Five Truths About Graduate School That Nobody Tells You
The importance of shifting from the "student" to the "professional" mentality.
Posted October 28, 2013 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
There are some crucial things to know about graduate school that are not typically discussed out in the open, but that could make all the difference for you (or for your graduate students). It ultimately boils down to this: The ultimate key to graduate school is transitioning from a “student” mentality to a “professional” mentality. Having published 23 articles in research journals before graduating, I think I successfully made this change of mindset and I can help you to do so, as well. Here are five important truths to assist you in making this transition.
Truth #1: Graduate School Is Not School at All, but an Apprenticeship.
The term “school” makes you think that the most important aspect of this experience is class and that you are a student who must do well in the class. However, your goal is not to get straight As, but to learn to become a productive, independent researcher. A more fitting term for graduate school would be “professorial apprenticeship.” The apprenticeship system was first developed in the later middle ages to help novice tradesman to learn a skilled vocation (such as carpentry) from a master teacher. This is the true purpose of graduate school, to learn the trade (publishing) by doing the trade, not by simply reading about it and talking about it in classes. If you were the manager of a large furniture manufacturer looking to hire someone, would you be more interested in applicants who had read a lot about building furniture, knew all the theory behind it, etc., or would you like to hire someone who had already built several pieces under the hands of a master teacher?
Truth #2: Your Career Starts on Your First Day of Graduate School
People with the “student” mentality think that their career begins when they get the coveted tenure-track position and they procrastinate seriously doing the research job that they’ve been hired to do. Those with the “professional” mentality recognize that everything they do as a graduate student counts towards their overall record and they begin to work on publications immediately. They show up every day ready to work on their job of publishing rather than spending most of their time preparing for their enhancement workshops (class). They know what the priority is and their time allocation reflects this. An important facet of this recognition is to not be limited by the clock. Those with the “student” mentality work until their assigned 10 or 20 research assistantship hours are complete, whereas those with the “professional” mentality know that any additional time they spend on this core task will be “counted” toward getting a job and future advancement and so they do not limit themselves to time for which they are being paid. I often put in two to three times the hours that I was paid for and believe me it paid off. Think of yourself not as a student logging in some hours, but as a salaried professional working toward a promotion.
Truth #3: Grades Don’t Really Matte
As an undergraduate, I was a grade-grubber. I would study long hours and then show up to office hours to demonstrate to the professor why my answer on the test should get partial credit so that I could get an A rather than an A-. That was important back then, but it sure isn’t in graduate school. This was so clear to me as I applied for a job at over 70 universities. How many asked me for my transcripts? One. Don’t just take my word for it. In A Guide to Ph.D. Graduate School: How They Keep Score in the Big Leagues, Charles Lord (2004) writes the following:
Since I have been in my department, we have hired more than half the current faculty. I have been intensively involved in all of these searches, both during the time I was department chair and later. Would it surprise you to know that I have never seen the graduate transcript of any of my colleagues? We do not request a transcript of graduate grades because my colleagues and I would regard that information as useless. We are trying to hire the best scholars, not people who got the best grades in their graduate courses (p.10).
What you have created (your publications) is ultimately the best evidence of a successful apprenticeship and your best selling point. I'm not recommending that you not put in a good effort in class, because you will learn things that will help your publishing and in most programs, you still need a B to pass the class. In some programs, you may lose your funding if you don't meet a certain threshold and certainly if you are just getting a Master's and plan to get a Ph.D. elsewhere, your grades matter. So do try to do pretty well, but I'm just saying that it just shouldn't be your top priority as you don't have to get perfect grades anymore. There's a huge difference in effort from an A- to an A or a B+ to an A-. Put that effort into research.
Truth #4: You Can’t Afford to Check Out For Long Breaks Like Undergraduates
Individuals with the “student” mentality follow the same pattern as undergraduates. Once finals are over, they live it up and check out all through Christmas break and the summer. Life and priorities are scheduled around class. However, with a professional mentality, you realize that you can’t afford to take such long breaks because you’ve got a job to do that is not centered on class. Everything is scheduled around research. I’m not suggesting that you need to become a workaholic. Have some fun, play hard, but don’t play as long as the undergrads because you have already started your career and everything you do counts. For example, those with the professional mentality enjoy the extra time in the summer, unencumbered with classes, to make huge strides in their publishing.
Truth #5: Theses and Dissertations Can Actually Hamper Your Progress
Whoa, you might say, this guy is really radical, how can a thesis or dissertation actually hurt you? Aren’t these research-based, after all? It’s true that going through the research process and getting some extra input and supervision can help you learn the craft. But here’s when it can be counterproductive: when doing this project is perceived as the ultimate objective and the ultimate achievement you should strive for. Let me illustrate. I’ll never forget running my first experiment in a computer lab that was shared by several other graduate students and everyone kept asking me, “So is this for your master’s thesis or for your dissertation?” After a while, I felt like screaming, “No, don’t you get it, there’s more to graduate school than a stupid dissertation. I’m doing this just for the sake of publishing an article!” Focusing on a dissertation gives those with a “student” mentality a false sense of accomplishment as if they have now completed their research requirement. Truly these milestones exist, in my opinion, to give structure for the weakest of students to get them some exposure to the research process. My graduate advisor wisely counseled me to have multiple manuscript projects underway and then when it came time for my dissertation, I could decide which project was at the “right stage” to call my dissertation. Obviously, you need to complete these hurdles, but they can be completed as one step toward your bigger goal of publishing several manuscripts.
Making the mental switch from the “student” mentality to the “professional” mentality will make all the difference for you or for your graduate students. I am curious to hear from you: which of these truths did you find to be most surprising? I cover all of these core truths in much greater depth with helpful application exercises in my book, Publish and Prosper.
I encourage you to take action now to change your outlook of graduate school by completing some "wrap-up exercises" that will help you apply the important principles I've discussed here. Simply go to my website, click on "Book Exercise Downloads," and then click on the free download of "Chapter 14 Wrap-Up Exercises." This will be very helpful for you to cement the principles I have discussed.