminar paper that will be stowed in a drawer forever. The situation is much worse when you start excerpting bits of your dissertation for other applications. It's likely that you'll use the best chapter in your dissertation as two or more conference papers, a journal submission, and a writing sample. The bibliographies will have different content and form in each of those iterations, and if you have to build them all by hand, you will lose hours of your life to the worst kind of tedium. If you use a reference manager, you will spend no time on bibliographies. None.

If you write in a word processor like LibreOffice or Word, your best bet is probably Zotero, a browser plugin that tracks references, and has a bunch of other features that support research.

I'm happy I learned to use LaTeX, which saved me untold hours formatting my dissertation. The best reference manager I've found for LaTeX is JabRef, a cross-platform front-end for BibTex.

Don't rush into out-of-department coursework

If possible, put off your required out-of-department coursework until you have a pretty good idea of your dissertation topic, and then take some courses that might, potentially, help with it.

Write about your dissertation interests

If your dissertation interests start taking shape while you're still doing coursework, try to make your seminar papers fit into that conceptual space. This isn't cheating. If you can do some seminar-paper-length work in the general area of your dissertation, it will ease the treacherous transition from proposal writing to dissertation writing.

Use the MPS meetings

The Minnesota Philosophical Society puts out a call for papers every September and meets every October. These meetings will be multiply useful to you during your coursework years. First, use the MPS meetings to build confidence presenting papers to other philosophers. Second, use them to get some experience as a commenter for other people's papers. Third, use them to get something on your CV early on. (Regional meetings like this won't matter much for job applications, but they might help during your dissertation years. The best dissertation fellowships are out-of-department, and having something on your CV makes it easier for letter writers and awards committees to latch onto something semi-concrete.)


See yourself as an apprentice

It's easy to see your TA assignments as the job you do to pay the rent. They are, of course, that. But they are also (or they should be) an apprenticeship in teaching philosophy to undergrads. At the U, it's more or less entirely on you to call the apprenticeship aspects of a TA assignment into existence. You should do that.

Practically speaking: when you TA a class, watch the instructor's lectures with an eye toward your own future teaching. Anything the instructor does that strikes you as effective or interesting, write down. Anything the instructor does that strikes you as a failure, write down. Keep notes on any units you might like to steal for your own courses. Write down any creative or interesting examples, explanations, etc. Anything that seems to grab the students' attention. Stow those notes, along with a copy of the syllabus and any useful handouts, in a file, and pull it out if you're ever assigned as instructor for a related course.

Learn from experts on grading

Commenting on papers is inevitably time-consuming. But most people intuitively approach commenting in a way that is doubly vicious: they spend even more time than they need to, and their resulting, hyper-detailed comments are counterproductive for the students receiving them.

There are people out there who know a lot about how to handle student writing effectively. The U runs workshops in teaching with writing, which can be helpful. In the department, Roy has put a lot of time into thinking about teaching with writing, so talk to him. One way or another, you should find a way, in your first year, to hear what experts have to say about effective feedback on student writing.


Ruthlessly appropriate, then freely give

When designing a syllabus, don't start from scratch. Gather a bunch of syllabuses, from your own TA files, from friends, and from the internet, and mix and match the elements that seem most promising to you.

Similarly with lectures and assignments. Start with models you like, and adapt them to your needs and your style, and improve them where you can.

Once you've taught a course, cheerfully give your materials to anyone who shows any interest in them.

Consider the welfare of your future self

Prepping high-quality lectures and class activities is just astonishingly time-consuming, and your first courses will be a constant struggle to keep your head above water. Nevertheless, even though it takes a little bit of extra time, you should be kind to your future self by leaving as detailed a record of your planning as possible. Don't recycle the scratch paper with your lecture outline on it. Take the time to type it up, and fill it out enough that it will make sense to you when you look at it two or three years hence.

Keep a "notes to self" copy of your syllabus in your course folder. Write down your impressions, as you go, of which articles/topics/units are definite keepers, which are losers, and which could use an upgrade.

At the end of the semester, write up for yourself a short description of what you thought about the course, how you might like to change it the next time around, and what lessons you learned about teaching.


Write something every day

Once you begin writing, make some changes to your dissertation every day. Seven days a week, if possible. Even if it's just a sentence. If it's a day you feel like crap and don't want to work at all, changing a sentence will at least keep the work fresh in your mind. More often than not, once you've gone to the trouble to write or edit a sentence, you'll realize you're interested in the problem after all, and can get some real work done.

Get and use non-teaching time

We all struggle to figure out how to write while we're teaching. (Some of us never figure it out.) So no matter how tempting it is, don't waste non-teaching months. Write every day!

Just as important: do everything you can to maximize your number of non-teaching months. Apply for fellowships. If you can afford to forgo summer teaching, do. Arrange your life to be as cheap to live as possible, and then teach only enough to pay those bills. Put the rest of your time into writing.

Form a dissertation group

Three or four people seems to work best. Meet once a week to discuss one person's output. When forming a group, don't worry about the topics and specializations of potential participants. Even if you can't help each other much with content, accountability to other people is a good motivator, and explaining your ideas to differently specialized people is an important skill. (And fresh eyes on your work almost always helps with content, anyway.)

Get a study carrel

Wilson Library has study carrels. They are assigned by lottery, but you can usually get one for at least 1/3 of the year. They are about the size of a bathroom stall, but you can leave books, notes, and a laptop in them, and they are a quiet space, outside the house. Not everyone needs this kind of space to be productive, but many do, and not many people know it's available in Wilson.


The grad-student iced mocha: cheap, vegan, and caffeinated. Mix about two parts chilled brewed coffee with one part chocolate soy milk and serve over ice.