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Monday, November 29, 2021

How to navigate the unwritten rules of graduate school (opinion)

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Getting my Ph.D. was a fairly straightforward process. I knew what I wanted to study, did the coursework, passed the qualifying exam, defended the dissertation proposal, wrote and defended my dissertation — and four and a half years later, I was done. Of course, I went through several iterations of my research questions, and I narrowed down the topic, but in essence, I did what I intended to do when I decided to obtain a doctorate in higher education, leadership and policy studies.

I researched what role oral and written communication support programs played in career diversification. I found that both professional development in general and communication support in particular are helpful in preparing graduate students for diverse careers, and that colleges should invest more in providing this kind of support continuously and consistently, preferably through a dedicated office. My research also showed that such programs play a big role in helping students while they are in graduate school. They are instrumental in the process of navigating academe and revealing its hidden curriculum — the implicit yet unwritten expectations, values and rules.

While pursuing my doctoral degree, I was an assistant in the graduate school working on professional development for graduate students and postdocs, which greatly contributed to why my Ph.D. experience was more straightforward than it is for many people. Working on professional development programs gave me an opportunity to learn about the hidden curriculum myself and the process of going through the graduate school. Discovering how much graduate school is about that process was a big surprise to me. By process, I mean two different things:

  1. Curricular and programmatic requirements: doing the coursework and meeting the credit requirements, forming research questions, and hitting all the milestones, such as candidacy (for Ph.D.s), proposal defense, thesis/dissertation defense and capstone project.
  2. Extracurricular opportunities (not requirements): community and network building, competency and skill building, professional and career development.

Curricular and programmatic requirements are not always transparent; it can take a lot of time and energy to figure them out. However, the extracurricular opportunities inadvertently help students ascertain what they should know in the first place but, in reality, often don’t.

I have worked with many students, and rarely have I heard anyone complain about content and how difficult the coursework is. Yes, doing research can be extremely hard and challenging, but generally it’s not the subject matter that students struggle with. And this isn’t surprising, since graduate students for the most part choose a graduate program based on their interest and what they are good at.

The issues that I see are usually about the process of generally navigating graduate school, which includes things like figuring out the milestones, learning about explicit and implicit expectations, mentorship, life after graduate school, and mastering the hidden curriculum. The last can especially be a hurdle for minoritized groups, as well as first-generation and international students.

One may say that by the time people come to graduate school, they should be able to figure things out and there is a value to that process. That’s true, but only to some extent. I don’t advocate for hand holding and spoon-feeding information to graduate students, but I do want to bring some things to attention. Before we decide to hold on to this criterion that in order to be successful in graduate school one must be able to figure out all aspects of it, we should remember that not everyone starts at the same place. Traditionally privileged students are probably going to be better positioned than minoritized and first-generation students. Are we making them better scholars if we don’t communicate whether they need to defend a proposal before starting to work on a dissertation?

Some questions are hard to ask even if you’ve thought of them. For example, “Do I need all my committee members to give me a pass at the defense in order to graduate?” It isn’t easy for anyone to ask this, least of all for graduate students who are trying to please the whole committee while keeping their impostor syndrome in check. We are not spoiling graduate students and postdocs if we provide support, guidance and clear expectations and requirements.

For those who believe that these things are already sufficiently transparent, I encourage you to talk to your graduate students and postdocs and see how familiar they are with the process that so many of us take for granted and assume is obvious to everyone. You may be surprised by what you find. I know I was. So, to help raise awareness about that process, I offer the following advice to graduate students and postdocs.

Communicate and do it often. Don’t assume you will be told how things work, what is expected of you, what the milestones are, whether and when you need to defend a proposal. Ask questions and check the answers with more than one person. Start with your adviser or mentor, and then talk to your department chair, program coordinator, senior academic or departmental administrator, and a graduate student affairs person in your graduate school or postdoc office. If none of those people are able to answer your questions, they should at least be able to direct you to someone. Try to establish regular meeting times with your adviser or mentor separate from research group meetings that you might have with them and other students. Make sure you have one-on-one time to ask questions, share concerns and keep them updated about your plans.

Introduce yourself to key people. It’s always good to know the dean of your college, the chair of your department and other administrators in important roles. (The specific positions depend on the structure at your institution.) It’s also good that they know you. I’ll share one simple example why. If you apply for a fellowship like Dissertation Year Fellowship, you will need recommendation letters. At my institution, the adviser and chair of the department write those letters. The adviser should not be a problem, but the chair may or may not be someone who knows you and your work. Having been in a situation where I had to send an email both introducing myself to my own chair and asking for a recommendation letter, I suggest you do the former earlier. That specific example reflects why potentially needing letters of support for grant, fellowship or job applications is a good reason to get to know the key people, and make sure they know you, as soon as possible.

Use resources. Take advantage of the variety of opportunities and support programs that your university, graduate school and department offers. Of course, you can’t go to everything all the time, but attending professional development events and seeking out other resources is one of the best ways to learn about hidden curriculum. Here is why:

  • Completion. For the most part, institutions do their best to help students complete their degrees and be prepared for future careers in academe and beyond. To do that, students need to develop a wide range of skills that enable them to successfully navigate graduate school. And in the process of developing those specific skills, you’ll also get opportunities to learn much more than what the program is about. For example, when I run dissertation/thesis retreats, I try to cover a lot more than just dissertation and thesis writing. I talk about mentorship, mental health, impostor syndrome and very practical things, such as all the deadlines related to dissertation/thesis submission (last day to submit intent to graduate, last day to submit your dissertation/thesis for format check, last date to defend and so on). These things are not hidden from students in any way, but it’s hard to anticipate they even exist.
  • Networking and community building. Remember, you don’t know what you don’t know, but you can find out from others. Attending professional development events is a chance to meet people from other programs as well as you own, which can be helpful in many ways. You can learn about resources offered through other departments or even external ones such as the Postdoc Academy. You can meet people who are ahead of you in your program and who can give you the most valuable information about the process in your college, department and program.

Between conducting research, learning to collaborate, publishing and teaching, graduate students and postdocs already have plenty to do, so let’s not make their lives harder by cluttering up the path to their degree with unnecessary (and sometimes invisible) obstacles. Making the process of navigating grad school and a postdoc appointment more transparent helps everyone, and it may especially benefit minoritized groups as well as first-generation and international students and scholars.

Finally, I’d like to offer a suggestion and an invitation to all faculty, staff, graduate students and postdocs: share what you’ve learned along your own journey — don’t assume others already know it all. Those of us who’ve been through the process have a responsibility to help guide the students coming along behind us.



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