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“Grad Traps”

In advance of the philosophy department’s 2014 orientation for new grads, I wanted to create a list of Grad Traps, or ways in which we burden ourselves early in our careers with thoughts and habits that make work and life harder.  The examples were all drawn from my own (only slightly exaggerated) experiences, and I hoped that sharing them publicly would help students avoid similar mistakes.  Wanting to make the handout better, I guest-blogged the list, looking for feedback on potential entries I’d missed.  The response was simply overwhelming: the original post over on Daily Nous drew 30,000 views in the first 24 hours, and I received a number of heartwarming emails and messages.  The list was shared by other blogs, appeared on the second page of Reddit, and was linked by Inside Higher Ed.

I’m guided by two convictions here.  One, these traps are a case of the emperor having no clothes.  Many grads struggle with the same thoughts and habits, but they typically don’t discuss them because they don’t want to be singled out as struggling.  Second, success in graduate school is often as much psychological as it is intellectual, and effective mentoring engages with the person, not just their project.  If these kinds of traps are both common and avoidable, then an environment that openly acknowledges them is worth having.  There is so much to love about the way we get to spend our lives, and so much energy spent feeling otherwise.

Grad Traps! Or lessons drawn from the graduate career of one Daniel Silvermint.

  1. “I’m smart. I aced undergrad with barely any effort, aside from some last minute scrambles.  Grad School is like undergrad, but more advanced.  So surely the same work habits will suffice here.”
  2. “The best way to get started on a big pile of work is to obsess about just how much there is to do and how little time I have to do it all in. Of course, another option is to break everything down into small, manageable tasks that I can then cross off a to-do list, but my way is better.”
  3. “I couldn’t bring myself to work the last couple days, and now I feel behind, which makes me really stressed, which makes it even harder to work, which makes me feel even more behind, which makes me too paralyzed to work, which makes me feel even more behind, and, yep, there went another month.”
  4. “Oh no! It’s time for a meeting with my advisor, and I’ve been too stressed to work.  I should beg for an extension.  Whew, they gave me another week.  The relief is so palpable, I’m going to relax for a little bit.  Wait, dang, now the delayed meeting is only a few days away!  Time for an insane, last minute scramble!  Yay, I survived the meeting!  But now I’m burned out.  Having accomplished my goal of surviving the meeting, I’ll take a week off.  Oh no!  It’s time for a meeting…”
  5. “My advisor gave me a compliment. I’m the Master of the Universe!  My advisor frowned at one point.  I’m a total failure and I will never be good at this.  My advisor replied to an email with a single sentence.  They must be mad at me!  My advisor didn’t reply to my latest email.  They must be getting ready to drop me as a student.  Wait, they smiled at me in the hallway!  Everything is great again!”
  6. “You know what will help? Feeling miserable or frustrated about how much further along I’d be if only this or that had happened differently.  Beating myself up will get me out of this rut.”
  7. “The best time to hide from faculty is when I’m stuck on a paper or otherwise struggling.”
  8. “I’m burned out but I can’t justify taking time off because of how much work there is to do, so I’ll just veg on the internet all day and feel neither productive nor rejuvenated.”
  9. “My entire life has to be about this, or else I’m a bad grad. If I take breaks, have hobbies, and enjoy friends and family, I will fail.”
  10. “Another grad in my program seems really impressive. Since I’m completely new to this, I’m an excellent judge of what makes someone a good philosopher, and apparently I’m not it.”
  11. “I’m the idiot whose application was accidentally put on the acceptance pile due to secretarial error. And talking to others about what I’m going through will just reveal that.”
  12. “After all, the rest of my cohort says everything is going well for them, so clearly I’m the only one who feels this way.”
  13. “Hang on, I’m just as behind as someone else in the program. That means I’m not behind!”
  14. “I don’t want to ask a question during seminar or a colloquium, because it might be a dumb question. Hey, somebody else just asked my question, and it was well received!  I will learn nothing from this and similar episodes.  For years.”
  15. “I can’t write anything until I’ve read absolutely everything, because there’s nothing worse than the embarrassment of being told I missed an author I should have known about.”
  16. “Maybe I should spend today polishing the opening paragraph of this paper yet again, instead of starting that new section I haven’t written yet. It all counts as working.”
  17. “Any thought I have belongs in the main body of this paper. If I delete something, that will make my paper clearer, and possibly even give me two papers instead of one.”
  18. “But before I get to writing down every idea I’ve ever had, I should spend dozens of pages discussing any author that might be even loosely related, because I need to prove that I know the literature. Papers are actually midterms in disguise.  Oh, and any comment a faculty member makes gets addressed in its own, brand new paragraph.”
  19. “Revising a paper means tinkering with small, inconsequential aspects of it until I have a draft no better than the last one, but possibly longer, clunkier, and with more tangents than the last one. I’m making progress!”
  20. “No matter where I am, I’m probably n+1 drafts away from finishing this paper. I mean, if I sent it to a journal now, I might get comments that would tell me what I actually need to do to finish it, and why would I want that?  Actually, they’ll probably just tell me I missed an author I should have known about.    I should go read some more.”
  21. “I can only write if I have long blocks of open time. Luckily, summer is only four months away, so I’ll catch up on my writing then.  Oh, and volunteer to teach a summer class for the experience, of course.”
  22. “If I want to be a successful grad, I have to say yes to every opportunity that comes my way. After all, opportunities don’t have costs.”
  23. “I need to write, but answering emails, preparing very detailed lesson plans for this course I’m TAing, and other crises with immediate deadlines obviously take priority. Writing has a nebulous deadline, so that’s the task I can put off.  Hey, wait, how is it December/ May/ the end of August already?!  It’s almost as if all those other tasks always take exactly as much time as I’m willing to devote to them…”
  24. “Speaking of which, I want to be a good teacher! That means being 100% available to my students, agreeing to appointments if they don’t feel like coming to office hours, dropping everything to answer their emails whenever they arrive (even if they’re asking me something that’s on the syllabus), and spending days replying to grade complaints until they finally agree that the grade was fair.”
  25. “Oh no! I have some of these thoughts, too!  I’m doomed for sure, just like this Daniel fellow probably was…”

A few caveats about the above list.  First, while it’s written in a cheeky tone, the point is not to mock individuals who fall into these traps.  The humor is meant to destigmatize a shared experience.  Second, I’m addressing ways in which grads burden themselves.  Entirely absent from the list are interpersonal and institutional burdens.  Marginalization, microaggressions, and matters of climate are also factors for many grads.  Such issues require their own, ongoing discussion.  Third, given that I’m talking about self-imposed burdens, it should go without saying that this list isn’t about where I went to graduate school, or the people that I had the good fortune to work with while there.  Even so, I want to be clear that I received incredible support, for which I’m still and always grateful.