Posted by: | 17th Jan, 2014

Grad School

Hi there! It’s Winnie, here, your RA from MD1! Here’s the quick and dirty to Academese in grad school according to insiders (AKA grad students who cobbled together a book): a 3 part “play.”

Act 1: Learn to participate
Act 2: The mentor-mentee relationship
Act 3: Learning is situated (that is academese for coffee breaks matter)

Act 1

Learning to participate in grad school is difficult for … well, everyone. It’s not like a local/domestic student has it any easier than a international student; broadly speaking. We all need to re-learn how to participate in conversations and learn the lingo; we all try to covering up ignorance (i.e. what do I cite, what do these big words mean?!!). Read more about the imposter syndrome herehere, and here. But wait, it gets more complicated. When we move to a new grad program at a new school (barring those who never leave their undergrad institution and essentially spend 10+ years all in one place, those lucky dogs), we have to re-learn how to participate in the field’s sociopolitical networks (this is where going to conferences is really handy in trying to figure out who like who and who researches what). To add to that, you can also consider the faculty-student relationship, more on that in Act 2. In conclusion, learning to participate in the academic community is a continual process AKA one never reaches complete acculturation. However, in spite of all this, take heart! Do not be afraid to find your own voice, speak openly, and be honest about your limits. After all, we are all human!

Act 2

Surprise (or not?) Mentoring is a long term relationship (LTR), especially in grad school; in doctoral programs these mentor/mentee relationships can become 4+ year relationships! One great thing about having a mentor (i.e. someone whom you admire, or at least whose work you admire) is the opportunity to work on projects or research that you are both engaged in. From him/her, you can “pick up the tricks of the trade.” True, you might find your advisor intimidating, but do not be afraid to identify and NEGOTIATE (this is a very important word/concept) appropriate tasks (AKA if you are picking up their morning coffee and afternoon dry cleaning, big red bells should be going off. these tasks are not helping either of your academic progress). In the midst of negotiations, recognize that you have a lot to learn from your advisor and be flexible when they have you “suggestions” that might be hard to swallow; but also recognize they are not the be all and end all; advisors have specialties. As a grad student you are taking a few classes with a few experts, so you might have something to bring to the LTR too! Do note, some folks might expect their advisor to be all up in their personal lives – this may or may not be the case, but do NOT be offended if they do not know the name of your first pet goldfish.

Act 3

Grad school, the whole point of it really, is to be in a community of learning. One person simply cannot survive grad school on their own. To be sure, an identity crisis WILL happen in your first year and your self-image will be lowered due to an inability to perform up to standards (i.e. adjusting to English if it is a foreign language, adjusting to ACADEMESE, adjusting to culture (in every sense of this word). Sometimes, life will feel so isolating and you may think you lack goals or guidance. This is where a support networks is CRUCIAL. A support network can take many forms: an academic support network, study groups, your grad program’s administrator, more advanced [doctoral] students. But remember, grad school is a place for you to be an apprentice, you are learning the tools of the trade, not being spoon fed or given the answer. The ability to leverage and navigate and develop meaningful relationships in grad school is all part of the academic apprenticeship process. In the end, your parents and spouse, supervisor/advisor, and friends will play bigger roles than you’d like to imagine, but they matter, a lot. Don’t forget them.

As this holiday season drew to a close, I personally realize how these relationships have sustained me through some awkward life moments. Even though they only have a general vague idea of what I study, I am grateful for everything!

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