Some Advice for New Graduate Students

Tips for juggling the roles of researcher, teaching assistant, and student.

Posted Aug 30, 2008

This past week I participated in a panel discussion as part of a training workshop for new graduate TAs at Tufts. I was asked to speak briefly about how to juggle the many responsibilities of a new graduate student, specifically those of research, teaching, and classwork. So while it'll be a bit of a departure from this blog's typical focus on the application of social psychological principles to everyday interactions, I thought I'd share some of these thoughts I prepared for the workshop for any interested readers who are also beginning (or thinking of beginning) graduate study.

There's good news and bad news when it comes to balancing the responsibilities of grad school. First, the good news. There's an easy time management formula you can follow, which varies somewhat by institution and discipline, but proves fairly accurate across the board. It typically looks something like this: you should be spending 75% of your time and effort on research, 50% on teaching, and 40% on classes.

The bad news, of course, is that the math doesn't add up. Graduate school (not to mention your potential goal of a faculty position in academia) has the potential to produce 100 or even 120-hour work-weeks if you let it. No matter how much you get done, there is always more work waiting. Sure, this can be quite intimidating, especially as you begin a graduate program or a faculty position. But at the end of the day, it's one of the aspects of an academic career that many of us in the field appreciate the most—there's always plenty of work to be done, but each individual has the flexibility to schedule it as she sees fit.

Given that the math in my trusty formula doesn't compute, that you won't be able to muster 165% of your time and effort most days, you have to figure out ways to wear all these proverbial hats at one time. So here are 4 strategies for fudging the numbers in my formula, 4 ways you can game the system so to speak:

1) Make the categories less mutually exclusive.  The sum of your allocation of time to research, teaching, and coursework can exceed 100% if you allow these endeavors to overlap. Incorporate your newest research project into your teaching. Use your teaching as a time to develop new research ideas. Take your graduate seminar writing assignments as the opportunity to design new research proposals or review new literatures that broaden your scholarship.

And even when you can't make this task overlap work, at the very least remind yourself that research and teaching include many crossover skills. Teaching well will make you a stronger researcher: Talking in front of your students is an experience that will leave you far better at presenting your research at departmental colloquia and national conferences. Answering student questions will help you do the same in your academic talks. Devising and implementing strategies for explaining technical concepts to students with different skill sets will serve you well should you ever present your work across disciplines or to lay audiences.

2) Master the art of living in the here and now. OK, so you can't really prioritize research at the same time that you're prioritizing teaching at the same time that you're prioritizing classwork. But that doesn't mean the individuals you work with and for have to know that. An important skill for the academic is to learn how to convince the people you're interacting with in the here and now that this endeavor, the one they're involved with, is what's really the most important to you right then and there. Even when it's not. You have to be able to summon the energy to focus on and prioritize whatever role demands your attention at a particular point in time. And if you can't, you have to be able to fake it.

Once again, you could put in a 120-hour work-week if you wanted to. And still, there'd be more work to be done. To use the old metaphor of the leaky dam, there's water pouring in all over the place and you only have so many fingers. So when you see the new leak open right in front of you, plug it right away, even at the expense of another one. You have a discussion section to teach this morning, but also a graduate seminar to read for that afternoon and a conference submission to complete by the next day? You need to marshal all the focus you can to make it clear to your students, your supervising professor, and your fellow TAs that your teaching that morning is still priority #1 during the two hours of the class. And same goes for your attention to the grad seminar later on and the conference submission after that. Take care of the job that needs your immediate attention and then move on to the next one. It's often the only way to keep your head above water.

3) Learn the low-investment, high-reward tricks to successful teaching. You can also cheat the percentages by learning that the little things mean a lot when you're a teacher. I'm consistently amazed at the positive teaching evaluations I receive that read something like this: "It was a great course and I learned a lot. The professor was so enthusiastic about the material." Or "it was an excellent course that was very well organized." Or even, "It meant so much that he learned all our names."

It's amazing how far you get as a teacher by simply paying attention to being enthusiastic, organized, and interpersonally accessible. Accomplish all three, and your teaching ratings (and more importantly, effectiveness) will be in the 80th percentile or better. Why? Because so much of what makes you an effective teacher are the same characteristics that make you the type of person with whom others enjoy having conversations. Being engaged. Being a good listener. Respecting others' opinions but having something interesting to say. Being able to explain ideas in different ways. Being able to sense how your audience is responding (or not responding). There are few experiences more irritating in life than having a conversation with someone who can't pick up on how bored you are, who can't tell that you're composing a grocery list in your head while he rambles on. Imagine how students feel when that happens in class. Good teachers can tell when their students are struggling and need the concept explained in a different way. They can sense when they're losing the audience and should shift gears, or break up the lecture with a small group discussion.

None of these characteristics take much time or effort to develop. Remember what it is about your discipline that excited you in the first place and share it with the students. Set up a clear plan for the structure of the course and stick to it; when modifications are necessary, explain why. And learn your students' names! Being enthusiastic, organized, and accessible are goals we can all accomplish with a modicum of effort, and accomplishing them makes the students that much more willing to exert themselves in the class. That more instructors don't meet these goals is often attributable to a combination of lack of self-confidence, an unwillingness to prioritize teaching, or sometimes the mistaken assumption that it would require too much of an investment to actually teach well.

4) Be disciplined. Again, one of the best aspects of a career in academia is that for the most part, you're an independent contractor who sets your own priorities and schedule. You have to be disciplined to make it work. The only way to take your finger out of one leak to plug another is if you can rest assured that you're going to be disciplined enough not to let any leak get too big to begin with. If you set up expectations with your students regarding how quickly you'll respond to their emails, or what types of questions you won't answer electronically, be disciplined and stick to those rules. If you have to grade 25 papers in 8 days, set aside 20 minutes each day for 3 papers. It's a lot easier than doing all 25 the night beforehand and you'll do a much better job as well. Set deadlines and create systems for yourself and then stick to them.

In short, develop your confidence that you're going to get done what needs to get done because you've always manage to do so in the past.This knowledge will get you through even the bleakest of situations, and before you know it, you'll have mastered the trick of finding the 165% of effort demanded of you. Now if only your paycheck matched that percentage effort...