Unsolicited Advice for Graduate Students

A small group of students picked my brain the other day, which prompted me to write to a few friends, and draw up this list. No such list is complete or all-encompassing. But, anyhow, here goes:

1. You are more than your dissertation, and more than any one project. But, still, finish the dissertation. Finish! Finish! Finish! The dissertation is one thing you have to do well.

2. Write every day, without editing, for at least half an hour. Write at different scales – close readings, breezy op-eds, dense histories – and at different paces. Revise your CV every single day. Treat your table of contents as a poem; don’t rush it, craft it, agonize over every comma, every gerund, every syllable. Join an ongoing writing group, and prioritize the writing and reading for that group. Take proofreading seriously. This means reading everything out loud, so that your ear can be your editor. It means running spell-check. It means leaving yourself enough time to do these things well.

3. Learn how to say “no” politely and firmly. And do so often. But also learn how to say “yes.” Learn how to recognize when someone has gone the extra mile to extend an invitation to you, to to introduce you to someone, and say “yes” as a sign of respect.

4. Learn how to craft and control the narrative of your career, from the presentation of your CV to web pages to wardrobes to public performances. There are no non-professional interactions.

5. Never ask for a letter of recommendation without giving at least two week’s notice, and accept responsibility for bugging your writer about the due dates and details.

6. Know the difference between criticism and critique. Do the latter. Posing and showboating is fine. Humility is fine, but not the norm. Hollow criticism is the thing you need to learn to hate. Know your shit. Do the reading. Trace the argument outward. Understand the stakes of every book, every essay, you encounter.

7. Read blogs from professionals in your general area. Like this one, or this one, or this one. Consult them alongside newspapers and academic journals and press catalogs. Consume information and analysis as if they were food.

8. The fundamentals matter. Back up everything you have ever written every day. Practice your talks until they flow. Wear clean clothes. Update your software. Eat. Sleep.

9. Think big. No one cares about the details of your dissertation. They want to know why it’s important in the big picture. And there is only one question at job talks: “Your work is interesting. How does it relate to mine?” So do your homework. Know what people care about. And then: go big or go home.

10. There is a lot of concern about what comes after. You can always say, “no.” There are other things to do in life. Lingering on and on as an adjunct is not a good life. Don’t do it. Move along. Don’t assume there will be an academic job waiting for you; and don’t assume that there won’t be one, either.

11. People will treat you like crap all the time. They will ignore you, or try to hurt you, or even try to ruin you. If what they are doing is illegal, don’t be silent. If what they are doing is merely cruel, just remember, and don’t be that person.

12. Learn to value idiosyncratic behavior. Our tribe is very weird.

13. Always say “thank you.” And always be “nice.” Until, of course, it is time not to be nice. Insisting on politeness isn’t about suppressing dissent. It is about recognizing that no one wins in the long term when everyone shouts. Anger only nets short term gain.

Thanks DC, KL, and RC for your help!

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